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[NOTE: This interview with James Cameron is from Omni Magazine. The interview was part of a section of articles/interviews about James Cameron and his films, authored by Bill Moseley. The interview was titled "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: An Interview with James Cameron", published in Omni magazine, 1998. The original source URL was:, although that address has become permanently invalid. An apparently permanent alternative URL where this material is posted is:

The interview page appears to be temporarily inaccessible. It has been archived here until the original source is accessible.]

An Interview with James Cameron

20,000 Leagues
Under the Sea

The Movie Director as Captain Nemo

Out of the Primordial Soup:
The Director's Genesis

James Francis Cameron was born in 1954 in Kapuskasing, Ontario, a little town just north of Niagara Falls. His father was an electrical engineer for a local paper mill, his mother an artist. According to many accounts, Cameron early on exhibited the signs of a resourceful, driven, even vindictive personality. When a neighborhood youth stole some of Jim's toys, Jim and younger brother Mike sawed through the limb supporting the boy's tree house. The next time the kid climbed in, down it crashed!

The family moved to Brea, CA, in 1971. Jim attended Fullerton College, studied Physics and English, dropped out, got married and drove a truck for the local school district. His turning point came when a friend who was pitching film ideas to a consortium of rich Mormon dentists invited Jim to take the mound. Jim delighted the tooth doctors with a Star Wars-like SF script that could be done for $400,000. So he quit his day job and went to work learning the art and craft of making movies, plundering libraries for information, sculpting his own models, building his own dolly tracks at home.

Cameron completed enough of the 35-millimeter short to use it in 1980 to get in the door of Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Within a couple of weeks Cameron was hard at work on the feature Battle Beyond the Stars, wearing the hats of miniature builder, model unit DP (director of photography) and matte painter. On Corman's Galaxy of Terror, he got the chance as Second Unit Director to direct some dialogue scenes with the principal cast and found his calling.

Pirhana II: The Spawning marked Cameron's full-dress directorial debut. When the Italian producer fired him off the picture after principal photography was completed, Cameron flew to Rome, broke into the editing room after hours and re-cut the movie the way he wanted it. It was in his Rome hotel that Cameron awoke from a fever dream of a robot killer from the future, unable to walk, dragging itself by a knife along the floor as it chased its wounded female prey. This horrific image spawned The Terminator, which he wrote in 1982 after returning to Los Angeles. It took two years of starvation and persistence for Cameron to find the financing to direct The Terminator, not so easy for someone with only flying pirhanas to his credit. In the meantime, during a three-month period, he co-wrote Rambo: First Blood Part II with Stallone and the first draft of Aliens, the sequel to Alien, Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece of claustrophobia. Finally in 1984, armed with $6 million from Hemdale and HBO, and a distribution deal with Orion, Cameron shot The Terminator, the first stop for him and star Arnold Schwarzenegger on their way to becoming gods of the action/adventure genre.

The Terminator was followed by Aliens in 1986, one of the highest-grossing R-rated films of all time. The Abyss, released in 1989, took 18 grueling months to complete. Most of the underwater scenes were filmed in two reactor vessels of an unfinished nuclear power plant in South Carolina. The Academy Award-winning special effects in The Abyss, provided by Dennis Muren and the gang at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), set the stage for the CG (computer graphics) breakthroughs of Cameron's next picture, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released in 1991. In 1993, Cameron formed Digital Domain, a visual effects and digital production studio, with Jurassic Park and T2 model maker Stan Winston, former ILM executive Scott Ross, and a little computer company called IBM.

How Jim Became A Film Maker

Omni: What was your major at Fullerton (CA) Junior College?

Cameron: Physics and English. I didn't know what the hell I wanted to do -- for awhile to be a scientist. I studied physics for a couple of semesters and did pretty well. But I knew that my barrier to excellence was math. I just didn't have a really good mind for higher level math. Calculus was the first time that I ever hadn't gotten an A. I knew that I was running up against a wall, that I was probably better at other things, although I had no problem at all with the abstract concepts of physics.

