Ah, Oscar Week. Over the next six days we’ll witness people praising the visionary talent of best-director co-favorites James Cameron (“Avatar”) and Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”). We’ll hear about Cameron and Bigelow’s amazing skills: their unerring sense of story, their painterly eye, their supreme knack for framing an unforgettable story. Over and over, we will hear them be described as geniuses.
There’s just one major topic we won’t hear about: how did they get so good?
The surprising answer is this: they got good by making lots of extremely bad, schlocky movies. Click on the transcendently cheesy 1988 video above — directed by Cameron and starring Bigelow — and enjoy. Should you desire more, here’s a rare clip of Cameron’s first-ever movie, “Xenogenesis.”
We’ve all heard Cameron’s story — the obsessive mastermind behind blockbusters “Terminator” and “Titanic.” However, many biographies omit a vital fact: Cameron spent his early career apprenticing with legendary director/producer Roger Corman, king of the low-budget B movie, who specialized in making entire movies in less than three days. Think about that: script, shots, sets, actors — in 72 hours, a system that created Cameron-helmed classics like “Pirhana II: The Spawning.”
Other Corman apprentices include Martin Scorsese, John Sayles, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Carl Franklin, and a dozen others. (To his credit, Cameron doesn’t downplay the connection, joking that he attended the “Roger Corman School of Film.”)
Kathryn Bigelow, who started out as a painter, followed a similar trajectory, directing “Near Dark,” “Blue Steel,” “The Loveless,” and “Born in Flames.” Nothing great, by a long stretch (though you can make a case for parts of the surfer/bank robber movie “Point Break”). Only after working through acres of subpar material did Bigelow create the artful, thrilling film for which she’s being honored this week. (I saw the movie on Friday, and it’s pretty amazing – I’m rooting for it to win.)
This pattern is not a coincidence. The key is to consider their careers from a neural perspective. While other would-be directors were waiting around for the “Right Project,” Cameron and Bigelow were seizing an opportunity to grow their skill circuits at ferocious speed: to solve problems, tell stories, build sets, run a team, work with actors, puzzle out the architecture of a story, over and over and over.
The lesson here has to do with the way we think. We instinctively separate creative people into categories – artists and non-artists, serious writers and pulp writers. Cameron and Bigelow show us the falseness of this distinction. Churning out schlocky stuff is not to be avoided, but instead to be actively sought out — so long as it doesn’t become an end in itself. We all should have a Roger Corman apprenticeship.
This brings up a question: where else do we see this pattern? Who else’s creative talents were built by cranking out piles of subpar material?
(My first nomination: Charles Dickens, who spent four Corman-esque years as a court reporter, rendering the complex, interwoven, heartbreaking cases – in other words, their characters and plots – into stories.)