Filmmaker James Cameron is a one-man inflationary spiral.

Each time he makes a big action picture - and that's all he does, at least as a director - the ante rises. His 1991 production, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" was said to have cost nearly $90 million, making it the costliest film of its day."True Lies," which he wrote, directed and produced under his Lightstorm Entertainment banner, makes "T2" look like a bargain-basement find. Not only does it star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is said to command $20 million a pop, but it features such mind-boggling sequences as a horse-vs.-motorcycle chase, the destruction of a bridge in the Florida Keys, and a military Harrier jet cavorting around downtown Miami.

So what was the price tag on all these goodies? Cameron refuses to say.

"I'll put it in really clear perspective," he replied when asked during a round of interviews to promote "True Lies."

"This is how much the film costs: $7.50 plus parking - $8 in New York."

What about the $120 million figure bandied about by Premiere magazine? "It's $200 million," he deadpanned. Then, responding to dubious looks from his audience of a half-dozen: "I just wanted to see if you'd buy that, too. If people buy $120 (million), why not $200 (million)? How about a quarter-billion?"

In any case, he said, "True Lies" is not the most expensive film ever made. That honor belongs to one of several classic epics - "Spartacus," "Gone With the Wind" or "Cleopatra."

"If you put those in adjusted dollars, they're probably in the $200 million range, I would think," Cameron said.

So why not come clean on the "True Lies" budget? This, Cameron is prepared to discuss.

"It's just always been my policy never to discuss budgets. It's a pointless exercise to review a movie in terms of its budgets.

"A film should be reviewed based on whether it's successful at its stated goals. A film usually states its goals within the first act, and it either succeeds or fails based on what it's trying to do - or based on what you want it to be doing, which are two different subjects."

Of course, the flip side of the budget question is the impressive record on grosses, which creates its own set of expectations: $38.3 million for "Terminator," $81.8 million for "Aliens," $54.8 million for "The Abyss" (the one blip in an otherwise ascending curve) and a hefty $204.4 for "T2" - and those are just domestic theatrical grosses. For the most part, doing business with Cameron has been a classic case of spending money to make money.

However many millions were spent on "True Lies," at least some of them found their way back into Cameron's coffers via his relatively young computer effects house, Digital Domain.

A competitor to George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic that Cameron founded in the wake of his "T2" triumph, Digital Domain created effects for "True Lies" and now is working on Cameron's next film, "Spider-Man," as well as Neil Jordan's "Interview With the Vampire" and Ron Howard's "Apollo 13."

"It was kind of conceived as a kind of digital sandbox, where we'd kind of play and come up with new techniques of doing things, and it's paid off very well," Cameron said. "You see a lot of things in this film that are pretty seamless, and realistic effects that would not have been possible, even, say, a year and a half ago.

"It's certainly convenient, and it improves me as a filmmaker because I have direct access, all the time, whether I'm making a film or not, to the inside skinny on how things are done, and I can ask for software to be created to do certain things, and I'm not really a client, because I'm an owner."

The most challenging computer imaging in the film involved the scenes of the Harrier jet in the financial district of Miami.

"It's a combination of every known effect," he said. "Traditionally, that type of sequence in broad daylight was deadly. It couldn't be done through standard optical means, and only through the digital processes can you get the color and the contrast right, and remove all the matte lines, and all the subtle things that clue the eye that it's real.

"Even a couple of years ago - `Jurassic Park' scenes were far more effective when they were in the dark than when they were in the sunlight."

Cameron's passion for movie technology is longstanding, dating back to when he saw "2001: A Space Odyssey" as a teenager.

"That was a sort of trigger point for me, because then I wanted to start creating my own effects. I think I was 16 or 17 when I started doing multiple exposures in Super-8 cameras and that sort of thing."

But even before he fell in love with the craft of film fantasy, he had become hooked on the story-telling side, through such childhood favorites as "Jason and the Argonauts" and other movies by pioneering effects man Ray Harryhausen.

The twin influences remain with him to this day, "and that's sort of stood me in good stead, because all my pictures have had a dependency on technique and a dependency on strong storytelling."

From the story standpoint, the trickiest part of "True Lies" - which Cameron wrote for Schwarz-en-eg-ger based very loosely on a French film called "La Totale" - was the balancing act between comedy and action.

"It was kind of a weird equation, because you have to be excited and invested to a certain extent, or you won't appreciate the action. . . . But then at other times, you have to throw logic to the winds and just go with the outrageousness of it so that you can laugh. So, it was pretty scary chemistry there, but judging by the reaction, people are taking it the right way."