I’m writing this post on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. At 11:40 pm on April 14th, the ship had its encounter with the iceberg. It would sink two hours and forty minutes later, with a loss of over 1500 souls. It was a monument to the hubris of the time, the feeling that human ingenuity could overcome anything the natural world threw at it. In the end it became a gravestone for those attitudes, and remains a cautionary tale.
In 1996, James Cameron began filming his dream project: a retelling of the story of the ship’s maiden and final voyage. The story had been filmed twice in the 1950’s. Hollywood’s version, 1953’s Titanic, starred Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, and a very young Robert Wagner, and was a total melodrama. Not only did the band play Nearer My God To Thee at the end, everyone left on the ship sang the hymn, just before the final plunge into the sea. In 1958, the British Film Industry produced A Night To Remember, based on Walter Lord’s excellent book. With a script by thriller writer Eric Ambler, it eschewed any fake story lines and aimed for an accurate depiction of the tragedy. It starred Kenneth More as Second Officer Herbert Lightoller, who survived the sinking by clinging to an overturned lifeboat. (More on Mr. Lightoller later)
Robert Ballard’s footage of the wreck on the bottom of the ocean, shot after the ship’s final resting place was discovered, was an inspiration for Cameron’s The Abyss. After seeing Night to Remember, Cameron wrote a detailed treatment for a new movie, blending historical detail with a love story. He pitched the story to movie executives as “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic.” At that time he had the clout to make just about anything he wanted to make, thanks to the great success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and True Lies. Paramount and Fox agreed to jointly bankroll the movie, with Paramount handling the domestic release while Fox took the international rights.
The beginning and ending of the film, with the current day exploration of the wreck, was always part of the story. Cameron used some of the production money to mount actual dives on the wreck, and his brother, an engineer, created a crush-proof camera to allow him to film on the ocean floor. Some of that footage made it into the film, interspersed with special effects shots.
Cameron knew he couldn’t go small in telling the story. In Mexico, he created his own studio (at a cost of $40 million) with three sound stages, a huge wet stage and an outdoor tank that was six acres in size, holding 17 million gallons of water. In the tank he built a 9/10th scale model of the Titanic, working from the original plans for the ship, on a platform that could be lowered into the water and then raised. The ship was recreated in exacting detail, to the point that the carpet and lifeboat davits were made by the same companies who had supplied the original Titanic. And then Cameron started shooting. And kept on shooting.
It went a month over schedule, around 150 days, and the budget expanded like a dry sponge tossed into water. The original budget was $130 million but in the end it passed the $200 million mark. Cameron gave back his director’s fee to the studios to keep the cameras rolling. The movie had been scheduled for a summer release, but by April it was clear the special effects wouldn’t be ready in time, and the release was moved back to December 1997.
While they’ve gone on to become major stars, it should be remembered that both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett were at the very beginning of their adult careers after beginning acting as children. DiCaprio had appeared on both Growing Pains and the soap opera Santa Barbara. As a teenager he’d received a supporting actor nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and had done some well-received movies such as Romeo+Juliet and Marvin’s Room, but he’d also appeared in the western bomb The Quick and the Dead. After children’s roles in England, Winslett as a teen appeared in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures as well as Sense and Sensibility. Then again, she also did A Kid In King Arthur’s Court. They were not yet names that could sell a picture.
The iconic scene where Jack introduces Rose to “flying” on the bow of the ship was a bit of fortunate timing. A gorgeous sunset took place and the scene was quickly set up to take advantage of the light. In another iconic scene, where Jack sketches the naked Rose, you see Leo’s eyes about the sketch pad, but the hands that are creating the sketch actually belong to Cameron, who was an illustrator before going into films.
