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It’s been 20 years since Titanic swept into theaters riding a wave of prerelease skepticism that broke the minute audiences opened their eyes, and hearts, to James Cameron‘s epic love story. “Titanic stays with you for a lifetime, really,” the director tells Yahoo Entertainment. He’s speaking about the actual passenger liner, which sank beneath the North Atlantic waves in 1912, but he could also be referring to his Oscar-winning film, a pop-culture touchstone that shattered box-office records in 1997. As a sign that the public’s appetite for all things Titanic hasn’t abated in the past two decades, select AMC theaters will screen a remastered version of the movie starting Dec. 1. Meanwhile, the National Geographic Channel will premiere the all-new special Titanic: 20 Years Later With James Cameron on Sunday.
Although billed as a celebration of the movie, the hourlong documentary also illustrates Cameron’s continuing fascination with the real-life tragedy. As the clip shows, the director is still searching for answers as to how a supposedly unsinkable ship came to be lying on the ocean floor. “I think they wanted something that was more movie-centric, and I was happy to continue with some of the forensic stuff we had never really resolved,” Cameron says. “So we decided that the framework of the documentary would be, ‘What did we get right and what did we get wrong?'”
Based on the tests that Cameron and his team conduct in the special, they didn’t get anything egregiously wrong in their presentation of the Titanic’s final hours. That’s fortunate, because at one point in the documentary, Cameron half-jokingly suggests he otherwise “might have to remake the frigging film.” Asked whether he ever would remake Titanic should he discover any major errors in his continuing research — maybe with digitally de-aged versions of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio reprising their roles as doomed lovers Rose and Jack — the director responds emphatically in the negative. “I have no intention of remaking Titanic. The film is right in its broad strokes and wrong in a few details. Of course, nobody would know those details if we hadn’t gone out and done the forensic work, so that’s kind of a self-inflicted wound.”
Watch an exclusive clip from Titanic: 20 Years Later:
That said, if Cameron were to remake Titanic, he already knows exactly what would need to be fixed. “We’d have to change a couple of effects shots for the final sinking sequence, but really only two or three shots. As I was researching at the time of making the film, there really wasn’t much known about how the ship broke up, so there was a lot of conjecture on my part talking to Titanic experts and collating that with the eyewitness reports. They were highly conflicting, so I used common sense for what I thought probably happened based on what was described. I formulated a hypothesis, which turned out to be true, that the bow detached and plunged straight downwards and leveled out to a stable position as it fell. During that initial plunge downward, it tore a lot of stuff out, which accounts for a lot of the condition that we find the bow section in. So the movie was fairly well-informed for its time, although we know a lot more 20 years later.”
One bit of conjecture that Cameron feels hasn’t aged as well in the film is his treatment of one of the real-life stories that played out on the Titanic. In the movie, the director depicts the ship’s first officer, William McMaster Murdoch, shooting a passenger and then committing suicide in the midst of the evacuation, a dramatic choice that upset one of Murdoch’s descendants. “That still remains controversial,” Cameron admits. “I suppose I took a creative liberty with that particular character, who wasn’t a character — he was a person and had living descendants at the time the film was released. I think it’s important to remember that this was relatively recent history, and there are still people affected by it.” Cameron adds that he shot additional scenes featuring real-life Titanic passengers that he wound up cutting from the film in order to keep the focus on the Jack and Rose’s romance. “I think with the Titanic community, there’s a sense that I told this frivolous love story; unfortunately, that’s not the way the moviegoing audience looks at it. I was riding a lot of information in on the backs of a love story that got people to show up.”
Titanic wasn’t the first movie to depict that night to remember, and Cameron is well aware that it won’t be the last. “Be prepared to go down the rabbit hole and never come back,” he warns the next filmmaker to take on the Titanic. “I’m sure the story’s not going to go away, nor should it.” In the more immediate future, there’s another water-based Cameron film that’s getting a revise in the form of James Wan’s upcoming Aquaman solo adventure, due in theaters on Dec. 21, 2018. Twelve years ago, Cameron’s take on DC’s aquatic superhero topped the summertime box office, albeit in the fictional Hollywood created by the HBO series Entourage. “I was never particularly a fan of the character, so all I can say is hopefully they do it right,” Cameron says, chuckling. “Hopefully they can beat my fantasy box office of $124 million opening weekend — the highest-grossing film I never made!”
Titanic: 20 Years Later With James Cameron premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on National Geographic. Titanic returns to select AMC theaters on Dec. 1. Watch the trailer:
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