Entertainment Weekly 1997

 

Titanic

by Paula Parisi

 

On a warm August day in Malibu, Calif., James Cameron sits inside a dark editing room staring at a video monitor. As the director scrambles to meet a release date that has already been pushed from July to December, his epic Titanic still runs long, and he's shaving footage in order to bring it down to what will be its final running time--three hours and 14 minutes. Call it artistic revenge. For Titanic-- the most technologically ambitious and most expensive film in Hollywood history-- has no doubt shaved some time off the director's life as well. Cameron points to one monitor, which shows his stars, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, wading waist-deep in seawater inside the ship's once-opulent first-class dining room. "Take a good look," he says, "because you're the last to see it." And with a single deft keystroke to his editing machine, the minute-long segment disappears. "That's a million-dollar cut," he notes, "because that's how much it cost to film it." A MILLION DOLLARS?

Consider that a mere drop in a very deep bucket. On Dec. 19, Titanic will finally steam into North American theaters at a price said to exceed $200 million, not including distribution and marketing. Half Merchant Ivory costume drama, half amusement-park thrill ride, it hopes to become a cross-gender, cross-genre, cross-demographic, cross-your-fingers megahit. It better be: Just to break even, Titanic will need to earn $400 million worldwide--and it'll have to do it on Cameron's name alone. Despite the prestige of a cast that includes three Oscar nominees, the film doesn't have a single international box office star.

Like Titanic the ship, which has inspired dozens of books, a Broadway musical, and several other films since it met its fate on April 15, 1912, Titanic the movie is already the stuff of legends, rumors, hearsay, and mysteries--including reports of injuries on the set, the director's tantrums, the still-unsolved poisoning of cast and crew in Nova Scotia, and the battles between Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox, the two studios that financed the film. And even now, as bad press is giving way to good buzz, Cameron's reputation hangs in the balance, as does the bottom line of Fox, which financed the bulk of the production.

Yet as he works, the 43-year-old Canadian-born director--who also wrote the script and who, for the first time, is serving as his own editor--seems as cool and implacable as an iceberg. Perhaps it's because he's been here and done this twice before (with the budget busters-turned-blockbusters Terminator 2 and True Lies). Cameron jokingly refers to Titanic as "a $190 million chick flick," but he's hardly oblivious to what's at stake. Taped to his editing machine is a suicide device--a razor blade with the simple instruction "Use only if film sucks."


THE ARDUOUS JOURNEY of Titanic began a decade ago. After seeing Robert Ballard's 1987 National Geographic documentary about the discovery of the wreck, Cameron jotted down these ideas: "Do story with bookends of present-day [wreckage] scene...intercut with memory of a survivor...needs a mystery or driving plot element."

Cameron spent the next several years telling different tales on film (including the watery precursor The Abyss) but eventually fleshed out his Titanic concept: A modern-day diving team led by Bill Paxton goes searching for a fabulous jewel reputed to have gone down with the ship, while the movie's central romance between young, wealthy Rose (Winslet) and third-class Jack (DiCaprio) unfolds in flashbacks, the lovers literally holding onto each other for dear life as the ship descends into the deep.

In early 1995, sitting before Fox chairman Peter Chernin and a cadre of studio executives, the director made his pitch. Recalls Cameron: "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.'"

At the time, Cameron was convinced he could make Titanic for under $100 million--even though he had already decided against shooting entirely with models and would insist on building a full-size replica of at least part of the gigantic liner. Chernin was interested, but not enough to give the go-ahead for the movie without further budget analysis. In the meantime, Cameron asked for a couple million dollars to fund a deep-sea dive off the coast of Nova Scotia in order to get footage of the ship itself (the wreckage shown in the movie includes shots taken from the ocean floor, as well as detailed re-creations). "It was an unusual request," the director admits, "but not an unusual amount of money to get going on a major piece of production." It was also the last time the phrase "a couple million dollars" would be used in connection with Titanic.


SEPT. 8, 1995: The North Atlantic, about 700 miles east of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Russian submersible Mir 1--one of two subs Cameron secured for the dive--hit the water at 11:25 a.m. After a two-hour fall, Cameron arrived at the wreckage of the Titanic two and a half miles below the surface.

Mike Cameron, 41, the director's brother and a former aerospace engineer, had spent six months designing a 35-mm camera system, which was mounted on Mir 1 and encased in titanium to withstand 10,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. Each sub made 12 dives over 28 days to Titanic's 400-foot bow, which remains remarkably well preserved (the rest of the ship, which broke in two as it sank, lies in a scrap heap about half a mile away).

