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.’”