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Crowning James Cameron

Director of Avatar, Titanic Named Modern Master by SBIFF

James Cameron accepting the 2010 SBIFF Modern Master Award presented by Arnold Schwarzenegger Feb. 6, 2010
Paul Wellman

The King: There he was Saturday night, “the king of the world,” all six-feet-two of Jim Cameron, bathed in love and applause from the Arlington audience and getting a hug from his buddy, the king of California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger, joking in his fractured English that “I’m still struggling saying the word Avatar,” the title of Cameron’s hit sci-fi film, presented the filmmaker with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s highest honor, the Lucky Brand Modern Master Award.

The governor, who was directed by Cameron in earlier films, called the part-time Santa Barbaran “a great talent and great innovator.” Added the governor, “You’re the king!”

“We had budget problems [making movies] back then too,” Cameron cracked, a reference to California’s problems. Accepting the award for his body of work, he offered a bit of philosophy: “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

And in Cameron’s case, the people love what he does too — Avatar has become the highest grossing movie of all time, beating out the former champ, Cameron’s own Titanic.

During a Q & A session with moderator Leonard Maltin, Cameron offered this advice to would-be moviemakers: “You have to have something to say,” explaining that film school is fine, but you have to learn “from the school of life.” And, he said, “You have to create your own luck. You have to bang on doors,” but also be prepared to deliver when the opportunity comes along.

“Good films are personal films,” said Cameron. “A big film like Avatar is a personal film for me.” He recalled how after the 1969 channel oil spill Santa Barbara was “ground zero” in leading the environmental movement. “I applaud that,” he said, to the applause of the audience. “My wife and I have had a place here for 11 years.” They also live in Malibu.

The buzz is that Cameron has optioned as a possible film project The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back, a nonfiction book by Charles Pellegrino. It deals with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of World War II.

Earlier in the day, during the screenwriters panel at the Lobero, Santa Barbara native Jason Reitman said he’d been working on and off on what turned out to be Up in the Air for seven years. Adapting a book, as he did, can be like “you’re stealing somebody else’s genius,” said Reitman, who also directed the Oscar-nominated film.

Hoping to lure George Clooney to star in the movie, Reitman arrived at Clooney’s Lake Como home with his wife expecting to hear a reaction to the script. Instead, Reitman told the Lobero audience, Clooney asked, “What are you working on?” He hadn’t read it. But later Clooney did read it and uttered six words that the young writer-director loved to hear: “I think it’s great. I’m in.”

Not that getting to that point is easy. Pete Docter said one part of his animated film Up had to be rewritten “50 times.” Nancy Meyers, asked if she was aiming at a female audience while writing It’s Complicated, replied: “I’d like them to come. But no.” Before actually writing, “I spend months and months outlining,” said Meyers, who also directed the Meryl Streep film. “It helped me enormously” to shape the script with the thought of who would star in it, Meyers said. “I glommed onto Meryl Streep and I didn’t know her.”

Would-be writers in the audience might have taken other lessons from the opening night film Thursday, Flying Lessons. It bombed on all counts, which may help explain why no one has agreed to distribute it.

But the pre-screening party across the street at Café Buenos Aires was a hit, benefiting Casa Esperanza Homeless Shelter and highlighting Food Channel star Cat Cora, a Santa Barbaran.

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