In 1997, blockbuster filmmaker James Cameron set his sights on the maiden voyage of history’s most infamous doomed passenger liner. The result was the biggest movie ever made.
The movie won eleven Oscars and launched the careers of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. It was also the first to top $1-billion at the box office.
However, not everything that happened on set went swimmingly. Let’s journey back to 1912 and uncover all the juicy details, icebergs and all.
Taking a dive
If not for his obsession with the actual wreck, James Cameron may not have ever made the movie. Always fascinated with the ocean and its many mysteries, Cameron incorporated his passion into the film.
He went down there for real, and he put it in the movie.
The director stuck a 35mm camera in an ROV. With one-hundred feet of tether, he crept inside the wreck thirteen thousand feet below the sea. He was the first to do so.
The sequence we see in the opening of the film is an amalgamation of actual wreck footage, miniatures, and a submerged set duplicating the debris.
Attention to detail
Cameron aimed to get things right. He did it in meticulous fashion. Rooms, hallways, gangways, and decks were all exact replicas of RMS Titanic.
Even the company that had woven the ship’s original carpet in 1912 did it again for the movie!
Rather than more cost effective plywood, oak was used for the grand staircase and furniture. Why? Because if oak was used in the original, Cameron wanted oak, too.
The starboard side of the ship was reproduced ninety percent to scale. For shots on the ship’s opposite side, the film was flipped. Text had to be written backwards, Kate Winslet’s hat was lifted to the opposite side, and drivers’ steering wheels were switched to the left.
Don’t pee in the pool
What’s worse: you’re in the middle of a giant tank of water and your bladder is full, or you’re directing a major motion picture and you’re behind schedule? How about both at once?
Cameron was so stressed, he threatened to fire anyone who left the water during those harrowing scenes.
The result of the director’s demands was a whole lot of pee. Extras and actors couldn’t hold it, nor could they leave at the risk of losing their jobs.
Who let it flow in the tank, you might be wondering? Thanks for asking. Rose herself—Kate Winslet—admitted to this dastardly deed.
World War II played a part
How could a war fought three decades after the ship’s sinking, and fifty years prior to the film’s production, have any connection? The SS Jeremiah O’Brien, that’s how.
Despite his penchant for innovative CGI, Cameron wanted a more authentic look whenever possible.
Built just before launching into European Theater of Operations in 1943, the Jeremiah O’Brien had still-functioning triple-expansion reciprocating steam engines. So Cameron elected to shoot the engine room sequence there.
In a move of Hollywood trickery, two massive boilers were also reproduced with a mirror placed behind them, creating an effect of an everlasting boiler column. Good thinking.
A scientist chimed in
After making a ton of money back in ’97 and ‘98, the film saw a theatrical re-release in 2012 to coincide with the ill-fated ship’s 100-year anniversary. Yay!
But before that happened, a famous figure had a little criticism he thought was worth mentioning.
Astrophysicist and television personality Neil deGrasse Tyson sent Cameron a “snarky” e-mail about the star field on the night of April 15, 1912. Apparently, the stars depicted in the film were incorrect.
So Cameron, probably begrudgingly, corrected the star field prior to re-release. Good thing he did; deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter wrath would have been unbearable.
Some passengers were historical figures
In the movie, John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim are portrayed as wealthy businessmen who went down with the ship. And they really did.
Guggenheim indeed refused a lifeboat, instead dressing to the nines in preparation to meet his Maker.
Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) was given a loyal portrayal. So too were shipbuilder Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) and White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde).
Ismay has not been remembered well, historically. He was deemed a coward for taking a spot on a lifeboat. Cameron nails this gutless action. Ismay’s decision to save himself makes him the film’s most understated villain.
Did the third class really have more fun?
One of the film’s more exuberant sequences is the dance party jamboree, hosted by the third class passengers. While the rich folk enjoy their lavish meals in their ornamental outfits, the riffraff live life to the fullest down below.
Seems like a caricature, right?
Actually, no. Third class passengers in steerage were partiers indeed. Scots jammed on their bagpipes while the rest carried on with an “uproarious skipping game of the mixed-double type,” claimed survivor Lawrence Beesley.
Watching the movie, you’d much rather hang out with that crew than the snobbish affluent types… that is, until the ship goes under and they all drown.
