How the blockbuster director made the most expensive movie to date

James Cameron knew something was wrong. It was July 7, and inside Westwood’s Mann Festival Theater, the L.A. press preview of True Lies didn’t sound quite right. The voices of stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis were pitched too low, while the usually frenetic Tom Arnold was talking at normal speed. ”Nobody else noticed because they don’t know the film the way I do,” the director said the next day, a week before True Lies opened on 2,368 screens. ”They all thought I was hallucinating. I had to leave the theater.”

After technicians checked the projector, the distraught director was vindicated: Film was running at 23.2 frames per second instead of the standard 24. And Cameron had demonstrated yet again that, though his budgets rise off the scale, he may be the most finely calibrated moviemaking instrument in Hollywood. Ask about reports that True Lies is the most expensive movie ever made — $120 million is the price tag bandied about — and he’ll argue that, in adjusted dollars, Spartacus or Cleopatra probably cost more. ”I’m not afraid of taking a risk with an awful lot of money,” he says. ”Let them speculate. The more successful Terminator 2 was, the less it cost. The less successful Last Action Hero was, the more it cost.”

True Lies made $25.9 million on its opening weekend and should easily top the traditional golden box office mark of $100 million. But James Cameron has never been traditional, and after spending more than most movies ever hope to earn in order to create a fitting successor to 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he knows the stakes are higher for both his reputation and the film’s profitability. True Lies, a 2-hour-and-21-minute, computer-enhanced action comedy, isn’t just designed to wow viewers and thump the competition; it’s also meant to cement Cameron’s identity as a fearless and free-spending ultra-macho perfectionist. But if the film doesn’t get close to the $200 million mark, his cover is blown. Like Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker, the secret-agent hero who poses as a computer sales rep, Cameron isn’t letting on that…

1. He’s on a mission to save the world — from bad movies.

In April, Cameron had Twentieth Century Fox delay True Lies‘ planned July 1 opening by two weeks. Recalling how other studios then scrambled to reshuffle their release dates, he chortles: ”It was like we switched a light on in the kitchen and all the roaches scattered.”

As usual, the 39-year-old director, whose heavy-metal visions have ranged from Aliens to The Abyss, had spent more time shooting than he had expected (a staggering 140 days, at an estimated cost of $400,000 for every day Lies went over schedule) and wanted time to test the picture. After two previews, he trimmed 10 minutes. ”I don’t think the film was compromised in any way,” he says of the still-longer-than-average result, ”and it would have been if we’d tried to do it any faster.

”People are being conditioned to expect less and accept less from a movie these days,” he adds. ”I’d rather push the other way. If I make a movie once every two years, I want it to be the best. More is more.”

But it’s been three years since T2, and as it turns out, more was more than his innovative 1992 deal with Twentieth Century Fox could support. True Lies was to have been the first of some 12 films Cameron would direct or produce under a reported five-year, $500 million deal with Fox that gave his Lightstorm Entertainment total creative control and a large share of the profits. But the plan faltered when it became clear that making the movie Cameron had written (based on the 1991 French farce La Totale!) was going to be expensive — not the originally announced budget of $40 million, and not $70 million, which sources say was Fox’s mandated limit. ”This was one of the two or three most complicated movies I’ve ever been involved with,” says Jon Landau, a Fox senior vice president, who supervised Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans.

”Jim likes to set the bar so high that he’s wondering, can I get over it?” says Lies‘ director of photography, Russell Carpenter. ”He’s a gambler.”

To retain creative control of True Lies, Cameron renegotiated with Fox so the studio would increase its funding of the pictures. ”Now the deal involves three pictures and works on a film-by-film basis,” explains Lightstorm president Rae Sanchini. ”Fox is entitled to invade the proceeds to recoup their investment.”

”It did cost me personally to spend more money on [‘True Lies’],” Cameron says. ”For me, the desire to create the best possible film always wins out. I just can’t do it less than the way I think it should be. I can’t hack it. It’s a curse. And that mentality is instilled in everyone working on every aspect of the film. So everybody spends more to make it better.”

”What it boils down to is Jim is making the film for the audience, which is spending $7.50 for something they’ve never seen before,” says T2 effects wizard Stan Winston, one of Cameron’s partners in Digital Domain, the IBM-backed visual-effects company that was started in 1993 to compete in Hollywood’s burgeoning effects industry. ”The audience should bow down and thank the stars that Jim pushed to spend every penny to entertain them.”

