Two-and-a-half miles beneath the waves of the North Atlantic, it began to dawn on James Cameron that something was wrong. Peering through the tiny porthole of Russian minisub Mir 1, he could hear the insistent ‘ping’ of the sonar accelerating alarmingly. Suddenly, a cliff face of rusting steel, studded with rivets the size of a breakfast grapefruit, emerged from the gloom. He realised the sub was about to collide with the hull of the Titanic. Such a collision, he knew, could crack the lens of the camera pointed at the wreck and, under 1.1 million pounds of pressure, send a high-speed tsunami of seawater blasting down the camera’s titanium cylinder into the shell of the sub, killing him and his crew in an instant. (For good reason, the cylinder had been nicknamed The Cannon.) To avert catastrophe, Cameron attempted to deflect the blow with the camera’s pan and tilt controls, aiming the lens away from the hull. The controls froze, as they were wont to do if turned too fast. With superhuman self-possession, Cameron adjusted the mechanism’s gain control and, as disaster loomed in his window, forced himself to turn the controls as slowly as possible. The camera gradually swung away, crashing into the wreck at a 45-degree angle. “I tense for the thunder crack of implosion,” Cameron later wrote in his diary. “Lights out in 2/10,000ths of a second.” It didn’t come. He had done just enough for the camera housing, which sheared off and disappeared, to absorb the impact.
“It was very exciting, but also very worrying,” says producer Jon Landau who, at the time, was aboard the Russian dive ship Mstislav Keldysh, blissfully unaware of the drama going on below him.
It’s stories like these that form the Titanic legend, of James Cameron’s staggeringly ambitious plan to tell the tale of the most infamous maritime disaster in history through the prism of lavish romantic drama, an undertaking that required building an entire studio and the largest standing set of all time, and which entailed a shoot of such prolonged, budget-busting complexity, physical endurance and emotional intensity it put previous cinematic behemoths — the Waterworlds, the Cleopatras, the Heaven’s Gates — to shame.
But as compelling as Cameron’s death-defying antics certainly are — his relentless, uncompromising quest to bring his vision to the screen — they do not paint the whole picture. Titanic was born from the labours of an army of actors, technicians, craftsmen and artists who all, under Cameron’s command, with imminent disaster often looming in their own particular windows, rose to the occasion with ingenuity, fortitude and unshakeable belief in the project. Costumer Deborah Scott is a case in point.
In preparation for the most challenging job of her career, Scott spent months researching every available scrap of information on how people dressed in 1912, poring over newspapers, magazines, catalogues, personal journals and archives, including that of the White Star Line. So intensive was her research, it often surprised even her.
“I couldn’t believe how many birds were killed just to adorn women’s hats,” she exclaims, “I mean, hundreds of thousands!” She also scoured the globe to amass a museum’s-worth of original pieces, ensuring more than 60 per cent of costumes seen in the film were from the Edwardian era. Scott’s search might not have sent her to the depths of the ocean, but it was, for a costumer, as close to revisiting Titanic as you can get. And it had its own moments of drama.
“I remember one day,” she says, “there was a group of really fancily dressed people in a lifeboat, all wearing original clothes: gloves, shoes, jewellery, everything. And Jim decided he wanted more people in the water, so he just dumped them in! There was shock and horror among the costume crew. I almost had a heart attack. This was the first week and I was thinking, ‘Is this how it’s going to be?!’ When Jim demands something, you’ve got to give it to him. But it was a bad day for us and we had to decide how we were going to handle it. You just keep on sewing,” she laughs. “We knew at the end everyone was going to be in the water so it was a race against time.”
(Clockwise from top left) Cameron, Winslet and DiCaprio get wet. Winslet hangs out on set. The massive Titanic model built for the shoot.
For most members of the cast and crew, Titanic began in earnest when they arrived in Rosarito, the shabby beach resort on Mexico’s Baja California peninsula chosen as the site for the studio complex, vast water tanks and ten-storey-high, 775-foot-long ‘Big Boat’ set that would accommodate the shoot. Often cited as symbolic of the production’s excess, the studio was, according to Landau, a huge money-saver, providing almost everything Cameron and his crew needed on site. Nevertheless, it was a monumental undertaking. First Assistant Director Josh McLaglen remembers his first visit to Rosarito. “Jim and I drove down to what was then a vacant lot. We bought a model of Titanic in the back of a pickup, carried it out and set it up on two sawhorses. Then Jim started studying the elements. He triangulated the light, the solstice of the sun, the wind direction, the position of the ship, how close it would have to be to the cliffs so we could see the ocean. It was incredible, watching him envision everything we needed to do to pull the movie off.” Later arrivals were no less impressed.