Taking the submersible as close to the exterior as possible and sending a video camera in a remote-operated vehicle into the ship, the expedition produced extraordinary footage: surprisingly intact staterooms with ornate woodwork, pristine chandeliers, cabin doors still on their hinges, and piles of furniture that looked to have been swept into a corner by a flood of water. "Nobody's gotten imagery like this before," testifies veteran Titanic diver Ralph White, who has made 23 dives to the wreck.


THRILLED BY THE FOOTAGE , Cameron began mapping out the cost and logistics of the production and seeking a go-ahead from Fox. He proposed re-creating the 820-foot vessel in several sections, rather than using an existing ship on the open sea.

But where and how to do the filming? Joined by producer Jon Landau and executive producer Rae Sanchini (president of Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment), the director considered blimp hangars, rock quarries, and submarine plants in England, Australia, and Poland. By spring 1996, he'd decided that a custom-built studio, where a giant tank for filming could be built, was the way to go, and he settled on a site in Rosarito, Mexico, which offered cheap labor and real estate. Fox liked the idea (a state-of-the-art production facility would be a sound investment), but still withheld its green light; the budget was already expected to exceed the $100 million Fox was willing to pay.

Cameron took out his calculator and tried to sway Fox by trimming a million here and there--but he did it in a way only Cameron could. For starters, instead of building sections, he suggested creating a larger, more expensive model of the ship--770 feet, or about 90 percent to scale, which, he argued, would save money by cutting down on the number of pricey visual-effects shots. The next step was getting stars attached to the film, but since Jack was 20 in the script and Rose 17, his options were limited. Looking for a Rose, described by Cameron as "an Audrey Hepburn type," he considered Gwyneth Paltrow, Claire Danes, and Gabrielle Anwar. For Jack--envisioned as a young Jimmy Stewart--the shortlist included Chris O'Donnell and Matthew McConaughey, though Cameron ultimately decided they were both too old.


WHEN DICAPRIO AND WINSLET --both now 22--were brought to Cameron's attention by casting director Mali Finn, he was initially uncertain, and even after Winslet's test impressed him, he reserved judgment. She sent him a single rose with a card signed "From Your Rose" and lobbied him by phone. "You don't understand!" she pleaded one day when she reached him by mobile phone in his Humvee. "I am Rose! I don't know why you're even seeing anyone else!" Her enthusiasm eventually won him over.

DiCaprio--known not so much as a leading man but as a troubled kid in William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet and The Basketball Diaries--seemed far less eager. At a casting meeting, he refused to read for the part with Winslet, but Cameron insisted. "He read it once, then started goofing around, and I could never get him to focus on it again," says the director. "But for one split second, a shaft of light came down from the heavens and lit up the forest."

Cameron was sold on DiCaprio, but DiCaprio wasn't sold on the part and suggested making Jack more...interesting. "Look," Cameron told him, "I'm not going to make this guy brooding and neurotic. I'm not going to give him a tic and a limp and all the things you want." Finally DiCaprio signed on and received his first million-plus paycheck. Paxton was cast as the contemporary treasure hunter whose expedition propels the plot; Gloria Stuart as the elder Rose, whose flashbacks tell the story; and Billy Zane as Winslet's snooty fiancé. While the principals are pure fiction, several supporting characters are taken from history, including the nouveau riche good ol' gal Molly Brown, played with more than a passing resemblance to the real thing by Kathy Bates.

By the time Titanic got its green light in late May 1996, Fox was already imagining red ink. Cameron had a long, expensive history of going over budget and over schedule with his films--a habit redeemed by his profit margins. Still, Titanic wasn't your typical Cameron movie. The director had never attempted a period piece or straight-on romance before. So Fox decided to cut its risk by bringing in a partner--an increasingly common occurrence in the era of the Event Movie. Initially, Fox approached Universal. "I thought it was a very good screenplay," says Universal Pictures chairman Casey Silver. "I wanted to say yes but couldn't because Fox was going to run the production, and I didn't feel like I'd have any control over the process."

As negotiations dragged on, Paramount's Sherry Lansing and John Goldwyn heard that Fox was looking to form a partnership and quickly decided that they wanted to strike a deal: Paramount would handle domestic distribution, and Fox would get international rights. But at the last minute, Lansing's boss, Viacom Entertainment Group chairman Jonathan Dolgen, added another demand--that Paramount's investment be capped at $65 million. Any overages would be Fox's problem. Fox, up against the wall, agreed.

