James Cameron's latest, Deep Sea Challenge 3D, lets viewers explore one of the visionary filmmaker's great passions: the dark depths of the ocean. Cameron, 59, chats with USA WEEKEND about his new project, in theaters Aug. 8.
When did you fall in love with the sea?
"I got the bug of being an admirer of exploration when I was a kid.I don't think I really thought I would ever really be an explorer. I was interested in the arts and science when I was in college. I was split between the two: studying physics and astronomy. Curiosity was always driving everything, but I eventually chose the arts and went down that path. Since '95 was my first expedition to Titanic, I was doing this exploration work: robotics development, deep-sea camera systems and all that."
In the documentary, your wife (actress Suzy Amis) asks, Are you a filmmaker who does exploring on the side, or an explorer who does filmmaking on the side? Which is it?
"There's no easy answer. When I'm making a film – I'm working on the Avatar sequels now and so I feel like a filmmaker – I'm 100% committed to that, and I put the exploration stuff into the background. Now, that wouldn't prevent me from working after hours on some new vehicle development or something like that, but then when I'm on an expedition, I feel like the Hollywood world is very far away. I even get into a mindset that it's frivolous in a way and that we're doing something real and important and something that's not just the whim of a critic. For example, we have to play by the rules of engineering and physics and so on and, so we have to serve a higher master in a way. I talk myself into that being the more important activity. It's kind of situational."
Deep-sea dives seem scary. Are they?
"Any of these projects in terms of the public appeal of them is to inspire curiosity but also to make them seem more dangerous than they really are. I call it the duck principal: You look calm and serene on the surface, and you're paddling like hell under water. Underwater, you're working like crazy to assure; that's our highest and first priority. It was a seven-year project to build the vehicle and we spent thousands of hours in pressure chamber tests, testing every single component, every circuit, everything before it was assembled into a vehicle. But there's still that X factor because once it's assembled into a vehicle, there's no chamber big enough to test it. The only way to test it is to send it down where it's designed to go and see if it works the way it's supposed to. The truth is, yes, you're apprehensive before the dive, but once it actually starts, once I'm in the sub and I've done all my tasks as a pilot and the sub is going into the water, I'm just excited about what I'm going to see. I turn into some combination of the curious kid that wants to see what's there and an astronaut or a jet pilot who's got a job to do. There's not much room for fear or claustrophobia on the actual dive."
Having done so much, do you still make a list of things you have yet to do?
"The bucket list? Land on Mars?"
"I'd love to go to Mars. I can't think of anything that would be cooler, but I don't know if that's realistic for me to dedicate my time and energy to that. You've got Elon Musk who has basically set his task to get human beings to Mars; that's the purpose of him founding SpaceX, in his mind."
Can't you hitch a ride?
"It's always a possibility. I've got these Avatar films to complete first. I think it's more realistic for me to keep my focus on the oceans because it's a mistake to think that just sort of ticking the box of having set a depth record and creating the technology is the same thing as having explored these deep places. I use the example of sky diving out of a plane at night, landing in a wheat field in Nebraska with a flashlight, walking two miles in one direction and then getting picked up and saying you've explored America. I mean, you barely touched it. You've only seen one pixel of the bigger image. It's important for people to remember that right here on Earth we have this vast frontier down there. It's simplistic to say we know more about the surface of the moon and the surface of Mars, than we know about the deep ocean. That's true from an imaging perspective – we simply haven't looked there, and if you add up all the deep trenches, it's an area the size of North America, so how is it that we managed to get into the 21st century thinking we've explored the entire planet and we've missed a continent essentially."
What can we learn by exploring down there?
"We don't know what we don't know. You go down into the blackness and you reach the abyssal depths and nobody knew what was really down there. They thought it was just a bunch of mud and then they discovered these hydrothermal vent sites and a whole other way that life actually operates here on Earth, unlike all the life in the upper water column and on the surface of the land. That was a huge revelation. Scientists didn't even know the questions to ask. One of the areas that could be profoundly important is looking at the origin of life. There are a lot of arguments about how life emerged on Earth. We may have gotten a glimpse at the way life actually originally formed 3 ½ billion years ago. You can't ignore a continent-sized area on our own planet. So the moral of the story from my perspective is that we have to develop the technology to go down there and to look around, to map it, to survey it, to look for the chemical signatures, try to find these different life forms and understand the oceans."
How is global warming impacting our oceans?
"The oceans are being assaulted from multiple angles: You've got over fishing, you've got the increased warming, which is going to have a really devastating affect on the coral reef and the plankton. They are really going to take a beating just because of our influence on the planet. What do you do about that? Most people don't think it affects them. The more they see wonderful footage of animals, whether it's sharks or manta rays on Discovery Channel, the more we can capture their imagination about the deep ocean. You have to respect it first to want to protect it."
Did you make any mistakes during the expedition?
"You make hundreds of little mistakes. The art of any one of these projects is to learn from your mistakes early on, do a lot of testing and build strength and improve your method. We'd have launch and recovery operations where we had problems, where we actually identified hazards. So we'd correct those hazards as we went a long. You build muscle as you go and that's why I thought of the entire project as a big series of sea trials. I would go into the sub three hours or more before the dive started and do all the run-up checks, basically power up all the systems, power everything off, go through all the emergency procedures, check that everything was working properly and then I'd come out and kind of stretch a little bit before I went in because a dive from the time they close the hatch from the time till they open it might be 10 or 11 hours."
Is there some way to prepare physically for that?
"I tried to maintain a good level of cardio fitness because I figured in that cramped position with my knees bent up there was a possibility of a deep vein thrombosis kind of thing. I'm not that young anymore. I did a lot of running and treadmill stuff. I did a lot of yoga just so I had general flexibility and cardio fitness. And you have to have a certain kind of mental determination, because it's not really very comfortable inside."
What hurts the most when you're inside?
"When you sit in a chair for hours at a time, your weight's kind of distributed on your lower thighs, but when you're in the sphere, you're sitting on two small points about the size of two small silver dollars on your sit bones. That gets old after about thee hours. I had this fantasy that we were going to build some gel filled conforming seat that was going to be all cushy and cozy but that fell off the to-do list. The astronauts had these form fitted molded seats for their space capsules so I figured we'd do something like that but it just never worked out. The yoga paid off."
What's your deepest dive?
"35,787 feet ... essentially the deepest anybody's gone."
Back on (fictional) land — how long will the new Avatar films take?
"It's going to be about five years because we're making three pictures. To put it in perspective, it took almost four years to make (the first) movie, so making three is ambitious."
Do you have it all laid out already?
"It's coming into focus. We've got early drafts of the three scripts and they're long because there are just too many damn good ideas and we want to make it a rich universe. So, we're in a rewrite phrase right now. In parallel to that, we've been designing the world, the landscapes, all the new creatures and characters and culture and so on and that stuff is so rich, I can't wait to get on the set."