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Forgotten Hollywood: The Making of “Titanic”

Just before Titanic was released in 1997, director James Cameron gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly. “Filmmaking is war,” he said. “There’s no other way to look at it. It’s a great battle. A battle between business and aesthetics.”
All through the 160-day shoot of Titanic, countless negative articles had appeared in the trade press talking about the problems of the troubled production – a budget that doubled over the course of the production, a tyrannical director with a legendary temper and a fierce resistance to compromise, firings of crew members, accidents on the set.
It would become the most expensive movie ever made up to that point, and the studios (there were two) couldn’t envisage pulling the plug/firing Cameron/taking away control after tens of millions were already sunk into production. All they could do was pray they didn’t get too badly burned. No one had a clue about its forthcoming success.

Twenty years later, in 2017, Cameron wrote an article in The Hollywood Reporter, giving his side of the story. “Sherry [Lansing, head of Paramount] always loved the film but [when the release date loomed] the business heads at Paramount acted like they’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer — a lot of grim faces and a triage approach to releasing the movie. Everyone thought they were going to lose money, and all efforts were simply to make sure the hemorrhage was not fatal. Nobody was playing for the upside, myself included, because nobody could have imagined what was about to happen next.”
Cameron met with Bill Mechanic, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, the studio that was carrying the lion’s share of the budget, in Los Angeles. “Bill 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,” Cameron told EW. “So I said, ‘Okay, we’re f—ed. It’s my responsibility. Take my salary.’” He gave up his director’s fee and profit participation (not anticipating any), keeping only the fee for his screenplay.
Back in 1995, Cameron had pitched Twentieth Century Fox, the studio where he had a development deal, the idea for Titanic. He described their reaction to EW: “They were like, ‘Oooooohkaaaaaay – a three-hour romantic epic? Sure, that’s just what we want. Is there a little bit of Terminator in that? Any Harrier jets, shoot-outs, or car chases? ‘I said, ‘No, no, no. It’s not like that.’”
The story, set against the backdrop of the disaster of the seemingly unsinkable ocean liner on its maiden voyage, tells of the romance of two young people, played by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, who fall in love despite their class differences. The film also stars Bill Paxton, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Gloria Stuart and Frances Fisher.
Before giving Titanic the green light, Fox spent $2 million to let Cameron dive down to the hulk of the real Titanic off the coast of Nova Scotia to film it. Then the film was approved in May for $100 million.
A 17-million-gallon water tank was built in Rosarito, Mexico at a reported cost of $40 million. A 90% model of the Titanic was designed with split sections which could be tilted to various angles to capture the progress of the sinking, with the rear section able to rotate 90 degrees. The décor of the ship was painstakingly recreated. Props like tea cups and ashtrays were stamped with the White Star Line logo. Furniture and carpeting were meticulously authentic. Cameron even refused to have the wallpaper painted on, requiring actual wallpaper. One time he freaked out when he discovered that a door opened inwards rather than outwards just before shooting a crucial scene. Every one of the 150 extras was given a name and a backstory. Costumes were authentic, including shoes and jewelry.

The first problem occurred when production began with the modern-day scenes filmed in Nova Scotia in which a submarine crew searches for the wreck of the Titanic in the hopes of finding a necklace with a diamond called the Heart of the Ocean. Apparently, a disgruntled crew member laced the soup served at a meal with PCP, causing about 50 of the crew to get violently ill and go to the hospital to be treated. The culprit was never found.
The crew members recovered, and production moved to Mexico. Conditions were trying, as Kim Masters wrote in TIME magazine. She described 80-hour six-day work weeks, lunch breaks that were skipped routinely, no bathroom breaks under penalty of being fired. Masters quoted a set rigger saying, “I think it’s the closest thing to slavery that I’ve ever laid my eyes on.” The crew had a nickname for Cameron – his evil alter-ego was dubbed ‘Mij’ – Jim in reverse.

