James Cameron: Man of Extremes (The New Yorker)

By Dana Goodyear

The director James Cameron is six feet two and fair, with paper-white hair and turbid blue-green eyes. He is a screamer—righteous, withering, aggrieved. “Do you want Paul Verhoeven to finish this motherfucker?” he shouted, an inch from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face, after the actor went AWOL from the set of “True Lies,” a James Bond spoof that Cameron was shooting in Washington, D.C. (Schwarzenegger had been giving the other actors a tour of the Capitol.) Cameron has mastered every job on set, and has even been known to grab a brush out of a makeup artist’s hand. “I always do makeup touch-ups myself, especially for blood, wounds, and dirt,” he says. “It saves so much time.” His evaluations of others’ abilities are colorful riddles. “Hiring you is like firing two good men,” he says, or “Watching him light is like watching two monkeys fuck a football.” A small, loyal band of cast and crew works with him repeatedly; they call the dark side of his personality Mij—Jim backward.

The pressures on Cameron are extreme, never mind that he has brought them on himself. His movies are among the most expensive ever made. “Terminator 2” was the first film to cost a hundred million dollars, “Titanic” the first to exceed two hundred million. But victory is sweeter after a close brush with defeat. “Terminator 2” earned five hundred and nineteen million around the world, and “Titanic,” which came out in 1997, still holds the record for global box-office: $1.8 billion.

Cameron is fifty-five. It has been twelve years since he has made a feature film; “Avatar,” his new movie, comes out on December 18th and will have cost more than two hundred and thirty million dollars by the time it’s done. He started working on it full time four years ago, from a script he wrote in 1994. “Avatar” will be the first big-budget action blockbuster in 3-D; Cameron shot it using camera systems that he developed himself. He is a pioneer of special effects: the undulating water column of “The Abyss” and the liquid-silver man of “Terminator 2” helped to inspire the digital revolution that has transformed moviemaking in the past two decades. The digital elements of “Avatar,” he claims, are so believable that, even when they exist alongside human actors, the audience will lose track of what is real and what is not. “This film integrates my life’s achievements,” he told me. “It’s the most complicated stuff anyone’s ever done.” Another time, he said, “If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success.”

George Lucas popularized space opera; Steven Spielberg has perfected awe. Cameron’s movies, soaked in sweat and blood and scorched by apocalyptic flames, have romance at their molten cores. Some of his most memorable characters—Sarah Connor, the heroine of the “Terminator” movies; Ellen Ripley, of “Aliens”—are mothers. The writing is a genre of its own: “tech-noir,” Cameron called it after “Terminator”; his late-period style is more like gear-head schmaltz. “IN THE BLACKNESS we hear the lonely ping of a bottom sonar,” the beginning of his treatment for “Titanic” reads. “Then two faint lights appear, close together . . . growing brighter. They each resolve into clusters of lights, which are soon revealed to be two DEEP SUBMERSIBLES, falling toward us. We are somewhere in the ocean deep, looking up at two subs freefalling like express elevators. . . . Soon they are fireflies, then stars. Then gone.” Spielberg says, “He gets a lot of points for being a techno-brat, but he is a very emotional storyteller.”

“With ‘Avatar,’ I thought, Forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, like John Carter of Mars—a soldier goes to Mars,” Cameron told me. The hero of “Avatar,” Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is a paraplegic ex-marine who travels to Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri star system, where there is a human colony. Humans can’t breathe the air on Pandora; Jake lies in a casket-like vessel, while his consciousness, projected into an “avatar”—Vishnu-blue and nine feet tall, like the native population, the Na’vi—explores Pandora’s rich interior. It is a fantasy about fantasy, about the experience of sitting inert in the dark while your mind enters another world. Set roughly a hundred and twenty-five years in the future, “Avatar” is, like most speculative science fiction, a cautionary tale. Humans have turned Earth into a wasteland and, in their pursuit of a precious superconductor called Unobtanium, are beginning to do the same to Pandora. Jake, through his avatar, falls in love with a Na’vi princess, who teaches him to live in harmony with nature, and then he leads her people in an insurrection against the colonists. “Of course, the whole movie ends up being about women, how guys relate to their lovers, mothers—there’s a large female presence,” Cameron said. “I try to do my testosterone movie and it’s a chick flick. That’s how it is for me.” This summer, addressing an auditorium filled with thousands of teen-age boys at Comic-Con, in San Diego—an annual convention of science-fiction, action-adventure, and fantasy fans—he made his identification with the fair sex complete. When someone in the audience asked about his next movie, he replied, “You know, it’s not a great time to ask a woman if she wants to have other kids when she’s crowning.”