Omni: What were some of the concepts that fired your imagination?

Cameron: You grow up with a Newtonian concept of reality, and until you study physics, you don't know that there's a whole other way of looking at the fabric of the universe, the nature of time. It was like real science fiction. In a way, it was more interesting. I finally understood the Theory of Relativity. We had a special weekend session where the instructor walked us through the whole formula, from one end of the blackboard to the other. And I got it. It was about the nature of reality. Growing up in the 60's, you tend to question the nature of reality anyway. I'd always questioned authority; now I was questioning Newton. Funny thing is, everything I learned in 1972 is now obsolete or has at least been amended by several generations of thought. New particles have been discovered, new theories.

Omni: What made you decide to be a filmmaker?

Cameron: I was in a small group of people who went to see every single science fiction film. When Star Wars came out, everybody wanted to catch that wave, but nobody knew how to do it. There was a group of guys who wanted to make a low-budget movie as a tax shelter. A friend of mine got involved with them pitching ideas like The Sorority Massacre type stuff. He called me up and said, hey, have you got any ideas. I said. yeah, I've got a couple.

I had one science fiction idea that could be done kind of low budget but still be grandiose. The investment group jumped on it. They wanted to do Star Wars. Of course, they didn't want to spend that kind of money; they wanted to spend $400,000. We were game; we had nothing to lose. We shot some test shots in 16-millimeter and put together a little demo film. They liked that. Then they gave us another $20,000 to do a teaser that was meant to be part of a proposal to raise more money from a group of general partners. We shot a twelve-minute film with a lot of animation, visual effects, matte paintings. We taught ourselves how to do it. For me, that was really the transition to being a filmmaker. To do that I had to quit my job driving a truck and work on that all the time.

That project didn't really pan out into anything. But it got my foot part way in the door in Hollywood, if you can call Roger Corman's filmmaking environment Hollywood. It's really not. That was the best possible place for me. I can't imagine moving as quickly as I did if I hadn't gone directly into that kind of environment. I don't even know where that is anymore. It may not exist in this country. I know Roger's still doing it.

In 1980, Roger was doing the most expensive film he'd ever made, Battle Beyond the Stars. I got sucked into that vortex. It was totally out of control. This was a film where nobody knew what was going on. Nobody in Corman's outfit had ever made a film remotely that size. They didn't understand visual effects. The visual effects people who understood what they were doing didn't know what a general production was all about. Nobody was talking to anybody; it was complete chaos.

I found I did pretty well in a chaotic environment. I could manipulate the situation to position myself to A) learn what I needed to learn, B) do what I wanted to do, and C) advance to the next level. If they gave me the credits I should have gotten on that picture, I would have gotten five or six. I did matte paintings, was a visual effects cameraman, ran my own visual effects motion control unit, designed and built three-quarters of the sets as art director. I was a model builder and designed and built a front projection system. I operated it on the first day of shooting, then turned it over to some other people and went on to be the art director. I was skipping from one job to another.

Thanks to Battle Beyond the Stars, Roger had inadvertently built a visual effects facility. He had motion control cameras, all this junk lying around, and these stages...and then the movie was over. Everybody had their noses to the grindstone. A week or so before Battle ended, it occurred to me that we were all going to be out of a job. But there was this opportunity. At a party, I met Joe Alves, Spielberg's production designer on Jaws. Joe was working with [director] John Carpenter; they were looking for a visual effects facility. I said come on down to the facility. I'll bet we can underbid everybody. We're hungry, we've got nothing else to do, the place'll be empty in a week. I was selling Roger's place, and Roger didn't even know about it.

Joe brought Carpenter and [producer] Debra Hill. They had 25 shots that needed to be done for Escape from New York. So we just smoothed right in. Suddenly Roger had a viable enterprise on the side that he could keep alive using other people's money until he needed it again. The timing was perfect: We were just finishing Escape from New York, and Roger was getting ready to go on to his next science fiction film, Galaxy of Terror. Originally, the script was called Planet of Horror. Roger knew he'd never be able to cast it with that name, so he put it out under a cover called The Quest, then changed it later to whatever title tested the best as being the most horrific.

