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James Cameron's Titanic

In the months since Titanic was released, James Cameron has become the most famous Canadian in the world. Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario 43 years ago but he spent most of his childhood in Chippewa, near Niagara Falls. He would frequently take the bus to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to sketch the antiquities (a skilled artist, all of the sketches in the movie attributed to the artist played by DiCaprio were actually drawn by Cameron, including the famous nude sketch of Kate Winslet.) Cameron moved to California with his family at the age of 17. He began in the film industry as a gofer working on low budget exploitation movies.

Rumours about Cameron's participation in a new movie about the Titanic
began to surface in the media and on the Internet in 1994, though Cameron
had begun his pre-production work in 1992. Cameron had a reputation for
directing commercially successful action movies that provided more depth
than other films of the genre. The Terminator films, Aliens, and True Lies
were among his hit films. Science fiction fans admired even his one
commercial failure, The Abyss.

Anticipation of Titanic was enormous over its three years of production.
Cameron is considered a virtuoso filmmaker, a control freak who not only
directs, but writes, produces and edits his movies, as well as occasionally
operating a camera, testing a stunt, or using a paintbrush on the film set.
Though generally admired, there were trepidations about Cameron's ability
to pull off a historical movie after several testosterone-fuelled action
films which seemed to revel in an extravagant brutality.

During his initial research for the film, Cameron decided to film the
actual wreck of the Titanic and incorporate this footage into his fictional
movie. Titanic had sunk to a depth of 12,480 feet, some 2 1/2 miles below
the surface of the most treacherous ocean on Earth. There are only five
submersible craft in the world capable of diving below 12,000 feet. Two of
them, Mir 1 and Mir 2 were housed in a Russian research vessel, the
Akademik Keldysh. The Russian scientific director in charge of the Keldysh,
Dr. Anatoly Sagalevitch, initially disdained such a frivolous use his
research vessel. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union had made money
scarce and Sagalevitch welcomed the opportunity to bring in American

In September 1995, Cameron began filming his dives to the Titanic wreck
site far below the surface of the Atlantic. At that depth, the water
pressure is 6,000 pounds per square inch. One small flaw in the vessel's
superstructure would mean instant death for all on board. He went on twelve
high risk dives but various conditions prevented him from getting the high
quality of footage that he wanted. Cameron would later mislead the viewing
public and the industry as to the extent of genuine underwater footage in
the movie. Much of this footage consists of miniature models and special
effects filmed on a set.

A year later, in August, 1996, Cameron returned to Halifax to film
Titanic's modern day framing sequences. Actress Gloria Stuart was signed to
play the role of Old Rose, the 101-year old version of Kate Winslet's
17-year old character in the 1912 sequences. It is Rose's recollections
that frame the story of Titanic's maiden voyage. The 87-year old actress
had retired from movies in 1939 and had to be made up to look older for her
role as Rose Dawson. Actor Bill Paxton had also been signed for the modern
sequences of the movie, playing Brock Lovett, the treasure hunter/explorer
looking for the priceless Heart of the Ocean diamond. Paxton had acted in a
number of Cameron movies, most noticeably as the cowardly Private Hudson in

Most of these present day sequences of the movie were filmed in the Halifax
area on the Akademik Keldysh which Cameron had used to film the underwater
sequences a year earlier. On the last day of filming, someone laced the
seafood chowder at a cast party with a hallucinogenic drug and numerous
people were hospitalized. Speculation was that Cameron was such a
tyrannical director, that a disgruntled crew member was seeking revenge.
While in Halifax, Cameron had visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
and seen a large piece of interior wooden paneling from the Titanic that
had been found floating after the wreck and retrieved. Measurements and a
molding were taken to help fashion the 'hero' piece of Titanic wreckage
that was used by Jack and Rose at the end of the movie.

The main filming on Titanic began on September 18, 1996. When it came to
filming the shipboard sequences and sinking of the Titanic, it was obvious
that no studio in the world was big enough nor had the proper facilities to
accommodate the production the way that Cameron envisioned it. A Polish
shipyard was approached about the feasibility of constructing a full size
replica of the ship, which would then be sunk on camera. While the cost was
feasible, the necessary timelines did not permit this option. Another plan
involved using a massive container ship and dressing it to look like the
Titanic by hanging a facade over the side.

Trouble-plagued experiences with other water-based movies like Jaws and
Waterworld, convinced the studios that a fully controllable set on a
land-based operation was needed. A new studio complex costing $57 million
was constructed in Santa Rosarito, Mexico about 20 miles south of San Diego
in order to save money on labour costs. To make the look of the film
authentic, at least one set representing the entire ship would be
constructed and it would need to be fairly close in scale to the actual

In almost all movies involving large moving objects, the special effects
people build miniatures or sets representing a small portion of the real
thing and then photograph it and use optical effects so that it appears
larger than it really is. The set representing Titanic was nine-tenths the
size of the original and included the largest water tank ever constructed
for a film, holding 17 million gallons of water.