Cameron behaves as if he were the embattled protagonist of one of his own films—an ordinary Joe beaten on the anvil of extraordinary trials. “The words ‘No’ and ‘That’s impossible’ and phrases like ‘That can’t be done’—that’s the stuff that gives him an erection,” the actor Bill Paxton, who has worked with Cameron since the early eighties, says. Cameron reserves a special quotient of his anger for suits who get in his way. “Tell your friend he’s getting fucked in the ass, and if he would stop squirming it wouldn’t hurt so much” was the message he once told a Fox producer to deliver to an executive at the studio. He sees himself as essentially outside and other and alone; he bites the hand that feeds. “Even though he knew I was on his side, nobody’s ever on his side,” Bill Mechanic, who ran Fox Studios during the making of “Titanic,” said. “It’s like you’re in the trenches and your infantry-mate is shooting at you, even if you’re the only one there who can save his life.”

There is a chivalric aspect to Cameron’s antagonism; he figures his struggles in heroic terms. “I try to live with honor, even if it costs me millions of dollars and takes a long time,” he says. “It’s very unusual in Hollywood. Few people are trustworthy—a handshake means nothing to them. They feel they’re required to keep an agreement with you only if you’re successful, or they need you. I’ve tried not to get sucked into the Hollywood hierarchy system. Personally, I don’t like it when people are deferential to me because I’m an established filmmaker. It’s a blue-collar sensibility.”

Cameron was born in Canada, and grew up in a small town not far from Niagara Falls. (He revoked his application for American citizenship after Bush won the election in 2004.) His father was an engineer for a paper company; his mother brought up five children, and told stories of racing stock cars and joining the women’s auxiliary of the Canadian Army. Jim was the oldest, the ringleader of his siblings and the other kids in the neighborhood. “There was always some new thing that absolutely needed to get done, whether it was building a fort or an airplane or launching rockets,” he told me. “We made it in the papers once, for a U.F.O. sighting over a hot-air balloon that we built and launched at night that was powered by candles.” His hero was Jacques Cousteau, and although he lived four hundred miles from the ocean, he became obsessed with scuba. He learned to dive in Buffalo one February in a Y.M.C.A. pool.

At fourteen, Cameron saw the movie that made him want to make his own: Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the first cinematically exquisite treatment of what had traditionally been B-movie material. “I saw all these cool spacecraft and I wanted to know how the visual effects were done,” he said. “I started building my own models of spaceships, from the ‘2001’ model kit and the ‘making-of’ book, which was quite thick and well researched.” After he finished making “True Lies,” Cameron called Kubrick, by then a recluse, and invited himself over. They spent a day, in the basement of Kubrick’s house in the English countryside, watching “True Lies” at Kubrick’s flatbed editing station. Cameron went over the shots—Schwarzenegger in a Harrier jet firing a missile, with the villain attached to it, through an office building and into a helicopter: boom!—so that Kubrick could learn how the effects were done.

