Titanic: The Real Story Behind the Infamous 'Glub, Glub, Glub' Headline
God, I was a pain in the ass. But I wasn't the only one. It was such an obviously bad idea, you see. A period piece, no stars, on the water. And at the end of the story, icy death. And there was that staggering budget -- in the middle of production, in November 1996, it was rumored to be heading toward an unprecedented $200 million. (Fox had greenlighted it at about $110 million.) Titanic seemed like a crazy risk that had gone out of control.
Overseeing it all was Jim Cameron, then 42. He was known as a budget-buster who had overspent on The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and True Lies. He also was known as something of a fanatic who drove his crews beyond the brink of collapse. On the set of True Lies, he was said to have threatened to fire anyone who asked for a potty break.
So I was hardly the only skeptic when I, as a contributing editor at Time magazine, wrote that the spend on Titanic "makes some sort of twisted sense to studio executives for a big action picture starring Schwarzenegger" but not for a "historic piece [that] features up-and-comers Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio." The story went on in that vein, but the real killer, as far as Fox and the filmmakers were concerned, was the headline -- written not by me but by some clever editor in New York: "Glub, glub, glub."
That was more than 15 years ago. But when I left word for producer Jon Landau recently that I was writing about Titanic again, he called me, and the first words out of his mouth were, "Is this 'Glub, glub, glub?'"
What made that headline sting so much was that the filmmakers had been pretty sure that allowing some members of the press to visit the Titanic set in Rosarito, Mexico, would quell the many doubts about the project in the industry and media. It was widely known that the project was over budget and that hitting the planned July 4, 1997, release date was iffy at best. A few reporters were invited, one at a time, to get a look at the 40-acre site dominated by a massive, 775-foot-long re-creation of a slice of the ship, built nearly to scale. That rested in a 17 million-gallon tank, so it could be lowered by degrees, and yes, it was impressive.
There was a separate poop deck -- the back end of the ship -- that could be tilted to 90 degrees with hydraulic lifts as the ship went vertical before sinking. Then there was that sweeping staircase, the glass dome, the elaborately furnished dining room that could be raised and lowered, flooded and squeegeed, so Cameron could shoot the water rushing in to his perfectionist's heart's content.
"The whole point of having some reporters come was to show that it was not an out-of-control production," says Landau today. "It was over budget but not out of control. Bringing people to see the scale and the scope of what we were doing was all we could do."
I ask Bill Mechanic, who was chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment at the time, whether he had been worried about that visit and what I might write. "You mean 'glub, glub, glub?' " he says without a moment's hesitation. (Who knew my most immortal words would be a headline that I didn't write?) Actually, he continues, he wasn't really crazy about having me or any reporters watch Cameron at work. "I said, 'What the f-- are you thinking?'" he recalls. "They should have known everybody was out to bury us. There's no story in, 'There's a really cool movie being made.'"
The truth was, it was an incredibly cool set. I was given a hard hat to wear as we walked along the wedge of deck that had been built on the massive facade of the ship, with a lot of scaffolding below. I toured a warehouse where hundreds of detailed period costumes were kept. I walked through the dining room, which reeked of seawater and mold and had shattered crockery bearing the White Star emblem in gold scattered across the floor. (I picked up a shard as a souvenir, but it was stolen off my desk almost instantly.)
And I was given ample opportunity to watch Cameron as he fussed with each shot -- unbuttoning the jacket on an Irish musician who was about to be torn from his wife's arms. He was playing the overbudget auteur well. "We're doing spectacle," he told me unapologetically. "Spectacle costs money."