He had a couple of titles: Mindwarp and Infinity of Terror. The film actually went out as Mindwarp: The Infinity of Terror for test screenings or a limited release in the Seattle area. It didn't do too well. Roger always attributes that to the poster being wrong or the title being wrong. He knows that his films aren't in the market long enough for word-of-mouth to be a factor. If the title and poster are working, he's selling tickets. I remembered the lesson of the Corman-style campaign which had nothing to do with the movie. A year or so later, having written Terminator, waiting, waiting, waiting to get that picture started, I was starving and had to take some work. I worked as an illustrator doing posters for movies that were pure and utter cheese. They were so bad that most of them were direct-to-video. I couldn't watch them they were so bad.

Omni: Were they Corman movies?

Cameron: No, much worse. Corman movies I could watch; they were always entertaining. The hangnails were part of the fun. These films were dreadful. They were for a couple of very small independent releasing companies that I think are now out of business. They paid pretty well. I could knock out a one-sheet painting in a day, day and a half and make a couple of grand for it. At my subsistence level lifestyle at the time, I could live for two months on that. I'd work for two days and write for two months. I couldn't watch the film, so I'd just make up anything. I'd just riff on the titles. There was some horrible karate movie, and I did a Road Warrior thing of one guy kicking another off a motorcycle. There was no scene like that in the movie.

Omni: You mentioned the Corman "hangnails." By that do you mean dangling cords, microphone shadows, zippers in the monsters' costumes?

Cameron: Actually there wasn't a whole lot of that. The funny thing was, there was a real technical esprit de corps on the two Corman films I worked on. People didn't like there to be obvious mistakes. But there was a limit to how good something could be, how good the acting was when you only got one or two takes and no rehearsal. The threadbare nature of the coverage and what we had to work with made it interesting.

Omni: The release version of The Abyss was two hours and 20 minutes; the Special Edition was three hours. About half of what you put back is character development -- bits and pieces, the relationship between the two main characters. Another 20 minutes is the subplot leading up to nuclear confrontation and the NTIs' (non-terrestrial intelligence) resolution of that with the wave. Was the wave sequence -- which was cut from the theatrical version of the movie, but available on Special Edition on laser disc or cassette -- really inspired by a dream you had?

Cameron: I used to always dream about tidal waves. I don't know if it's a Jungian thing; I haven't researched it. Waves are rather good metaphors, which is probably why I was attracted to [rewriting the Kathryn Bigelow feature] Point Break, even though I don't surf. It was called Johnny Utah originally; there were nine drafts of the script floating around. The idea of surfing and the psychology of that was very interesting to me.

Waves are fascinating, especially if you've studied physics. Once the energy has been expended to displace the wave, the wave can't be stopped. If you've ever spent any time in big waves, you know that the human body is nothing compared to a mass of water being moved around. Waves struck me as a good metaphor for death.

Omni: I loved the way the wave continued to glisten and roil even as it was frozen 2000 feet above the cities it threatened.

Cameron: That was critical because if you thought it was just a big still frame, a Bewitched -- as in the '60s sitcom -- freeze frame, it wouldn't have had any real power. The idea that it was still living water suspended was a much more powerful and surreal image. Truthfully, when we made the film in 1989 we couldn't quite get that. There was one critical shot, where the wave actually stops at the moment it's about to come crashing down. There was no way we could sell that idea with the technology we had then.

A couple of years later we went back and finished the film. We didn't add a shot; we merely took that shot and did it using computer modeling, creating a CG [computer graphics] water surface. We had done CG water in The Abyss but not in that scene.

Omni: You used CG with the pseudopod, the water tentacle that snakes through the corridors of the undersea oil workers' quarters.

