James Cameron's 'Titanic' Secrets: "It's Time I Gave My Version of What Happened"

Paramount Pictures/Photofest
Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and director James Cameron on the set of 'Titanic.'

As the Oscar-winning blockbuster nears its 20th anniversary, the director looks back at the tense studio negotiations and strategic release plan in connection with a new book on the studio head who greenlit the movie.

Twenty years after he scored what, at the time, was the biggest hit in movie history with 1997’s Titanic, director James Cameron for the first time reveals some of the behind-the-scenes drama behind his classic film in this letter he wrote to THR’s Stephen Galloway for his new biography, Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker (Crown Archetype, out April 25). Here’s Cameron in his own words:

Peter Chernin at Fox [then-20th Century Fox chairman] had made it clear that he wanted a partner to share the pain on a $100 million (or so we thought at the time) chick flick. I told Peter that finding a partner was his problem, I had a movie to make, so I just proceeded hell-bent toward production, and Fox continued to fund the film while they scrambled to find a partner.  

In late July of ’96, only a couple weeks before we were to start principal photography, and with the construction of the studio in Baja in full swing and the full-size ship set already being built, Casey Silver at Universal passed after a long dalliance. But Paramount was interested — Sherry [Lansing] had read the script and thought it was good. I was due to start photography of the present-day scenes in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in a few days, and had no time to deal with studio politics.  

I had one brief call with Sherry in which she was very positive about the power of the script.

I have no idea how much Sherry had to do with all this business maneuvering. She was always the creative interface between us and Paramount, and remained highly supportive of the film. 

Sherry was very complimentary about the dailies as we went along. She shared with me later that she was very excited that the raw footage captured the sweep and emotion promised by the script. I had only ever done sci-fi, horror and action previously, so this must have been a relief. However, at the same time the costs were spiraling out of control, so I remember the praise from all parties becoming more sparing as time went on — they didn’t want to encourage me to sacrifice schedule for quality.

Sherry always loved the film but [when the release date loomed] the business heads at Paramount acted like they'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer — a lot of grim faces and a triage approach to releasing the movie. Everyone thought they were going to lose money, and all efforts were simply to make sure the hemorrhage was not fatal. Nobody was playing for the upside, myself included, because nobody could have imagined what was about to happen next.

In post in the late spring of ’97, as we were trying desperately to complete the visual effects in time for a summer release it became increasingly clear to me that we were going to miss the July release date, and we were going to have to make major cuts and compromises in order to meet any deadline in summer. We’d had an extremely successful preview in Minneapolis that gave us our first hint that the movie transcended expectations. But the reality of getting the film done at the necessary level of visual quality was becoming almost impossible. The film was simply too long and the visual effects too unprecedented. It seemed we would miss any date in July and have to push into August, which was considered a dumping ground. And even then, there would be serious compromises to the editing, the effects and the music. Making the film shorter was taking longer. In the cutting room, the film was getting shorter by a few seconds a day — it was liking cutting a diamond. We didn’t want to screw it up by hacking at it, but we were desperate to get it shorter.  

We were also being pummeled relentlessly in the press, especially the industry trade papers — about epic cost overruns, set safety, delivery dates and just about everything. We were the biggest morons in Hollywood history and the press had the long knives out, sharpening them as we approached our summer release. It would have reached a crescendo of scorn just as we put the film in theaters.

I pitched the concept that the best way to deal with the negative press was to take a step back. To move away from the crescendo of ridicule and let them fall on their face. They could only sustain the negative story so long. By December it would have long ago run its course, and they'd have to come up with something new to make ink. That something might just be the fact that the film was actually good, and worth all the drama of production.  

My example was the martial art of aikido, where you use the opponent's own momentum against them to take them down. The press were attacking so aggressively that the only way to throw them was to step back and let them go flying past, and fall because of their own inertia.

And it turned out that the strategy, with regard to press and the marketplace, worked perfectly. No one more surprised than myself, because nothing like it had ever been tried. But it was a strategy that revealed itself in the heat of battle — necessity was the mother of invention. And desperate times called for desperate measures.

