James Cameron Back in Action

It has been 10 years since "Titanic" grossed $1.8 billion worldwide and earned a record 11 Oscars. Writer-Director James Cameron hasn't made a feature film since. Last week, he announced that he will begin shooting "Avatar," a $195 million action-adventure film set on a distant planet, shot in digital 3-D, using a camera he developed. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Sean Smith.

NEWSWEEK: Why has it taken so long for you to direct another feature film?

James Cameron: Well, there's not a quick answer. I've done 70 ocean expeditions in the last 10 years, and I love that world. I've been living out a kind of childhood dream of doing real exploration. But I always knew that I would come back to feature filmmaking. We're announcing "Avatar" right now, but I've been working on it for a year and half.

A year and a half?! I can't believe you kept that quiet.

[ Laughs ] I can't either. We've got, like, a hundred people working it full time. But they're pretty dedicated. They believe in this thing. It's like a cult. [ Laughs ] And they were told in no uncertain terms to keep their mouths shut.

"Titanic" is still the highest-grossing film of all time. Do you feel pressure to top yourself?

I don't think of "Avatar" as an attempt to top "Titanic." I mean, I'm not going to beat that film. I like to make films that make money and attract big audiences, but "Titanic" was an anomaly. It's an easy conclusion to jump to that I avoided competing with myself over the last few years, but the success of "Titanic" just gave me a sabbatical to do other things.

When you hit a major apex like that—when you achieve every demarcation of success—I suspect you have to look hard at what truly motivates you. You have to find a new mountain to climb.

Yeah. I think people have interpreted it as, "[success] generates artistic paralysis." But for me it was like, "OK, I don't have anything more to prove, other than to myself, and I've got more money than I ever thought I would have. Let me go have some fun, you know?"

"Avatar" won't be released until summer 2009. That's a huge time commitment.

It will be four years total for me, yeah. But I've wanted to make this movie from the time I wrote the treatment 11 years ago. I was just biding my time for when it was going to be technically possible. I'm so invested in the 3-D, and I love the challenge of creating an alien culture. We're creating a world from scratch, so it's really fun.

And you don't have to shoot in a water tank.

No, but I'm not afraid of water.

Most of your films have been either in water or space. A friend of mine speculated that you're actually afraid of land.

[ Laughs ] Well, Earth has just been so trammeled, you know. Every place we touch has been paved and strip-malled. I guess I'm looking for the unknown, for the exotic, for the personal challenge of going somewhere that people haven't been before.