James Cameron is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. He is reponsible for some of the most succesful and ground-breaking movies of all time.
In his four decade career, the Oscar-winning director has brought us the acclaimed box-office hits The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), True Lies (1994), Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009).
The pioneering filmmaker holds the honour of directing the first two films to gross over $2bn worldwide (Titanic and Avatar).
Cameron was listed in TIME magazine’s “Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century” and remains one of the most prominent figures in the film industry.
In this article we’re sharing 90 our favorite James Cameron Quotes on filmmaking including: Cameron’s writing process, working with cast and crew, 3D films, the future of cinema and much more.
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James Cameron Filmmaking Quotes
There are many talented people who haven’t fulfilled their dreams because they over thought it, or they were too cautious, and were unwilling to make the leap of faith.
I’m a huge movie fan. I love watching films. I love watching films with the family, with the kids; I love watching films myself. I was out there opening night [for] Prometheus (2012). I didn’t go to the Thursday midnight screening, but I was there Friday. I like to still get excited about movies and whether they pay off or not, that’s not the point.
[On his early fascination with comic books] I always wanted to be a raconteur, a storyteller, and I also wanted to create visually and produce images. I was always doing both: I’d be writing stories and also painting, looking for a way to mesh them.
If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success.
You have to not listen to the nay sayers, because there will be many, and often they’ll be much more qualified than you and cause you to doubt yourself.
I had pictured myself as a filmmaker but I had never pictured myself as a director if that makes any sense at all.
Imagination is a force that can actually manifest a reality. Don’t put limitations on yourself. Others will do that for you.
You can read all the books about filmmaking, all the articles in American Cinematographer and that sort of thing, but you have to really see how it works on a day-to-day basis, and how to pace your energy so that you can survive the film, which was a lesson that took me a long time to learn.
[his advice to young directors] The respect of your team is more important than all the laurels in the world. Don’t put limitations on yourself, other people will do that for you. Don’t do it to yourself, don’t bet against yourself and take risks. NASA has this phrase that they like “failure is not an option,” but failure HAS to be an option, in art and in exploration. Because it’s a leap of faith. And no important endeavor that required innovation was done without risk. You have to be willing to take those risks. In whatever you’re doing, failure is an option, but fear is not.
If you wait until the right time to have a child you’ll die childless, and I think film making is very much the same thing. You just have to take the plunge and just start shooting something even if it’s bad.
People call me a perfectionist, but I’m not. I’m a rightist. I do something until it’s right, and then I move on to the next thing.
I went from driving a truck to becoming a movie director, with a little time working with Roger Corman in between. When I wrote The Terminator (1984), I sold the rights at that time – that was my shot to get the film made. So I’ve never owned the rights in the time that the franchise has been developed. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to direct the second film and do so on my own creative terms, which was good. But that was in 1991 and I’ve felt like it was time to move on. The primary reason for making a third one was financial, and that didn’t strike me as organic enough a reason to be making a film.
A director’s job is to make something happen and it doesn’t happen by itself. So you wheedle, you cajole, you flatter people, you tell them what needs to be done. And if you don’t bring a passion and an intensity to it, you shouldn’t be doing it.
Finding the Movie Project
Inspiration can hit you in the head at any time in any context. It could happen in a conversation. Talking to someone at a party, you can get an idea. But you’ve got to remember those inspirations.
I feed on other people’s creativity, photographers, artists of every kind. Sometimes a feeling that you get listening to a song can be so powerful. I’ve wanted to write whole scripts around what I felt just listening to a piece of music. I think music is important, and surrounding your visual field with stimulating things.
If an idea won’t go away, that’s when it’s worth making a movie about.James Cameron Quotes from MasterClass
Curiosity – it’s the most powerful thing you own. Imagination is a force that can actually manifest a reality.
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of curiosity. I think curiosity is how you’re going to find your stories.James Cameron Quotes from MasterClass
I had read tons of science fiction. I was fascinated by other worlds, other environments. For me, it was fantasy, but it was not fantasy in the sense of pure escapism.
So much of literary sci-fi is about creating worlds that are rich and detailed and make sense at a social level. We’ll create a world for people and then later present a narrative in that world
[On the similarities between deep-sea diving and storytelling] I’m a storyteller; that’s what exploration really is all about. Going to places where others haven’t been and returning to tell a story they haven’t heard before.
