Twenty years after the blockbuster movie Titanic, the story of the doomed ship is still evolving in unexpected ways, and the one-hour National Geographic documentary special Titanic: 20 Years Later, from executive producer and explorer-in-residence James Cameron, examines two decades of new revelations. Looking back at all the critical choices made during the film and putting them to the test, the doc also shines a spotlight on the generations of families impacted by the loss of the Titanic and takes audiences through the creation of a living history, giving context to the choices made during production that were based on the historical facts and science available at the time.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker James Cameron talked about thinking Titanic would be just another movie, having it become such a big part of his life and remain that way, for so many years, the inter-connection between the forensics of the wreck and the human element of it all, having to make the movie without knowing all of the answers, and why he’s re-releasing the film again on December 1st. He also talked about the process of underwater motion capture he’s developing for the Avatar sequels, whether he’ll shoot the Terminator reboot in 3D, and why he thinks the technology has already moved past 3D TVs and is on to 4K, as well as what he thinks is next.
Collider: When you originally set out to make Titanic, could you ever have imagined that you’d still be here, so many years later, thinking about it and learning about it? Were you prepared for it being such a big part of your life?
JAMES CAMERON: No. I think I thought it was going to be just like any other film that I’d made. Like Aliens or Terminator or True Lies, I thought it would have its season in my life, and then it would fade away and wind up on a shelf. But, Titanic tends not to do that. Titanic is not only endlessly fascinating, but it tends to suck you back in because there are so many unanswered questions. You feel like, “If we could have just done a little more on that expedition. If we could have just had one more dive. If our vehicle wouldn’t have failed at a critical moment, we would have gotten into that last corner, or down into the boiler room.” There’s always more to learn at the wreck site, even now, even after we’ve surveyed about 60% of the interior of the ship with our robotics and learned a tremendous amount. It’s also apropos of the 20th anniversary of the film and the fact that the film made such a huge impact, in the pop culture landscape, it seemed like a good excuse, at least, to go back and revisit some of the forensic issues and some of the human stories. So, here we are and now we have another special.
There’s the forensics of the wreck and the human element. What most draws your interest? Is it the technical specifics of what happened, is it the human stories of it all, or is it a combination of both?
CAMERON: I think it’s both. I think it’s how they inter-relate to each other. I tend to really nerd out on the forensics, and it was nice to just step back and tell the human story, of the aftermath of the film and of the long aftermath of the event, itself. There’s still a lot that can be learned from the wreck, and we’ve learned a tremendous amount since we made the film. I made the film based on my first expedition to the wreck and what we had learned, at that point. But you can’t really understand what happened, and certainly not in the last hour or so of the sinking, without understanding how the ship sank and how it broke up. Somebody such as myself, who’s gotten sucked down into the black hole of Titanic, you always want to know more and understand the event better. You’d think that with 703 living witnesses at the time, it would be a very, very well described disaster, but in fact, most of the big events of the sinking happened after the lights went out, on a moon less night, and a lot of people had conflicting reports of what happened and we’ve had to piece it together. With the people that survived, I think it’s really interesting to understand not just who died and who lived, but how and why that happened. There are so many aspects of it that are not forensic, that had to do with class issues, at the time. Gender and class issues really determined a lot, in what your probability of survival was and where you were on the ship. All of those factors make the retelling of any disaster, whether it’s a natural disaster or a human made one, more interesting. I guess I just figured that this is a piece of history that I know and understand, and I’m constantly learning from. I’m learning what the limitations of history really are. We can never really truly understand perfectly what happened, for any historical event. It’s always going to be an approximation, and it’s always told with some sort of agenda or bias of whoever the historian is, or at least the perspective of what that person’s life and societal circumstances are. There’s no such thing as perfect history. I don’t really think I knew that when I was studying history in high school and college, but I certainly know it now.
As someone who clearly likes to get things as right as possible, how hard was it for you to initially make Titanic without knowing whether you were getting everything right, especially when it came to the wreck and the sinking, and what were you surprised that you actually did get right, once you learned more about it later?
CAMERON: I had some great advisors, and they were not advisors that were very stuffy and said they knew everything. They were perfectly willing to admit that there were a lot of gaps in the general knowledge, and they were willing to look at things from new angles. I was also there to shake things up and to challenge some of the assumptions that had been made, historically, because I wanted the right answer. I really posed it as a personal challenge to myself to get it right, and not necessarily right in agreement with the stuffy off-told tale, but right relative to the wreck itself and what we could learn from it. Before I shot the movie, we had already been out to the wreck the previous year and made 12 dives. There were all kinds of things that were not well explained by the conventional wisdom in the Titanic community. What we put into the movie was actually a composite of what was known, what was accepted, and a lot of new ideas that were kind of radical. It was a provocation to the Titanic community to look at things, question it, and really figure it out. It triggered a lot of subsequent investigation, both by ourselves and by other investigators out at the wreck site. It’s satisfying that the picture that’s filled in over time, in the intervening 20 years, is pretty darn close to what we showed in the movie. We obviously got a few things wrong. They’re not egregiously wrong. They were wrong in some of the details, as you’d expect, but not enough that I feel compelled to make another Titanic film. I just want to go on record with that, right now. It’s been an interesting journey. I love marine archeology and marine exploration, and I felt that getting inside the ship with our little robotics was the key to really understanding what happened.