A few days after the papers were signed, Fox broke ground on the new Mexican studio. Fifty metric tons of dynamite were detonated to create a 17 million-gallon water tank that would eventually hold the doomed ship. Bigger explosions were on the way.


ON THE NIGHT OF Aug. 9-- only three weeks into production-- more than 50 members of Titanic's cast and crew suddenly found themselves taking a long, strange, unexpected trip on the Nova Scotia coast.

The location, where Cameron was shooting the modern-day sequences with Paxton, was supposed to be merely a pit stop. But after a dinner break, recalls actor Lewis Abernathy, who plays Paxton's cynical sidekick (and who fortuitously ate at his hotel that night), havoc struck on the set: "There were people just rolling around, completely out of it. Some of them said they were seeing streaks and psychedelics. I thought it was food poisoning. Really bad seafood can make you hallucinate, and this caterer was big on clams. Jim was being loaded into the back of this van. I was just shocked at the way he looked. One eye was completely red, like the Terminator eye. A pupil, no iris, beet red. The other eye looked like he'd been sniffing glue since he was 4."

A lab report confirmed that the director and his crew had been poisoned by lobster chowder laced with PCP (though a couple of victims familiar with hallucinogens have insisted it felt like LSD). The symptoms abated quickly, however, and work resumed 24 hours later. The culprits are still at large.


NOVEMBER 1996: Miles before reaching Fox's ocean-side Mexican studio via winding highways, you come to the top of a hill, and the RMS Titanic comes into view. Inside the tightly guarded studio gates, at the edge of the facility, is the 600-by-600-foot tank, spanned at its deepest point by the giant vessel, which rests on a steel frame manipulated by massive hydraulics. The tank remains empty during the early part of the shoot, waiting to be filled for the scenes in which lifeboats are lowered and dead-body dummies are scattered across the water (much more water will be added digitally). On some days you'll find Cameron playing God here, riding a 162-foot-tall tower crane, directing a camera, and sweeping past the action on the deck of the boat.

On one breezy, chilly evening, Cameron was preparing to start one of the movie's trickiest scenes--the grand finale, in which a section of the replica of the boat would be lifted and upended, sending 100 stunt people tumbling onto giant foam cushions.

It was not the best time to visit the notoriously mercurial director if you happened to be a studio executive bearing budget reductions.

Bill Mechanic, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, hadn't been involved with Titanic in the early stages; he'd assumed responsibility only a month earlier when his boss, Chernin, had been promoted to president and COO of News Corp., the studio's parent company. But Mechanic did the math and shuddered: Less than halfway through a long production schedule, Titanic's meter was clicking around the $50 million mark, with everything from construction costs to unexpectedly high electric bills to security (heightened since the Nova Scotia incident) contributing to the tally. Costs simply had to be contained.

Mechanic was welcomed into Cameron's tiny trailer and, after some chitchat, handed the director a two-page typed list of scenes the studio wanted cut from the script in order to save money. Cameron looked at the memo. "If you want to cut my film, you'll have to fire me," he threatened hotly. "And to fire me, you'll have to kill me."


MECHANIC LEFT FOR L.A. THAT NIGHT. The list went with him. When tempers cooled, they spoke again, and Cameron agreed to make a few changes. For example, instead of tilting the set at a three-degree angle--a construction delay that would have meant three weeks of downtime (at $200,000­$300,000 per day)--Cameron would get the effect by simply tilting his camera and adding special effects later. However, the boat itself would still have to be tilted six degrees for some scenes.

For 10 days in November, Cameron hurled and tossed an army of stuntmen around the deck of the Titanic, capturing the ship's final, violent pitch into the sea. One stuntman broke an ankle, another cracked a rib, still another cracked a cheekbone. "Luckily, nobody was hurt badly," says stunt coordinator Simon Crane, who points out that such injuries are not uncommon during big action sequences. "We padded the set as much as we could so people could hit stuff and bounce." Cameron also minimized the risk by using fewer stunt people on the set and digitally augmenting their numbers later.

By now, though, the massive Titanic production had become a front-page staple in the press, and the stunt-related injuries caused yet another flood of ink. Reports rolled out about the dangerous working conditions, 90-hour workweeks, endless night shoots, and the director's angry outbursts ("If anything was the slightest bit wrong, he would lose it," Winslet complained to the Times of London). Even a production assistant's car wreck and a construction worker's emergency splenectomy--incidents not directly related to filming--were cited as examples of a director and production run amok.

Cameron finally fired back with a defiant 1,000-word article in the Los Angeles Times, denying the reports and defending his methods. "Am I driven?" he wrote. "Yes. Absolutely. Out of control? Never. Unsafe? Not on my watch."