If I want to see it, there are lots of people who are going to want to see it, and they want to see it for itself, not because of a purpose. The purpose is to be present; to be in that world.James Cameron Quotes from MasterClass
The writer must be able to figure out how to limit the effects and still tell the story. Start with one matte shot of the castle, for instance, then go inside and let the rest of the scene play out on two sets. When you have it on the page and people read it, it makes sense to them. On the other hand, if you write the same scene to go inside the castle, out on the parapet walls, back inside through fourteen rooms and end out on the roof, you have just made that same scene four times more expensive, probably without adding a thing dramatically.
The whole point of storytelling is to live outside yourself, but there has to be some connection to yourself.James Cameron Quotes from MasterClass
You are never too big to pitch your own story. If I have to stand on a table and tap dance, I will do it.
Writing the Script and Crafting the Story
I don’t look at scripts. I just write them.
Writing a screenplay for me is like juggling. It’s like, how many balls can you get in the air at once? All those ideas have to float out there to a certain point and then they’ll crystallise into a pattern. It sometimes takes me three or four days to get into a head space where I can do that and if I get interrupted at any point I have to start over. So I couldn’t be one of these staff writers who hangs out, does a long lunch, goes back, and writes six pages in the afternoon.
There needs to be an end of the journey. I always start with the ending: ‘Am I going to be moved by where it all winds up?’James Cameron Quotes from MasterClass
Getting the audience to cry for the Terminator at the end of T2, for me that was the whole purpose of making the film. If you can get the audience to feel emotion for a character that in the previous film you despised utterly and were terrified by, then that’s a cinematic arc.
[on being sued for plagiarism] It is a sad reality of our business that whenever there is a successful film, people come out of the woodwork claiming that their ideas were used. Avatar (2009) was my most personal film, drawing upon themes and concepts that I had been exploring for decades.
None of my stuff ever fits the three-act structure. It’s good to know the rules before you break them.James Cameron Quotes from MasterClass
The films that influenced me were so disparate that there’s almost no pattern.
The key to a sequel is to meet audience expectation and yet be surprising.
James Cameron on Characters
You need compelling characters. You need characters that the audience will be fascinated by, that they can either identify with or that they can’t identify with initially, but then they get sucked into that character’s reality.James Cameron Quotes from MasterClass
You need a world in which [your] characters exist. Maybe it’s in another time. Maybe it’s in another place in our world. I personally have always been fascinated by other times. I love history. And other places: science fiction, the future, other planets.James Cameron Quotes from MasterClass
To me, [writing roles for strong women] is just another challenge. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s an engineering challenge, a scientific challenge, a writing challenge – for a man to write a woman and make her interesting to women as well as men, it’s a challenge. Maybe it’s just a quest to understand women who are sometimes inscrutable
The worst thing you can have is everybody all on the same side of the argument. There has to be conflict because your characters are tested by conflict and by betrayal and by loss. And we want to feel that we’re walking that character’s life with them, that we’re walking with them through their journey.James Cameron Quotes from MasterClass
[Storytelling is] always about the characters and about how those characters express something that the audience is feeling. So it has to have some universality to it having to do with relationships, where it’s parent/child, male/female, whatever it is. And then you have to take them on a journey. And then you have to make it excruciating somehow.
Directing the Movie
I watched a couple of really bad directors work, and I saw how they completely botched it up and missed the visual opportunities of the scene when we had put things in front of them as opportunities. Set pieces, props and so on.
Every time I start a film, I have a fantasy that it will be like a big family, and we’ll have a good time, and we’ll have all of these wonderful, creative moments together. But that’s not what filmmaking is; it’s a battle.
I always do makeup touch-ups myself, especially for blood, wounds, and dirt. It saves so much time.
[on his reputation as a harsh and demanding taskmaster] I push people to get the best out of them. And the same applies to me. If I come home at the end of a day of filming and my hands are not black, I feel that was a day wasted.
There’s an aspect of movie-making that rewards bad behavior. You’re working with a team of people and you tell them what you want and a few weeks later they’ve forgotten everything. So you scream at them and somehow they remember. Not my actors, though – I’ve always been very circumspect with them.
I mean, you have to be able – you have to have made the commitment within yourself to do whatever it takes to get the job done and to try to inspire other people to do it, because obviously the first rule is you can’t do it by yourself.
On Working with Actors
The magic doesn’t come from within the director’s mind, it comes from within the hearts of the actors.
