Films

Titanic ambition

A Canadian sails Hollywood's high seas

Brian D. Johnson December 8 1997
Films

Titanic ambition

A Canadian sails Hollywood's high seas

Brian D. Johnson December 8 1997

Titanic ambition

Films

A Canadian sails Hollywood's high seas

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

James Cameron shakes his head. For the Canadian director who stands at the helm of Titanic, the most ambitious movie of the decade, it is one thing to suggest that he was a screaming tyrant on the set, that he pushed his crew into overtime until they were almost passing out from exhaustion, and that he kept his extras trembling in cold water until they were on the verge of hypothermia. But he insists there is no truth to a recently published story that, as a child growing up in Niagara Falls, Ont., he put mice in homemade submersibles and sent them plummeting to their deaths over the Falls. “What I did,” he says, “is I built a submersible out of a mayonnaise jar and an erector set and a paint bucket or something. I put a mouse in it and lowered it down off the bridge to the bottom of the Chippewa Creek and pulled it back up. The mouse was fine.” Then he adds, “I would never be cru-

el to animals, even in the name of science.” How about humans, in the name of art? The director’s gaze narrows. “There’s a difference,” he says, “between being tough and being cruel.”

Cameron has made an art of being tough. The 43-year-old Canadian, who was born in Kapuskasing, Ont., grew up in Niagara Falls and moved to California with his family at the age of 17, is one of Hollywood’s titans—the Cecil B. DeMille of his generation. Creating such blockbusters as The Terminator, Terminator 2\ Judgment Day, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies and now Titanic, he has a singular talent for staging scenes of massive destruction. Cameron is also a filmmaking virtuoso, a control freak who not only directs but writes, produces and edits his movies, as well as occasionally manning a camera, testing a stunt, or correcting a detail of the set with a paintbrush. Crews consider his shoots to be the most gruelling in the business, the Hollywood equivalent of Outward Bound. And no one, not even Steven Spielberg, makes pictures on such a gargantuan scale.

“He’s like his own movie industry,” says Toronto film critic Christopher Heard, author of the recently published biography Dreaming Aloud:

The Life and Films of James Cameron. “He has taken Hollywood by the throat and they do what he says.” Bill Mechanic, president and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, which financed Titanic with Paramount Pictures, says quite simply: “He’s uncontrollable.”

Titanic, which will finally open Dec. 19—six months later than originally intended—is the most expensive movie ever made. Cameron rounds off the final price tag at $200 million (U.S.). In Canadian dollars, that is the equivalent of $280 million, and roughly $100 million over its projected budget. And with marketing and distribution factored in, the real cost of making and launching Titanic may run as high as $400 million. According to the industry’s rule of thumb, the movie will have to gross about $570 million at the box office to break even. Cameron, however, seems sanguine about the stakes. “We make big pictures,” he says. “That’s what my career has shaped into. This is my fourth film in a row [after Terminator 2, The Abyss and True Lies] that has been called the most expensive film in history.”

But Titanic is by far the most audacious, and a risky departure for a director famous for making macho adventure. Hoping to emulate such epics as Gone with the Wind and Doctor Zhivago, Cameron has designed the film as a sweeping romance. He has wrapped the true story of the Titanic around a fictional tale of class-crossed lovers that plays like an Edwardian Romeo and Juliet. It seems like a colossal act of hubris: making the biggest moving picture of all time about a ship

that was, in its day, the biggest moving object ever made, an oceangoing blockbuster—especially when that ship has come to symbolize the folly of grandiose dreams.

On the 85th anniversary of the Titanic’s fatal maiden voyage in 1912, Cameron’s epic marks the culmination of a dizzying array of Titanic lore—in books, movies, Web sites and even a Broadway play (page 92). But by virtue of its sheer scale, this movie seems to have become synonymous with the ship itself and, ever since the summer release was postponed, questions have circled it like sharks. Is Titanic too big for its own good? Will it sink at the box office? Will young action fans sit through a three-hour-plus epic that is half disaster flick, half period romance? Can the man who made a star of Arnold Schwarzenegger make a corset movie? Can James Cameron make folks cry? In short, has he pulled it off?

