It's 8.30 on a grey morning in Belfast and James Cameron, never a fan of the small gesture, strides into the recently opened Titanic Belfast museum to the swelling strains of that Celine Dion song. Despite having landed about 12 hours ago, Cameron, a good-looking 58-year-old with a powder-puff moustache and beard, is full of beans, eager to wring yet more drops out of the waterlogged wreck of RMS Titanic.
The ostensible reason Cameron has flown to the other side of the world from his homes in California and New Zealand is to promote the 3D Blu-Ray disc of his world-swallowing multi-Oscar-winning 1997 film. But the real reason is that this is simply the kind of thing that he does. Cameron will happily travel anywhere to expound upon his three great passions: marine and space exploration, and technology. When we meet after the press conference he tells me repeatedly that the only reason he made Titanic was so a film studio would pay for him to go on deep-sea dives to see the wreckage: "Anything I had to do after that was just part of the deal, I make no bones about that." He seizes the opportunity of the early-morning press conference to announce proudly that three years ago he commissioned a study with the US naval academy to learn more about the sinking of the Titanic, out of plain curiosity. In the years between Titanic and Avatar he became a proficient deep-sea diver and earlier this year he was the first to make a solo dive to the deepest part of the Mariana Trench.
When I ask if he ever just chills out, he protests that of course he loves his downtime with his family: "But we'll usually jet-ski all together or do something like that." He and the presumably very energetic current Mrs Cameron – Suzy Amis, who appears briefly in Titanic – have been married for 12 years and it is by far the longest of his five marriages. "I've probably mellowed out," he says simply.
Well, it is all relative, but it is perhaps not surprising that he has been married five times as he only seems to deal in big numbers: it has been decades since he has made a film that wasn't described as "the most expensive ever made" – The Abyss was the first to be awarded that honour, then Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic and finally Avatar – and the takings have nearly always justified the budget. At a conservative estimate, Cameron's movies have made more than $7bn and Titanic and Avatar are the two biggest-grossing films ever. The costs are largely due to his determination to make his fantasies a reality.
As a child Cameron fell in love with marine exploration, seeing it as a more accessible form of space exploration. When he saw the underwater technology that had been developed to explore the wreck of the Titanic in the 80s, he thought: "I've got to get me some of that." His love of special effects marries his love of art and science and I can still remember the gasping thrill of seeing the liquid metal in Terminator 2 at the cinema for the first time.
Cameron can be a fantastic storyteller: no matter how much you roll your eyes watching it, Titanic is as irresistible as the suction of a sinking ship. But his love of effects risks distracting his attention from the storyline, and it is not really an accusation that he does much to refute. During the morning press conference, when asked what his favourite scene from Titanic is, he replies, "when Rose and Jack first kiss," which seems a surprisingly sentimental choice for him but then he adds: "Not for the emotionality, but the way we shot it." Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet asked him how they should kiss, "and so I drew some lips here," he says, pointing to the knuckles on his thumbs and beginning to knock them together, "and said: 'Like this.'" And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win a best director Oscar.
Avatar is the most obvious example of Cameron's interest in technology taking precedence over plot and it is astonishing to think that he is about to start shooting Avatars 2, 3 and maybe even 4 when there was barely enough script for Avatar 1, and what there was flirted with condescending colonialism.
After the press conference, I meet Cameron upstairs looking out over the dock where the Titanic set sail for Southampton a century ago. In person he is charm itself, talkative and open, and looking healthier than he did 10 years ago, doubtless thanks to his "gradual conversion" to a vegan diet, primarily for environmental reasons. Only occasionally are there the flashes of the legendary impatience, the first one coming when I refer to an infamous incident in which he kicked over a tea cart because he was so outraged the film crew took a break.
"That was years ago! Hello?!" he shouts and it briefly looks as if I might be the next tea cart. But the storm passes as swiftly as it erupted: "Look, there's an aspect of movie-making that rewards bad behaviour. You're working with a team of people and you tell them what you want and a few weeks later they've forgetten everything. So you scream at them and somehow they remember. Not my actors, though – I've always been very circumspect with them."
This is somewhat debatable. While some, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sigourney Weaver and Bill Paxton, have worked with him repeatedly, others couldn't get away fast enough. Winslet said Cameron "has a temper like you wouldn't believe" and she would never work with him again "unless it was for a lot of money". (but kate has maintained that his temper was directed at the crew, not the actors.)
But, he avows, he's a changed man. The underwater expeditions he has done in the past decade have "taught me about good leadership because now I know if someone hasn't done their job properly, I haven't done mine because I haven't communicated to them what I want".
Not that he has entirely mellowed. When I ask if it's true he wanted to buy the rights to Michael Crichton's book Jurassic Park, just the memory of how Steven Spielberg beat him to it by mere hours sparks hissing frustration: "That motherfucker!"
While Cameron is known now for spending as much on films as small countries spend on their military, he in fact started out with small budgets. After a happy childhood in Canada and then dropping out of college, he decided on film-making after seeing Star Wars and he found work at the low-budget Roger Corman studios. From there, he got an ill-fated job as the director of Piranha II and then, after coming up with the story in a feverish dream, he wrote Terminator.
Despite his displays of machismo Cameron has written some of the best roles for women in cinema. "I didn't even think it was that remarkable when I did it with Terminator – it's remarkable by its absence in other Hollywood movies," he shrugs. "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."
You seem to enjoy writing roles for strong women, I say.
"Absolutely. To me, it's 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," he says.
As well as writing strong women he seems to enjoy marrying them. His roster of ex-wives includes Terminator's Linda Hamilton, film producer Gale Anne Hurd and the director Kathryn Bigelow, with whom he remains good friends despite losing out to her for the 2009 directing Oscar.
These days, he, his wife and his five children – aged between 23 and five – live in both New Zealand and Los Angeles after Cameron decided he didn't want his children to grow up solely in LA: "I didn't want to raise them in that poisonous atmosphere. There's a climate of materialism in Los Angeles. We're all vegan, we grow our own organic food at our ranch in California, and we'll continue to do that in New Zealand. You want your kids to grow up with a certain set of values."
As part of that endeavour, he threw out the family's television sets but does allow the kids to watch movies, yet only as a family group, with everyone voting for which film to watch: "It teaches them conflict resolution. It's like the old days when everybody lived in one room in a cabin." Albeit a one-room cabin that reportedly cost $16m and is set on 2,500 acres of prime New Zealand land. "Oh, come on! There are ranches in Montana that are 100,000 acres!" he scoffs.
So seeing as Cameron is no longer beset by his ego and temper maybe I can ask him the question that's been bugging me for the past 15 years.
"Sure," he says.
Couldn't Rose have shared her wooden board with Jack at the end of Titanic instead of shoving him into the ocean? "Wait a minute, I'm going to call up William Shakespeare and ask why Romeo and Juliet had to die," he snaps.
Ah, that's better.
James Cameron on the Unsung Heroes of Titanic: the FLAWLESS MR. ANDREWS and the Guarantee Group
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