Masters wrote, “After working 13 days in a row before Christmas, the Titanic crew set up a spectacular special-effects sequence in which thousands of gallons of water would crash through a glass dome atop a staircase inside the ship. The stunt coordinator’s written assessment of hazards associated with the sequence included “risk of drowning,” but a crew member says exhausted workers actually fell asleep during a morning safety meeting meant to minimize the danger. Producer Jon Landau says he was not aware of people dozing during those sessions. “I know nobody was falling asleep when we were shooting,” he adds. Still, Landau says, endless hours are the nature of the business. “Any time you’re on a movie, it is physically demanding,” he says. “No one was forced to be there.””
Fox had brought in a production partner after Universal passed as a co-producer. Both studios decided to split the costs with Paramount taking domestic distribution and Fox retaining international. But when the Paramount suits saw the actual budget, they balked, knowing the numbers were way under. A new deal was made capping Paramount’s investment at $65 million (at that time the budget was estimated to be $130 million) with Fox responsible for everything over that. It was one of the best deals ever made in show business. The budget ended up at $210 million with Paramount reaping over $660 million from domestic, not counting the rereleases of the film. Fox made $1.5 billion.
Production delays abounded and the budget spiraled out of control. Crew members got the flu. There were numerous injuries on the set. DP Caleb Deschanel was fired over “creative differences.” Russell Carpenter replaced him. “The enormity of it was overwhelming,” said Carpenter to EW. “So much of what we did would now be done in the computer. But with Titanic, when you see the 800-foot ship, it’s an 800-foot ship; when you see 500 extras running along the deck, it’s 500 extras. The difficulty of capturing that, getting the cameras set up, was an enormous challenge.” The long days seemed longer shooting in the freezing water, with cast and crew being fished out of the tank on the verge of hypothermia.
Mechanic decided to travel to Baja and confront Cameron with a list of proposed cuts. “Jim exploded,” Mechanic told Stephen Galloway in his biography of Sherry Lansing. “It was 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and if he’d had a gun in his trailer he would have shot me. The gist of it was, ‘If you’re so f—ing smart, you direct the picture.’ And he walked off. He stormed out of his trailer, pulled his chauffeur out of the car, and sped off. He was screaming. I said, ‘Shut down the shoot until he calls me,’ and got in my car and drove back to L.A.”
Peace was made between the two but “it was terrible,” said Lansing to Galloway. “The picture was going over and over. Everybody had written it off: it’s going to be the biggest disaster ever.” Galloway continues, “As word leaked out about the nightmare shoot, some of the cast and crew turned against their director. Winslet said at times she was “genuinely frightened of him,” while others called him a tyrant.”
Problems continued into postproduction. The hundreds of effects shots took way longer to execute than was anticipated. The studios fought over the hiring of extra editors. They fought over the release date – the original July 2 date was long deemed impossible to meet, and a final compromise was made for a December date – after Mechanic and Lansing’s VP Robert Friedman almost came to blows at the Cannes Film Festival. Even the trailers were fought over.
“We labored the last six months on Titanic in the absolute knowledge that the studio would lose $100 million. It was a certainty,” Cameron told the London Times.
Titanic finally opened domestically on December 19, 1997. Cameron refused to premier it in Los Angeles and Fox stole Paramount’s thunder by premiering it at the Tokyo International Film Festival on November 1.
The film was No. 1 at the domestic box office earning $28.6 million its first weekend and increasing its take to $35.6 million by the second weekend, staying at No. 1 for 15 consecutive weeks, a feat since unequaled, making back its money in its theatrical run, another feat. It ended up at $2.19 billion worldwide, the first film to break the billion-dollar mark, remaining the highest-grossing film ever till Cameron’s Avatar bested it in 2010. It was the second film to cross the $2 billion mark with its 3D release in 2012. It is the fourth highest-grossing film ever so far, adjusted for inflation. The film was re-released this year for its 25th anniversary.
On March 23, 1998, Titanic won 11 of the 14 Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture and Best Director. “I’m the king of the world,” shouted Cameron in his acceptance speech, appropriating the famous line from the film.
With three of the four highest-grossing movies ever made counting Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron still is.