When Cameron was seventeen, his father was transferred to Southern California, and the family moved to Brea, a small city in Orange County. He had left Canada without a high-school diploma, and started taking classes at Fullerton Junior College, supporting himself by working as a precision tool-and-die machinist. “My dad was a college graduate,” he said. “But, see, I didn’t want to do the things he thought I should—you know, something good, like engineering.” He dropped out, and, when he was twenty-three, married a woman who worked as a waitress at a Bob’s Big Boy. For a while, he drove a truck for a local school district. In archetypal terms, this was his period of exile and self-denial, the refusal of the call. “I just became this blue-collar guy,” he said. “But I was constantly thinking as an artist, so I’m painting, drawing, writing, thinking about visual effects and filmmaking.”

In Brea, Cameron met William Wisher and Randall Frakes, who also wanted to make movies, and who are still his two best friends. Eventually, they raised the money to make a short film, “Xenogenesis,” starring Wisher as a futuristic man in an orange jumpsuit who battles an armored robot with a metal pincer for a hand. It got Cameron a job sculpting models for Roger Corman in L.A.

Corman’s studio—a training ground for filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Jonathan Demme—specialized in low-budget genre films. Cameron distinguished himself immediately, and soon he was designing sets. He was focussed—often working through the night—and he was scrappy. “He’d take all these random parts—Winnebago parts, industrial dishwashing racks, Sonotubes, a lot of paint—and turn them into an incredible set,” Paxton, who worked for Corman as a set dresser, recalled. For “Battle Beyond the Stars,” Corman’s takeoff on “Star Wars,” Cameron was asked to design the spaceships. “His sketches were brilliant,” Corman said. “The best of that type of work that I had ever seen.” Each spaceship reflected the character of its pilot, and also Cameron’s instinct for the iconic, literal image; to the mother ship, Nell, he gave a curvaceous shape and a pair of heaving breasts.

James Cameron doesn’t go to the bathroom; he goes to the head. In his universe, there is no front and back, right and left, just fore and aft, starboard and port. He is still an avid scuba diver; when there are sharks in the water, he says, he’s the first one in. Free-diving, he has held his breath for more than three minutes and reached a depth of a hundred and ten feet. (“You feel like a denizen of the deep, if only for a second,” he says. “Plus, diving below the scuba divers, I like just to see the look on their faces.”) He used to have a JetRanger helicopter, and owns a slew of dirt bikes, three Harleys, a Ducati, and a Ford GT—“basically a race car with a license plate”—in classic blue-and-white livery. In Corvettes, he has favored triple black—black body, black interior, black top. For pleasure, he designs submersibles; the one he’s working on now can go to thirty-six thousand feet, and he hopes to use it to explore the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on earth. He signs his missives “Jim out,” and, when he’s working, a deep mechanical roar, like a Navy klaxon, summons him to the stage. “Dive! dive! dive!” he said, an intent look in his eyes, when I asked him what the signal meant.

I first met Cameron in April of 2008. “Avatar” was in its third year of production. For much of that time, Cameron had been working out of a couple of hangars in Playa del Rey, south of Los Angeles.* He was sitting in his office, a small room at the edge of one of the hangars, beside a bust of a feline-looking blue alien covered in bioluminescent spots: Neytiri, the Na’vi princess. “Our leading lady,” Cameron called her, or just “the blue chick.” He was wearing a T-shirt that said “Scubapro” and had a pair of earphones around his neck. Despite moviegoers’ associations of 3-D with schlocky horror films and animated stuff for kids, Cameron said he was resolved to work in the medium: “It gives you more of a sense of participation, involvement, and immersion. You feel like you’re bearing witness, and that makes the journey feel more real.” It was also a business decision. Having developed the camera technology, he knew that only a high-profile movie, such as “Avatar” promises to be, would accelerate the conversion of theatres. “I said, ‘They know the product. They better get ready.’ It was a little bit cheeky—a leap of faith that the screens would be there for us.” That spring, there were about fifteen hundred 3-D screens in the United States; by December, there will be three times that many. (“Avatar” will also have a wide release in 2-D.)

