Titanic was the massive winter blockbuster of 1998, cleaning up at the Academy Awards, but director James Cameron virtually disappeared from public view afterwards. Having spent the last nine years making documentaries, he's now ready to direct another movie - and what a whopper this one promises to be. James Rampton talked to the film-maker
At the 1998 Oscars, James Cameron cried: "I'm the king of the world!", echoing his leading character in Titanic. When the director picked up 11 Academy Awards and his epic netted box-office receipts of $1.8bn, he defied critics who'd predicted that the film would be sunk by a fatal combination of hubris and testosterone.
At that moment, Cameron did seem to be master of all he surveyed. After a decade of hits - The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Terminator 2 (1991) and True Lies (1994) - Titanic was merely the latest Cameron box-office behemoth to crush everything in its path.
And yet, in the following eight years, tumbleweed has blown through Cameron's movie CV. What happened to the king of the world? What has become of the director whose movies kept studio bosses in diamond-studded jacuzzis? Is he just sitting at home counting his money?
The answer is that Cameron, who hails from a remote part of Ontario, Canada, has been living up to the other famous phrase he has used to describe himself - "a nerd from Kapuskasing" - and pursuing his passion for scientific documentaries, spending a large chunk of his reputed $$50m fortune on educative factual films. His latest documentary, The Exodus Decoded, is screened on the Discovery Channel tomorrow.
The big news is that Cameron is gearing up for a grand return to movies. He has started work on Avatar, a special effects-led feature film about a human who's put in charge of an alien planet.
"I felt I'd exhausted the treasury and it was time to go back to work," Cameron says. "Avatar is a very ambitious sci-fi movie." The director's enthusiasm is evident in his voice. "It's a futuristic tale set on a planet 200 years hence. It's an old-fashioned jungle adventure with an environmental conscience. It aspires to a mythic level of storytelling."
Avatar is not entirely a new venture; Cameron wrote the screenplay 11 years ago, and it has featured on Empire magazine's list of the 12 greatest un-produced scripts in Hollywood.
"This has been a dream project of mine for more than a decade, but when I first wrote it, the technology was not advanced enough. So I stuck the script in the drawer until the technology caught up."
Now it has. "The film requires me to create an entirely new alien culture and language, and for that I want 'photo-real' CGI characters. Sophisticated enough 'performance-capture' animation technology is only coming on stream now. I've spent the last 14 months doing performance-capture work - the actor performs the character and then we animate it.
"We've set up a studio, and last week [Lord of the Rings director] Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg were here trying out the technology. I said to them, 'take my tools and play with them for a week.' They were grinning from ear to ear."
For all that, Cameron stresses that movies should ultimately be about the story. "Film-making is not about sprockets. It's about ideas, it's about images, it's about imagination, and it's about storytelling."
Now 52, the director is a grizzled figure with more than a touch of the sea dog about him. Five times married, he possesses an effortless authority. Nicknamed 'Iron Jim', he has been described as a harsh taskmaster by some colleagues. Others, however, argue that it is this very perfectionism that has helped the director to create some of the most memorable movies of the past two decades.
Cameron contends that "a director's job is to make something happen, and it doesn't happen by itself. So you wheedle, you cajole, you flatter people, you tell them what needs to be done. And if you don't bring a passion and an intensity to it, you shouldn't be doing it."
Cameron is fired up about going back to movie-making. But that does not mean he feels the last decade has been wasted - quite the contrary; he's devoted the same ardour to documentaries as he did to feature films.
The captivating factual programmes he has made include Ghosts of the Abyss and Last Mysteries of the Titanic, films that used state-of-the-art submersible technology to probe uncharted corners of the wreck of the great liner that went down after hitting an iceberg in 1912.
Cameron has also dived to the bottom of the Atlantic in the company of two German survivors to explore the remains of Hitler's flagship, the Bismarck.
The latest fruit of his enthusiasm is The Exodus Decoded. Produced by Cameron, the programme follows the presenter Simcha Jacobovici, who, after six years of archaeological research, has concluded that the Exodus described in the Bible actually happened hundreds of years earlier than previously believed.
"Simcha is brilliant at finding new evidence and making cognitive leaps that so-called experts aren't allowed to ... History is a moving target, and we should not be afraid to be provocative about it."
The Exodus Decoded is on tomorrow at 9pm on Discovery Channel.