April 21, 2021

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Sigourney Weaver and James Cameron Back in the Deep End

4 min read

James Cameron’s obsession with the ocean deep began when he was an adolescent, in rural Canada. He read National Geographic accounts of deep-sea excursions and idolized Jacques Cousteau and his crew. “They always had this great French sense of style,” he said recently. “They breathed it, quite literally, with their Aqua-Lungs. They got in their silver wetsuits and went exploring. It was like a science-fiction movie. I said, ‘I need to do that.’ ” The problem: he lived five hundred kilometres from the nearest ocean. He begged his father to find him a scuba course, and, one winter, he crossed into Buffalo to join a nighttime Y.M.C.A. class. “It was all adults, and I was this skinny sixteen-year-old,” he recalled. “It was hard-core.”

Sigourney Weaver and James CameronIllustration by João Fazenda

Eventually, Cameron’s aquanaut tendencies bled into his movie career. He filmed his 1989 underwater thriller, “The Abyss,” in a seven-million-gallon containment vessel at an abandoned nuclear plant. In 1995, he made twelve dives to explore the wreckage of the Titanic, taking footage that appeared in his world-conquering hit film. In 2012, he became the first solo visitor to reach the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the planet’s lowest point, in the Mariana Trench. (After the multimillionaire explorer Victor Vescovo claimed to have gone deeper, two years ago, Cameron pushed back, saying the seabed there is flat.)

His latest fascination: whales. As an explorer-at-large at National Geographic, Cameron executive-produced “Secrets of the Whales,” a docuseries premièring on Disney+ on Earth Day. “Whales are very alien to us, but when you start studying them you realize how much we have in common,” he said. He was joined, on Zoom, by his frequent collaborator Sigourney Weaver, who had supplied the show’s voice-over. Neither physically entered the world of the whales; the series was shot by some twenty wildlife cinematographers, who spent three years getting up close to whales in twenty-four locations, including the Antarctic, Norway, and the Azores. But both had been whale-watching, and Weaver once had an encounter with thirty bottlenose dolphins, which swam up to her while she was snorkeling in Hawaii. “I wrote to Jim afterward,” she recalled. “I remember what you said: ‘The ocean gave you a gift.’ ”

Both found whales easy to relate to. Like Cameron, they’re hitmakers. “You’ve got these male humpbacks off Western Australia that get together and cook up the song for the year,” he said. “And other whales around the entire Southern Hemisphere sing that exact song. That’s not just culture—that’s pop culture. That’s the Beatles, right?” One episode captures a whale in Patagonia teaching her granddaughter how to pull off a risky hunting move. “I equated it to driving lessons for my son,” Cameron continued. “They must be communicating with language on a high enough order that they can conceptualize the future: ‘If this happens, do this.’ ”

“The point is made, too, with the belugas and the humpbacks,” Weaver said, describing another sequence. “The mother has this special cry to call the young one. As a mother, I thought, Wow, if we could have a sound that we could send out into the universe that would call back our child—”

“—It’s called a text,” Cameron said. They recalled a mating scene, reminiscent of an Elvis concert, in which a male sperm whale swims into a group of females. “The male is ready, he is unsheathed, and he’s ready to party,” Weaver said, blushing. “I just thought, My goodness!”

“The more you look into evolutionary biology,” Cameron said, “the more you realize that the males are just these ridiculous creatures that grow giant antlers or big red snouts or whatever it is to impress the ladies, and it’s the ladies who figure out who’s going to get some.”

Weaver seemed pleased by this assessment. (She taped her voice-over in New York, where her assistant constructed a “cave made out of clothes” to muffle the construction noise outside.) The two first met in the mid-eighties, when Cameron was hired to write and direct “Aliens,” another tale of interspecies encounters, and had to persuade Weaver to revive her butt-kicking character, Ripley. “I was petrified—plus, I’d read that you were six feet tall,” Cameron recalled. “When we were all set to start shooting, you tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m an anti-gun lobbyist, and I can’t fire a machine gun.’ ”

“Rewrite, please!” Weaver said, laughing.

“We went out in the back lot and gave you a .45-calibre Thompson submachine gun, the old mobster kind, and you fired it,” Cameron said. “I thought, All right, we’re going to be O.K.” More recently, the two spent eighteen months in L.A., shooting motion-capture scenes for “Avatar 2.” Before the pandemic hit, Cameron had been shooting in New Zealand, and he lobbied the government to let him continue his operations in Wellington, where he is now in postproduction. Weaver was calling from California, meaning that Cameron was twenty hours ahead. “I’m living in the future,” he said. “If you want to know what happens tomorrow, just ask me.” ♦

Michael Schulman
2021-04-05 06:00:00

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