James Cameron’s tribute to composer James Horner

On the morning of June 22, a single-engine plane owned by Oscar-winning composer James Horner crashed in Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara, California. The pilot, who has not yet been identified, was killed, and Horner’s family and friends braced themselves for sad news pending the medical examiner’s investigation. 

James Cameron met Horner 35 years ago and they first collaborated as director/composer on Aliens in 1986 and then later on 1997’s Titanic and 2009’s Avatar—the latter two being the highest-grossing movies of all time. Speaking to EW, the Oscar-winning director recalled fond memories about his friend and colleague. “We worked together about once a decade,” Cameron says, “Which is more about my output than his. I wish I’d worked with him more.”

JAMES CAMERON: We started working professionally in the same year, 1980. He scored two films for Roger Corman. One was Battle Beyond the Stars, which was my first paycheck in movies. So I knew him right from the get-go. And we were part of the Corman guerilla filmmaking clique together. He skyrocketed after Battle Beyond the Stars, which had a huge orchestral sound for such a small film, and when we got to Aliens, it made sense to have James score it.

He was really hitting his stride as a composer when he did Aliens. There was so much energy in it. And that score has been used so much as temp music. It seemed like every film I saw for the next 10 years was using James’ Aliens score for temp—all these trailers were using it. He created amazing music for Aliens, but it wasn’t the best working experience, to be honest, because we had to recut some of his music. But he got an Academy Award nomination, and I think we knew we were bound to work together again at some point.

When we were looking for a composer for Titanic, I just thought to myself, “I want the best.” And during my writing process for the film, I had been listening to so many of James’ recent scores. He had done two scores in 1995, for Apollo 13 and Braveheart, that I just thought were the best film music out there. And I said, notwithstanding whatever happened to us 10 years before, that he was the guy. So I was falling all over myself to find a way to make the working relationship better for him than the last time. And it turned out to be the dream team. When he would come up with a melody, he would invite me over to his studio in Malibu and just play it for me on his piano. So it was a very collaborative right from the inception.

I remember exactly where I was sitting when he played the Titanic music for the first time. It was a cloudy day in March and it was just James and I together in his studio. And he sat down and played a solo piano theme and I cried. I sat there and cried. He played three themes for me that day and I was in tears after every one. He hadn’t written a bit of music to picture. He was just reacting to having watched 30 hours of dailies and steeping himself in the movie. I said to him, “You’ve done it.” And he said, “I haven’t done anything yet.” And I said, “James, you’ve done it.”

He was the heart of the film, absolutely. And you could say that literally, too, because he wrote the music for the song, “My Heart Will Go On,” which was so much of the pop-culture propulsion of the film. The score album is still to this day the highest grossing instrumental soundtrack album of all time.

I had just seen him six or so weeks ago at the Royal Albert Hall in London for a live performance of the entire score of Titanic, played with the film. It was a really good reunion. Myself and Jon Landau, my coproducer, had flown over just to pay homage to James. Jon and I wound up going up to the podium to take a bow at the end, but James made us do it. I resisted because I wanted it to be all his evening. We were there only to honor him, quite consciously. And to say, “Look at what this incredible artist created.”

And afterwards, of course, all we talked about was, “What are we gonna do about the Avatar sequels?” He was a very young 61 and raring to go on that. I’m not thinking about the problem of replacing James right now. I’m just feeling really, really sad that I won’t experience that teamwork again. Both of us were really looking forward to doing it again.

But he was picking his projects very selectively because he was focused so much on the flying, which was his passion. And I can understand it. We both love adventure. We both like to pit ourselves against the real world—in his case it was defying gravity and in my case it was defying pressure in the ocean. And of course he’d be attracted to flying—flying attracts people with an incredible intelligence and a very technical mind.

I never heard him raise his voice or ever say anything negative about someone else. It made him such a well-loved conductor—and he conducted himself, which is fairly unusual. He’d walk in and the orchestra just adored him. He was such a sweet, lovely guy. Right now it’s important for us to get busy and honor James. 

Image Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images