I screened the film for Sherry on a flat-screen monitor at an Avid desk, in what is now my eight-year-old daughter's bedroom at our house in Malibu. She sat to my right and I talked her through it as I played the film reel by reel, because Avids at that time couldn't play out more than about 20 minutes of cut material. It was still in a rough state with a lot of effects missing or still in the form of videomatics or storyboards. The score was mostly temp (a lot of Enya), though a few of James Horner’s memorable melodies were in, in the form of synthesizer sketches.

She had a very emotional reaction. She said she thought it was a great love story, on the order of Gone with the Wind, and it really held her throughout, despite the crude play-out.

She had a few comments, all of which were positive and insightful. I don't recall her being overly concerned about length, although there was an overall sense from everyone involved, myself as well, that it needed to be shorter. But to her the important thing was that the chemistry between Jack and Rose [Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet] worked, and the drama paid off at the end. She was a big fan of the slightly enigmatic ending, as I recall. Was old Rose still alive and dreaming of Jack, or had she died and gone to be reunited with him in Titanic heaven?  We had a long talk about that.

My memory of the session was that she loved the film, and it was a big turning point for me because we were in a very bleak place emotionally, trying to finish the movie. Everyone was against us, and we knew we would always carry this huge albatross of going almost twice the proposed budget for the rest of our careers (if there even was going to be a career after that). And all of a sudden, we had a studio head saying that somehow, at some level, it had all been worth it. Mind you — nobody thought we were EVER going to break even. And I pretty much assumed at that time that I’d never work again.

[The ad campaign] was an ongoing battle. We had cut a reel in March of '97 (nine months before the release) for ShoWest that was about four minutes long. The first glimpse of the movie to be revealed to the world, coming on the heels of all the negative stories of budget and schedule overruns. The reel told a tragic love story in pictures, with music rather than words. It was very classy and artistic. Despite all the negative press swirling around the production, that ShoWest reel gave everyone pause. For ten seconds, there was a moment of silence and a grudging murmur that maybe this film wasn't a total disaster after all. Then all the negative press started again and the moment was forgotten.  

Now cut to November '97 and we’re trying to make TV spots to sell a 3-hour and 15-minute love story in 30 seconds. All the spots emphasized action and peril.  We felt that grotesquely under-sold the movie — making it seem like a latter-day Poseidon Adventure at best. We lobbied strenuously to create more emotional spots. It was agreed to do some love-story spots and target them to female audiences (to air during daytime, on Oprah etc.).  

I recall the campaign ultimately became this mixed bag of action, spectacle and romance. I think the general audience take-away was that it was a disaster movie, not a chick flick — which was probably necessary to get it open.  

I was so pummeled getting the movie done that, by that time, I didn’t fight too hard for anything. I remember that we ALL agreed on one thing — that the long shot of Rose and Jack clinging to each other as the vertical stern of the ship plunges down shrieking and groaning, with bodies falling hundreds of feet down toward churning water, was a slam dunk. I think that shot alone got our opening weekend audience.

We did two premieres outside of the US, where they had no jurisdiction, being only the domestic distributors. The first was in Tokyo, to open the Tokyo International Film Festival. This was to completely sidestep what we saw as a negative and biased U.S. press. So the first reviews, the first thing anyone heard about the finished film, was coming out of Tokyo and it was resoundingly positive.  

Then we did a royal command performance screening in Leicester Square in London for Prince Charles (the Queen gave it a pass). And again, the waves of positive word of mouth were rolling onto American shores from afar.

So reviewers in the U.S. had to put away their prejudice and poison pens and judge the film on its own merits.  This strategy was done in spite of Paramount, but fully supported by Fox, especially Tom Sherak and Jim Gianopulos (then head of international distribution). Jim G actually came to Tokyo and personally approved the installation of a new sound system and projectors at the Orchid Hall, where we premiered.  

Throughout this ugly period, Sherry remained staunchly supportive of the movie, and the film had many supporters within the ranks of the Paramount's distribution and marketing team. So in the end we put out spots, trailers and ads that everyone was happy with, and we launched an effective campaign that managed to open the film to number one on its opening weekend, just edging out the Bond film [Tomorrow Never Dies] by a tiny percentage.

That was exactly the foothold in the marketplace that we needed — the platform upon which Titanic built, week over week, to stay number one for 16 weeks straight, all the way till April — a feat never accomplished before or since.

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