Why James Cameron Got Fired from Piranha II — And How He Tried to Keep Control Anyway

Producer Ovidio Assonitis reportedly used the attachment of a young James Cameron to help satisfy a requirement for an "American" director, even though James was not allowed to complete the film.

James Cameron's would-be first film, Piranha II, had a budget of about $600,000, of which James was reportedly paid $5,000.

Ovidio Assonitis and Roger Corman were in the same business in the early 1980s: Identify a successful Hollywood film and make something similar to it dirt cheap. Assonitis had done it before with a Jaws-inspired octopus-themed Tentacles (1977), and now he was making a sequel to one of those knockoffs: Piranha II: The Spawning.


The problem was, Assonitis needed a director, and fast. The director he'd planned on, Miller Drake, had just left the project — reportedly over disagreements with Assonitis.


Assonitis' films performed well in Italy, his home country, but they were financed in part by a subsidiary of Warner Bros., which knew it had to keep Assonitis' eccentric ideas in check. They did that by requiring that he hire American directors. Though James Cameron was actually Canadian, he seemed to fit the bill.


So when Assonitis witnessed James' electric-mealworms genius on the set of Galaxy of Terror, he knew two things: 1) He could take charge of a crew. 2) He would be cheap.


James was hired for a $10,000 fee — a measly 1.7 percent of the film's budget — and he would only receive half of that sum.


Despite James believing this was his big break, and trying to play catch-up on the film's art department that was well behind schedule (James personally was making rubber fishes in his hotel room), Assonitis apparently didn't like Cameron's footage.


The story is depicted in the third episode of BLOCKBUSTER: THE STORY OF JAMES CAMERON — the award-winning "biopic podcast" series, starring The Walking Dead's Ross Marquand, from filmmaker and journalist Matt Schrader.



You can subscribe and listen to BLOCKBUSTER free on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and all other platforms. BLOCKBUSTER is winner of Adweek's Creative Podcast of the Year, and earned two Webby Honorees and NYF Radio Awards, including for Best Podcast Miniseries.


James was told his work wasn't good enough, and that he was fired. James protested, and demanded his name be taken off the film, but Assonitis refused.


James later said he would have sued at the time — but didn't have the money to hire a lawyer, especially with the $10,000 fee shrinking to $5,000.


After three years of rapid rise at New World Pictures, James was suddenly facing criticism he didn't agree with — and didn't even understand. How could something as seemingly disorganized as Piranha II be so much more advanced than he was? It didn't make sense.


Despite being fired, James refused to let go. He went to Rome and tried to get into the editing bay, eventually succeeding. His footage seemed to work just fine in the scenes he'd shot, but the film was a mess.


A perfectionist at his core, Cameron spent several week secretly sneaking in to the edit bay overnight to re-edit parts of Piranha II.


In his Rome hotel room, he became ill, and malnourished. Now feeling he'd been cheated by Assonitis lying to him about not being good enough, James was having vivid nightmares — including one that would inspire his next film, The Terminator.


You can subscribe and listen to BLOCKBUSTER free on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, as well as all other platforms. BLOCKBUSTER is winner of Adweek's Creative Podcast of the Year, and earned two Webby Honorees and NYF Radio Awards, including for Best Miniseries.


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