As a film director, he stands at the apex of Hollywood, but from a young age, James Cameron wanted to plumb the ocean's depths. In 2012, he made a record-breaking solo dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the lowest point on earth—a feat he chronicles in a new documentary, Deepsea Challenge 3D, in theaters August 8. Here, Cameron talks about the value of exploration, his evolving managerial style, and the radical transparency method he used while making the doc.
Fast Company: The Mariana Trench is a barren wasteland. You weren't going to find any intelligent creatures down there, like in The Abyss. Why spend $10 million of your own money to build a submersible vehicle—which you've since donated for research—and risk your life diving seven miles below the surface?
Cameron: We did find 68 new species on the expedition, which is of interest to science, and had my hydraulic system worked better, I would have brought back a lot more. But we always knew this film was not going to be about finding a 60-foot giant squid or any bizarre fantasy creatures. We knew it had to be about the exploration gene: what drives people to explore and what it takes to do it. [The deep sea] is the last great frontier on earth, and we know very little about it. The Hadal depths comprise an area greater than North America, which has literally never been seen by human eyes. For me, that's more than reason enough.
In the documentary, James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge 3-D, your wife, Suzy Amis, says that at one point you debated giving up making movies to focus solely on exploration.
It comes from not being one thing as an individual. Being an artist and a kind of would-be scientist, or science groupie, I had that decision to make in college. I was studying physics and astronomy and then I switched to become an English major. As a scientist, you have to specialize—you have to go very narrow and very deep to make any difference. My broad curiosity about the world—about space, the oceans, neuroscience—would not be satisfied. As a writer and a filmmaker, I can satisfy those curiosities better.
We get a sense in this movie of your managerial style, which involves putting people under tremendous pressure and seeing how they perform. How do you find the line between demanding and dictatorial, and have you ever fallen on the wrong side of it?
Oh, yeah, back in the old days, when I was a young "auteur." The second you think you're an auteur, you're sunk. Then you're just a diva. That's not how it works on these engineering projects. The only way to have built that vehicle in any reasonable time frame and budget was to do it with a small, dedicated, multitasking crew. There's a lot of pressure on people as you start to approach deadlines. As the one paying the bills to get the vehicle built, I was the one who had to remind people that they had to hit their milestones. It doesn't always make you popular, but I think it's a question of how you do it.
The process I used was called "total radical transparency." Everybody working on the vehicle had to sit around a table every morning at 8:15—not 8:14 or 8:16—and we'd air out our problems. There would be no offline conversations about things that were going wrong. You bring your problems to the group, and we as a group would solve them. People thought I was crazy, but after about two weeks, we started really working as a team. They started to understand that you don't hide your problems—you bring your problems to the group
You've always been interested in pushing the limits of technology. What new tech are you employing in the three Avatar sequels you're making, which will be rolled out starting in 2016?
About two months after we finished Avatar, we came back and did a big post-game analysis. I asked every department to develop a white paper on what we did right, what we did wrong, what we could do better next time. And out of that came our marching orders for developing new software and improvements to the system. So [the technology on the Avatar sequels] won't be anything revolutionary—it's just ways to make our pipeline more efficient, more creatively intuitive, and more cost-effective. Avatar was a very costly film, and I think a lot of that cost was justified in the sense of it being hopefully a prototype for a franchise. But to make it a franchise business, we have to lower the cost. So we've spent the last two and a half years developing new software, new tools, and just making it a better system.
There's been a renewed enthusiasm for virtual reality with Facebook's recent purchase of Oculus. Do you envision a place for VR in the future of moviegoing?
There's nothing new about VR. It may be productized in a new way and we may find more of it entering the home and being accessed online and so on. But I think VR and conventional cinema are two separate things. The whole point of directing a movie is directing an audience's eye to the thing you want them to see, but in a VR environment, they're free to direct themselves. It's a lot more like a video-game environment. Where those two merge, it creates a new art form that's kind of exciting to think about. But it won't have much to do with what you currently experience in a theater.
The actor Viggo Mortensen said recently that he felt Peter Jackson became too enamored with CGI as he was making the Lord of the Rings films, to the point where the spectacle overwhelmed the narrative.
I guess he's not planning on working for Peter again!
But does he have a point?
I think it's deeper than that. It's not that the tech is getting in the way. The tech enables the creativity. That's what people need to understand. The virtual- performance capture we're doing on the Avatar films enables a form of creativity that never would have been possible before, in the same way that the invention of the camera enabled the creation of cinema in the first place. When people first invented photographic film and lenses and all of that, that was an artifice. I'm sure there were theater actors who said, "Oh, all this stuff with all these lights and cameras—get that out of the way and let's go back to pure acting." But that's not what we did. We incorporated acting into a new art form.
In terms of exploration, where would you want to go next—into space?
I've had my hand in space exploration for a long time. I wound up on the NASA advisory council [from 2003 to 2005] during one of the most difficult times in its history, but when I realized how dysfunctional that organization is, I shifted my focus to robotic exploration. This country really doesn't have a manned space program anymore—we gave up on it. I don't fault NASA—it's an issue of public and political will. Elon Musk and private enterprise will bring that capability back. In terms of myself going into space? Possibly. But it would be to do something specific. I wouldn't be interested in one of these suborbital hop-up flights. It would have to be orbital and generate something—a 3-D film presumably—that would have something significant to say.
In The Terminator, you envisioned a future in which machines would become self-aware and take over humankind. Thirty years later, how do you think that prophecy holds up?
It's happening. When people are arguing over whether drone aircraft should be able to autonomously take out a human target, you're into Terminator territory. Sit in any airport lounge and look around at the number of people who are hunched over, looking at a device. The machines have already won—just in a way that the Terminator films didn't imagine.
We've talked a lot about technology. What are some analog ways you like to get your creative juices going?
I'm stimulated by what other artists are doing, so I watch other films. Dreams are a great resource for me—I'm constantly getting dream imagery and writing things down. Getting out in nature is inspirational. And I do yoga. That meditative state that you reach at the end of a practice is a good place to free-associate.
People might be surprised to learn that you do yoga.
I wish I'd discovered it 25 years ago! I'd probably be a lot more flexible. But, you know, life is a journey.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.