It seemed like the ultimate folie de grandeur. James Cameron, a successful science fiction writer-cum-director, had decided to make an "intimate love story". The only thing was, he wanted to make it aboard the Titanic. Multimillion-dollar dives were made to the wreck. Much of the boat was recreated at life-size. Kate Winslet chipped an elbow and nearly drowned. Budgets spiralled out of control. Cameron gave up his US$10 million fee. Fox Studios executives, certain of bankruptcy, cleared their desks. But you underestimate Cameron at your peril. Titanic took $1.8 billion to become the most successful movie of all time. "I'm king of the world!" Cameron crowed from the Academy Awards stage.
It was payback time for this Hollywood outsider, a bullied Canadian high school nerd who jumped grades until he was two years younger than his peers. "If you ever go to a high school reunion," says Cameron, now 55 and 6ft 2in tall, "make sure that in the previous two months you've made the world's highest-grossing movie, won 11 Academy Awards and become physically bigger than most of the guys who beat you up".
All that was 11 years ago: one year for every Oscar that Titanic won. Since then, Cameron has made some documentaries and created Dark Angel for TV, but no feature film. Partly he wanted to spend time with Suzy Amis, his fifth wife, an actress on Titanic with whom he would have three children. But partly he just didn't want to make another film until he could go one better than Titanic. So it is no exaggeration to say that his new sci-fi epic, Avatar, which screens at the Dubai International Film Festival on December 15, is the most eagerly anticipated film of the year.
The story has been described as "Dances with Wolves in space". When a crippled soldier's mind is transplanted into a 9ft tall, blue-skinned alien body - his avatar - he falls in love with a Na'vi female and turns native. At more than $230 million, or anything up to half a billion if you factor in the marketing blitz, Avatar is the most expensive film ever. It's a gamble, Cameron or no. The film has no "pre-awareness", as did Harry Potter or Spider-Man or Transformers. The young girls whose repeat-viewing lust for Leonardo DiCaprio helped make a hit of Titanic may not fall so hard for the little-known Australian actor Sam Worthington, especially as a cat-nosed giant blue alien. The 20-minute trailer shown at Comic Con 2009 failed to set even the core fan-base alight.
And yet there is so much more riding on Avatar than dollars. Cameron is aiming for nothing less than revolutionising the way movies are made. The first time Cameron made a film, a 12-minute sci-fi short for a consortium of Star Wars-mad dentists way back in 1978, he dismantled the camera piece by piece to see how it worked. For Avatar, Cameron developed the "Fusion 3D Camera System" to give the viewer perfect stereoscopic 3D. He also modelled the computer-generated imagery (CGI) on a gaming engine, which throws the image of the actors directly from the green screen into the action - previously the director could not see how the actor integrated with the CGI world until post-production, months later.
And that's not all. Cameron has finally climbed out of the "uncanny valley" - the name given to that creepy effect where CGI characters move and speak like humans but have dead zombie eyes. By dangling tiny cameras from skull caps to capture the slightest eye movement, Cameron's CGI creations look startlingly lifelike. It's no longer just motion-capture, his producer Jon Landau likes to say, but emotion-capture.
Will it change Hollywood? It already has. Cameron invited a handful of like-minded directors on set to play with his toys. Guillermo del Toro was blown away: expect his two Hobbit films to borrow from Cameron's technology. As for Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, Cameron says: "I put the camera in their hands and they basically became two kids - on the inside of every filmmaker is really just a complete geek. They were running around the stage, working the camera, and that's the moment when they both kind of looked each other in the eye and said, 'Let's make Tintin'."
Cameron is used to making movie history. The Terminator, his debut, grossed $80m on a budget of just $6.5m. The Abyss and Terminator 2 pioneered the "morphing" effect that we now take for granted in every Hollywood blockbuster. Aliens is one of very few sequels that didn't suck. He is unusually driven. Cinematically he is the bastard love child of Orson Welles and Ridley Scott, but his idol is Stanley Kubrick. It was seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey at the age of 14, with its ground-breaking special effects harnessed to a powerful human drama with a philosophical core, that awakened him to the power of cinema. He takes his steely perfectionism from Kubrick, earning the nickname Iron Jim.
His tongue-lashings are so feared that crew T-shirts have passed into legend. "Life's Abyss and then you Dive," read one. "I survived a James Cameron movie" is a recurring slogan. Cameron himself attributes his colourful swearing to the blue-collar jobs he did before directing - machinist, bus mechanic, precision tool and die maker, lorry driver, caretaker. He pushes himself harder than anyone. When Jamie Lee Curtis asked where he would be while she was hanging out of a helicopter in True Lies, he replied: "Hanging out the door filming you with a hand-held camera."
Cameron's old friend and co-writer, William Wisher, says: "That line from The Terminator, 'There is no fate but what you make' - that's his credo, I'm sure." Linda Hamilton, the Terminator star who became his fourth wife (after the producer Gale Ann Hurd and the director Kathryn Bigelow), went further: "My joke after that movie was, 'That man is definitely on the side of the machines'." Cameron has that unstoppable quality. As a child, he got his own back on a neighbour who stole his toys by sawing through the branch that supported his treehouse. On the positive side, he was always making things, enlisting his four younger brothers and other local kids to help build go-karts or an aeroplane. It was his first taste of leadership. "And I realise I'm doing the same thing now," he said in 1999, "just getting a bunch of kids to help build a fort, except that now it takes $100 million and the kids are all my age."
A lifelong sci-fi fan, he discovered another enduring passion in his teens. Brought up in a small village near Niagara Falls, his shimmering dreams fuelled by Jacques Cousteau documentaries, he became obsessed with water and taught himself to scuba dive. The idea behind The Abyss, of an oxygenated liquid that allows people to "breathe" at great depths, was based on a genuine experiment he heard of at school. He made Titanic, he says now, because it was the simplest way to fund an expedition down to the wreck. He conflates underwater and outer-space exploration: he told Astrobiology magazine that the chemosynthesis-based life forms discovered at the bottom of the ocean in the 1970s could provide the key ingredients for extraterrestrial life. The alien flora in Avatar is inspired, in part, by the coral reefs and kelp forests he encountered in the depths.
His scientific bent greatly influences his art. He majored in both physics and English at California State University. His mother was an artist and nurse who encouraged him to draw; his father was an electrical engineer. "I'm a pretty representative fusion of their DNA," Cameron told one interviewer last month. "A Mendelian genetics experiment gone well." A graduate of Roger Corman's no-budget filmmaking, he taught himself every aspect of the craft, from set design and model-making to cinematography and special effects. He only directs his own scripts. His screenplays (he also co-wrote Rambo II and Strange Days, polished Point Break and did an inspirational early screenplay for Spider-Man) are famously beautifully written. If there is such a thing as an auteur in Hollywood, it's Jim Cameron, though he himself insists that's not possible with a team of a thousand-odd people: "When you're doing your job best you're a band leader." And when he's not, his people have a special name for him: "Mij" - that's "Jim" backwards, the dark, destructive side of his uncompromising perfectionism.
What next for Jim/Mij Cameron? A 3D remastering of Titanic will hit the big screen next year. His next feature film is almost certain to be Battle Angel, based on a popular manga about a 14-year-old cyborg girl. He may also produce and direct a segment of a new portmanteau comic-book movie of Heavy Metal. But, of course, if Avatar is not quite the success he hopes, he may retire hurt and never work again.
Yeah, right. * The National