'Titanic's' Rough Seas: 'Glub, Glub, Glub'
In 1997, I was a reporter for Time, invited to the Mexican set of an overbudget, late and much-maligned James Cameron movie that had a dramatic backstory almost as good as its real one.
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."
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.
Mechanic had his issues with Cameron, too. With the director quickly running over schedule and over budget, he fought to impose control. Mechanic says it's not true, as many believe, that Cameron would not speak to him -- he did, sometimes well above a whisper. Under mounting pressure to contain the cost, Cameron started to give up his fees in increments. He yielded some, for example, to pay for Kathy Bates to play Molly Brown.
Meanwhile, it became clear that Cameron never would make the early July release date. He agreed to have the movie ready for release by the end of that month, but finally, the film was pushed to the 1997 holidays. As the delays and costs kept rising, Mechanic was feeling abandoned by his boss. Chernin had greenlighted the movie, but News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch was bitterly blaming Mechanic for the buckets of money that the movie surely would lose. (Around that time, I saw Mechanic at a party on the Fox lot, and he pointed to his chest, joking grimly, "I feel like there's a bull's-eye right about here.")
With the film still unfinished that summer, Murdoch went to Cameron's Lightstorm offices in Santa Monica to watch a rough cut and see where all the money was going. But as the mogul settled in his chair, there was a malfunction and the projector wouldn't work. Tom Sherak, then a top distribution executive at Fox, quickly arranged for Murdoch to see the upcoming Sony Pictures film, Air Force One, an action film starring Harrison Ford as the president, instead. Only the following day did Murdoch and then-wife Anna see Titanic. When the lights came up, Mechanic says, Murdoch turned to him and said, "I can see why you like the movie, but it's no Air Force One."
Finally, on a morning in October 1997 -- a year after my set visit -- members of the press were invited to Paramount to see the film for the first time. If I had only sipped the Titanic Kool-Aid on the set, I swilled it at the screening. Whether you think Titanic is a work of genius or an overrated melodrama with big effects, it was obviously a huge emotional movie that was going to deliver massive box office. A few days later, I went on television -- I think it was MSNBC -- to talk about the movie with a reporter from Entertainment Weekly who had not yet seen it. He expressed the standard doubts, but I said the movie could be a huge hit. I didn't want to sound like a 14-year-old with a crush, I said, but Leo DiCaprio was about to become a gigantic movie star.
Still, no one suspected what was about to happen. Just days before the film's Dec. 19 opening, I weighed in again in Time and quoted Mechanic as stating that Fox could not make money on Titanic. "It's hard to be responsible for it," the always blunt Mechanic said. "But I might not ever be near another picture this good. It's not a question of best movie of the year. It's a question of best movie of the decade."
Mechanic says now that Titanic "was Dances With Wolves plus 25 percent" -- a hefty three hours and 14 minutes. He believed the film would be "the most successful three-hour-plus picture in history," but the studio still would lose a little money.
Titanic opened to $28.6 million -- and then it played and played and played. It shattered records and, of course, the Academy made Cameron The King of the World. DiCaprio went on to become a male muse to Martin Scorsese, and Winslet, after a best actress nomination for Titanic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Little Children, won the Oscar in 2009 for The Reader.
Cameron, after a 12-year break, returned with Avatar, another film that had many skeptics who wished they could retract their words. Like Titanic, it shattered records, grossing $2.8 billion worldwide.
That would seem to dwarf the breathtaking $1.8 billion that Titanic grossed in the end -- only it wasn't the end. With its 3D rerelease, a next chapter is about to be written.
Fox and Paramount Execs Shared the Risk
Sherry Lansing, then chair of Paramount Motion Picture Group, initially had doubts about casting and budget, eventually insisting that her studio's investment be capped at $65 million.
Says Lansing: "Cameron invited John Goldwyn and me into his editing room at his place in Malibu on a Sunday afternoon to show us part of the movie. I had never seen anything like this. Finally I said, 'I better call my husband because it must be about 6 and I'm supposed to meet him at 7.' Jim said, 'Sherry, you'd better call your husband. It's 9 o'clock.' I couldn't believe it. Time just froze."
Jon Landau, Cameron's producing partner in Lightstorm Entertainment, stood beside the director during the demanding shoot and contentious battles with Fox executives, who feared a staggering loss.
Says Landau: "We saw Rupert Murdoch in the hallways of Fox during postproduction. Jim and I said to Rupert, 'Guess we're not your most favorite people right now.' Rupert didn't miss a beat. He said, 'I'll wait until I see the movie, and I'll let you know.' When he saw it, he was the first one to say, 'It'll get to $1 billion.' "
Titanic 3D Aims for New Records
When Disney's The Lion King was rereleased in 3D in September, it established a new benchmark for a successful 3D reissue, racking up $168.5 million in worldwide box office. But when Titanic, newly updated in 3D, steams back into theaters April 4, it could beat those numbers, since the movie has continually rewritten the record books. While other movies converted to 3D have missed the mark visually, Cameron insisted that would not be the case with Titanic. A new 4K master of the film was created, the conversion process took 60 weeks, and it cost $18 million. Cameron argues it's not the splashy sinking sequences that benefit the most from the added dimension. Previewing footage from the film in October, he said, "I totally believe 3D is an enhancement for the dramatic scenes -- not just the big action." -- Gregg Kilday
How Cameron Found His 'Old Rose' Inspiration
While on a visit to the small town of Ojai, north of Los Angeles, in 1997, my husband and I learned that it was possible to visit the home of noted ceramicist Beatrice Wood. She had been born in 1893 to a society family she defied by pursuing a life in the arts. Wood lived in Paris and New York before moving to Los Angeles in the early 1940s. Taking a ceramics class at Hollywood High School, she launched a career that brought her recognition from the Smithsonian as an Esteemed American Artist. In 1948, she settled in Ojai and lived there for the next 50 years.
She was 104 when we arrived to view her pottery. While she stayed out of sight, we were greeted by an older gentleman, who we were given to understand was a particular friend of hers. As we looked around the quiet house, I suddenly had the oddest feeling of deja vu. Titanic hadn't yet been released, but I had seen it at a press screening. I whispered to my husband, "This looks like a scene from Titanic!"
"We have heard about this movie!" the elderly man said. "That gentleman was here!"
And in fact, Cameron had met Wood, borrowing her story for his fictional Old Rose, played by Gloria Stuart in the movie. Wood (who was not on the Titanic) didn't seem to mind. Days before her death in March 1998 at 105, she even named Cameron as the recipient of the fifth annual Beatrice Wood Film Award. -- K.M.