James Cameron is heading back underwater in “Mission OceanX,” a series for National Geographic that will follow a groundbreaking ocean exploration mission. The “Titanic” and “The Abyss” director is no stranger to the deep, having dived down to the Mariana Trench in a submarine in 2012, among other aquatic missions.
“Mission OceanX” will follow the maiden voyage of the Alucia2, a next-generation exploration ship belonging to underwater exploration organization OceanX. BBC Studios’ vaunted Natural History Unit and OceanX are co-producing for Nat Geo, but Cameron said in an exclusive interview with Variety that he is pushing the team to take a different approach from regular blue-chip natural history series by getting under the skin of the people and the mission.
“We want it to be character-driven,” Cameron said during a break from shooting the new “Avatar” movies. “One of the things I have pushed everybody towards, maybe even a little bit to the extent [that] they are outside of their comfort zones, was to make it kind of reality TV, meaning I want to follow these people. I want to know how they think; I want to understand their passion as explorers and as ocean scientists…that burning curiosity.”
Nat Geo is launching a social-media campaign to rename the Alucia2, which is expected to head to the Indian Ocean with its new moniker in mid-2020. It will carry highly qualified marine biologists and experts, but any discoveries will only be known when it is in the field.
“That’s part of the excitement – you go out there and you don’t know what’s going to happen. The ocean hasn’t read your script and there’s no Take 2,” Cameron said. “It’s not going to render down to some perfect shooting schedule.”
The thrill of the unknown is another reason for taking a character-led approach. “You are going to have adversity and psychological challenges. The crew will be disappointed, the explorers will be disappointed,” Cameron said. “But for every moment there’s a setback or challenge, there’s going to be that moment of discovery. You want to take the audience on that rollercoaster journey, because that’s what exploration is all about.”
Cameron said the approach to filming “Mission OceanX” was inspired by Jacques Cousteau, a pioneer of underwater filmmaking. “Cousteau did it first,” Cameron said. “It’s not a new model. It’s just a model that has been forgotten, but we knew his crew and what drove them and we were interested in them as much as what they were seeing and finding.”
He added that the message of conservation would come naturally as viewers became more involved with the OceanX mission. “Not only is the ocean enormous and mysterious, it’s also finite and we’re having an increasingly damaging effect on it,” he said. “The way a show like this can work is it [will] make you love and respect the ocean that we have.”
The “Avatar” shooting schedule will not allow Cameron to be on board the Alucia2 for the full expedition. He will fly in at key moments – and said he expects to get in the water.
Along with his team he has helped develop some of the filming tech that will be used, which includes cutting-edge remote cameras, low-light cameras, and critter cams. On-board capabilities will enable footage to be edited at sea, allowing Nat Geo to tease footage and findings ahead of the series going out.
Cameron is co-producing with OceanX and BBC Studios for Nat Geo, which just scored three Emmy noms for “Hostile Planet.” OceanX founder Ray Dalio is among the exec producers, as is Geoff Daniels, Nat Geo’s EVP for global unscripted entertainment.
Daniels told Variety that he expects a coordinated global launch for the show, although dates depend on finalization of the expedition plans. When the series does go out, it will be on Nat Geo in the U.S. and on its channels internationally, in 171 countries.
Cameron hopes to inspire a new wave of underwater explorers. “We are all a bit complacent now. We think everything has been understood and explored,” he said. “One of the key goals of the series is to inspire up-and-coming explorers and filmmakers and scientists in same way I was inspired by Jacques Cousteau. I want to pass that on.”
Nat Geo, which is now part of Disney, is expected to lift the curtain on the series at its summer TCA session on Tuesday.