There was a knock at the door. “I have to go make a shot,” Cameron said. He walked swiftly toward the floor of the hangar, a vast industrial space that he referred to as “the performance-capture volume.” The stage floor, furnished with just a low riser, had been painted battleship gray. Zoë Saldana, who plays Neytiri, stood among a group of actors wearing black unitards covered with reflective white dots: a retro vision of the computer age, Pilobolus style. The ceiling was studded with black-and-white surveillance cameras that tracked the actors’ movements and positioned their performances inside a digital set—in this case, a Na’vi battle camp deep in the rain forest, where Jake’s avatar is preparing the warriors to fight with bows and arrows against the high-tech human war machines. Saldana wore a special head rig fitted with a tiny camera that floated inches from her face, to capture her expressions in minute detail: the movements of her facial muscles, the contractions of her pupils, the interaction of her teeth, lips, and tongue. The data uploaded to a dozen computers banked around the room, which translated the movements of the actors onto the physiques of their digital characters, and fed the images, along with the digital set design, into the eyepiece of Cameron’s “virtual camera”—essentially, a viewfinder with a monitor. For him, it was like directing a live-action shoot on Pandora. Saldana, who is five feet seven, performed in his eyepiece as a nine-foot alien in a rain forest.

On cue, the actors began to make strange trilling sounds, ejectives and glottal stops and rolled “r”s: Na’vi. Cameron stopped the scene. “When Jake goes”—Cameron uttered a mellifluous sentence in Na’vi—“you go, ‘Whoop! Whoop!’ ”

Back in his office, Cameron played an unfinished scene from “Avatar” on a large screen. The renderings were crude, like paper cutouts: the graphic sophistication of a nineteen-nineties video game. Neytiri—hipless, lean, with proportions to make Barbie look like a Cabbage Patch Kid—crouched on a tree limb high above the forest floor. She spotted Jake’s avatar for the first time, and took aim. The next shot was much more evolved. Neytiri’s skin was tactile and radiant; her eyes were huge and green and flecked with light, like five-dollar marbles from Conran. “This is ninety or ninety-five per cent done,” Cameron said. “By the way, we didn’t have the equipment when we started this. It took nine months to build the computer model and to get it right. It’s incredibly computationally complex, but now we’re able to replicate the interaction of muscle under skin.” He stopped the footage on a closeup of Neytiri’s face. “She exists only as a big string of ones and zeroes,” he said, as if he could not quite believe it himself. “Computing a single frame of this takes thirty hours.” He paused. “Everybody in this building has had more college than I have.”

All directors have a God complex; Cameron takes his unusually seriously. For “Avatar,” he worked with a linguist to develop the Na’vi language, inspired by fragments of Maori he picked up in New Zealand years ago. He based Pandora, and its myriad flora (spike tears, cliff slouchers, stinger ivy) and fauna (direhorses, banshees, slinths), partly on the creatures of the coral reefs and kelp forests he has seen at the abyssal depths. He hired a team of artists to execute his ideas, but reserved one creature for himself: the thanator, a six-legged black pantherlike beast, twenty-four feet long, covered in plate scales, with a reptilian double set of jaws and a threat display resembling that of a fan lizard. “The thanator is the baddest, meanest predator the planet had to offer,” Neville Page, the lead creature designer, said. “As Jim put it in the treatment, a thanator can eat an Alien for dessert. He wanted to outdo himself, outdo the Alien Queen.”

“Creating a universe is daunting,” George Lucas said. “I’m glad Jim is doing it—there are only a few people in the world who are nuts enough to. I did it with ‘Star Wars,’ and now he’s trying to challenge that. It’s a lot of work. I do believe Jim will take this further out than anyone’s ever conceived of.”