Pride doomed the ship
The oft-misquoted verse, “Pride comes before the fall” applies here. The actual Proverbs 16:18 verse states: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Be it Custer’s Last Stand or RMS Titanic’s fateful journey, pride is deadly.
Not only was the ship deemed unsinkable—a ridiculous claim, if ever there was one—but its captain, Edward John Smith, was inexplicably unfazed by the North Atlantic’s many obstacles.
Smith ignored iceberg warnings an astounding seven times. Had lookout Frederick Fleet been given binoculars, he likely would have seen the nearly invisible iceberg sooner, as Cameron purports in the film.
Who’s up for a game of iceball?
In a deleted scene from the film, we see passengers on deck playing with chunks of ice in the background. Assuming the ship has escaped its scraping of the iceberg unscathed, the mood is light.
Rose even drops a piece of ice down Jack’s shirt in good fun.
Of course, things change rather quickly. Jack, Rose, and most everyone else is unaware that the ship’s fate has already been sealed.
An impromptu game of soccer was indeed played with stray ice on the decks. Other passengers barely reacted to the collision, either unaware of what happened, or coolly refusing to believe the wound was fatal.
Those poor third class passengers
You’ll never get every detail right when making a film about a particular event in history. So filmmakers, Cameron included, rely heavily on speculation for certain scenes.
Cameron’s most shocking dramatic license was taken in having his third class passengers locked in steerage, begging to be given a chance. Did that actually happen?
According to third class Irishman Daniel Buckley, the answer is yes. And no. He first told the American Inquiry of the sinking that he was unaware of locked gates. Then he changed his tune.
Buckley claimed he and his group were forcefully held in steerage. Thankfully, they were able to break down the gate. Buckley’s account had no corroboration.
Breaking in two
As early as a month after the disaster, and as recently as 2012, movies and mini-series have been produced about the sinking of RMS Titanic.
More precise details found their way into Cameron’s big budget flick than were in previous iterations, including the first depiction of the ship breaking in half… right?
Wrong! Thirteen months before the movie hit theaters, CBS released a two-part miniseries called (drumroll, please)… Titanic! In it, the ship cracks and breaks in two before it goes down.
Survivor accounts varied, but the ship’s splitting was finally confirmed in 1985. Dr. Robert Ballard discovered the wreckage—its bow and stern separated by better than 1,200 feet.
More people could have been saved
Had she been better equipped, more lifeboats would have been aboard RMS Titanic. Only twenty were carried, which was enough for 1,178 souls.
With 2,229 people on board, just over 700 survived. After the ship disappeared into the ocean, only two lifeboats went back looking for survivors.
The film got that detail right. 5th Officer Harold Lowe (Ioan Gruffudd) commanded one of the two. He picked up four men in the water (one later died).
Hauntingly, desperate voices could be heard from the darkness. But Lowe’s efforts were in vain as swimmers proved too difficult to locate. If only they’d had whistles like Rose.
It wasn’t the first romantic movie about the ship
Onerous as it may be to accept, the forbidden Jack/Rose romance at the heart of the movie was entirely fictitious. So too was Billy Zane’s character making things difficult for them.
But Cameron’s film was not the first Titanic movie to feature an ill-fated love story on board.
The 1953 film, also called Titanic, starred Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. Their tale was a bit different, but it ended just the same.
Webb’s character buys a ticket at the last moment in an effort to find his estranged wife and their children. They reconcile in the end. She gets rescued. He goes down with the ship.
The differences between first class and third class were exaggerated
When movies give us characters to root for and others to despise, we’re more emotionally invested. James Cameron’s philosophy was pretty simple: third class good, first class bad.
This very black and white depiction of classes did not sit well with historians.
Class distinction was alive and well in 1912, but historians complained that Cameron took this to the extreme. With the exception of Rose and Molly Brown, the first class passengers are obnoxious and nefarious, while the immigrant third class exude joy and nobility.
But without a doubt, the juxtaposition raised the stakes of Jack and Rose’s love affair. And that’s screenwriting 101.
A crewman’s family was upset with the movie
The most notable point of historical contention has been the treatment of the 1st Officer William Murdoch character. In the film, Murdoch restrains rowdy passengers when they attempt to force themselves onto the lifeboats.
He shoots two of them. Wracked with guilt over this, Murdoch then turns the gun on himself.