2. He apprenticed with Roger Corman, Vince Lombardi, and Napoleon.

Cameron, who has been Schwarzenegger’s pal since 1984’s The Terminator jet-propelled both their careers, first heard about La Totale! from Arnold in spring 1992 over breakfast at the superstar’s Santa Monica restaurant, Schatzi on Main. Cameron liked the idea of a comedy about a spy who conceals his true profession from his mousy wife, and once he saw the French film he recognized what had appealed to Schwarzenegger — the chance to play off his larger-than-life persona.

Cameron explains: “I thought it would be easy to take Arnold and build him up into an Ubermensch-good at everything, never loses a fight, ultra-smart and suave and charming-who completely crumbles when the one thing in his life he really cares about, his Achilles’ heel, his wife, is taken away from him.”

While Schwarzenegger embarked on Last Action Hero, Cameron, who learned his craft in the early ’80s at the Roger Corman school of seat-of-the-pants moviemaking, let his pyrotechnic writer’s imagination run wild. “I just try to be outrageous,” he says. “I come up with great action scenes that I’ve always wanted to see.” Among the challenges he conceived: a Harrier jet hovering next to an office tower in downtown Miami and a flame-strewn land-air chase on the Seven Mile Bridge that connects two islands in the Florida Keys. “Something has to keep you going,” he says. “But we had to go out there and shoot the stuff.”

When he starts a movie, Cameron tells his crews he wants them to perform like a team going to the Super Bowl. “Not doing your best is hurting the movie, not hurting me,” he says, as if still at work. “I care about the film. I’m sure people call me an asshole, too, thank you very much.”

It’s a good bet. There are Cameron survivors all over Hollywood who swear they’ll never work for him again. Even those who return to his sets compare them unhappily to military campaigns. For cinematographer Carpenter, 40, a Cameron rookie, ending the seven-month True Lies shoot last March “was like coming home from the Crusades,” he says. “Jim does not accept anything as being as perfect as Jim imagined it was going to be. One minute he’d tell me I didn’t know how to read a light meter properly. The next he’d be designing a shot. Working for Jim you have to know you’re an extension of his vision.”

With his $15 million salary (plus a reported 15 percent of the gross), Schwarzenegger is among the faithful. “You can see the respect,” says Tia Carrere, the film’s Bond-style beauty gone bad. “If Jim says, ‘Mug and cross your eyes,’ Arnold will trust him. Because he knows he hasn’t done him wrong.”

“He expects perfection all the time,” says Schwarzenegger, “but if you make the mistake of asking, ‘How did the scene go?’ he’ll say, ‘S—ty, but as good as a human being can do it.'”[pagebreak]

3. Like Abu Nidal, he knows that mayhem takes planning.

The three days of greatest pressure for the roughly 200-person crew occurred in November, while working with two Marine Corps vertical-landing Harrier jets worth $33 million apiece (usage rate: $20,000 an hour), not to mention four helicopters, numerous cranes, and 15-minute traffic windows on the Seven Mile Bridge. Before each day’s shooting (and strafing and missile attacks and ground-to-air defense), Cameron and his team would get up at 0300 hours and travel by helicopter to Key West Naval Air Station for a briefing with the pilots. “We wouldn’t see them again until they arrived at 500 knots,” Cameron recalls. “We had to have everything rehearsed to a T with models and video cameras. I’d be up in a helicopter talking on the radio. We shot formations and landed them on the blocked highway. Logistically, that was a pretty wild circus.”

The Miami sequences that form the can-you-top-this climax of the film were done with Harrier replicas of varying sizes. Schwarzenegger wasn’t so fond of the 46-foot-long model that dominates the movie’s finale. The actor and his four-ton toy were swung around on a 120-foot crane next to a Miami office building. Six flights up and unable to get out to go to the bathroom, the actor recalls, “The hardest thing was sitting in a cockpit for hours and days and weeks. It was 100 degrees inside and the canopy was closed. That was torturous.”

Jamie Lee Curtis had no complaints about her big, breezy stunt. Hauled by a helicopter, the actress gamely hung on from a cable 250 feet above open water as Cameron himself aimed the camera down on her. “It was fun,” says Curtis, who left other dire maneuvers to her stunt double. “Jim is the most safety-conscious person on the set.”

4. He’s the real computer salesman, not Harry Tasker.

Unlike the stunningly impressive liquid-metal-man of T2, the special effects in True Lies are supposed to be invisible. Realism was Cameron’s goal this time out. “I kept adding and adding shots,” confesses the man who can never resist just one more fix. “I added 40 shots. There are no limitations to what you can do. Only money. The really scary thing for me is that the technology is so good now that you can do anything, put anybody anywhere. The next time you see video evidence, don’t trust it. We can really do anything down at Digital Domain. The director is always God.”