Cameron inserts himself into every aspect of the filmmaking process. With the virtual camera, he is both cinematographer and camera operator, working in his favorite style, handheld, for what he calls “an edgy, subjective quality.” The camera eliminates the need for cable cars, helicopters, or cranes, allowing him to shoot from any vantage point he chooses. “When I say, ‘Make me three to one,’ what I’m saying is ‘Make me eighteen feet tall,’ ” he said. “At that point, I’ve become a techno crane. If I say, ‘Make me twenty to one,’ I’m a helicopter.” The Na’vi, too, are an extension of Cameron. He mentioned that he is a lefty. “Guess what,” he said. “The Na’vi are all left-handed now.” He taught Zoë Saldana how to shoot her bow, as he envisioned it. “It’s a two-fingered inverted draw past the head, like a Samurai,” he said, tracing the shape in the air over his left shoulder. “The archery instructor came and said, ‘Do you want me to teach them archery or do you want me to teach them this? This would never work.’ I said, ‘See that bush?’ It was a hundred and fifty feet away. I nailed it.”

The next time I saw Cameron, the lights were low. A year had passed. His hair was longer and whiter, and he had grown a small paunch; later, I learned that he had broken a tooth and hadn’t bothered to fix it. (“I don’t smile that broadly anyway,” he said.) He was alone, moving slowly, grapevining his left foot gingerly over his right leg as he made his way around the performance-capture volume, in soft-soled slip-ons. (“Like a waitress, I have to wear sensible shoes.”) He had the virtual camera in front of him; he was lost, like a gamer in a trance. A large monitor nearby displayed what he saw in his eyepiece: a digital aircraft with a human pilot, crashing through the lush Pandoran jungle.

Cameron was choosing angles for a sequence that had been captured months before. When he finished, he looked up at Jon Landau, his producer, who was standing at the edge of the space. Landau used to work for Fox, where he oversaw the production of “True Lies,” before going to work for Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm, in 1995. His T-shirt said something about Tommy Bahama’s Dive Bar; staying close to Cameron means embracing scuba culture in whatever way you can.

“What’s with the tan?” Cameron asked him. “No one’s supposed to have a tan here. We’re in here fourteen hours a day. We see the sun as we drive to work, and not again till the next morning.”

“I fell asleep by the pool in Vegas yesterday,” Landau said. Cameron looked appalled.

Hours passed; Cameron danced. Eventually, Stephen Lang, who plays the film’s villain, came in, wearing heavy boots and a soiled, bloodstained camouflage jacket. A long, flexible arrow was stuck into his chest.

“Should there be more blood on my shirt?” he asked.

“We’re going to play it that the arrow seals the wound,” Cameron said.

“Thank you, Jim!” Landau said. He is trying to keep the film PG-13.

Most of “Avatar” ’s live-action scenes were filmed in New Zealand in 2007, but, the next day, Cameron had to get a few shots of Lang inside an “armored mobility platform,” or AMP suit. The suit, which, in the finished film, will be a combination of digital effects and physical set, is a menacing piece of military hardware, like a personal tank. A prop guy asked if the suit would have any bearing on how Lang’s character reacted when attacked.

“That’s a damn good question,” Cameron said. “We’ve already established the idea that when the suit is grabbed it looks like it’s in agony.” Cameron put on a nasal, whiny voice—his rendition of a fixated fanboy. “ ‘How come the suit didn’t move the right way? The fourteenth time I saw the film, in my basement, I really questioned the editorial integrity of it.’ ” He laughed, and then grew suddenly serious, as if aware that he had just said something jinxy: he should be so fortunate. “O.K.—shirt with schmutz and sweat,” he said, fingering the fabric around the entry wound. He looked down at his hands, which were now smeared with fake blood. “I have so much blood on my hands, from all the movies, metaphorically and psychically,” he said.

That night at half past eight, Cameron marched upstairs, two at a time, to a mess of cubicles he called “the lab,” where artists and programmers were stationed at computer screens. The lab smelled of coffee. Nearly everyone had chin hair. Cameron headed for a screening room for his nightly video conference with Weta, Peter Jackson’s digital-effects studio, in New Zealand, which was responsible for taking the basic renderings done by Cameron’s team and turning them into photo-realistic images: the bright, sentient eyes; the muscle under skin; the movement of wind, water, hair. Jackson says that “Avatar” ’s digital characters are more nuanced and vivid than any that have come before. “I’ve seen people looking at ‘Avatar’ shots, being convinced they are somehow looking at actors in makeup,” he wrote me in an e-mail.