Murdoch’s family was offended by the portrayal. They demanded it be cut. It wasn’t. But… the producers tried to make up for it.
After the movie’s release, 20th Century Fox sent one of its top executives to the Scottish town of Dalbeattie. He took an engraved plaque in Murdoch’s honor, and made a donation to the Murdoch Memorial Fund.
The ship’s 1st officer may have shot at passengers
In the chaos of distressing events, conflicting reports always emerge. Initial accounts often vary from later accounts. The truth surfaces once the dust settles. Sometimes.
In the case of this tragedy, Murdoch’s film portrayal may not have been off the mark after all.
Eyewitnesses remembered seeing an officer commit suicide. Some said that man was Murdoch. Others recalled an officer firing his weapon and threatening to shoot “like a dog” any man that tried to get in a lifeboat.
So while most prefer to err on the side of heroism as it relates to Murdoch, the opinion on the matter is not unanimous.
And the band played on
As panic sets in and passengers scramble on the decks, members of the band realize there’s not much they can do. So they play.
Cameron heightens the tragedy in these moments through the band’s beautiful rendition of the tear-jerking hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee.” Did any of that happen?
Yes and no. It is true that the band went down with the ship, playing their instruments, as was their duty. They just didn’t play that hymn, or any other.
The bandsmen went down performing what they had played since they’d set sail: cheerful waltzes. But that doesn’t make for good drama.
There are a few historical errors
Historical accuracy was important to Cameron. He even went so far as to have the davits (crane-like devices) provided by the same company that built them for the original ship!
And yet, there were oversights—the kind Cameron shouldn’t have allowed.
An anachronism is an error in chronology. When the Pilgrims land on Plymouth Rock and then drive off in Toyotas, you’ve got yourself an anachronism.
Which ones were Titanic guilty of? Three concerning Rose’s character: her bright red lipstick, her sharing a suite with her fiancé, and her giving the finger. These things would have been unheard of for an upper class woman in 1912.
Freezing the actors
By all accounts, Titanic was a grueling shoot. Film crews went to Nova Scotia, Vancouver, California, and the actual wreck at the bottom of the ocean!
They also shot in a giant tank in Mexico for the sinking sequences. But even in a controlled setting, the actors had no fun down there.
The scenes in the tank are supposed to be the icy April waters of the North Atlantic. Of course, the water wasn’t as cold (or murky, or full of fish and algae). Still, it was unpleasant.
At only about sixty degrees, the water made the actors miserable. When they react to the temperature, they’re not acting.
No one thought it would be a hit
Audiences responded to the film in record numbers. It grossed over $1-billion worldwide in its first theatrical run. Including its re-releases, the movie has taken in over $2-billion.
At the time, this was anything but a surefire hit.
Even Cameron was dreading the film’s release. He only saw disaster ahead. To him, it was a certainty that the studio was going to lose $100-million.
Critics and the press also predicted the film would be a colossal failure. It was the most expensive movie ever made and it was more than three hours long. “No way it will make money!” they said. Oops.
Who was that elderly couple?
Among the saddest moments in a movie packed with feelings, is the old man and the old woman clinging to one another in bed as the water floods into their cabin.
Were they an historical pair, or just an opportunity for emotional manipulation?
They were based on Ida and Isidor Straus, owners of a Macy’s department store in New York. Both died aboard the ship. Ida had been offered a seat on a lifeboat, but refused so that she could stay with her husband, saying, “As we have lived together, so we shall die together.”
Rose’s “Where you go, I go” line was inspired by Ida Straus.
Destroying the set
When Daffy Duck swallowed gasoline, gunpowder and a match, he famously declared it a trick he could only do once. Sacrificing actors for art’s sake is frowned upon. So they had to try something else.
They picked the Grand Staircase. And they only had one shot at destroying it.
Since practical effects were favored over CGI in many of the sequences, they really did flood the Grand Staircase room with water. And in that flooding, the set and everything on it was lost.
Normally, you shoot scenes several times each, so you have options. They didn’t have that luxury here. Good thing they got it right.
There’s a bit of gross improvisation
Most movies feature moments between characters that were not in the original script. A writer crafts a line one way, an actor puts a spin on it, and the director prefers the actor’s work to the writer’s.