“It was awe-inspiring,” recalls Billy Zane (who played Cal Hockley, Kate Winslet’s villainous fiancé). “They’d built an entire city to make a film! When I showed up there were three tower cranes spinning against the skyline and thousands of employees milling about. It was like the glory days of the studios: Cecil B. DeMille, MGM. And getting off the freight elevator at the upper deck, you felt the heft of the bannisters, the metal railings, the weight of the doors and you thought, ‘This is tangible, this is solid.’ It was like being there on the Titanic. It was a truly immersive experience.” He laughs at his no-pun-intended pun. “Nothing could have prepared you for the sheer logistics of it.”
Director of photography Russell Carpenter was brought in after original DP Caleb Deschanel was fired over ‘creative differences’. He recalls his brief from Cameron. “He said, ‘Well, you know how these films are supposed to look.’ That was it! I was on another film so I was only able to get down at weekends to see what was happening. It was literally like witnessing the Gold Rush, buildings were going up that fast.”
“Did I ever think, ‘What the hell have I got myself into?’” laughs Landau. “Hell, yes! But then I’d drive over the hill and see that ship, just dominating the coastline...”
|Did I ever think, ‘What the hell have I got myself into? Hell, yes! |
With footage from the wreck and the modern-day sequences in the can, Cameron and his crew began shooting coverage on stages at Rosarito and in tanks near San Diego. Construction on the Big Boat was, inevitably, running over schedule. “We were shooting underwater shots,” says McLaglen, “buying time while the set was built. It was like a skyscraper going up.” It was, given that skyscrapers have been built before, more problematic than that. The Big Boat was an unprecedented feat of engineering. And nothing, to echo Billy Zane, could have prepared its makers for the sheer logistics of the thing. To effect the sinking, the ship was constructed in sections, each controlled by massive hydraulic risers. “The sinking process,” says McLaglen, “took it from three degrees, then to six degrees. The forward section had a riser allowing it to sink 30 feet. The poop deck could go from zero to 90 degrees, all the way from level to 12 o’clock. That was really hair-raising.” What was no less hair-raising, particularly to 20th Century Fox, was the cost. Almost the moment ground was broken at Rosarito it became obvious that the original $110 million budget would not begin to cover it. Tensions between the studio — which partnered up with another major, Paramount — and the filmmakers began to rise. Meanwhile, the challenges of filming on a set the length of two football pitches and the height of an office block were becoming apparent.
“The enormity of it was overwhelming,” says Carpenter. “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.”
Aside from the groundbreaking CG work done by Digital Domain, most of Titanic’s epic effects were achieved mechanically. Again, a colossal and unprecedented venture.
“I think everyone on the handshake deal Jim and Jon made with Fox knew it was going to be big,” says McLaglen. “And Jim pitched it honestly. He said, ‘I’m going to make the best version of this movie possible, and you’re going to see it all in-camera.’ I’d say 85 per cent of what you see in Titanic was done in-camera.” And given what you do see, the RMS Titanic breaking apart and sinking before your eyes, that’s mind-boggling. “And a lot of stuff just didn’t pan out,” says Carpenter. “There was a scene in steerage where the ship’s sinking and Kate and Leo are looking for a way out. They see a man holding his child. And what was supposed to happen was a wall of water exploding through a door and washing them away. There were tons of water, but for some reason it looked like your washing machine had overflowed. It had to be re-shot, and with Jim if Plan A doesn’t work, Plan B is going to be a lot more challenging. It’s never a retreat. We feared Plan B.” In this case, Plan B was to recreate the set-up outside on the lot and pound it with triple the amount of water, cascading from elevated dump tanks and smashing the impromptu set to matchwood. The move shocked even Cameron’s key crew members. It was a scene Fox had insisted he cut.