After preview screenings, the evidence is in, and the answer is yes. Titanic is a magnificent spectacle. Like the ship itself, the movie is a showpiece, an immense construction of engineered beauty, and it clips right along. Sure, the drama is not watertight. The shipboard romance—featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack, a free-spirited artist travelling steerage, and Kate Winslet as Rose, an upperclass passenger who betrays her fiancé for him—unfolds with a Disney-like naïveté that is perilously corny. But it works. And some of the action sequences, which include chase scenes and gunplay in the ship’s flooded passageways, seem excessive, as if the plight of 2,200 people trying to escape a sinking ship in the North Atlantic were not drama enough.

But the historical detail is faithfully rendered, with a solid assembly of actors portraying such real-life characters as the “unsinkable” Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), Titanic designer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) , and its captain, E. J. Smith (Bernard Hill). Cameron’s re-creation of the ship, meanwhile, is staggering. On the coast of Mexico, he built and sank a nine-tenths scale model of the Titanic, a 230-m-long replica based on the original blueprints. He filmed it in the largest tank in the world—a 2.8-hectare outdoor pool holding 17 million gallons of seawater—part of a $57-million studio complex that Fox specifically constructed for the movie. Ironically, MGM later rented the studio to shoot part of its new James Bond blockbuster, Tomorrow Never Dies, and now hopes to blow Titanic out of the water by opening it on the same weekend.

Titanic, however, is an event movie in a class of its own. And, despite captivating performances from DiCaprio and Winslet, the ship is the film’s undisputed star. From the gleaming decks to the satanic mills of the engine room, it is so massively convincing that once the iceberg rips into the hull, the historic weight of the Titanic tragedy begins to lend the narrative an irresistible momentum. It’s like watching the collapse of civilization in microcosm: the flooded opulence, the official courage, the unofficial cowardice,

then the panic, and the pure horror of 1,522 souls surrendering to the icy Atlantic.

In the final scenes of the ship going down, with the nightmare of passengers sliding and hurtling from the tilted decks, Cameron’s technical wizardry comes into full play. But he also conveys the elegiac side of the drama—one of the most chilling sequences shows a lone lifeboat searching for survivors among the silence of floating corpses, hundreds of them frozen in life-jackets.

The tragedy is also framed by a contemporary flashback device featuring Rose as a wistful, 101-year-old survivor. Exquisitely portrayed by Gloria Stuart—who emerged from a 15-year retirement to play the role—Rose tells her story to a fortune hunter (Bill Paxton), who is bent on salvaging a priceless diamond necklace from a safe in the wreck. And that gives Cameron a pretext to take cameras underwater to tour the skeletal ruin of the real Titanic two and a half kilometres below the surface of the North Atlantic off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks.

The director, who went on 12 high-risk dives down to the wreck, took his cue from the makers of the 1992 IMAX movie Titánica.

He used the same two Russian submarines, deepsea capsules about the size of a minivan. But while the IMAX crew was forced to film through the sub’s porthole, Cameron helped invent a crush-proof housing for a remote camera that allowed him to send it swimming into unexplored corners of the wreck. And by cross-fading from ghostly images of a ruined fireplace or deck railing to their immaculate recreation on the Titanic replica, the movie creates an eerie resonance.

Joseph Maclnnis, the first Canadian to dive to the wreck in 1987, worked on the IMAX film and is now writing a book about the Titanic. “It’s taken us 85 years to see what really happened that night,” he said after seeing Cameron’s movie. “This is the first time we’ve seen the reality of the chaos on that deck, the panic. Jim did a courageous thing in tackling what we don’t want to talk about—we’re all in denial about death as a fact of life. When you see the Titanic on the bottom, there’s no more denial.”

In light of Cameron’s ferocious image, and the tales of his Captain Bligh conduct on the set, meeting the man comes as a shock. Smartly dressed in grey flannels and a houndstooth jacket, he is good-natured, soft-spoken and erudite. He can still pass for a Canadian. But in an interview, he is perhaps on his best behavior, and as he fields questions with hawk-like scrutiny, he seems eager to dispel a common preconception—that he is an insensitive jock who likes to blow stuff up, burn up money and terrorize anyone who gets in his way.

