High-powered 'True Lies' director James Cameron knows where the action is


Director James Cameron was in front of the camera, not behind it, posing for publicity shots for his new movie, "True Lies," and his assistants, for a change, were directing him. "Smile," insisted a young woman who worked makeup on his latest action epic. "You have a nice smile."

"How would you know?" Mr. Cameron good-naturedly demanded. "You've never seen it."

"Every picture of you makes you look so mean," another assistant fretted.

"The camera doesn't lie," Mr. Cameron said -- and smiled.

Mr. Cameron was clearly enjoying his reputation as a hard-nosed taskmaster; as a self-described "total, obsessive-compulsive filmmaker"; as a guy who, well, might be advised to switch to decaf. On this day, however, a week before "True Lies" opened July 15, he was positively relaxed, quick with a quip as well as with that otherwise reluctant smile.

"True Lies" operates at full throttle, particularly its final third, which easily boasts the most deliriously over-the-top action sequences of the year. This is a movie in which an island in the Florida Keys is blown up by a nuclear device -- and that's not even the finale.

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Harry Tasker, an ultra-cool super-agent who battles international terrorism by day and is a dull family man by night. His wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), is a trifle stifled by his domesticity and longs for an existence as thrilling as his true life. Naturally, she gets her wish.

"The Last Action Hero," last summer's mega-disappointment, loomed heavily over Mr. Cameron and Mr. Schwarzenegger. "We talked about how it didn't work," Mr. Cameron said, "and I felt that it was because the film was laughing at Arnold and the genre and his fans from the outside instead of laughing with it from the inside, which is what we were going to be doing."

Mr. Schwarzenegger maintained that the director inspires both trust and courage. Among the tasks that comprise just another day at Harry Tasker's office are swimming beneath flames fanning out on the water's surface, trying to coax a horse into leaping from one building to another and, in the film's most outrageous sequence, bouncing a Harrier jet -- a military jet with helicopter-style capabilities -- around the Miami skyline.

"You trust him not to lead you to the path of death," Mr. Schwarzeneg ger said. Mr. Cameron maps things out carefully, he said, but "if you screw up, no one can provide you with safety. If I say I can dive for 100 yards without breathing underwater, and if I screw up and can only go for 50 yards, I'll be burned to shreds."

Mr. Cameron and his team of effects technicians often have to get creative. His prior major-studio directing efforts -- "Aliens," "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" -- have won Oscars for their special effects. "True Lies" just might continue the trend.

"The way this film advances the state of the art is that -- I want to say this in a way that doesn't sound like I'm bragging -- our goal was to combine techniques seamlessly," Mr. Cameron said. "We didn't want to create something flashy, like the T-1000 coming out of the floor [in 'Terminator 2']. What we tried to do was [create] things that are totally invisible in the final film."

As usual when the names Cameron or Schwarzenegger are associated with a movie, the budget was pumped up -- to between $100 million and $120 million. "We spent a lot of money," Mr. Cameron said unapologetically. "It's a really good value for a $7.50 ticket. That's the way anybody would look at it."

One thing that sets Mr. Cameron apart from other action filmmakers is his meticulous attention to the composition of shots, even in stunt scenes. Mr. Cameron looks both for a spectacular thrill and a carefully sculpted image, which means difficult, nearly impossible, camera work.

hTC "The crew accuses me of intentionally making the shots hard," Mr. Cameron said with a laugh. "The key grip will come up to me and say, 'There's probably a way to make this harder, but you just haven't found it yet.' But I try to keep it challenging every single day."

It's this desire to "keep it challenging" that contributes to Mr. Cameron's legendary on-set demeanor, a take-no-prisoners management style that inspires crew T-shirts reading, "You can't scare me -- I work for Jim Cameron."

"I wouldn't call my style relaxed," Mr. Cameron said. "I walked down to [former wife] Katherine Bigelow's set, 'Strange Days,' recently, and it's like New Age filmmaking -- everybody's so calm." He laughed at the very idea, then defended himself. "I never grew up in a film culture of any kind -- I didn't go to film school, I didn't set foot on any other director's set -- I just sort of started doing it. So I've kind of evolved my own method, for good or bad."

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