In the summer of 1977, James Cameron, like lots of other people that year, went to the cinema and watched Star Wars. But unlike so many others, Cameron didn’t feel elation as the room went dark and the first space ship soared overhead – he felt a shiver of mild panic.
“My reaction to it was not, ‘Oh, wow, that’s cool. I want to see more,'” he later recalled. “It was, ‘Oh wow, I better get off my butt because somebody is doing this stuff, you know, and they’re beating me to it.'”
Within one year, the 24-year-old Cameron had borrowed some money from a consortium of dentists looking for a tax break, and with it, made the short film Xenogenesis. That film and its title (which could be translated as ‘alien birth) were appropriate, given the effect it had on Cameron’s career; its imaginative special effects landed the young filmmaker a job at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, where he worked on the effects for such cult films as Battle Beyond The Stars (1980) and Galaxy Of Terror (1981).
Following a brief stint on the set of 1981’s Piranha II: The Spawning (he was fired by producer Ovidio Assonitis within less than three weeks), Cameron wrote the three screenplays which would shape his future as a filmmaker: Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Terminator, and Aliens. All three would become hits; the Rambo sequel, although heavily rewritten, was a box office success for Sylvester Stallone. The Terminator (1984), featured a star-making turn from Arnold Schwarzenegger, launched a long-running franchise, and cemented Cameron’s status as a young director with promise. Aliens (1986) was another hit; a fruition of the sci-fi ideas the director explored in Xenogenesis, and a demonstration of what he could do with an expanded budget.
After those career-making successes, Cameron made The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), which was written by his old friend and Xenogenesis star William Wisher, True Lies (1994), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009).
Although far from the most prolific director in Hollywood, the success of his films has given him the creative latitude most moviemakers can only dream of. But like any director, Cameron’s had his fair share of projects that, for a variety of reasons, were either abandoned or never quite came together. Here’s a look at the ones we currently know about.
With Aliens proving to be such a critical and financial success in 1986, you’d be forgiven for thinking that 20th Century Fox would have done just about anything to get Cameron back for a second sequel. As we already explored in our piece on Alien 3‘s unused story ideas, Cameron had a few of his own ideas as to how another Alien sequel should pan out.
“I know that James Cameron had planned to have Hicks, Ripley and me in Alien 3,” Newt actress Carrie Henn recalled in 1995, “to have a family-type thing.”
Within a year of finishing Aliens, however, Cameron had clearly lost interest in pursuing Ripley’s fight with the xenomorphs any further. “Gale Hurd, the producer of Aliens, and myself have decided to move on to other things and leave a third film to others,” Cameron wrote in 1987.
Instead, Cameron went on to make the undersea sci-fi thriller The Abyss, a film with the claustrophobia of Aliens and the awestruck wonderment of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. But while Cameron seemed reluctant to direct another film in the Alien saga, he was still tempted to return to the franchise in some creative capacity.
In an AMA session on Reddit, Cameron recalled that, around the late 80s, Fox were trying to put together a project that would have seen Ridley Scott direct a fifth Alien film, with Cameron serving as writer and producer.
“I don’t remember the timing exactly, but I might have been making The Abyss at that time, also for Fox,” Cameron wrote. “What came up was the idea of doing Alien 5, and at one point I pitched that I would write it and produce it, and Ridley would direct it, and we had lunch talking about this, and we were in violent agreement, then nothing happened.”
As recently as 2003, Cameron was still expressing his interest in making another Alien movie – if only to right the correct the things he disliked about Alien 3. “It stunk, but hopefully I’ll get a chance to rectify all that,” the director said. “We’re looking at doing another one. Something similar to what we did with Aliens. A bunch of great characters, and of course Sigourney. I’ve even discussed the possibility of putting [Arnold Schwarzenegger] into the Alien movie.”
Then Alien Vs Predator happened – a project which both Ridley Scott and Cameron thoroughly disliked. “I said ‘I really don’t recommend that, you’ll ruin the franchise, it’s like Universal doing Dracula versus the Werewolf,’ and then I lost interest in doing an Alien film.”