Sometimes it’s an action. A disgusting action.
Apparently it was Kate Winslet’s idea to spit in Billy Zane’s face when she abandons him to go find Jack. In the script, she was supposed to jab him with a hairpin.
Zane has since said that he went numb after all the retakes they did of this scene. And Winslet began spitting lube when she ran out of saliva.
What a budget!
The story behind the film’s journey from script to screen is fascinating. Between the studio wars, executive fears, and director demands, there’s enough drama for another movie.
One of the most startling elements to the production was its absurd cost.
Originally, the project had a $109-million budget. Even that was considered grandiose, considering the recent nautical bellyflop that was Waterworld. When production got underway, the budget went up. Way up.
At $200-million, Cameron had nearly doubled what he was supposed to be working with. The actual RMS Titanic would have cost about $150-million in the year the film was released.
Was there a real Jack Dawson?
The movie features a whole host of historical characters, including Captain Smith, Murdoch, Molly Brown and others. At the center of the drama we find Rose and Jack Dawson.
Cameron made up those fictitious characters and stuck them into a real event in history. Or did he?
Yes. However, much to Cameron’s surprise, there was a real J. Dawson who perished on RMS Titanic that fateful night!
Joseph Dawson, from Dublin, served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was twenty-three when he died. Leonardo DiCaprio was twenty-three when the film premiered! Thanks to Leo, Dawson’s Nova Scotia grave is visited frequently today.
Cameron was “a tyrant”
We love stories of behind the scenes feuds. Titanic’s stories are truly unique. Presiding over the nightmare shoot was a nightmare director.
James Cameron’s fiery temper struck fear into the cast and crew. Kate Winslet said she was “genuinely frightened of him.”
As production delays increased, Fox executive Bill Mechanic headed down to Mexico to see for himself what was going on. Cameron’s anger burned at the sight of him.
“It was 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning,” Mechanic said, “and if he’d had a gun in his trailer he would have shot me… He stormed out of his trailer, pulled his chauffeur out of the car, and sped off.”
King of the world
After a long and messy production, the studio set a release date: December 19, 1997. Cameron initially wanted a July 4th release.
To most everyone’s surprise, the movie won the box office that first weekend, earning $28.6-million. That was just the beginning.
It would go on to take the top spot for a record fifteen consecutive weeks, all the way to April 2, 1998.
Arguments over the release date nearly led to a fistfight between Fox executive Bill Mechanic and Warner Brothers exec Robert Friedman at the Cannes Film Festival in ’97. It was nothing but love a year later.
A trippy ending
Imagine you’ve just completed a wretched 150-day job with a monster of a boss. And then on the very last day, you suffer terrifying hallucinations and land in the hospital.
No way that happened on the set of Titanic. Yes way!
Clam chowder was served in Nova Scotia that final night. Seems harmless enough. But not when some punk mixes PCP into the soup! A dissociative hallucinogen, the “angel dust” sickened about eighty people.
Another fifty experienced said hallucinations and were hospitalized as a result. Their claims that James Cameron smiled at them was enough to tip off other crew members that these people were not in their right minds.
Who passed up the film?
It’s always fun discovering who could have been our favorite movie characters if the stars had aligned differently. Or, more terrestrially, if schedules had allowed it.
Kathy Bates’s Molly Brown? Originally, Reba McEntire was going to play that role. What about Jack and Rose?
When he first conceived the movie, Cameron’s initial choice was River Phoenix. Sadly, Phoenix died in 1993. Johnny Depp turned it down, as did Stephen Dorff and Billy Crudup. The studios then pushed Matthew McConaughey. It was Cameron who wanted Leo.
As for Rose, the list of considerations was very long. Among them: Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsale, and even Madonna!
You ever watch a playoff football game in Green Bay and admire the tenacity (stupidity?) of the players who elect to wear short sleeves in fifteen-below temperatures?
Sometimes actors exhibit the same stubbornness, in order to make their performances more authentic.
One of the few actors who refused to wear a wetsuit during the water sequences (that water was only sixty degrees) was Kate Winslet. If she looked cold, it’s because she was.
The result? Predictably, she got hypothermia. She wanted to quit the film, but Cameron convinced her to stay. Shockingly, Kate again refused to wear a wetsuit for the animated comedy, Flushed Away.
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