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COVER STORY

Hey, It's a Small World--and He's Adjusting

James Cameron knows a lot is riding on Fox's 'Dark Angel,' his first TV effort, so he's taking on an experienced partner and keeping his eye on the bottom line.

September 24, 2000|GREG BRAXTON | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

Life is not easy for a genetically enhanced human prototype on the run in the bleak 21st century.

Loss and fear and corruption seep through the world in which Max, a 20-year-old bicycle messenger, tries to survive. Possessing a wounded beauty that stops men--and women--dead in their tracks, she doesn't suffer fools lightly. She has attitude, the kind that angry teens drape themselves in for protection, and deadly martial arts skills that she's unafraid to use.

But about halfway through the two-hour pilot of the new Fox science-fiction drama "Dark Angel," Max (Jessica Alba) displays a rare moment of vulnerability. Asked by a frightened accomplice about how she will handle a dangerous felon, Max replies, "This isn't my usual line of work. I'm making this up as I go along."

The same could be said of James Cameron, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who is leaving behind his usual line of work for the moment to develop and produce "Dark Angel," his first project for television.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 1, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Misspelled names--Valarie Rae Miller is a cast member of the upcoming Fox TV series "Dark Angel" and Charles "Chic" Eglee is the show's co-creator and executive producer. Their names were misspelled in the Sept. 24 cover story package.

After an impressive string of larger-than-life hits such as "Aliens," "The Terminator," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and his last film, the most successful movie of all time, Cameron is going from "Titanic" to the tube.

For Cameron and Fox, the future is now. The setting of the series is the world in the year 2020, a bleak and unsavory remnant of an electromagnetic pulse set off by terrorists that renders technology virtually useless.

"Dark Angel" represents a considerable risk for the network and for Cameron. The series features an unknown female lead and has a dark tone that initially made studio executives squirm nervously. Fox has failed with previous attempts such as "Millennium" and "The Visitor" to build a sci-fi franchise that works in concert with the aging "The X-Files."

Cameron's name alone, Fox hopes, will be enough to attract hordes of moviegoers, and the series is being advertised as "James Cameron's Dark Angel." But even his marquee value may not automatically overcome the jinx that has victimized other high-profile filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Jerry Bruckheimer when they tried to make the transition to television.

Fox is putting a huge promotional push behind the series, showcasing it with a special two-hour premiere Oct. 3. And Cameron is more than aware that his involvement has created great expectations. But while the medium may be a new one, the creative terrain is one that he knows well. After all, this is the man who dreamed up extraterrestrials wiping out the world with mile-high tidal waves in "The Abyss," indestructible androids turning into liquid and other shapes in "T2," a robotic Arnold Schwarzenegger snarling "I'll be back" in "The Terminator," and a tragic, three-hour love story that had movie audiences weeping and coming back for more in "Titanic."

"That expectation is a minus," said Cameron, relaxing in a work shirt, jeans and boots while sitting in the living room at his rustic, sunny home in the hills of Malibu. "I can never completely fulfill it in the TV medium because my background is in features. But I do believe there'll be some excitement generated about it, and people will show up, at least in the beginning. If we can deliver on what TV does, then we've created traction in the audience and they'll show up the next week. But I know television is a tough game, a brutal game."

He created the series with veteran producer Charles "Chick" Eglee, who co-wrote the pilot with Cameron. The two have developed story lines for the entire season and hired a writing staff to flesh them out. Cameron has no immediate plans to direct an episode but insists he will be intimately involved with the drama.

"Dark Angel" has already sparked enthusiastic but cautious buzz in Hollywood because of Cameron's notorious reputation as a controlling perfectionist whose budgets spiral into the stratosphere. Insiders have wondered whether Cameron is too big for TV, and whether Fox is crazy for teaming up with a creative force whose vision can be as huge as the cost of his movies ("Titanic" cost around $200 million).

A question about whether his reputation for high budgets may have caused some corporate anxiety provokes a deep, rich laugh from the 46-year-old filmmaker. "Gee, you think?" he quips. "Oh, that would be leaping to a conclusion. They would never go there."

But seriously, Cameron says he is ready to play by the financial and creative rules of weekly TV drama. He notes that the two-hour pilot for "Dark Angel," which was budgeted at $10 million, came in for less. Still, it cost more than twice as much as a typical two-hour pilot.

He says he has enlisted the perfect partner in Eglee, a former executive at Steven Bochco Productions who was an executive producer of "Murder One," "The Byrds of Paradise" and "Total Security," and a co-executive producer of "NYPD Blue." Eglee and Cameron had earlier collaborated on another project, co-writing the cult film "Piranha II: The Spawning."

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