Cameron: That was a whole different scale. It was much more computationally intensive and took longer to render water on the scale of a wave of that size, to shade it properly and integrate it with photographic effects of mist and sky. I did some math on it, and a 2000-foot high tidal wave, moving at the speed such energy propagates through water, would displace the air in front of it so rapidly that there would be a supersonic shock wave going over the top of the wave which would atomize the water and leave a trail of vapor behind it that would stretch for several miles. It would be quite impressive, but there's no way to do that.

Omni: So you went back to The Abyss two years later to work on that effect for the Special Edition laser disc?

Cameron: We'd had good success with the Special Edition of Aliens. When I did The Abyss, I didn't think there'd be a Special Edition; I just got busy and did Terminator 2.

After T2, I didn't go right into another film. We took the time to structure Lightstorm [Cameron's production company], make foreign distribution deals, toy and ancillary rights deals. We were building a company and a digital effects studio [Digital Domain] at the same time, at least on paper. I was very ambivalent about a Special Edition of The Abyss. A lot of people were curious about the wave scene, but I felt that we'd made a decision to go a certain way for the release. Why second guess that? It seemed like a no-win proposition. If putting all that footage back in made The Abyss a better movie, then what a dolt, why didn't you release that film? If it's worse, what's the point of the whole exercise?

I said if we're going to do it, the only thing that would make it exciting for me is if we do it on film. I want to finish it on film. When we did Aliens, we did all our finish work on video resolution; there was no film. There is no print of the long version of Aliens; it never went back to film. It was about the video, the laserdisc release, that's what'll pay for it; but let's make a couple of prints, stick them in theatres, and see if we can attract some critical attention to the film in its three-hour version.

20th Century Fox was not crazy about the idea. On paper it looked like it would be a wash between what it cost to do and what we would make off the laser disc. I said fine, you're not going to lose any money, it's all my energy, so write the check and let's just do it. So we did. It cost about $300,000. Fortunately, The Abyss Special Edition sold very well; we actually made a profit, although that wasn't the goal.

People have criticized this kind of alternate reality versions of films as being an attempt to squeeze the last drop of blood out of a turnip. The Abyss project was pretty high-minded because we didn't go into it thinking that we were going to make any money. If we broke even, we'd be happy.

Cutting the Wave Sequence

Omni: The Special Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind seemed to contain nothing more than a few pieces of footage cut from the original.

Cameron: Close Encounters was the model for subsequent Special Editions: let's go back and cut the film differently, add some stuff that wasn't finished and release it again theatrically. It was an interesting idea. I personally thought that it wasn't a better film. There was a certain kind of religious awe at the end of the original version of the film that was demystified in the Special Edition by going inside the saucer and seeing all the aliens. I thought that was a mistake, and with The Abyss, I didn't want to set myself up for the same criticism.

What I'm still not clear on -- and I'm sure fans of Close Encounters know -- was how much of the Special Edition was footage Steven [Spielberg] had actually shot [and left out] and how much of it was stuff he'd intended to shoot, hadn't and went back to shoot later. To me, that gets into a strange zone of revisionism I think is unhealthy. When we restored The Abyss, we had some of those ethical considerations, but they were very minor. Basically, we only put back scenes that I'd done, that were in the script, on the call list, that we had shot to be in the film and had taken out only to release it at what we thought was a commercially viable length.

Omni: Who made the decision to cut back The Abyss from its original length to the shorter version you released theatrically?

Cameron: It would be very easy to blame the studio because they always believe that shorter is better; the exhibitors do, too. The exhibitors have very few moving parts to them. They know exactly what they want, which is a two-hour movie that gets people lining up around the block. My argument was: you might have a two-and-a-half-hour movie that gets people lining up around the block, but you take out half an hour, they might stay home because the film might not work. You never get to do it both ways to prove that point.

There was a lot of pressure from the studio. [Then Fox studio head] Barry Diller was up front about it; he said, look, this is too much movie for an '80s audience. Ultimately the responsibility was mine because I did have final cut. I could have stuck to my guns and put out a three-hour film. It would have pissed people off and arguably not made as much money, but who knows?