Once again, Cameron ploughed on with his own sci-fi project: a little environmental film he’d been working away on called Avatar.
Like Aliens, Terminator 2 was such a huge success that it might seem strange that Cameron didn’t continue the saga himself. The problem was that Cameron had agreed to sell the intellectual rights to The Terminator in order to get the job of directing it. In fact, Cameron even considering the possibility of buying back the rights to the Terminator franchise back in the 90s.
“There was a point in time where I debated going after the fights,” Cameron revealed. “Carolco Pictures was failing and in bankruptcy, and the rights were in play. I talked briefly with 20th Century Fox about it.”
According to a 1997 article in Variety, Fox had spent nine months in negotiations that would have seen Cameron direct a third Terminator, with Arnold Schwarzenegger returning as its star and Gale Anne Hurd returning as producer. But with concerns rising over the mounting costs of Titanic, and Cameron’s decreasing interests in returning to the franchise, the deal never happened.
“I just felt as a filmmaker, maybe I’ve gone beyond it,” Cameron said. “I felt like I’d told the story I wanted to tell.”
More recently, Cameron has, however, been on hand to advise the makers of the forthcoming Terminator: Genisys – he came up with the idea of having Schwarzenegger return as an ageing T-800, for example. But he also dropped a hint that he may one day return to The Terminator – perhaps when the rights to the franchise eventually revert to Cameron in 2019, 35 years after he originally sold them.
“I’ve got plenty of time to think about it,” Cameron told Empire Magazine last year. “It might be fun to completely reinvent the franchise.”
The Crowded Room
Having completed Terminator 2 in 1991, Cameron began looking for a smaller project that could provide a different outlet for his abilities as a director. He became intrigued by a book by Daniel Keyes, The Minds Of Billy Milligan, which told the true story of an Ohio rapist who was arrested in 1975 and subsequently diagnosed with multiple personality disorder.
“To do all those characters and externalise the drama that was playing out in that guy’s head would have been as big a challenge, in its own way, as making The Abyss,” the director said, according to Rebecca Keegan’s book, The Futurist: The Life And Films Of James Cameron.
Cameron duly bought the rights to Keyes’ book from an independent producer named Sandy Arcara. With a lucrative deal recently put in place with Fox, which gave Cameron unprecedented freedom to make whatever he liked, the director co-wrote a screenplay with Todd Graff – the actor who’d played Alan ‘Hippy’ Carnes in The Abyss. Their script was called The Crowded Room.
Everything seemed to be going well – John Cusack was being courted to play the lead, and $11m had been set aside for its budget – when suddenly, the project hit an unexpected road bump. Sandy Arcara sued Cameron because she wanted her fee to be increased from $250,000 to $1.5million. Then, in 1993, the film’s subject Billy Milligan tried to sue Cameron and Arcara for $9million because they “delayed a proposed film about his life.”
Sensing that his intimate thriller project was spiralling out of control, Cameron eventually departed. Of the project, Cameron later said, “[Arcara] turned out to be someone I couldn’t work with and who felt that they couldn’t work with me. I sort of didn’t want to tell his story anymore, you know?”
Other attempts were made by Warner Bros to get The Crowded Room going with other directors, but, as of the time of writing, the thriller hasn’t made any obvious progress.
The Crowded Room is, perhaps, one of the major missed opportunities of Cameron’s career, at least for cinemagoers. Having completed two incredibly expensive science fiction films, Cameron would have turned to a dark, and disturbing psychological thriller. The script’s easy to find on the web. We can only imagine what it might have looked like.
For many, this is the big ‘what-if’ in the history of superhero movies. Cameron had grown up as a fan of Marvel comics, and even had youthful ambitions of being a comic book artist at one point. In 1991, he had a meeting with Stan Lee about the possibility of directing a Spider-Man movie – a deal which could have seen Cameron head up one of his favourite childhood superheroes.
“There is no doubt that Jim is the best man on earth to do the Spider-Man movie,” Lee said, according to David Hughes’ book, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. “He wants to do it, and I want him to do it.”
