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James Cameron talks monsters, AI and interviewing Spielberg and Lucas for his new series

Contributed by
Apr 25, 2018

Science fiction storytelling isn't just a pursuit for writer, producer, director, James Cameron. It's a way of life. Inspired by a childhood spent reading stories by the genre's greatest storytellers, Cameron focused on screenwriting after dropping out of college, which led him to Roger Corman's doorstep. As an art director and hands-on low budget filmmaker, Cameron took those skills and made his own indie sci-fi film with 1984's The Terminator, and has played primarily in the genre ever since.

Honoring the genre he loves (and that has been very good to him as a creator), James Cameron has now executive produced a six-part documentary series for AMC, James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction. Covering topics from alien life to time travel, Cameron conducts intimate interviews with fellow luminaries of the genre like Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, Ridley Scott, and George Lucas discussing their approach to the tropes of sci-fi.

We sat down with Cameron and four other journalists to talk about the tackling the scope of science fiction storytelling in just six hours, and the overall evolution of the genre, for better and worse.

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You've done documentaries before but this topic is really expansive. So, what were your primary goals in telling the Story of Science Fiction?

James Cameron: Science fiction is a subject you could do sixty hours on. I would love to have gotten way down in the weeds, deeper than we were able to go, but, we also didn't want it to be too simplistic. We wanted to hit a medium tone, where it was a little bit inside and you follow an idea back and you flesh it out. But we had to pick our battles.

We tried to pick a few key milestone pieces of popular culture in movies or TV shows and then go right back to the origin of the idea and see how that idea had evolved over time. And how it was taken up by that particular film and then, where possible, talk to the filmmaker and talk to other people who were very knowledgeable in the field of science fiction as writers or commentators and let them describe the significance of it. Not only to us now, but in its time. And so, in terms of organizing principals, I think we originally had eight. We crushed it down into six. And I specifically asked for monsters because what's science fiction without monsters.

What was your angle on monsters for this series?

So much of the way science and technology manifest in our collective imagination leads us toward this idea of negative ramifications, and it usually becomes personified in a monster. Whether it's a giant Godzilla monster that's representative of nuclear testing to the late '50s Japanese audience, or a Gen-tech Chimera creature. Or our fear of the unknown as manifest by the alien going out into space and what we might find there. So, I asked for monsters because I also wanted to draw some genre boundaries around science fiction for a non-super nerdy sci-fi [viewer], the casual sci-fi fan that just enjoys a good story and a good piece of entertainment. It may not be crystal clear in their minds what the differences are between fantasy, science fiction and horror. And how those are very specific genres and they're specifically bounded for the most part unless there's crosstalk intentionally. Like Alien, for example, which is science fiction, horror.

So, we tried to define our genre that we're tackling and keep it separate from those other ones and then we tried to create the classic sub-genres. Dystopian science fiction is a classic sub-genre of science fiction. It was in favor in the sixties. It got out of favor for probably twenty years after Star Wars came out. Then everything had to be fast-paced, action-adventure. There might be a little bit of dystopia wedged in there but you weren't doing1984. You weren't doing Brave New World. You weren't doing THX 1138.

How deep do you go in defining these sub-genres?

It's showing people not only the evolution of the ideas from the original authors and artists, but also showing how there was always a feedback loop between science fiction and society. Terminology would get picked up and put into regular use because it resonated. Like how many of the space scientists at NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and so on were inspired by these things that they saw as kids to go out and actually do it. And how that's helped to push us into a science fiction world that we live in now.

Distilling even that seems daunting.

It was tough to get [the series] down to a certain set of guiding principles. So, we threw it into these big buckets of space, but then where does Aliens go? Does it go in monsters? Or does it go in space? We had to be selective and we had to figure out where our major touchstones were. And I didn't want it to be about my movies, but I think that AMC wanted a little bit of my stuff in there to give me some authority, if nothing else, to talk about this stuff as an expert. And then, I think my big contribution to the show frankly, was calling up Steven (Spielberg) and saying, "Hey, let's do an interview." And calling up George (Lucas) and saying, "Hey. You've made a s*** ton of money off of science fiction. Let's give something back to the genre. Let's talk about it!" (Laughs)

The intimate interviews you have with your fellow directors are one of the biggest sells of the series. How was it to conduct those discussions?

We had these epic interviews. Epic interviews with Ridley (Scott), with Chris Nolan, Guillermo del Toro. To me, it was just a thrill to get to talk to these guys and go on record about the ideas that excite us. Then take those things that we talked about in the interviews and go back and find the clips and put it together and get the experts to talk about that. I'm pretty pleased with the way the show came out. It might be a little passe for the super nerdy sci-fi fan that already knows all the references but I'm a super nerdy sci-fi fan and I would watch the show if I hadn't made it.

In those conversations, I expected some of these people to talk about genres but there was such a humaneness in the way people connected around the topic. Did that surprise you?

No, I knew it was there. First of all, for the most part, I knew everybody that I was personally interviewing. And I also think it's only a surprise that science fiction is a humanist genre to people who aren't practitioners of it. Yes, you can have a fascination with science and technology but that really defines what was called the Golden Age back in the thirties. The pulp days. You know, where it was very stale, male and pale. It was just a bunch of white guys talking about science, and putting in beautiful women and then spaceships.

But in the sixties, and on through to the present, you have women entering the field as writers. Initially, they had to hide under a nom de plume that sounded kind of non-gender specific, like Andre Norton. I always assumed Andre Norton was a guy ‘cause he was writing the great action-adventure space stories. Turned out to be a woman. She wrote like 90 books or something like that. So, it's evolved.

Science fiction, overall, has evolved very much toward more humanist drama. I think that it's a conceit, maybe in Hollywood, and I think, especially amongst actors, that science fiction isn't really from the heart. Isn't real human entertainment. Or human artistic expression. When, if you really think about what we are as a species, our dominance of our biosphere is based on our ability to think and our ability to invent and innovate, and so we are science fiction creatures, essentially.

We live in a science fiction world. It's the living proof around us of that fact. So, you can't really say that you're dealing with the human condition by excluding everything technical. You have to include technical in the human condition. And in fact, we're merging with our machines and our behavior, our social contract with each other, has been changed by technology, just in the last twenty years. Some people would say, we're in a convergence toward a singularity where we have machines that are as intelligent as we are. And I believe that will probably take place, unless something actively preempts it.

All of your AI experts say we will have artificial general intelligence equal to, or greater, than human within in the next, some put it as close as fifteen years, some put it as far away as fifty years. But, that's an eye blink in terms of the great human history. So, yeah, it didn't surprise me at all that these people would speak from the heart and from their own personal passions from childhood on. Ridley was talking about his childhood. Steven was talking about his childhood. Guillermo lives and breathes this stuff, you know. So that didn't surprise me, no.

We'll continue our conversation with James Cameron about the common thread between science fiction directors and the impact of technology on creativity in part two of our interview.

AMC Visionaries: James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction premieres April 30 at 10/9c.