Arts & Entertainment

Developing Dread Through Adversaries

James Cameron

Lesson time 09:52 min

The Terminator and the Alien Queen have stuck in our psyches as some of the most dreadful adversaries ever created. Learn how James thinks about adversaries and how to create them.

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Topics include: Develop a Rationale for Your Adversaries • Make a Worthy, Powerful, and Unique Adversary • Put Your Audience in the Subjective Reality of the Adversary • Designing a Terrifying Creature: The Alien Queen


[DRAMATIC MUSIC] - I don't really love the term "villain." Because I don't think people ever think they're villains, even people that are doing horrific things, cruel things. They have their own rationale. We may not agree with it. And it may be warped or delusional. But they have their own rationale. They don't think they're villains, for the most part. So I like the term "adversary." So an adversary can be nature itself. It could be the tornado in "Twister," for example. But generally, we like human adversaries. Because, first of all, they're more fun. And we see interesting interpretations by actors. So you can go from a relatively simplistic adversary, like the Terminator, who basically is just death. He's just unstoppable. He's just very clear. And you take a very simple concept and you execute it in a disciplined way that becomes extraordinary, because of the perfect synchronicity between the actor, Arnold, and his character, and the way that that was realized, and the fact that he's an unstoppable force. And it's stated by one of the characters. - It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop-- ever-- until you are dead. JAMES CAMERON: You've just made him a very, very simple character. So that's kind of the opposite of subtlety. That's simple in extremity, which is kind of terrifying. Because humans are complex, and there's always the chance that we could maybe talk our way out of it, or we could negotiate, or we could buy them off, or something like that. Not going to work with the Terminator. When I got the great opportunity to direct the sequel to Ridley Scott's classic film, "Alien," where I went for the detail was the Alien Queen. The Alien Queen was not quite so simple a character. Because there's an interesting scene in that film where Ripley does negotiate with the Alien Queen. - JAMES CAMERON: She says, I've got the flamethrower. There's a lot of eggs in this room. I know you care, because you're a mother. So already, that simple character was made more complex. Even though we never heard the Alien Queen utter a line of dialogue, we knew exactly what she was thinking, which was interesting and fun. Who was the villain in "Titanic?" The fiancee? I mean, I think he was an interesting character. There were a number of people who were adversarial to our main characters. But really it was fate. It was circumstance. It was destiny. So to say that there was a "villain" in that film, I think the villain was death. [BELL RINGING] The villain was the death that you knew was there from the beginning from the moment you bought a ticket to go see a movie called "Titanic," where thousands of people died. You could say, us against nature, but it was really-- nature wasn't the enemy. It was human mismanagement that created a catastrophe. So that's a villain in its own sort of category. [DRAMA...

About the Instructor

From The Terminator and Titanic to Avatar, James Cameron has directed some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. Now, for the first time in his 40-year career, he opens up about his process. Through behind-the-scenes breakdowns, James shares his approach to developing ideas, storylines, and characters; harnessing technology; and worldbuilding on any budget. Explore the innovation and imagination behind epic moviemaking.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

James Cameron

Academy Award–winning director James Cameron teaches you the tricks of the trade and shares his approach to epic moviemaking on any budget.

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