Dances with Wolves hadn't come out yet; no one had put a three-hour film into the marketplace in 15 years that had been a commercial success. It was a business decision. I wanted to make my key dramatic points and have the film be a hit. I don't think that there's anything inherently wrong with that. If I had it to do over again, I probably would have done something halfway in between the version we released and the long version.

When we originally tested The Abyss, the Wave Sequence wasn't finished. The test audiences were very intolerant of imagery that outrageous that wasn't 100 percent there. You can accept an effects shot that's 80 percent completed if it doesn't challenge your fundamental vision of reality. But if it does challenge it, the effect had better be more real than real because it creates a cognitive dissonance between what you know and what you're seeing. That was the first time I'd used the testing process.

Omni: Do you mean taking an audience poll, having them fill out questionaires after they've seen a screening?

Cameron: Yes. It's a tool, like a bandsaw. You need a bandsaw to build a house, but you can also cut your hand off with it if you don't know what you're doing. The moral of the story is that test marketing has to be handled a certain way, and the data that's retrieved from them has to be analyzed a certain way in order to be of any value at all.

Drawing the right conclusions from the answers is the critical part. There's always a danger for the filmmaker that there'll be an hysterical reaction. We took the film to Dallas, which is probably not the best place to be screening The Abyss. We screened the longer, Wave-included version, and it did not fly. There was no joy in Muddville. We were sitting around the suite, eating shrimp cocktail, wondering what are we going to do about this.

The subsequent restructuring and tightening brought the scores up enormously. Remember, too, that the Special Edition that we did never existed previously. We didn't even have the benefit of it when we were cutting. You don't have the music; you haven't mixed the scenes; the visual effects aren't done. You're making knee-jerk decisions without benefit of a lot of things you don't know yet. As it turned out, the scripted vision of the film was pretty damn viable. I don't know anybody who's seen both versions that doesn't like the longer version better even though it's an extra 40 minutes. You're more engrossed, more involved; it all seems to mean something.

Omni: When did you happen upon the Friedrich Nietzsche quote you use to open the screenplay: "If you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss starts to stare into you"?

Cameron: That's the movie. You go into the deepest, darkest part of the ocean to confront the monster, and the monster is you. You go down to confront the aliens, and all they do is hold up a mirror and show you how fucked up you are.

Omni: Yep.

Breathing Under Water

Omni: What about the fluid breathing system you used? You got the idea from a journal called Undersea Biomedical Research?

Cameron: I had a direct experience with the only human being who's ever breathed liquid. I met him when I was 17. I was one of these kids in high school who was kind of a punk, what we called anti-establishment back in 1969. I didn't get along too well with anybody in school, but was a science whiz at my high school. I was put in a seminar program for high school students at the local university in Buffalo, NY. One week there was a film on childbirth, which to me was the original splatter movie [laughs]. Another time it was a guy who was a commercial diver, not a scientist, who was essentially a guinea pig. He had slides and a film of various fluid breathing experiments conducted by a Dutch scientist named Johannes Kylstra.

I was 16 at the time and avidly read science fiction. And here was hydrosphere, something as exciting as space travel -- in inner space. Kylstra was doing experiments using oxygenated saline raised to the body temperature of rats, getting rats to breathe this solution. He hadn't even discovered the oxygenated fluorocarbon material that was used later. That was far more effective than the saline; it bonded with oxygen 20 times more efficiently so the oxygen transfer was better.

This poor diver -- I think his name was Frank Falechek -- had volunteered for Kylstra's experiment. Frank got that oxygenated saline in both lungs, and he wasn't getting enough O2 [oxygen]. He started to have a hard time with the physical pressure on the diaphragm from breathing a medium 800 times denser than air! He had an anxiety attack, and they had to pump him out there on the operating table.

