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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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James Cameron's greatest tantrums: Part 1

December 16, 2009 |  4:25 pm

It would be hard to find many people who've been fans of Jim Cameron longer than I have. Way, way back in the 1980s, when I was a young rock writer at the L.A. Times, the studios were putting out so many movies that our team of film critics couldn't handle them all. So our lead critic at the time, Sheila Benson, asked me if I'd pick up some of the slack, figuring that since I'd gone to film school I probably wouldn't completely embarrass myself writing a review or two each week.

Jamescameron Of course, I got the dregs -- the movies that none of our other critics wanted. That was OK, since I'd always been a fan of grind-house movies and genre thrillers, which were exactly the kind of films assigned to me. Most of them were pretty dreadful, but as any critic knows, it's usually more fun to write an exuberant pan than a dutiful appreciation.

And so it was that I ended up seeing "The Terminator," a sci-fi thriller by James Cameron, then an unknown 30-year-old filmmaker whose best known work was "Piranha II: The Spawning." The movie was so unheralded that its distributor, Orion Pictures, only had one poorly attended screening, where I had the pleasure of seeing a career in early flight.

When I got back to the office, everyone was pretty incredulous when I told them that it was one of the best movies I'd seen all year. But they ran the review anyway, which went in part:

"['The Terminator'] is the kind of slam-bang B movie that's almost disappeared from Hollywood, loaded with fuel-injected chase scenes, clever special effects and even a welcome dose of sly humor.... This ominous fantasy will prick up your ears -- it has the unsettling air of a scare story that doesn't just send a shiver down your spine, but deftly collides with your imagination."

Of course, Cameron has gone to much bigger and better things in the past 25 years, culminating with the arrival this weekend of the much-chattered-about "Avatar." I haven't been able to see it yet, since I'm on the outs with 20th Century Fox, the studio releasing it. But it seemed like an apt time to tell some great stories about Cameron, who is infamous for his outrageous on-set behavior. Luckily, I just got hold of "The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron" by Rebecca Keegan, a Hollywood-based contributor to Time magazine. Keegan spent time with Cameron on the set of "Avatar," but better still, has collected a host of wonderful bigger-than-life Cameron tales.

One of my favorites unfolds during the making of "True Lies," which Cameron shot over a six-month period in late 1993. Cameron ended up using a new cinematographer, Russell Carpenter, who is now a star, but at the time his biggest credit was "Pet Sematary II." After being subjected to what Keegan calls Cameron's "merciless management style," Carpenter soon found himself on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Carpenter recalls that one of his worst moments occurred when he was seated with about 25 other people, watching dailies of that day's shoot. Unhappy about the way Carpenter had lit Arnold Schwarzenegger in a scene where the star looked at himself in the mirror, Cameron growled: "I've got the highest-paid actor in this or any parallel universe and I cannot see his eyes."

After a few more takes went by, Cameron erupted again, saying, "When did you learn to read a light meter?" After dailies were over, Carpenter called his wife and told her that he would probably be fired. One of Cameron's regulars told Carpenter that the filmmaker treated all his cinematographers the same way. So Carpenter phoned Mikael Salomon, Cameron's director of photography on "The Abyss." Salomon laughed, saying, "Did he use the line, 'Where did you learn to read a light meter?' " The experience with Cameron didn't turn out to be all that bad for Carpenter. He went on to win an Oscar in 1998 for his work on Cameron's "Titanic."

Even Schwarzenegger wasn't immune to Cameron's fury. When the film was shooting in Washington, D.C., the star kept the cast and crew waiting one day when he and Tom Arnold went off on a quick tour of capital monuments. "We come back around and Jim is standing in the middle of the road, arms crossed," recalls Arnold. Cameron lunged in the passenger door to get into Schwarzenegger's face. According to Arnold, Cameron gave Schwarzenegger a serious tongue lashing. "He's like, 'Do you want Paul Verhoeven to direct the rest of this [expletive]? You do that [expletive] again and that's what's gonna happen."

Coming soon: How Cameron almost killed himself making "The Abyss."

Photo of James Cameron by Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press

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