Adventures in Gearhead Paradise

From the Ocean Bottom to Mars with James Cameron

Attenborough Award, Monday, February 6, 8 p.m., Marjorie Luke Theatre

I’m on my way there now, right after these interviews are over,” said James Cameron about his home in Hollister Ranch, that paradise of cowboy surfers and rock poets like Brown and Crosby. “I get up there as often as I can, and especially, I use it as a writing retreat, sometimes for six months at a stretch.” Of course, he swears by the ranch’s beauty and its uncanny resistance to the June gloom we mere Santa Barbarians must endure. He, the man the Film Festival will salute with the second annual Attenborough Award for Nature Filmmaking due to his immersion in oceanic themes, knows what currents create this ranch-specific sunshine and is aware of one terrible irony of his residence. “The funny thing is that our home is right on Little Drakes — one of the best breaks in the world,” he said, regretfully. “And I don’t surf.”

But he does love the ocean, and is happy that the fest is celebrating his nature films. “I’m always honored to be honored,” said a breezy, loquacious Cameron over the phone from his Los Angeles office. Even better, though, the honoring’s happening here. “I have this great feeling of bringing it back home,” he said, pointing out the deep involvement he’s had at UCSB, particularly with the marine biologist Dijanna Figueroa, who as a grad student was “discovered” by Cameron. She ended up not only working on Aliens of the Deep — which is being shown to nearly 3,000 schoolkids during the fest at the Museum of Natural History — but, because her face was on the movie poster coast-to-coast, attained some film-world celebrity. “I also did a big fundraiser for them at the Bacara,” he said, and admits he is still considering the campus (among others) as a site for the archiving of the film he shot in all of his ocean-exploration films.

If you ask Cameron about the road from great horror (Terminator) to horror/thriller (Aliens, T2), through the most successful romantic epic in film history (Titanic) to all of this nature in 3-d, he waxes funny. “Are you trying to say my career is bizarre?” Cameron laughed. “There is a grand master plan. No, actually, if you are going to make a film, it had better be something you can commit to passionately 24/7 for a couple of years,” he said, professing astonishment that someone like Martin Scorsese can make movie after movie about gangsters.

The ocean is a topic that not only drew him in, but kept rewarding him organically. Work on Titanic and The Abyss meant dives, which drew him into the abyss itself. At the same time, he admits that the technology he created to dive and photograph the depths are as rewarding as the topic itself. “It’s very fair to say that. To a gearhead [like me], this is paradise,” he said.

Cameron — who is now working on a series of films that derive from animé and other fantasy sources, some of which are being kept secret (though he strongly denies he’s involved in an “Aquaman” project, a rumor begun on the HBO series Entourage) — thinks America has become lazy about the idea of exploration. He’s become involved with NASA to promote a mission to Mars and will be supplying a future flight with 3-d technology. So, inner space is not the end. “I’ll be shooting the first film on Mars in 3-d,” he said. And if he wasn’t able to make movies for some reason? “I would be exploring. Or maybe I would just own a little dive shop,” he said.

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