By Yohana Desta. Photos: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
It’s been 20 years, but James Cameron still has a lot to say about Titanic. (We imagine that even in 84 years, there will be much to say.) In a letter excerpted in the Sherry Lansing autobiography Leading Lady, the director dives back into the headspace of making the romantic epic, telling set stories he’s fondly told before about the movie that went on to become the biggest blockbuster of its time. Every element of making the film was hellish, it seemed, from its development, to its ballooning cost, to orchestrating the special effects, to picking out a release day. Every time a new problem was fixed, another one appeared, like an iceberg in the distant fog. However, there was one scene in the film that Cameron—and more important, the studio—point to as the moment that locked in audiences once and for all, transforming Cameron’s folly into a bona fide hit.
The road to making one of the most successful films in history was long and treacherous. Cameron and his team were constantly editing Titanic’s special effects and music, racing against the clock in order to also cut down the movie’s incredibly long runtime. “It was like cutting a diamond. We didn’t want to screw it up by hacking at it, but we were desperate to get it shorter,” he says in the excerpt. In another Titanic-specific excerpt from Lansing’s memoir, Fox executive Bill Mechanic remembers that Cameron could be explosive on the set, storming off one night after getting too many proposed cuts. “If he’d had a gun in his trailer, he would have shot me,” Mechanic recalls.
On the studio’s side, it didn’t help that Cameron was an extremely detailed director, unwilling to cut corners. Fred Gallo, the head of physical production, recalls how Cameron was determined to build sets with real wallpaper and shoot “a special submarine,” the only one of its kind in existence. “It was Russian and he had to have it,” Gallo says. “They bring it in, and on the first day they have power problems and can’t shoot.”
Lansing, a firm believer in the film from the outset, was blown away by the details once she saw them in person. “I walked through the ship, and I was taken back in time,” she said of one set visit. “They’d re-created everything, and the specificity of the details, right down to the period dishes, blew my mind.”
The film, however, was still largely treated like a punching bag by the studio. As the time came to choose a release date, ”business heads at Paramount acted like they’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer,” Cameron recalls. “A lot of grim faces and a triage approach to releasing the movie.”
Titanic was hemorrhaging money (it wrapped with at $210 million budget), and seemed certain to be a box-office failure. Cameron thought that after its release, he would never work again. It didn’t help that the press was “relentless” in covering the project: “We were the biggest morons in Hollywood history and the press had the long knives out, and sharpening them as we approached our summer release,” he said.
Titanic’s release date was eventually back to December, a move that soothed the media’s vice grip on the story. At that point, Cameron was about as deflated as one could get—but there was one scene in the film that unified everyone and, Cameron feels, cinched some sort of box-office success. Here’s how he tells it:
“I was so pummeled getting the movie done that, by that time, I didn’t fight too hard for anything. I remember that we ALL agreed on one thing—that the long shot of Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) clinging to each other as the vertical stern of the ship plunges down shrieking and groaning, with bodies falling hundreds of feet down toward churning water, was a slam dunk. I think that shot alone got our opening weekend audience.”
Indeed, viewers showed up that first weekend—and every weekend after. The film was No. 1 at the box office for 15 consecutive weeks—a feat, Cameron will kindly remind you, that was “never accomplished before or since.”
This story originally appeared on Vanity Fair.
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