Apart from the Jack and Rose story, the details of the voyage are wonderfully accurate. For instance, there’s the scene where the White Star line owner, Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) pressures Captain Smith (Bernard Hill) to increase speed. In the background you see a woman in a green dress at the next table. In reality, that woman survived and testified at the inquiry into the sinking about that conversation. Later in the film, when Jack sneaks into First Class and grabs a coat, he walks past a boy playing with a top on the deck. That scene was based on a picture taken aboard the Titanic. The boy, Douglas Spedden, survived the sinking along with his family.
The previous movies had Titanic sinking without breaking apart. While there was testimony that the boat had split in half, it was discounted by 2nd Officer Lightover at the inquiry, and the official report reflected his point of view. When the wreckage was discovered, though, it clearly showed the hull had broken apart. Interestingly, Lightover took part in another piece of maritime history twenty-eight years later, with a much happier result. He was one of the sailors who piloted their private boats across the English Channel in 1940 to save the British Army in the Miracle at Dunkirk.
The budget was equal, with inflation taken into account, to the mega-failure Cleopatra, and its runaway costs brought to mind Heaven’s Gate (which sunk United Artists studio). There was some talk that Titanic would equal those failures, but that faded when Paramount showed a five-minute clip of the movie at the Sho-West movie exhibitor’s convention in March of 1997. It had the attendees cheering, and executives who’d seen rough cuts of the film believed they had a classic on their hands. That was good news for Fox, whose slate of major films that year included Volcano, Speed 2, and Alien Resurrection, none of which was a major hit or an artistic triumph. Still, there was skepticism that even a great picture could not justify the budget. The thought was it would need to make $500 million worldwide to break even after marketing and distribution costs.
When Titanic was finally released, it took the top spot at the box office and wouldn’t let it go. Usually you have a major hit if a film remains on top for three weeks, as Hunger Games did this month. Titanic remained on top for 3 ½ months! (It was finally displaced by, of all movies, Lost In Space with William Hurt and Gary Oldman.) At the Oscars that year, it truly was the king of the world, winning eleven. It only lost out on the acting awards for Kate Winslett and Gloria Stuart. It is, I believe, the only time two actresses were nominated for playing the same character in the same movie.
In the end it became the first movie to surpass a billion dollars in worldwide gross. With rising ticket prices, that mark has been matched by ten other movies, and of course Cameron’s next movie, Avatar, obliterated that mark by going over two billion dollars. A better way of rating the success of a movie, though, is by looking at the total number of tickets sold. That eliminates inflation from the equation. On that list, Gone With The Wind remains triumphant. Titanic is sixth on the list, but it is the only movie in the last twenty years that makes it into the top ten.
Now, tied in with the 100th anniversary of the sinking, Cameron has brought out a 3-D version of the movie. At a cost of $16 million, the film was digitally redone, but it is not merely a gimmick. In the original film, Cameron used 3-D rendering for the special effects shots of the people on the deck while the camera panned the length of the boat. The new version actually opens up the film. Many of the original shots lend themselves to the process. Now we can fully experience the vision that Cameron had of the film in his mind. (The process also allowed Cameron to correct one part of the background of the film. When it was originally released, an astronomer complained that the stars in the sky were incorrect for the night of the sinking. For the new release, Cameron went in and redid the night sky to show the correct placement of the stars.)
It is worth returning to Titanic, even if you saw it in the theaters when it first came out. I found I picked up much more detail in the shots seeing it in 3-D. If you are one of the people who have only seen Titanic on DVD or a television broadcast, you need to take advantage of this chance to experience it on the big screen. It begs to be seen in a titanic setting.
NOTE: In preparing this post, I was helped by two articles that appeared in the now-defunct print version of Premiere Magazine: Cameron’s Way, by Anne Thompson (August 1997) and Magnificent Obsession by John H. Richardson (December 1997)
A Postscript: This past weekend, Hunger Games remained on top of the box office for a fourth week, which is a rare feat. However, thanks to a 3rd place finish domestically and an incredibly strong showing overseas, Titanic has sailed across the $2 Billion box office mark.