Deeply Obsessed
Credit: Photograph by Chris Buck
As an adult, Cameron became a successful film director. His family had moved to the U.S. in 1971, and he studied physics at Cal State Fullerton. But he dropped out before graduating. He'd wanted to make films ever since he was a kid watching 2001: A Space Odyssey over and over and shooting amateur movies with homemade special effects on his father's super 8 camera. But he had short careers as a machinist and a truck driver before he got a job making models for low-budget exploitation filmmaker Roger Corman. He took what he learned there and established himself by writing and directing The Terminator in 1984. He developed a reputation for his potently brash, emotionally simple (and strangely romantic) effects-heavy movies – Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies – and for his forceful personality: a bullying, egocentric bighead to those who didn't like him; a focused and forceful visionary to those who did. Even during his greatest moment of triumph – Titanic's 11 Oscars at the 1998 Academy Awards ceremony, when he stepped to the podium and hollered, "I'm king of the world!" – what many saw as the understandable celebration of a talented man getting his just reward for his obsessive, glorious labors, his detractors saw as a perfect example of the gracelessness and insensitive egotism they witnessed in both his working practices and the work itself.

In the meantime, Mike Cameron forged a career in aerospace technology, but over the years his older brother would call on him to help with his film business more and more often. The movies James Cameron wanted to make always seemed to require technical innovations and inventions that made possible something or other that had never been done before, and Mike was up to that kind of challenge. One can't help thinking that it's the very essence of James Cameron's nature to want what doesn't yet exist. As he puts it: "I have a hard time finding the exact line between fantasy and reality. I don't mean in any kind of delusional sense. I just think that if something is worth thinking about, it's worth doing."

It was in 1995, when Cameron set his mind on exploring what he calls "the ultimate shipwreck," the Titanic, that the two of them took on their first major technological challenge. The ship lay about 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, 12,500 feet beneath the ocean's surface. Previously, people had filmed 35mm motion-picture footage at such depths only by shooting through the windows of submersibles. But Cameron wanted a camera outside the submersible so that he could pan it and tilt it and move it around as if it were in his hands. He approached people in the maritime community and was told it was impossible. "They seemed a little know-it-all and standoffish," he says, "and I just had this basic kind of truck driver's sense that it can't be that hard."

Mike, of course, agreed to try. They shrank the camera and then fitted it, as James says, "in a big-ass can with a really thick titanium wall" to withstand deep-sea pressure. Cameron's interest in the camera's success wasn't just financial or technical. A camera casing that imploded next to the submersible could kill them. "It would be like setting off a few sticks of dynamite right outside the window of your submersible," he explains.

He went on the first dive, two and a half hours down, the pressure slowly rising to almost 6,000 pounds per square inch. By 500 feet, it was pitch-black; the lights had to remain off to conserve battery power. The only hints of life were the occasional purple, pink, or blue iridescent trails of passing bioluminescent organisms. Cameron and two pilots sat squashed into a seven-foot sphere, heated by nothing but the craft's electronics and their body heat, condensation dripping from the walls. Down, down, down ... until, as Cameron would later recall with characteristic melodrama, they came upon the Titanic so quickly that they nearly crashed into it. The camera casing, however, was fine.

Over the next few weeks, they went down to the wreck 11 more times to get footage for the movie. Their exterior camera was encased in a large, 200-pound ROV (remote-operated vehicle) that was attached to the submersible by thick cables, meaning it couldn't roam inside the ship without running the risk of being snagged and lost.

On one of their last dives that year, however, Cameron took the risk and guided the camera inside the wreck. It couldn't go far, but it went in about 15 feet, just a little way down the grand staircase, far enough that he nearly didn't get it out again. (Most of the movie's footage of the underwater interior was shot on a set in Mexico, constructed by using the original manufacturer's detailed blueprints and a bit of imagination.)

The expedition was a success; the movie it spurred even more so. (It grossed $1.8 billion worldwide.) But that wasn't enough for James Cameron. In the back of his mind, it was driving him crazy: what he had seen down in the wreck, and what he had nearly seen. "It was dark," he remembers, "but in the dark was a deeper darkness, and just at the end of the lights you could see it." Something just out of reach of what was possible, just farther down the hall than anyone could see. "And I thought, Wouldn't it be cool to go down that hallway?"