The experiment proved the viablility of the concept. Later Kylstra found the fluorocarbon medium that was 20 times better than the saline, but it was not approved by the FDA for internal use. He was never able to experiment on humans although he and a number of other researchers did a tremendous amount of work on dogs and chimpanzees. Kylstra and company conducted some potentially inhumane experiments. They would compress the animals [their lungs full of oxygenated fluorocarbon fluid] down to 200 atmospheres, the equivalent of going down 2000 feet in the ocean, and then they'd release the pressure. If you did that to anybody who was breathing any kind of gas, they would literally explode --- like shaking up a Coke and popping the top; it would just fizz all over the walls. But the animals survived, proving that the transfer of metabolic gas, which is really oxygen and CO2 coming out, can be accomplished very effectively with fluid.

I went home from seeing Frank Falechek, and I wrote a story called The Abyss. It was about a research facility 2000 feet down, perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Cayman Trench. I liked the juxtaposition of a tropical resort island five miles away, people sunning themselves on the beach in Grand Cayman, and just a few miles away is one of the deepest spots on the planet. We know less about it than we know about Pluto.

I didn't get very far. I wrote maybe 20 pages. It was going to end with one of the scientists going down the wall to see what was there, going deeper and deeper. The story was about rapture of the deep, of going into the darkness.

Omni: Were there aliens in your story?

Cameron: No, it was purely psychological. People were making forays down the wall and not coming back. The remaining scientists thought maybe there was some predator down there or something was wrong with the equipment. They checked everything 50 times. They kept sending people down to rescue the ones who were missing until there was just one guy left. The story ends with the last guy making his descent to find out what the hell happened to the others. That's the way a scientist would do it: I gotta know; it's more important than my life to find out what happened.

Many years later I was in Grand Cayman. There was a little company there that would give you a ride in a research submersible they'd purchased. For $500 you could go down into the Cayman Trough. It was a three-person craft, a pilot and two passengers. You sat right on the floor of this tin can, and it had an observation bubble in the front. We went around a shipwreck that was sitting at about 900 feet, stuck on the wall, just like the sub in The Abyss. After we'd made that dive, I resurrected my story and used it as the nucleus for a far more complex, feature-length idea.

Rats & the Hyperbaric Physiologist

Omni: How did you shoot the sequence in The Abyss of the pet rat slowly accepting liquid into its lungs?

Cameron We just did it. It's the fall of 1987; I'd met Frank Felachek -- I don't know if he's still alive -- I've written The Abyss, proposed it to the studios; we're funded, we're in pre-production, and I think, maybe I should call these scientists. I pulled all the research I could find, and the same guy's name kept coming up: Kylstra, Kylstra, Kylstra.

I called him up at Duke. I said, I'd like to meet you; I'm doing a movie that contains a significant cinematic treatment of your work. He was skeptical, but I talked him into it. I went to meet him; I also met Peter Bennett, the world's leading hyperbaric physiologist. He's done pressure chamber tests taking people breathing exotic gas mixtures down to the equivalent of 2400 feet, which is pretty much what the people in The Abyss are supposed to be doing. I just downloaded from both those guys.

Kylstra told me how to do it with the rat. I told him I wanted to duplicate the experiment I'd seen in the science film 17 years ago, but could I do it with a real rat? He said it was easy. He told me what to get, how to heat the stuff, how to do the rat. When they did the experiment, they taped the rat's feet down. When the fluid went up, the rat would tip his head back and the air would exhaust from his lungs fairly quickly. There was no way on film I could justify that kind of elaborate preparation, so we just plopped him in the stuff. The rat was probably a little more panicky than Kylstra's lab rats.

What you see is a rat breathing a liquid. There are no tricks, no special effects of any kind. The only thing we did to fudge it was to put a little pink dye in the stuff so it wouldn't just look like water. That was necessary for the later scene where Ed Harris' helmet fills up. We had two kinds of helmets: one used in air for the scene where his helmet really fills with liquid; another helmet we used underwater that had a face plate that would pop open so that Ed could be fed with an air regulator. We tinted the face plate of that one, and we allowed the water from the environment to go into the helmet, then closed the face plate. We told the audience that the fluid inside the helmet was pink in an earlier scene, and then what we really had was a pink face plate and tank water inside the helmet for all the scenes where he's submerged. That illusion worked pretty well.