Unfortunately, Cameron’s enthusiasm would soon be dampened by a complicated series of rights issues, which plagued the Spider-Man project throughout the ’90s. A decade earlier, the Spider-Man rights were owned by Cannon Films, and a pair of low-budget movies based on the web-slinger came close to being made by the end of the 80s, with sets built in North Carolina and Albert Pyun signed up as director.
When Cannon collapsed, its co-founder Menahem Golan managed to retain the Spider-Man property, and tried to get a film off the ground with his new production company, 21st Century Film Corporation. While Golan was still trying to put that production together in the early 1990s, James Cameron was writing his own story for a Spider-Man film elsewhere in Hollywood.
Running to 57 pages, Cameron’s ‘scriptment’ won favour with Stan Lee, who described it as “The Spider-Man we all know and love.”
Cameron’s Spider-Man movie was being set up at Carolco, the company behind Terminator 2. But the rights to Spider-Man proved to be a sticky and tangled web, with 21st Century, Carolco, Viacom and Columbia all tussling with each other over who owned what. Just to make matters worse, 20th Century Fox stepped in to argue that Cameron was contracted to them, and couldn’t offer his services as a director to a different studio.
In the mid-90s, 21st Century, Carolco and Marvel all collapsed at more or less the same time, leaving Cameron bewildered and no closer to directing a Spider-Man movie than he was four years earlier.
“Here I am working on Spider-Man,” Cameron said, “and it turns out that there’s a lien against the rights and Sony’s got a piece of it and Carolco doesn’t really own it even though they think they own it…”
According to author Rebecca Keegan, the director tried to convince Fox to pursue the rights to Spider-Man, but the studio was unwilling to roll up its sleeves and wade into a battle which now had MGM among its combatants.
“They’re so risk-averse,” a frustrated Cameron said. “For a couple of hundred thousand dollars in legal fees, they could have had a $2 billion franchise. They blew it.”
Cameron went on to direct Titanic, while a victorious Sony finally made a Spider-Man film in 2002 with Sam Raimi at the helm. Interestingly, a trace of Cameron remained: the organic web-shooters, an idea that first appeared in Cameron’s original scriptment.
True Lies 2
Cameron’s action comedy remake of the French film La Totale! was the kind of hit that could, in theory, have sparked its own Bond-style franchise for star Arnold Schwarzenegger. But for reasons we’ll explore in more detail in another article, Cameron never followed up on his plans to direct a sequel. “We abandoned True Lies 2 after 9/11, because we didn’t think a comedy about fundamentalist terrorists was so funny anymore,” he later said on Reddit. “And then we never picked it up again.”
Originally a manga written by Yukito Kishiro, and made into an original video animation by Hiroshi Fukutomi in 1993, Battle Angel Alita is a violent sci-fi fable. It’s about an amnesiac female cyborg, and set in a future world where a glistening city hangs high above an earth that has degenerated into a gigantic scrapheap.
Cameron was clearly taken by the story, since he’s repeatedly talked about filming a live-action, 3D adaptation of it over the past seven-or-so years. Back in 2009, Cameron indicated that, although he wasn’t ready to make the movie yet, about a year of pre-production had already taken place.
“We have a very good script and we’ve done a lot of production design,” Cameron told MTV. “We’ve done about a year of production design and we’ve put together an art reel that shows the arc of the film. It’s pretty much just add water and we’re ready to go.”
It was originally thought that Cameron would make Avatar and then go on to Battle Angel, with the special effects breakthroughs on the former providing the basis for the latter. But the success of Avatar seems to have diverted Cameron’s attention, and with a string of Avatar sequels planned for the next few years, it doesn’t seem as though we’ll see a Battle Angel film until the end of the decade at the very earliest.
The director’s since expressed interest in directing a couple of less fantastical projects, too, including an adaptation of the novel The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens, and a film about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Then again, the greater percentage of Cameron’s movies have been based in the sci-fi genre. Unless it’s delayed again, Avatar 4 will be released in 2019 – around 40 years after Cameron first made Xenogenesis. It’s just possible that, even then, Battle Angel will still hold his interest. As Cameron said in an interview with Collider in 2011, “I had to consider, do I hand this project off to another director? And then I thought, ‘No. I love it too much…”