Cameron, Landau, and several others sat in the dark, facing a large screen. A smaller screen showed six artists from Weta, at a conference table in New Zealand. “Avatar” has nearly three thousand effects shots; Cameron will review some of them as many as twenty times. He is an exacting critic, and an exuberant showoff, and the meetings provide a captive audience. Any disagreement is resolved with the indisputable logic of an older sibling who has invented a game and deigned to let his kid brother play: his universe, he wins. “I hate this fucking thing, but I can be very specific about it,” he said, when an image of a rock arch sacred to the Na’vi came up on the screen. “This looks like petrified wood,” he said, circling the offending part with a red laser pointer. “It has a longitudinal grain structure. It looks very fragile to me. This hard, crystally structure looks like barn wood. We want to say that this arch formed as igneous rock, that it’s a lava formation that got eroded, but it’s fracturing out along the crystal planes of minerals.”

At one point, Landau asked if Jake’s avatar’s ears looked a touch too red in a closeup shot. “When you direct your movie with nine-foot-tall blue people, you can do whatever you want,” Cameron said. “The ears are red when they’re backlit. That’s how they look.”

“Agreed,” Landau said cheerfully. He seemed used to it.

The meeting ended on a boisterous note. “That fuckin’ rocks!” Cameron called out in response to an image of a snarling maw of thin blue-veined tissue, the mouth of the pterodactyl-like banshee that Jake’s avatar domesticates for his ride. “Look at the gill-like membrane on the side of the mouth, its transmission of light, all the secondary color saturation on the tongue, and that maxilla bone. I love what you did with the translucence on the teeth, and the way the quadrate bone racks the teeth forward. It’s a sharky thing. As wacky as this creature is, it looks completely real. Maybe I’m getting high on my own supply.” He was practically out of breath. “The banshee lives! He’s a fierce-looking sonuvabitch.”

Home, for Cameron, is a fortress of preparedness. Since 1992, he has lived in Malibu, in a gated community called Serra Retreat, a patch of scrubby hillside across the highway from the beach. Mel Gibson lives in Serra Retreat; Britney Spears used to be Cameron’s neighbor there. Cameron’s place is a custard-colored nineteen-eighties Spanish house, with a red tile roof, in a small cul-de-sac; at the end of his driveway, there is a gate, beyond which stands a red Humvee platform fire truck and a uniformed security guard, with a clipboard and a badge. Ex-military buddies of his younger brother John David, who served as a marine in Iraq during the first Gulf War, sometimes provide additional security.

Cameron’s imagination was shaped by the Cold War; the threat of nuclear annihilation is a recurring theme. But he also admires the military and its accessories. “I suppose you could say I believe in peace through superior firepower,” he told me. “I don’t believe that the human race is going to suddenly evolve to the point that we can all join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ ” He learned to shoot—shotguns, assault rifles, pistols—in the early eighties, when he was writing “The Terminator.” “I didn’t want to write like an idiot, based on some kind of comic-book knowledge,” he said. “I do a lot of things in the pursuit of creating a patina of reality in what is basically fantasy.” He has continued his education, training with a handgun expert on a course with pop-up targets, and spending a lot of time in the desert with his friends, shooting up watermelons and jalopies with an AK-47.

Five years ago, Cameron bought the house next door, which had belonged to George C. Scott. Same architect, same style. It contains a post-production facility, and has editing rooms and a screening room. One recent morning, a young male assistant was in the kitchen, sorting silverware, while another made coffee. A tiled center island was laden with pudgy chocolate-chip muffins and cannisters of pretzels: suburban-abundance comfort food, for people working around the clock. Cameron came in at nine and poured himself a decaf. (He stopped drinking caffeine after “Terminator 2.”) He was wearing jeans and an Atlantic-blue button-down shirt. He walked out the back door to a large pool and patio. Lawn chairs and chaises and glass-topped tables suggested various forms of leisure. Cameron looked at the furniture uncertainly, as if he had never contemplated using it before. He chose a spot under an umbrella. Belle, one of three black German shepherds Cameron keeps, dropped a slimy tennis ball at his feet.