It took me a long time to realize that you have to have a bit of an interlanguage with actors. You have to give them something that they can act with.
I think that there was a moment of magic, pure magic, of coming together with the lens, when we shot the kiss at the bow of the ship during Titanic (1997). The way the sun set, we were all inspired to run to get the shot and we had seconds to do it. There was no rehearsal, we didn’t have time, but the actors did beautifully. We did two takes, one that was out of focus and one that was half out of focus, and the one that was used was the one that was half out of focus. And it was beautiful.
I’d be hard-pressed to imagine creating a vehicle for an actor that I like. For me, the movie comes first and if the actor fits, they fit. And I’ll think pretty far out of the box about what “fitting” means, even contemplate re-working a character to fit an actor I really admire. But, I can’t imagine writing a vehicle for an actor. That’s just not my process. There are a lot of young actors — always new actors coming up who are good — I’m not going to name any names, but I certainly keep my eye out.
James Cameron Quotes on his Movies
All my movies are love stories.
[his favourite movie he directed] I guess Titanic (1997) because it made the most money. No, I’m kidding. I don’t really have a favourite. Maybe The Terminator (1984) because that was the film that was the first one back when I was essentially a truck driver.
[Talking about the appeal of the Terminator] It’s fun to fantasize being a guy who can do whatever he wants. This Terminator guy is indestructible. He can be as rude as he wants. He can walk through a door, go through a plate-glass window and just get up, brush off impacts from bullets. It’s like the dark side of Superman, in a sense. I think it has a great cathartic value to people who wish they could just splinter open the door to their boss’s office, walk in, break his desk in half, grab him by the throat and throw him out the window and get away with it. Everybody has that little demon that wants to be able to do whatever it wants, the bad kid that never gets punished.
[on how he came up with the idea of The Terminator (1984)] I would see these images of a metallic death figure rising Phoenix-like out of fire, I woke up and grabbed a pencil and paper and started writing. When I originally got the idea for Terminator, I was sick, I was broke, I was in Rome, I had no way to get home and I could barely speak the language. I was surrounded by people I could not get help from. I felt very alienated and so it was very easy for me to imagine a machine with a gun. At the point of the greatest alienation in my life, it was easy to create the character.
I was petrified at the start of The Terminator (1984). First of all, I was working with a star, at least I thought of him as a star at the time. Arnold came out of it even more a star.
[About the budget for the original Terminator]: “They were extremely hesitant about going over $4 million. We convinced them this movie could not be made for less than $6 million, especially with Arnold Schwarzenegger starring, because he commanded a significant salary; the final shooting budget was actually $6.5 million.
[About dropping several sequences from the finished film of the Terminator]: We had to cut scenes I was in love with in order to save money.
Basically because I had told the story. To make Terminator 3 was to make a 3. – [about his reason to decline Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)]
The only compelling reason for me to have done that film was a sense of pride of authorship. “Well, dammit, I did the first one and I did the second one and it’s my creation and I should do the third one. But ultimately, that’s a stupid reason to spend a year, year and a half of your life in hell to make a big movie. I’d rather spend a year of my life in hell to make something new, which is what I will be doing. – [about his reason to decline Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)]
So, what I said was, “If they come up with a decent script that you like and you think you can play, do something cool, and they pay you an awful lot of money, you should just go do it. Don’t feel like you’re betraying me or anything else.”” – [about his view on Arnold Schwarzenegger for doing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)]
[why he will never return to the Terminator franchise] The series has kind of run its course, and frankly, the soup’s already been pissed in by other filmmakers
[on Aliens (1986)] I think I was following in the footsteps of the first film Alien (1979), which was the classic Ten Little Indians (1965) model where you start out with X number of beloved characters, and have one that prevails. In Aliens (1986), three characters prevail at the end. So I would say Aliens (1986) is more about family bonds, even though it’s a pseudo-family in the film, and cooperation against an enemy. So it doesn’t exactly follow the slasher model.
[When asked about Ripley in ALIENS, in 1986] I tend to like strong female characters. It just interests me dramatically. A strong male character isn’t interesting because it has been done and it’s so cliched. A weak male character is interesting: somebody else hasn’t done it a hundred times. A strong female character is still interesting to me because it hasn’t been done all that much, finding the balance of femininity and strength.
