While writing his 1984 breakout film Terminator, James Cameron lived on McDonald’s, diner coffee and the money he made painting one-sheets for bad direct-to-video movies. The director, who would go on to helm the highest-grossing movie of all time, Avatar, expressed a surprising fondness for that early, “zero billion dollar” stage of his career while speaking at the fifth annual Hero Complex Film Festival recently [video].
It was actually easy to write cause I didn’t have to self-isolate like I do now, from multi-tasking with other businesses, and with a family with five kids. I was already isolated… basically just a sad, dark, isolated human being. There was an innocence to it in a funny way. I was the anonymous, kind of angry wannabe filmmaker. There’s some courage that comes from that, you say whatever comes into your head. It gets harder and harder to do that as you go along and you get encumbered by expectation and business relationships and all of that sort of stuff. I was kind of like a free voice in the wilderness in that stage. Most people hate that period of their life when they’re just trying to break in as an artist, and then you spend the rest of your career wishing you were back in that situation. —James Cameron recalls his ‘angry wannabe filmmaker’ phase
A must-read for every aspiring screenwriter/filmmaker: James Cameron’s legendary 17,000-word treatment for The Terminator [pdf]. (NOTE: For educational purposes only).
From the idea to the outline to the beat sheet to the synopsis to the full-blown fleshed-out treatment, you’ve got to get your story clear in your head before the actual writing begins. Prematurely cranking out pages without first tending to the heavy lifting is an ideal way to eventually find yourself buried in copious amounts of pain, rewriting, and wasted time. But with a solid treatment, the actual crafting of your novel or screenplay should theoretically be a joy. While the core idea behind the The Terminator (1984) is surprisingly simple, it’s also mind-numbingly huge. The story’s resulting plot is therefore relatively complicated with lots of critical details about its world, so tightening everything up into a comprehensive summary was not a job for the unskilled. James Cameron’s legendary 17,000-word treatment of the piece is regarded as something of a clinic among writers of high-concept fiction. Read, enjoy, learn. —Jace Daniel
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