Money could be saved by shortening this big set by 10 percent. Rather than scaling it down entirely, the production simply removed 18 feet between each smokestack and 20 feet from the poop deck. As built, the set was 775 feet long and ten stories high. A giant crane used in the construction of this set was also used as a camera mount for fly-by shots of the ship. The set was only constructed on the starboard side; the port side was all metal work and open scaffolding. In order to film the departure scene from Southampton which, in real life, was appropriately done from the port side, Cameron filmed the starboard side and then "flopped" the film in the lab. This meant that all the signage and lettering seen in this sequence would
have to be lettered backwards.

Yet many of the most spectacular special effects shots in Titanic were
filmed using a much smaller museum-quality 14 metre model. In addition much
of the wreck footage was filmed using a scale model of the wreck.
The problem with special effects miniatures in movies involving water is
that you can't scale down the viscosity of the water. That's why miniature
ships floating on real water always look slightly fake, no matter how
realistic and detailed the miniature. The key element in Titanic's
convincing effects sequences is the use of computer generated water in most
of the sequences where the ship is seen in motion traveling across water.
On a big ship, the only sense of motion is when you look down. Because the
big set was surrounded on three sides by water, it was relatively easy to
add computer generated water effects.

Initial costs for the film were estimated at less than $75 million. Even
this cost was considered so expensive that two major Hollywood studios,
20th Century Fox and Paramount would be needed to finance the film. In
return, Paramount would get to distribute the film in North America while
Fox would distribute it in the rest of the world. Before the film was
finished, it would more than double in cost to $200 million, making it the
most expensive movie ever made.

The casting of Titanic turned out to be a stroke of marketing genius,
especially in the selection of Leonardo DiCaprio as the film's hero Jack
Dawson. At the time he was cast, DiCaprio was not an international
superstar. The studio executives wanted Chris O'Donnell or Matthew
McConaughey in the role. Tom Cruise expressed an interest in playing the
character though his superstar asking price was never taken seriously.
Cameron held out for DiCaprio. William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet had
become a hit solely on the basis of DiCaprio. Adolescent girls were
spending two hours watching Shakespeare in order to see their beloved Leo.
Unlike many other actors of his generation, DiCaprio was very picky about
his film roles had to be coaxed into playing the part. He was paid $2.5
million. DiCaprio's character Jack Dawson was partly based on real life
writer Jack London, who lived in the Titanic era and was best known for
such works as White Fang and Call of the Wild.

Kate Winslet plays Rose Dewit Bukater and had established her acting
credentials in British period films. Her chubby cheeks and fuller figure
are in stark contrast to the anorexic models that usually people Hollywood
movies and was more authentic to the 1912 period. She was paid slightly
less than $1 million and would receive an Oscar nomination for Best

The fictional cast was rounded out by Billy Zane as Rose's despicable
fiancée Cal Hockley, a part originally offered to Matthew McConaughey, who
declined the role. Frances Fisher played Rose's socially obsessed mother
and Cal's gun-toting valet, Lovejoy, was played by David Warner. The actors
playing real characters included Bernard Hill as Captain Smith, Jonathan
Hyde as White Star Chairman J. Bruce Ismay and Toronto actor Victor Garber
as Titanic builder Thomas Andrews. Coincidentally, both Warner and Hill had
acted in two previous Titanic movies. A full time etiquette coach was hired
to instruct the cast on 1912 manners among the upper class gentility.
Most movie special effects take you to a world that you've never seen
before: distant planets, alien creatures; asteroids striking Earth,
rampaging dinosaurs, etc. The challenge for Titanic was recreating an event
that was familiar to millions of moviegoers and about $40 million was spent
on special effects. A number of different sized models were used as well as
full size sets representing parts of the ship that would require a towering
scale over the human actors.

The most visually stunning of Titanic's special effects sequences was the
climactic scene involving the breakup of the ship just before it sank and
the final plunge to the bottom of the Atlantic. This sequence would involve
a tilting full-sized set, 150 extras and 100 stunt performers. Cameron
stated that he was disappointed in previous Titanic films depicting the
final plunge of the liner. He complained that Titanic was always
cinematically depicted as sliding gracefully underwater and that he wanted
to depict it as the terrifyingly chaotic event that it really was.
It was during the filming of this sequence that Cameron got his reputation
as a dangerous director. The sequence called for people to fall off the
increasingly tilting deck, plunging hundreds of feet and bouncing off
railings and propellors on the way down. A few attempts to film this
sequence with stunt people resulted in some minor injuries and Cameron
halted the more dangerous stunts. Eventually the risk would be minimized by
using computer generated people for the dangerous falls.

The most astonishing aspect of the production was the level of detailing in
the sets representing the interior rooms of the Titanic. These sets were
reproduced exactly as originally built, using photographs and plans from
the Titanic's builders, who are still in business. The liner's 1st class
staircase, which figures prominently in the script was constructed out of
real wood and actually destroyed in the filming of the sinking.
All of the rooms depicted in the film were absolutely true to the originals
and the set of the first class dining room was a tour de force. The carpeting
used in this set was woven by the original suppliers of Titanic's carpets
and used the original design and colours. Individual pieces of furniture,
decorations, chairs, wall paneling, cutlery and crockery was also
meticulously reproduced complete with the White Star Line crest on each
piece. Completed ceilings, very unusual in movies, were used in the
detailing of the sets.