“We have a big fire problem here,” he said. He mentioned that he has his own pump house. “We take the pool water, mix it with Class A foam, and pump it out over the whole property. Everybody else just runs for the hills.” He threw his hands up and did a squeaky voice. “ ‘Oh, my God!’ We sit and wait. Put on our yellow coats and our breathing gear and wait. And, you know what? It’s impressive. When these hills light up with a hundred-foot-tall wall of flames coming over the top of the hill there, you feel like it’s Armageddon.”

Cameron has had five wives (waitress, producer, director, actress, actress). He has four children, ranging in age from sixteen to two, and a nineteen-year-old stepson. Since 2000, he has been married to Suzy Amis, who had a small role in “Titanic.” She no longer acts; several years ago, she founded Muse Elementary, a private school with an emphasis on ecological consciousness, in a setting that is, according to its Web site, a “dye-free, toxin-free, pesticide-free zone.”

Before Amis, Cameron was married to Linda Hamilton, who played Sarah Connor, a woman hunted by unstoppable cyborgs, in the “Terminator” films. As Hamilton recalls it, she and Cameron didn’t get along particularly well during the first shoot. “My joke after that movie was, That man is definitely on the side of the machines,” she said. For the sequel, in which Sarah Connor has become a near-psychotic paramilitary fighter deranged by her foreknowledge of the imminent destruction of the world, Hamilton spent a year on a merciless fat-free diet, and trained with a former Mossad agent, who taught her to strip weapons blindfolded while he threw things at her and asked for her identification number. She got so that she could escape from L.A.P.D. handcuffs using just a paper clip.

Not long after Cameron finished shooting “Terminator 2,” he got divorced from his wife at the time, the director Kathryn Bigelow. (They are still friends: Bigelow says that when she got the finished script for “The Hurt Locker,” her latest film, Cameron was the first person whose opinion she sought out.) He and Hamilton got together, and moved into the house in Serra Retreat. “The very first night, I realized it was a mistake,” she told me. “He was the controlling director. The person I’d seen on set came back to life—we’re in his environment, and I didn’t have much of a say-so.” She found herself on survivalist weekends in the desert, flying kit planes and shooting fruit, and riding shotgun in Cameron’s Corvette. “It was Jimbo who had the love of fast cars, but as the warrior bride I was on the back of the motorcycle,” she said. She wanted to get married, but Cameron, she says, was not interested in a conventional domestic life: “He used to say to me, ‘Anybody can be a father or a husband. There are only five people in the world who can do what I do, and I’m going for that.’ ” She got pregnant, and moved out when their daughter, Josephine—Cameron’s first child—was nine months old.

Despite living apart, Cameron and Hamilton remained a couple, and he proved to be a devoted father. “We’d have a fight at Geoffrey’s”—a surf-and-turf restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway—“and go our separate ways,” she said. “Much alcohol was consumed by Linda Hamilton.” After six years, when Cameron was making “Titanic,” they married. Hamilton was going to get scuba-certified, but the relationship unravelled too rapidly for that. “In the end, it was an eight-month marriage, and he went off with someone who’s much better suited to him,” Hamilton said. They divorced, and Cameron and Amis married shortly thereafter.

Wisher, Cameron’s old friend, says that strong women are one of the constants in Cameron’s life: “He likes to write about ’em and he likes to marry ’em. If there’s one or two themes that run through his life and work, that’s at the top of the list. That and self-determination. ‘There is no fate but what you make’—that line from ‘The Terminator.’ That’s his credo, I’m sure.”

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