Ridley Scott and I talked about doing another Alien (1979) film and I said to 20th Century Fox that I would develop a fifth Alien (1979) film. I started working on a story, I was working with another writer and Fox came back to me and said, “We’ve got this really good script for AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) and I got pretty upset. I said, “You do that, you’re going to kill the validity of the franchise in my mind. Because to me, that was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). It was Universal just taking their assets and starting to play them off against each other. Milking it. So, I stopped work. Then I saw AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) and it was actually pretty good. (laughs) I think of the five Alien films, I’d rate it third.
If I did Titanic (1997) today, I’d do it very differently. There wouldn’t be a 750-foot-long set. There would be small set pieces integrated into a large CGI set. I wouldn’t have to wait seven days to get the perfect sunset for the kiss scene. We’d shoot it in front of a green screen, and we’d choose our sunset.
If people are still arguing about a movie (Titanic), a Hollywood movie, 20 years later, it just means that what Leo created with that character was so endearing to so many people that it was actually hard for them to see him die. That’s what movies are all about. We should celebrate the fact that they wish he had gotten on the damn door… It makes me smile because it makes me realize how impactful Leonardo’s performance and the character he created was to this day.
I see a very similar pattern, in a sense, between Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). Not that they are similar films because they are not – totally different subjects – but in both cases, you have people coming back over and over to see the film.
[When asked how did he come up with the story for Avatar (2009)] Well, my inspiration is every single science fiction book I read as a kid. And a few that weren’t science fiction. The Edgar Rice Burroughs books, H. Rider Haggard – the manly, jungle adventure writers. I wanted to do an old fashioned jungle adventure, just set it on another planet, and play by those rules.
Some people think of this as an animated film. It’s not an animated film because I’m not an animator. I don’t want to be an animator. I’m a director. I want to work with actors. A director-centric actor-process.
The expectations are daunting on this film. That’s fair after directing Titanic and my other films. Some people will be interested in what’s coming next but this is a very different film from what I’ve done before. It plays by its own rules. As a filmmaker, I just get so focused on the characters that I just forget all the buzz out there and the hype and the expectation and just do what’s right for the movie.
[the designs on Avatar] It’s a very joyful experience for me. What you imagine is always kind of hazy. It’s like the memory of a dream. You can’t be specific. You can draw it but it’s a completely new act of creation.
Some of the design choices were about colors affecting us psychologically, which is why the film has such a striking color palette, like the early days of color cinematography where everything had to be bright and vibrant.
Sometimes the more fantastic an idea is the more you have to be very careful about how you design it.
James Cameron on the Future of Cinema and 3D
[3D] It brings to cinema what better sound or color brought. I’m making it my ethos not to change how I direct my movies or how I do scenes with the actors. I’m trying to make 3D plus the film or turbocharge it but the basic architecture of the engine is the same and that’s the only healthy way to view the 3D. The actors don’t act any differently for a 3D camera.
My approach to 3-D is in a way quite conservative. We’re making a two-and-a-half-hour-plus film and I don’t want to assault the eye every five seconds. I want it to be comfortable. I want you to forget after a few minutes that you are really watching 3-D and just have it operate at a subliminal, subconscious level. That’s the key to great 3-D and it makes the audience feel like real participants in what’s going on.
I can’t think of anything that I see on a screen these days without thinking how much better it’d look in 3-D! If I see a movie I really like…Like, I’m watching King Kong (2005) I think, “Man! That’d be great in 3-D!” Everything’s better in 3-D! Everything! A scene in the snow with two people talking… in 3-D… It’s amazing! You’re in the snow! You feel the snow.
If I never touch film again, I’d be happy. Filmmaking is not about film, not about sprockets. It’s about ideas, it’s about images, it’s about imagination, it’s about storytelling. If I had the cameras I’m using now when I was shooting Titanic (1997), I would have shot it using them.
I don’t use film cameras. I don’t do visual effects the same way. We don’t use miniature models; it’s all CG now, creating worlds in CG. It’s a completely different tool-set. But the rules of storytelling are the same.
As much as I love Star Wars (1977) and as much as it’s really revolutionized the imaging business, it went off the rails in the sense that science fiction, historically, was a science fiction of ideas. It was thematic fiction. It stopped being that and became just pure eye candy and pure entertainment. And I miss that. With Alita: Battle Angel (2019). I’m going to flirt with that darker, dystopian message as much as I can, without making it an art film.
