A 17 million gallon water tank, a toilet ban and PCP in the lobster chowder - the truth behind Jim Cameron's £200m chick flick
“Size Does Matter” – so read the tagline for the US remake of Godzilla. However, Roland Emmerich’s monster movie looked like a newt next to James Cameron’s ‘disasterpiece’. Hollywood had never before seen a film like Titanic. Yes, there had been longer movies (the 1958 version of Ben-Hur almost capped four hours). And there’d been films with bigger casts (Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi used 100,000 extras). No, where Titanic swept all before it was in the arena of financing. When Kevin Costner suckered someone into giving him $175m to shoot Waterworld, people assumed we’d reached the limits of budget-busting. Then James Cameron was given $200m to complete Titanic and the game changed again. Changed utterly.
Whether this was money well spent is open to question. There’ve certainly been better films than Titanic (Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Fletch Lives, etc.), but none have enjoyed such a level of success; Cameron’s picture was the first film to break the $1bn barrier at the box office. And few have been fought for so hard; the driven Cameron overcoming everything from intense studio pressure to Angel Dust poisoning to capture his vision.
Contrary to popular belief, recreating the sinking of the world’s most famous ocean liner wasn’t James Cameron’s lifelong ambition. Indeed, he knew very little about the tragedy until, while shooting deep-water drama The Abyss in 1989, he went to lunch with scientist Robert Ballard. “Meeting Ballard, I discovered that there was a romance to the wreck which appealed to me. I started reading up on the history and that is very seductive. The event’s almost novelistic. The elite of society were aboard, all the class issues, the number of people that died in steerage. It’s got all these tensions and symbols. It’s a gold mine.”
With treasure this rich, thought Cameron, why not mount a super-duper, big budget, effects-driven take on the story? If anyone could secure the money needed to retell the story extravagantly it was James Cameron. His two previous films, Terminator 2 and True Lies, hadn’t so much pushed the budget envelope as ripped it apart. However, the returns had been so huge that had Cameron wanted to make sequels to either it would have only taken a phone-call. Getting the money for something as ambitious as Titanic would be a somewhat harder ask: “Fox were like: ‘Oooooohkaaaaaay – a three-hour romantic epic? Sure, that’s just what we want. Is there a little bit of Terminator in that?’ I said, ‘No, it’s not like that.’”
Eventually conceding to Cameron’s wishes, Fox were given some idea of what they’d let themselves into when, straight off the bat, the director asked for “a couple of million” to go to Nova Scotia to shoot footage of the actual wreck. “It was an unusual request,” the director admits, “but not an unusual amount of money to get going on a major piece of production.” Some of the cash would be spent on developing a new form of underwater camera. The rest went on hiring the equipment and expertise of Robert Ballard. Recalls Cameron: “I remember the very first thing I saw. It was a little bit of one of the chandeliers and I thought: ‘My God, that’s incredible. They’re using this space technology to go into the past like a time machine.’ Something clicked right then.”
If this early brush with technology sparked Cameron’s enthusiasm for the project, a brush with particularly potent lobster chowder very nearly upset the entire production. No one’s quite sure who spiked the post-shoot party main course with PCP, although fingers were pointed at two chefs Cameron had fired. The effect, however, was truly devastating: “People started laughing out loud,” remembers Bill Paxton, aka explorer Brock Lovett. “Others started crying. It was total Bedlam. Just as I was starting to wonder what was happening, I started feeling weird.” “There were people rolling around, completely out of it,” continues Lewis Abernathy who played one of Lovett’s sidekicks. “Some of them said they were seeing streaks and psychedelics. I thought it was food poisoning.” A dodgy crustacean couldn’t account for what James Cameron was experiencing, though. Bill Paxton: “Jim had one eye completely red, like the Terminator’s eyes – no pupil, no iris, just red. The other eye looked like he’d been sniffing glue since the age of four.” Fortunately, 24 hours later, Cameron and the other 80 crew members affected were released from hospital.
“When Kevin Costner suckered someone into giving him $175m to shoot Waterworld, people assumed we’d reached the limits of budget-busting. Then Cameron was given $200m to complete Titanic and the game changed again.”