In fact, Cameron avers that his favorite movie in the world is The Wizard of Oz. And he insists that the sentimental streak he shows in Titanic has been with him all along. “Terminator was a love story, almost a gothic romance,” he says, “even though it’s remembered

Cameron gave up his director fee and his share of the profits

as a techno-thriller. And The Abyss was criticized for being more emotional and sentimental than people wanted it to be.” Filming a period romance, however, was new ground, and Cameron admits he was terrified at first. “We’d be doing some scene with women in corsets and big hats and brittle tea-room chatter,” he recalls, “and I’m just thinking to myself, ‘My God, I’m doomed. Nobody’s going to buy this.’ But it works because you care about the characters.” The making of Titanic, meanwhile, has reinforced Cameron’s image as a profligate with a cavalier disrespect for the bottom line. In fact, he says he never intended to go so wildly over budget. And in his defense, Rae Sanchini, president of Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, says: “When you’re trying to do something that nobody has ever done before, it’s very hard to figure out how much it’s going to cost.” No one had ever attempted a set on the scale of the Titanic replica, which was constructed out of steel girders, says Sanchini. “We had to build a 75-storey skyscraper on its side and then move it.” Cameron, meanwhile, says the big problem was a compressed schedule. “We had two massive construction teams working simultaneously, tripping over each other while we were filming in the same studio, trying to record dialogue. We tried to do too much in too short a time, but the people at Fox were adamant about a summer release. Well, guess what? They didn’t get it.”

To help compensate for going over budget, Cameron gave up his fee for directing the movie and, more significantly, his share of any profits—a $15to $30million sacrifice if the film does as well as True Lies or Terminator 2. Aside from his screenwriting fee, he says he is not making a dime for his work. Buying time, however, allowed Cameron the luxury to edit his labor of love with more care than he had ever enjoyed on his action movies, which were all rushed into release. “I can cut an action sequence very rapidly,” he says. “You can do it in a frenzy, and I think it’s improved by that knee-jerk decision-making. But when you’re cutting relationship stuff, the kind of scenes that are the bulk of Titanic, you need time to go through it and find that little nuance, that little thing that’s happening in the eyes on take nine that isn’t in any of the other takes.”

On the set, meanwhile, Cameron controls every detail with military precision. “I believe in having the same intensity on the set that one would have in a championship basketball game or the Super Bowl,” he says. “Because I think we’re playing for all the marbles. We’re playing for big stakes in a very competitive form of entertainment that is seen globally, and it has to be great. There’s no room for compromise.” Actor Billy Zane, who plays Rose’s villainous fiancé in Titanic, told Maclean’s: "It is a sink-or-swim energy on set. Jim's the coach you want to please, who will kick your ass on the field but will be the first to celebrate the touchdown.” Added Zane: “He’s a very clever man. He’d be setting up 17 cameras and filming 500 people running all over the ship, then pause, put the brakes on and apply by hand the perfect trickle of blood on an actor’s face.” Cameron’s brand of perfectionism can come as a shock to an

uninitiated crew. Kristie Sills worked as an assistant director for a 17-day shoot in Halifax, where Titanic s present-day scenes were shot. Although she became a fan of the director’s methods, “a lot of the crew found him very mean,” she recalls. “He can be very abusive, very intimidating. But he can do everyone’s job, usually better than they can. So whén he sees incompetence or weakness or insecurity, it frustrates him, and he’ll step in and take over.”

Mandy Ketcheson, another assistant director on the Halifax shoot, is also a convert. “You work on a Jim Cameron movie and you know it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” she says. “You never get more than three hours sleep. But he pushes you to a place you thought you could never go. So many directors don’t know what they want. He knows what he wants, and you can feed off that excitement.”

On the last day of the Halifax shoot, the cast and crew fed on something more potent—a seafood chowder that had been spiked with enough PCP (angel dust) to send 80 of them to the hospital. They recovered, and although the culprit was never found, it is assumed that a disaffected crew member wanted to throw the Titanic juggernaut off course.