48 fps to me is not a format, it’s a tool, like music it’s good to use sparingly and in the right spot. I believe all movies should be made in 3D, forever, but the projection needs to be better, and brighter. I want people to see in the movie theaters what I am seeing in my perfectly-calibrated screening room, and people aren’t seeing that. Larger formats. I’d love to see screens get bigger. In terms of storytelling, I’d like to see Hollywood embrace the caliber of writing in feature films that we’re currently seeing in the series on television – more emphasis on character, and less on explosions and pyrotechnics. And I’m talking the big tent-pole movies, I think they’re obnoxiously loud and fast.
[on the future of 3D] With digital 3D projection, we will be entering a new age of cinema. Audiences will be seeing something which was never technically possible before the age of digital cinema – a stunning visual experience which ‘turbocharges’ the viewing of the biggest, must-see movies. The biggest action, visual effects and fantasy movies will soon be shot in 3D. And all-CG animated films can easily be converted to 3D, without additional cost if it is done as they are made. Soon audiences will associate 3D with the highest level of visual content in the market, and seek out that premium experience.
[on CGI technology] How about another Dirty Harry movie where Clint Eastwood looks the way he looked in 1975? Or a James Bond movie where Sean Connery looks the way he did in Dr. No (1962)? How cool would that be? There’s no way to scan what’s underneath the surface to what the actor is feeling. If Tom Cruise left instructions for his estate that it was okay to use his likeness in Mission Impossible movies for the next 500 years, I would say that would be fine. You could put Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart in a movie together, but it wouldn’t be them. You’d have to have somebody play them. And that’s where I think you cross an ethical boundary.
[an animated film] The performances are created by committee. I don’t mean to denigrate that in any way. It’s a fantastic art form. I love it. It’s just not what I’m good at. What I’m good at is working with actors to create scenes and then editing they’re performances to get the absolute best vibrating version of that scene and then share that with the audience. It’s an amazing process to go through. Sometimes you think it’s not going to work when you get started and then the characters come to life.
More James Cameron Quotes
[On Stanley Kubrick] I remember going with a great sense of anticipation to each new Stanley Kubrick film and thinking, “Can he pull it off and amaze me again?” And he always did. The lesson I learned from Kubrick was, never do the same thing twice.
I can point directly to the film that had the biggest early influence on me, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Even though it’s not necessarily my favorite film right now, it has a very special place for me developmentally, because when I saw it, I went from someone who enjoyed watching movies to wanting to make movies myself. So I started to experiment with creating that imagery.
I came to filmmaking in the early ’80s, and it was a time of deep economic recession. It was a time when VHS home video was taking money from the theaters. The film industry was depressed. That’s what I knew – a state of upheaval and change. It all sorted itself out. These things always sort themselves out. The fundamental question is: is cinema staying or is it going away? I think it shows no signs of going away. I feel quite confident you (Peter Jackson) and I are going to make the kinds of films we love 10 and 20 years from now.
If it was up to the studio, everything would be shot with a camcorder.
I do think Hollywood movies get it wrong when they show women in action roles – they basically make them men. Or else they make them into superheroes in shiny black suits, which is just not as interesting.
[On Steven Spielberg‘s Jurassic Park] I tried to buy the book rights and he beat me to it by a few hours. But when I saw the film, I realised that I was not the right person to make the film, he was. Because he made a dinosaur movie for kids, and mine would have been Aliens (1986) with dinosaurs, and that wouldn’t have been fair. Dinosaurs are for 8-year-olds. We can all enjoy it, too, but kids get dinosaurs and they should not have been excluded for that. His sensibility was right for that film, I’d have gone further, nastier, much nastier.
I will stand in line for any Ridley Scott movie, even a not-so-great one, because he is such an artist, he’s such a filmmaker. I always learn from him. And what he does with going back to his own franchise would be fascinating.
James Cameron Masterclass
James Cameron took a break from his Avatar sequel to sit down and provide a behind-the-scenes peek into his filmmaking process in this unique series.
Cameron’s MasterClass contains 15 lessons (3 hours and 20 minutes) which is split into two categories:
The first catergory focuses on techniques of filmmaking, while the second category focuses on shot-by-shot breakdowns of scenes from Terminator, Aliens, Titanic and Avatar.
If you haven’t seen the trailer for this class, take a look below:
Recommended James Cameron Books
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James Cameron Quotes Final Words
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