Titanic: The Real Story Behind the Infamous 'Glub, Glub, Glub' Headline
On the Mexican set in 1997 for Time, The Hollywood Reporter's Kim Masters recounts the drama, budget woes and blown deadlines that had the town running scared and media calling "failure."
I asked him about an episode that had attracted unwelcome attention the previous August, when Cameron had been shooting in Nova Scotia and his cast and crew became violently ill after eating PCP-laced seafood chowder. Some suspected that the incident might have been an act of revenge on Cameron for his imperious behavior. The case, which became a police matter, never was solved, but Cameron dismissed rumors of sabotage. "I can be pretty demanding," he said. "[But] when we're spending $25,000, $35,000 or $45,000 an hour and my hand is on the throttle, it's my job to be impatient."
He perched me on the poop deck, explaining that when he made it tilt, the angle would feel bigger than it was. Once it reached 30 degrees, the actors had to wear harnesses. "I wish I could do it in every scene," Cameron told me. "Tether the extras so they can't go to the bathroom."
As I stood there, clinging with all my strength to the railing even though Cameron had barely tilted the thing, it became clear that as soon as that ship had started to break up, no one could have held on for long -- though it would look as though people did in the film. I watched as Cameron shot a couple of hundred extras playing steerage passengers. In their period costumes, they careened down the deck to the end, slamming into one another at high speeds. "These people are getting banged up horribly," Cameron remarked. (One night's work produced two broken ribs and a sprained ankle.) An extra with a bandage on his head was admonished to keep his face turned away from the camera.
The scene was being shot at night, and the crew had erected enormous black screens so that the lights from the nearby town would not be visible in the shot. But there were high winds, and the gusts were ripping the screens apart. Cameron was going to pioneer the use of some computer effects on Titanic, but the technology was still pretty new, and there was no erasing those lights. So the screens had to be rigged and re-rigged. As it grew later and later, and then earlier and earlier, fatigue set in -- for me but hardly for Cameron.
During that visit, it seems to me now, I drank a big slurp of Titanic Kool-Aid. But Time didn't give my story all that much space, and there was much more room for skepticism than for description of the extraordinary set. My editors -- far away in New York -- were into the skepticism. They were convinced that Titanic the movie was as doomed as its inspiration. By then, I wasn't quite so sure.
Peter Chernin had been head of the Fox studio when Titanic got the green light, but in November 1996, he was promoted to the No. 2 job at parent company News Corp., leaving Mechanic in charge. Chernin had imposed several conditions before he committed to the movie, among them a $110 million limit on the budget (which was blown), a July 4 release date (also blown) and a three-hour running time (you guessed it).
Given the risks of the concept, Chernin wanted star power. He was thinking of Tom Cruise, then in his mid-30s, for the male lead. "We came back and said, 'You have to believe that this is first love,'" Landau says.
DiCaprio, then 21, had been in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, playing an autistic child, and The Basketball Diaries, but he was far from famous. He had a more important role in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet with Claire Danes, but that film hadn't yet been released. Kate Winslet, then 20, had been in Heavenly Creatures, a well-received but little-seen early effort from Peter Jackson, and Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility. But she was hardly a movie star, and she had to court Cameron to win the part of Rose.
Given the massive risk, Chernin also insisted on the right to seek a partner on the project. Fox turned to Universal, which was tempted but scared about the budget and a proposed running time that would limit theaters to playing the film just once a night. There was no deal. But in August 1996, with filming getting under way in Nova Scotia (and the project already creeping over budget), John Goldwyn, then Paramount's president, called to ask whether his studio could step in. His then-wife, Colleen Camp, had auditioned for the role of Molly Brown, and he had sneaked a look at her copy of the script. And having been to an exhibit about the Titanic in the U.K., he had a very immediate sense of the drama of the story. So on a Friday afternoon, he called Mechanic to plead for a shot at Titanic. Fox gave Paramount the weekend to look at the script. "I was feeling like a hero," Goldwyn says.
But studio chief Sherry Lansing and Viacom Entertainment Group chairman Jonathan Dolgen weren't instantly convinced. Were DiCaprio and Winslet going to be able to carry the movie? And the budget seemed suspiciously low, especially with Cameron in charge. Lansing demanded a meeting with the Fox brass, but that Sunday, Mechanic was in Mexico for a ground-breaking ceremony for the set and Chernin was at his house in Martha's Vineyard. Goldwyn got hold of Tom Rothman, his counterpart at Fox, who called Lansing and convinced her that Titanic would be an epic like Gone With the Wind. "He was absolutely brilliant, and he sold her," Goldwyn says.
Paramount agreed to split the cost and profit, but within a short time, the studio concluded that Fox's numbers were way off. The budget allowed only $300,000 for music (as opposed to a more typical figure at the time of $1.5 million) and a paltry $7 million for effects, instead of the more than $20 million that seemed inevitable. (The eventual tab was more than $30 million.) Threatening to sue, Paramount cut a deal with Chernin to cap its contribution at $65 million. (Paramount would split the profit 50-50 until it recouped and then collect about a third of the money, reflecting the cap on its investment.) The negotiation kicked off what Mechanic described even then as "a terrible relationship." When he went to Paramount to plead for more money for the music budget, the studio wouldn't put up a nickel. Fox tried to buy back Paramount's interest but was rebuffed.