In the Harrier jet sequences, for example, the effects programmers removed cables and added billowing exhaust and whizzing missiles. The filmmakers blew up a model of the bridge (a sequence one studio exec estimates cost $2 million to $3 million alone) and filmed a truck that was supposed to cartwheel in the air, explode, and fall in the water-but didn’t. “Nobody thought the damn truck would cartwheel across three collapsing spans and end up back on the bridge,” recalls Cameron. “I had already shot the full-size coverage on the bridge and there was no truck there, so we digitally put in the truck on the far side of the bridge for three shots. It probably cost $10,000 to $12,000, but it was cheaper than (reshooting).”

Cameron also edited a close-up he liked of Eliza Dushku, who plays Harry and Helen’s teenage daughter, from one scene into another — and when her clothes didn’t match, he changed her shirt digitally. In another sequence, in which Harry’s sidekick, played by Tom Arnold, watches terrorist Aziz (Art Malik) in a dark rearview mirror, Cameron added a burning cigarette ash to help show that the terrorist was still there. “The digital-house people would say they weren’t sure they could do something,” recalls cinematographer Carpenter. “Jim would say, ‘I don’t care — do it!’ They were flogged into doing beautiful work.”

Cameron is the first to appreciate the irony that when True Lies was finally previewed, the scene audiences liked best featured no special effects: It was Curtis’ bump-and-grind striptease, which evolved out of rehearsals. Jokes Cameron, “I could have saved a lot of money.”

5. He likes strong women — especially fictional ones.

Cameron wrote True Lies with Jamie Lee Curtis in mind. The two had met in 1988 on the set of Kathryn Bigelow’s police thriller, Blue Steel. “I never find it hard to write female characters,” he says. “I project myself into the situation, and then another part of my mind says, ‘Women see things differently, they create life,’ and it has to be modified.

“I didn’t know how Jamie and Arnold would get along,” he recalls. “Arnold loves to goose people when he first meets them. Jamie goosed right back and they were off. There’s a chemistry about them together. They’re both totally vulgar.”

One of Cameron’s strengths as a writer has been his ability to create tough heroines who don’t turn men off — witness Linda Hamilton in T2 and Sigourney Weaver, whom Cameron directed to an Oscar nomination in Aliens. At one point in True Lies, Curtis grabs an Uzi to protect her beleaguered husband, and in one of the film’s biggest gags, plenty of terrorists die but their blood is not on her hands. “I wanted the classic moment where the girl picks up the gun and goes to war,” says Cameron, “but I didn’t want her to kill anybody. It was a way of having my cake and eating it, too.” (In fact, reaction to Helen Tasker has been divided, with some critics praising her as a comic variation on past Cameron heroines, and others faulting Cameron for a humiliating depiction of the character.)

Cameron, who grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, credits his mother, Shirley, an artist and a nurse, for his attraction to independent women. (His father, Phillip, was an engineer.) “Mom was always a fighter,” he recalls. “She never took guff from anybody. There was a practical yet nurturing aspect, and an artistic aspect. Plus, she was a mom, she raised five kids, which made her a military leader as well.”

It isn’t a stretch to see Cameron’s double life in the Taskers’ story. “I had a daughter 16 months ago and I haven’t seen her nearly as much as I would have wanted. It’s a big strain.” That strain didn’t help his marriage to producer Gale Anne Hurd (who cowrote Terminator and produced Aliens and The Abyss) or his marriage to director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break), either. After Cameron’s breakup with Bigelow, who is now directing the futuristic erotic thriller Strange Days for his company, he got together with Linda Hamilton. But about six months ago she moved into her own place with their baby girl, Josephine Archer Cameron. “We like it better that way,” Cameron insists. “She’s very tough and independent — that’s what I like about her. How can I celebrate that and try to change that at the same time? It’s a classic dilemma.”

Of his two ex-wives (with whom he remains on good terms), he says, “They were both film professionals, both as workaholic as I am. If you’re in a relationship with someone who understands the drive because they’re driven, then you run the risk of driving in different directions. All my movies are about something I’ve experienced.”

Cameron admits that the rigorous two years he spent on True Lies has exhausted him, and insists he won’t start on preproduction for his next ambitious epic, Spiderman, for a few months. “I need a rest,” he says. “I’d like to be around for my daughter’s graduation. I probably won’t be alive in 17 years, as fast as I’m moving.”

True Lies
  • Movie