Diving in a Nuclear Reactor, or, How The Director Could Have Drowned

Omni: In many of your movies, there's a nuclear theme: nuclear weapons, explosions, Judgement Day. How did it feel to shoot much of the underwater sequences of The Abyss in a flooded containment tank and reactor vessel of an unfinished nuclear power plant in South Carolina?

Cameron: I'm not vehemently antinuclear in terms of the use of nuclear power. I really don't care much about it one way or the other. I think it's a wash at this point, its danger versus its benefits.

All my films, at some level, are about the uses and misuses of technology: how the tool can become a weapon, and the technology to build a weapon can be a tool. Here we were doing a film, that at its core was about the threat of nuclear war, in the ploughshare version of the same technology. It had nothing to do with us being there in South Carolina. We were just looking for a big tumbler to fill with water.

Omni: Had that plant ever gone on-line?

Cameron: Oh, no. The nuclear reactor vessel was sitting in a nearby field. It had no fuel rods in it; it was the actual capsule of the reactor itself. It looked like a big old steam boiler. It had all these flange fittings hooked up to nothing; it was all capped off and rusting. You could probably sandblast it and getting it going, but I don't think anybody'd want an old rusted reactor. The containment building of the first of the three reactors was two-thirds finished. They never put the dome on it. What we had was a giant cylinder, 210 feet in diameter, 100 feet deep. We filled it about 55 feet deep.

Omni: How many atmospheres would that be at the bottom of the water?

Cameron: At 55 feet, you're not quite two atmospheres. You're getting into decompression if you work more than an hour or so at that depth. We were diving between five and ten hours a day, depending on the scene. We had 20-25 people in wet suits on scuba. I wore a wet suit and a helmet so I could talk to everyone. The actors were wearing helmets and simulated dry suits. They were supposed to look like dry suits, but we didn't want them to have to deal with the buoyancy issues of true dry suits, so we actually made wet suits that looked like dry suits. The actors were usually kept out of the water until the last minute. We'd light the scene, we'd set it up, we'd rehearse it with doubles, then we'd ask the actors to join us. We'd shoot the shot for 30-45 minutes, then we'd take the actors back to the surface. We'd stay down to work on the next shot for another two hours, then ask them to come and join us again. We were logging ten hours a day; the actors were logging two hours.

Omni: So the actors never had to decompress?

Cameron: Oh, no. Every single person in the water had a dive computer, and the actors' dive computers were double-checked by a safety diver who was with them every two minutes. I wanted the actors to think about their characters, not about having to stay alive, so every actor in the water had a guardian angel hovering over them at all times just out of view. I forgot to give myself a guardian angel. One time I did run out of air in my helmet and had to bail out of my equipment. Pretty messy.

Omni: Did you have to strip it off underwater?

Cameron: The helmet weighs 32 pounds and is neutrally buoyant in water because it's got air trapped inside it. But if you run out of air, you have to remove it to get to another air supply. When you take it off underwater, you can't see anything. Once the helmet's lost its air bubble, it weighs 32 pounds and is connected to your back by a steel cable. I also wore ankle and waist weights so I was negatively buoyant: I could walk around, move the camera, line up shots. When I ran out of air, I was about 45 pounds negative. Nobody could swim to the surface with that much weight and no fins. If you had fins, you might be able to power to the surface, but without fins you're dead in the water.

I knew that before I took off my helmet. I knew that I had to solve the problem 35 feet down standing on the bottom. I'd wasted a lot of time trying verbally to get the attention of other divers down there; I was also trying to conserve my air. By the time the other divers twigged it, I was already getting out of my stuff. I went back five minutes later to set up the next shot.

Omni: Sounds like you almost tried a little fluid breathing yourself.

Cameron: Everybody there knew it was a movie about somebody being brought back from a near-drowning experience. They'd probably push pretty hard before they would give up on you.