No sooner was this unscheduled trip over than the Titanic crew travelled south of the border to Mexico. Cameron’s minions had been hard at work literally blowing up Rosarito Beach to build a massive studio facility containing a 6 acre, 17 million gallon water tank a 90% scale, 1.3 million ton, 750 foot long replica of the Titanic (at $40m, the most expensive film set ever built).
It was also in Baja California that Cameron hooked up with his main players. Keen to save cash by steering clear of stars, the director had looked to the B-list for his leads. As Cameron recalls, his script and circumstance cut his work out for him: “Rose was 17 and Jack was 19 so this was the function of a plausible age of a survivor now. With that as a given I searched for the young actors and actresses based on merit.” This quest lead to both Gwyneth Paltrow and Claire Danes being considered for the role of wealthy socialite Rose DeWitt but as a lover of strong women, Cameron – impressed with how Kate Winslet lobbied for the part – had no problem casting a Brit as a Philadelphian. For aspiring artist Jack Dawson, meanwhile, the director ignored Fox’s advice to hire the then-hot Matthew McCounaughey and went after Leonardo DiCaprio, who’d just kicked-up a storm playing Romeo in Baz Luhrmann’s ultramodern Shakespearean adaptation. Initially reluctant (DiCaprio: “The last thing I want to turn into is a fat Hollywood jerk”), the actor would eventually succumb to Cameron a mere month before shooting was due to start.
At first, both made all the right noises about signing on for the Titanic/Cameron experience. Claimed Winslet: “Titanic was presented to me and I thought: “Oh gosh, I really want to work on this movie regardless of whether it’s a huge-budget American thing.” By the time shooting wrapped, it was all the actress could do to sigh: “I’m a bit of a masochist, I suppose.” Nor was she the only one to find the shoot shattering. The regime of 80-hour weeks and 15-day shifts would have been sufficient to piss off even the most diligent workforce. But if the hours were tough, they were peanuts compared to the director. The way James Cameron captained the good ship Titanic lead crew members to compare him to Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz. His pronouncements certainly had a military quality to them. “When we are spending £30,000 an hour and my hand is on the throttle, it’s my job to be impatient.”
Cameron didn’t just talk tough, he acted tough – so tough that the habit his crews have for airing their frustrations through their apparel reached new heights. Past sufferers of Cameron’s wrath have sported logos like “Life’s Abyss And Then You Die”. On Titanic, however, messages ranged from the straightforward (“You can’t frighten me, I work for Jim Cameron.”) to the rye (“Jim’s a hands-on director, and I’ve got the bruises to prove it”) to the potentially libellous (“No animals were hurt during the making of this film. But the actors were tossed around like Styrofoam cups”).
This King Rat reputation isn’t one which sits easily with Cameron. “I care about other people’s feelings a lot. I don’t pretend to come out of every film friendly with every person on set like we’re one fuzzy hippy commune. But I do feel that I’ve forged strong relationships with the majority of the people I’ve worked with. I have a double standard – a standard for the crew and a standard for the cast. I believe in shredding the cast from any sense of negativity on- set. They have the most difficult job. It’s their faces up there. Actors are sacred.” Which doesn’t explain why Kate Winslet told the LA Times “You would have to pay me a lot of money to work with Jim again. If anything was the slightest bit wrong, he would totally lose it. It was hard to concentrate when he was shouting and screaming.”
Cameron’s most famous act of toy throwing concerns the time he told the crew that anyone who went to the toilet could “just keep walking”. It’s an incident the director is keen to clear up. “It was in a very specific circumstance. We had been lighting a shot for two hours and it was one of those situations where we had a number of people who had to perform functions on the shot. We’re all set to do the shot and so-and-so’s not there. Where is he? ‘He’s in the bathroom’. Fair enough, we’ll wait. I get all set and somebody else has gone. Well, where did he go? ‘He went to the bathroom’. Fine, we’ll wait. He gets back. We’re all set to do the take and there’s no-one at the camera. Fine – the next person who goes to the bathroom before I GET THIS SHOT can keep walking.” Harsh as this might sound, Cameron was keen to point out that: “True Lies shot for 163 days and I never prevented anyone from going to the bathroom for 163 days!”
