The Actual Story of Making ‘The Titanic’ Movie in 1997
Before James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ came out in 2009, Titanic was his highest grossing film earning $2.19 billion, and though people were aware of that it was an extremely complex and high budget production, no-one actually knew the inside story of the blood, sweat and almost fist fights that went into the making of this film that eventually went on to be one the highest grossing films of all times and be nominated for 14 Academy Awards, winning 11 of them. And 20 years after the original release, James Cameron finally spoke up about what it took, and how much it took out of him, to bring the story of “Titanic” to life.
In 1996, Sherry Lansing, at the time a film studio executive at Paramount Pictures, was looking for exciting material and scripts fueled by intense emotions and dramas, that have driven her personal life. It was then that she had heard about a new project that was brewing up. The industry was buzzing with rumors about Titanic, Cameron’s first film since True Lies in 1994. He kept the plot of the film a secret, and even the most probing hands at Paramount could not get their hands on it. But when the wife of production chief John Goldwyn, actress Colleen Camp, auditioned for a role and the screenplay fell into Goldwyn’s hands, he passed it on to Lansing. She immediately knew that she had found cinematic gold. The way Cameron infused fiction into real life incidents thrilled her, and she fell in love with this almost Romeo and Juliet kind of story, set in 1912.
She wanted to get on board the project immediately, but Cameron was already locked in with Fox, and production was to start soon. This was until word began to spread about the film’s production cost, and that it was too steep for Fox to handle. There were later talks of a co- production with Universal, who already had their own share of problems with the production of Kevin Costner’s 1995 drama Waterworld, another seagoing drama.
William Mechanic of Fox Studios wanted to finance the project on his own as he believed in the story, but the stakes were too high and the budget was getting too steep. Everyone was growing anxious by the day. Peter Chernin, soon to be president of News Corp., insisted that Mechanic should consider the Paramount’s offer and gave them a deadline to close the deal. After a lot of negotiating, Fox and Paramount agreed to split the $109 million budget in half.
None of them had produced such a high budget film before, and red flags were popping up one after the other. They knew they were light by millions of dollars, as told by Lansing.
Worried and concerned, she sent Gallo, her head of physical production to Mexico, where Cameron was building the set. Gallo found himself looking at an operation bigger than anything he’s worked on or seen before, and his visit revealed a list of things that could go wrong.
Cameron was particular about his sets and even the most minute details of production. “Cameron wanted real wallpaper and things like that,” Gallo remembered. “I said, ‘Why don’t you build the sets and have them paint on the wallpaper? No one will ever know.’ He also wanted a special kind of submarine, of which there was only one in the world, in Russia, and Cameron had to have it.
On hearing this, Paramount suspected that they had been deceived and their concern turned to anger towards Fox studios. “He said, ‘Your budget’s running way over! You knew this! We’re going to sue you for fraud!’ ” recalled Mechanic.
Chernin was under a lot of pressure, as all the expenses were on him, and he did not want to make a film that was a failure. He negotiated a deal with Fox, where Paramount would pay a set amount for half the film and Fox would have to cover the rest. “We’d never have to pay a dime more,” Lansing explained, “no matter how overbudget the movie went.”
Assuming a worst-case scenario of $130 million, Paramount agreed to pay half of the amount, which was $65 million.
The initial members of the Titanic cast and crew were impressed when they landed in Rosarito, the shabby looking resort in Mexico, and saw the enormous 775-foot-long ‘boat’ that would be their shooting set. Though at first cited as an expense, the set proved to be a huge money saver as it provided James Cameron everything he needed for the shoot on site.
First Assistant Director Josh McLaglen recalls his first visit to Rosarito. “Jim and I drove down to what was then a vacant lot. We bought a model of the 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.”
Titanic was a combined effort of all the departments put together, and not just the camera or directorial team. The technicians, artists, mechanics, beauticians and costume designers put in equally hard work in this production. A good example of this would be costumer Deborah Scott, who spent months researching costumes in the early 1900’s. Her research would sometimes surprise even her. “I couldn’t believe how many birds were killed just to adorn women’s hats,” she exclaims, “I mean, hundreds of thousands!” In her own way, she got as close to the Titanic as she could. She recalls how after all the effort she would put into people’s costumes, Cameron would need more people in the water and just dump them in. At first, it devastated her, she said, ” 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.”
Director of Photography Russel Carpenter was brought in after the original DOP Caleb Deschanel was fired over ‘creative differences’. He recalls his only brief from Cameron was, “Well, you know how these films are supposed to look”, and that was it! “The enormity of it was overwhelming,” says Carpenter. “So much of what we did would now be done on 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.”
Apart from the magnificent work done on the CG by Digital Domain, most of the effects in Titanic were achieved mechanically, which was groundbreaking.
The shoot may have been over, but there was still money needed in post-production, and the relationship between the two studios was growing colder by the minute. Fox refused to invest extra cash, even after Chernin insisted. “We were carrying the movie on our books as a $55 million loss,” Chernin explained. “I went to Paramount and said, ‘Jon, you can’t make what you’re making while I’m still underwater. I’m going to get fired for this and you’re going to make money standing on my neck.’ He turned me down. I was very, very angry.” Cameron, meanwhile, was at war with both the studios.
This turmoil continued throughout the production, from the design of the posters to the release date, when it became clear that Cameron was not going to make the originally planned release date – July 4, 1997. After a conflict at the Cannes film festival where Friedman and Mechanic came close to a fist fight, they agreed on Christmas as the release date.
All said and done, with hard work comes a big outcome. Titanic ended up smashing all sorts of records, being the first film in Canada to cross the $1 billion mark and making a revenue of $2.19 billion.
As for Cameron, Titanic was nominated for a record-tying 14 Oscar Awards, of which he won 11, including 3 for Cameron. The day after the Oscars, Lansing had ordered for the photo of the moment where she and Landau had learned that their movie had won best picture.
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