"He's so impassioned about what he's doing," says Danny Nucci, who plays Jack's free-spirited Italian buddy. "And because he has the power and the money at this point in his career, he'll redo the shot, change it around, rehearse it, or shoot it again and again if that's what it takes. Yeah, he'd yell and scream, but he was just yelling because he was frustrated. After three months, I got used to it."

Others are less forgiving. "Cameron loves pain," says a crew member who has worked for him before. The director replies: "I don't love pain. I love results, and sometimes results require pain."

Last December, the cast and crew took a much-needed three-week break. But there was no Christmas cheer for Bill Mechanic. Less than two months after his Mexican standoff with Cameron, the budget figures were adding up more alarmingly than ever. "Nobody was ready for a movie this big," Mechanic says. "It was on a massive scale. No one had ever tried anything like it."

The director met with Mechanic in L.A. "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 recalls. "So I said, 'Okay, we're f---ed. It's my responsibility. Take my salary.'" Forfeiting his director's fee and profit participation, Cameron gave up what could amount to tens of millions of dollars. (He kept the seven-figure sum he received for the screenplay.)


THE NIGHTMARE THAT haunted Cameron during production hasn't been forgotten: He's on the real vessel, headed for the iceberg that will destroy this monument to hubris and take more than 1,500 lives. He knows the iceberg is waiting, and yet what worries him is the ship's decor. "We got the set wrong!" he screams. "That door opens in! We thought it opened out!"

But Cameron showed little fear on March 21 and 22, 1997--though those final two days of shooting were among the most dangerous. The underwater implosion of the Titanic's bridge involved crashing thousands of gallons of water through tempered glass. Cameron slipped into a wet suit and manned the camera himself. He then retreated to his editing room with about 12 days of footage--nearly three times the actual length of the voyage. As Cameron pieced the film into a cohesive narrative, 18 F/X shops would spend the next several months laboring over more than 500 visual effects.

But by now, the most volatile action had shifted to the offices of Fox and Paramount, whose alliance was starting to pop rivets and split apart. When it became clear that more editors were needed for postproduction, for instance, the two studios squabbled over who should pay. "It was only about money for them," sniffs a high-ranking Fox executive. "It was not about getting things right. [Paramount] is risk averse. It was like being involved with somebody who didn't understand the business. They're not playing at the same level." ("This statement does not merit comment," retorts Paramount marketing and distribution chief Rob Friedman.)

But money wasn't the only issue. A major brawl was shaping up over Titanic's release date, which had originally been set for July 2. When it became clear that Cameron wouldn't have the film finished in time, Fox, eager to get the cash flow going, pushed for an August release. Paramount said that was too late to tap the summer audience and proposed a holiday release in November. The suggestion was unacceptable to Fox, which was already planning to release two of its biggest investments of the year--Alien Resurrection and Anastasia--around Thanksgiving. At one point, at May's Cannes Film Festival, Mechanic and Friedman reportedly negotiated so energetically that fisticuffs almost ensued.

In the end, the studios compromised and arrived at Dec. 19, a date that would--if nothing else--maximize Titanic's Oscar chances. But then, as Paramount geared up to open the movie domestically with great ballyhoo in December, Fox stole its thunder by scheduling Titanic's overseas premiere at the Tokyo Film Festival on Nov. 1


IN THE END, OF COURSE, what will ultimately determine if everyone has won or if all has been lost is that final print of Titanic Cameron is fine-tuning at his Malibu editing bay. "Filmmaking is war," he says, sounding like George C. Scott at the beginning of Patton. "There's no other way to look at it. It's a great battle. A battle between Business and Aesthetics."

While Titanic's next battle will be waged at the box office during an especially competitive holiday season, Cameron has yet to pick his next combat zone. It could be Avatar, his futuristic script featuring computer-generated actors. Or he may produce Anne Rice's The Mummy, which Fox has optioned for him. Or make a sequel to True Lies. But Cameron's immediate plans include only a honeymoon with his new wife, Linda Hamilton, his Terminator star and girlfriend of several years.

Except for the break he took to get married, Cameron spent the entire summer in his dark editing room, staring at a monitor, raising water levels, shifting images. "A responsible director," he says, "is like a great race-car driver. They still have to brake when you go into a turn, or they hit the wall. I've never hit a wall yet." Then he laughs. "I came close on this movie." He fixes on the monitor again, fingers flying across the keyboard with a pianist's glissando strokes. And the razor blade sits close at hand.

 

Thanks a lot to Treggy !

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