The director was also upset about the rumours that Titanic was a dangerous shoot. “The funny thing is I’ve always had a reputation as one of the safest directors in Hollywood.” There were opportunities for injuries to occur, however. In trying to capture the ship’s last moments afloat, Cameron spent 10 days testing his stunt team’s resilience to the limit. By the time the shot was in the can, one stuntman had an ankle in plaster, another had a cracked rib and another had a fractured cheekbone. “Nobody was hurt badly,” recalls stunt coordinator Simon Crane. “We padded the set as much as we could so people could hit stuff and bounce.” Whatever the precautions, further accidents were inevitable. Indeed, Fox would testify to their having been nine severe accidents on set, one of which resulted in the victim having to have his spleen removed. Appalled, the Screen Actors Guild dispatched representatives to Mexico where they further added to James Cameron’s
But those who’d taken a trip to Club Cameron before appreciated the method behind the mania. Bill Paxton: “If you’re going to hang out with Jim, you better have your life insurance. But I don’t consider him a difficult man. I consider him an incredibly passionate man who is completely uncompromising. And to be a visionary and to bring movies like Titanic to the screen, you can’t compromise. The minute you start to compromise, that’s the beginning of the end.”
“No one’s quite sure who spiked the post-shoot party main course with PCP, although fingers were pointed at two chefs Cameron had fired.”
You certainly have to admire the director’s guts. When the budget situation was threatening to get out of hand, Cameron had no problem putting his money where his mouth was. “[Fox chairman) Bill Mechanic was freaking out because they ran the numbers and figured out we couldn’t make any money off this film even if it was a hit. So I said, ‘Okay, it’s my responsibility. Take my salary.’” By forfeiting his directing and editing fees and profit participation, Cameron denied himself tens of millions of dollars. “I was a bit of a chump,” he would later say of a decision that, while fiscally naive, has no rival in the artistic vision preservation department. And just how keen the director was to keep his vision intact became apparent the day Mechanic came to his trailer with a list of scenes the studio wanted to shelve. “If you want to cut my film, you’ll have to fire me,” Cameron shouted. “And to fire me, you’ll have to kill me.”
Cameron’s admirable obstinacy continued once principal shooting wrapped in March 1997. Finding himself with 1.3 million feet of film (almost a fortnight’s worth of footage), the director turned his Malibu beach house into an editing suite where he would spend 17 hours a day shaping his masterwork. To keep his energy levels up, he dosed himself with vitamin injections.
In the midst of his graft, Cameron also found time to snap back at the papers that’d been out to rubbish Titanic from the outset. “It seems to have become a dirty concept these days to work too hard, to care too much, to give your all,” he ranted in a letter to the LA Times. “Am I driven? Yes, absolutely. Out of control? Never. Unsafe? Not on my watch.” While keen to explain his perfectionism (“I’m a great-ist. I only want to do it until it’s great.”), he was quite open about the expense of his “$200m chick flick” (“I decided to tell people how much the damn movie cost, otherwise they’d assume it’s more.”). As good as he was at being grand, Cameron was aware that he was on the edge of the precipice. Indeed, throughout editing, he kept a razor blade taped to the side of the cutting machine, together with the instruction: “Use only if film sucks.”
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. After premiering at the Tokyo Film Festival, Titanic opened on December 19 1997 on 2,674 screens across the US. Grossing $29m on its first weekend, it eclipsed the $100 mark in just twelve days. In the months to come, Titanic would inspire the creation of a Broadway musical and a London bar. The film also won a record-equalling 11 Oscars (Cameron’s vindication was completed when he scooped the awards for Best Editing, Director and Film). And Celine Dion’s theme song, “My Heart Will Go On”, went on and on, aiding the sale of 17 million soundtrack albums.
Since someone was eventually going to make a movie like Titanic, it’s probably a good thing that that someone was James Cameron, a man with shoddy screenwriting skills but genuine vision and an ability to crank up excitement that compensates for his tendency to sentimentalise and oversimplify (see also Avatar. To the power of 20). The nearest thing our generation got to Ben-Hur, it’s a big, brave, dumb film that looks less impressive and increasingly flawed as the years pass by. But rather like that iceberg, at the time it came out, you couldn’t miss it.
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