Cameron’s alleged excesses were soon leaked to the media, who began gleefully reporting that the shoot was out of control. The piquancy of the title was seized on mercilessly: Titanic was going down, taking Jim Cameron and an unrecoupable amount of studio money with it. Rumours abounded that the production was on the brink of being shuttered and Cameron summarily fired. “That was never an option,” counters Landau. “And I think that’s what frustrated [Fox] the most. When you sign on for a Jim Cameron film, you get Jim Cameron.” Still, asked whether Cameron’s extravagance, his legendary perfectionism and refusal to compromise contributed to spiralling costs — as press reports insisted at the time — he admits to a grain of truth. “But [the press] weren’t seeing what we were seeing,” he adds. “We knew we were making something magical.”
“Jim was never extravagant,” says McLaglen. “If he incurred more time and expense, it was because he corrected something that needed correcting. Everything’s planned out, but shit happens. You break a manifold or a hydraulic line, or the computer’s not sinking the set at the correct rate, making it unsafe. How many people build a house budgeted at a million dollars and when it’s done, it’s a million-three? The builder says, ‘Well, we tried to anticipate everything but something came up and we had to fix it.’ That’s what happened to us.”
|The press weren’t seeing what we were seeing. We knew we were making something magical. |
With a potential final cost of over $200 million — an astronomical amount, even by Cameron standards — the Fox-Paramount partnership quickly soured. Fearing the studio’s investment stood no hope of seeing a return, Paramount insisted it be capped at $65 million, leaving Fox to pick up the tab for any subsequent overages. The deal, struck by then-Fox studio chief Peter Chernin, was described as “one of the better deals since the Indians sold Manhattan”. Such is the benefit of hindsight. At the time, no-one expected Titanic to make a penny and a grim mood of damage control set in at Fox. “I remember talking to Jim when everything in the press was about what a disaster it was and he said, ‘Well, I guess after this I have to go make something profitable. This’ll be my art film.’”
Tired of beating Cameron with his own tattered schedule and ballooning balance sheet, the press found another bone to chew on: the conditions on set and how Cameron, apparently a Colonel Kurtz figure plunging ahead up a river of no return, was driving his cast and crew to exhaustion and beyond, sacrificing their health and safety to his doomed grand folly. “There is no-one Jim demands more of than himself,” says Landau. “And when you’re working with an army, you need a general. Jim is a general.”
“Of course we worked long days,” says Carpenter, “but that’s not unusual. The hard thing was working long days in water, just moving around in water, how slow and exhausting that is. At the end of the day, everyone was ready to collapse.” Not surprisingly, water was the source of most discomfort — and a genuine safety concern. “We hired about 20 lifeguards from San Diego,” says McLaglen. “Each lifeguard was responsible for ten people. The big tank was only three-and-a-half feet deep, but it was absolutely freezing. We were pulling people out on the verge of hypothermia.”
“I wisely decided that Cal would never get wet,” chortles Billy Zane. “He’d step on people’s heads like a cat before he’d let that happen. I managed to convince Jim it was in character — you’ve got a thousand people soaking wet and only this asshole doesn’t get a drop on him. Very sly, but boy was it practical.”
Zane also has a slightly less charitable take on the hardships than those further down the credit list. “Were people unhappy because they were cold and wet?” he says. “What movie did they think we were making? It was hard, of course it was hard. But remove the obvious and the whinging and get on with the work. No small task, and everyone went above and beyond. Still, there was a lot of belly-aching. Did stuntmen get hurt? Did someone not get enough sleep? It’s not for me to say. But I’m with Patton in the sick ward on this one.”
That said, not even Zane would deny that Cameron can be — how to put this politely? — a hard task master, and it was a rare crew-member indeed who did not, at some point, feel the rough edge of his tongue.
(Clockwise from left) Cameron keeps a close eye on leads Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. DiCaprio and Winslet in the famous scene. Billy Zane as Caledon 'Cal' Hockley.
“Jim can be very intimidating,” allows Deborah Scott. She recalls one instance where she had designed a magnificent hat for Kate Winslet. “We were shooting a scene where Kate comes out of a tea party having decided that she’s had it with this life,” she says. “She tears her hat off and throws it into the water. We shot the exterior on the giant set. We were all way over on one side of the boat and Kate was on the other. She came out and Jim decided he did not like her hat at all. The whole set froze while he ran from one side of the ship to the other, ripped it off her head and threw it into the water himself.” To Scott, watching another irreplaceable creation hit the briny must have been the equivalent of seeing a million-dollar deep-sea camera crash into the wreckage of the Titanic and float away.
“Jim’s biggest concern was contingency,” says Zane. “Meaning, if the third gun jams and the sun’s coming up and to not get the shot costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the fourth gun is down the elevator, across the lot sitting in a truck for some stupid reason, you’re going to get your ass chewed. Or you’re going to get fired. Was James hard on people? He was hard on people who weren’t doing their job.”
Ultimately, though, despite the bruised egos, skinned knees and water-shrivelled extremities (albeit with the benefit of hindsight, a boatload of Oscars and a box-office haul approaching the national debt of Greece), most people’s memories of Titanic are of the once-in-a-lifetime, cherish-to-the-grave variety. And most reflect both the agony and the ecstasy.
For Russell Carpenter, the moment that sums up Titanic for him was the scene where several tons of water crash through the glass dome of the first class salon, pummelling a crowd of stuntpeople and obliterating the solid oak staircase. Needless to say, a second take would have been on the costly side. Carpenter and his gaffer spent days preparing the set-up. For safety reasons the dome was, in fact, made of paraffin, which meant only a single light could be placed on it. On Cameron’s command, water thundered through the set with such force, it tripped the safety back-up and shut out all the lights.
|Was James hard on people? He was hard on people who weren’t doing their job. |
“It was absolute chaos!” says Carpenter. “You couldn’t see a thing. When the water dissipated I looked up and the only light left on was the bulb in the dome.” A reporter described Cameron viewing the playback as “like a man studying the smallprint in his contract with the devil”.
“I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to kill myself,’” says Carpenter. “I couldn’t run away to Mexico; I was already there.” By some miracle, however, the plucky lone bulb lit the scene perfectly. “But I didn’t know that,” Carpenter laughs. “I had to sweat it out ’til I saw the dailies the next day.”
“I remember sitting in a hot tub on set with Jim,” says Billy Zane. “Me in my tuxedo, Jim in a wetsuit, someone randomly handing me a hotdog. I had to chuckle. We were beyond reason, beyond logic. That’s when I knew we were in the zone. I thought, ‘My God, we must be making something special.’”
“What sums it up for me,” says Josh McLaglen, “was Jim on the tower crane. He’s got 2,000 extras on three decks, running for their lives, and he picks out Kate and Leo. A masterpiece of choreography. It felt like you were right there, at the scene. It epitomised the scope and spectacle of the movie, and the horror and emotion of the real event.”
“When we wrapped the last scene,” says Jon Landau, “water crashing onto the bridge and Captain Smith going down with his ship, I called my wife. I said, ‘We did it. And no-one died.’”