Cameron hired two Titanic historians, Don Lynch and Ken Marschall, to
authenticate the historical detail in the film. Lynch is considered by
many to be the most knowledgeable of Titanic historians. Lynch would later
state that he had studied the ship for most of his life but was absolutely
spellbound by being able to walk around the ship's sets, peruse the
authentic reproduction of movie props and mingle with the actors in their
1912 costumes.

Ken Marschall is an artist who has specialized in painting absolutely
authentic pictures of the Titanic. Many of the special effects shots in
Cameron's Titanic are exact reproductions of Marschall's paintings. Both
Lynch and Marschall had collaborated on a coffee table book about the
Titanic and Cameron used the book to explain how his film would eventually
look to studio executives while he was seeking financial support for the

Rumours of Cameron's autocratic ways and apparent disregard for the safety
of crew members continued to be reported in the media throughout the
production. Cameron fought back, giving numerous interviews, writing
letters to the print media and even taking out ads in the trade press to
present his side of the story.

By late fall of 1996, the press was trashing Titanic. Persistent reports of
a changing release date, abusive working conditions endured by the cast and
crew, and the fact that the film was wildly over budget contributed to a
negative media attitude towards the film. Principal photography was
finished on March 22, 1997.

The film was originally scheduled to open on July 2, 1997 in order to
exploit the lucrative summer season ticket sales when blockbuster films
usually do better. In April, Cameron announced that the movie's special
effects were too complicated and that he could not deliver the film in time
for a summer release.

In May of 1997, Fox announced a new release date of December 19. This
fueled speculation that the film itself was a disaster. A preview
screening in Minneapolis on July 14 generated positive reviews. Chatter on
the Internet was responsible for more favorable word of mouth about the
movie and the film started to get more positive media coverage.

James Horner was retained to write the film's musical score and he was
heavily influenced by Irish folk music. The Titanic had been built in
Belfast, Northern Ireland, had stopped at Queenstown on the south coast of
Ireland before leaving, and there were many Irish immigrants on board,
especially in third class. Horner also convinced Cameron to use Canadian
chanteuse Celine Dion's rendering of a song that he had written, "My Heart
Must Go On". Cameron initially resisted the song because he considered it
too maudlin and a musical anachronism compared to the rest of the score.
Horner convinced him that the song would be needed for Titanic's closing
credits which went on for almost ten minutes. Cameron also wanted to
appease anxious studio executives and saw that a hit song from his movie
could only be a positive factor in guaranteeing its completion.

Meanwhile, production costs on the film were spiraling out of control.
Eventually the film would cost $200 million, making it the most expensive
movie of all time. Ironically, the cost of the movie was 22 times as much
as it cost to build the original ship in 1911. In an unprecedented attempt
to allay studio anxiety and guarantee continued financing, Cameron agreed
to forfeit his percentage of the film's gross income.

Titanic debuted on November 1, 1997 at the Tokyo Film Festival. Positive
reviews started to appear back in the U.S. The official Hollywood premiere
occurred on Sunday, December 14 and the big movie stars who attended the
opening were enthusiastically gushing about the film to the world media.
Titanic opened to the general public on December 19 to generally lukewarm
reviews. Reviewers felt that the film's screenplay and characterizations
were the weakest elements of the film. Business that first day was steady
but not spectacular. Throughout that first weekend, word of mouth increased
patronage and, by Sunday, the film was experiencing huge audiences with
sold out performances that would last for almost three months. The normal
repeat viewing rate for a blockbuster theatrical film is about 5%. The
repeat rate for Titanic was over 20%. People were not only telling their
friends about the movie, they were returning to see it over and over again.
The box office receipts were even more impressive when one considers that
the film's 3 hour and 14 minute length meant that it could only be shown
three times a day compared to a normal movie's four showings. Many theatres
started midnight showings and were rewarded with full houses until almost
3:30 am.

On February 10, 1998, Titanic was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, tying
the record set by All About Eve in 1950. Tellingly, the film had been
nominated in almost every category except screenplay. On March 23, the film
won eleven Oscars, tying the record previously set by Ben Hur in 1959.
Teenage fans of Leonardo DiCaprio were disappointed that he hadn't been
nominated for best actor. Adult fans were equally disappointed that Gloria
Stewart had been passed over for best supporting actress.

By late March, Titanic was the first movie to gross over $1 billion at the
box office and was the top grossing film for 16 consecutive weeks. The
soundtrack recording became the best selling instrumental movie soundtrack
of all time. For several weeks, the book about the making of the film was
at the top of the New York Times best seller list, the first time that such
a tie-in book had achieved this status.

James Cameron's $200 million gamble had paid off.


James Cameron's Titanic  

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