Perhaps no one undergoes more stress on ajames Cameron set than the director himself. “It was a real highwire act,” he says. ‘Toward the end, I was getting pretty ragged. I was literally working for nothing. People were getting tired, and there were safety issues.” There were no serious injuries on the set, but there was fear. The crew fdmed one of the most dangerous stunts—a huge implosion of water through a glass dome—at the tail end of an 18hour day. “It was the ‘martini’ shot—the last one before two weeks off with our families,” recalls James Muro, who has worked as a steadycam operator on six Cameron movies, “We’re all looking around going, ‘Gee, should we be doing this when we’re this tired? Who wants to go home in a box?’ ” But Muro says Cameron took extra precautions and then donned a wet suit to handle one of the more hazardous underwater shots himself.

So what is it with Cameron and water? Between Titanic and The Abyss, he has spent more time harnessing its power than any moviemaker in history. Could Niagara Falls have something to do with it? “It might,” he laughs. “When you grow up listening to the sound of hundreds of millions of gallons of water thundering in the distance, this constant roar, it’s like growing up next to the ocean. It becomes part of your being. But there may be something more fundamental than that. My daughter, who is 5, is happier underwater than anywhere else. So there must be some water gene, some cetacean gene, somewhere.”

The eldest of five children, Cameron grew up in a family that owed its living to hydroelectricity. His father, Phillip, worked as an electrical engineer at a paper mill powered by Kapuskasing’s Smokey Falls. And another hydro job opportunity took the family to Niagara Falls when James was 5. According to Heard’s biography, “Phillip was a strict disciplinarian who unintentionally bequeathed to his son a healthy disrespect for authority,” while his strong-willed mother, Shirley, an artist and homemaker, encouraged his creative side.

As a student in Niagara Falls, Cameron says he would take the bus to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto “and sketch antiquities—Etruscan helmets and dinosaur bones.” He became a skilled illustrator (in

fact, for Titanic, he did all the life drawings attributed to the artist played by DiCaprio). And with his younger brother, Mike, who later helped him design film equipment, he invented some of his first special effects, including an industrial-strength catapult.

Cameron was a longhaired, pot-smoking adolescent, and the movie that changed his life was, fittingly, 2001: Space Odyssey. He saw it 10 times and decided he wanted to be a film-maker. Then, at 17, he suddenly found himself on the doorstep of the movie industry when his father relocated the family to Los Angeles to take a better job.

As a teenager in California, Cameron was adrift at first. He enrolled in physics at Fullerton College, switched to English literature, then dropped out to drive a truck and marry the first of his four wives, a waitress named Sarah who worked at Bob’s Big Boy. (The Terminator's Sarah Connor, who works at Bob’s Big Buns, was named after her. Linda Hamilton, the actress who portrayed the shotgun-pumping Connor, married Cameron in July, and is the mother of his child. Hamilton is the latest in a series of strong women in his life: he was previously married to Terminator producer Gale Anne Hurd, and then Blue Steel director Kathryn Bigelow.)

In 1979, Cameron broke into the film business at Roger Corman’s famous B-movie factory, where he soon carved out his own visual effects department. In 1982, he directed his first feature, Piranha IP The Spawning—and his first stab at underwater suspense. “But this wacko Italian producer fired me 12 days into the shoot then refused to take my name off it,” says Cameron. “So I never considered it my first film.” While trying to get his hands on the footage in Rome, he recalls, he fell ill and had a fevered dream that would change his life—“I had these images of this metallic death figure coming phoenix-like out of the fire.” Enter the Terminator.

Cameron’s first Terminator movie (1984), a feat of low-budget brilliance, was a huge hit. Cameron remembers Schwarzenegger telling him, “I have no interest in being an actor. I’m going to be a star like Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone.” The director

Tou know what? I'm not a p.c., candy-assed director'

humored him, saying, “Well, yes, it’s good to have goals.” Since then, of course, with T2 and True Lies, Jim and Arnie have become Hollywood’s testosterone twins, masters of the action universe.

For some people, Cameron’s work has come to represent everything that is toxically wrong with Hollywood movies—their extravagance, their brutality and their global domination. His Terminator films offer some of the most excruciating violence ever dedicated to the theme of world peace. “I’ve been wrestling with the nature of violence,” says the director. “Terminator 1 is very violent, but at least the violence is perpetrated by the bad guy. And The Abyss is a complete indictment of the military mentality, and man’s inhumanity to man, almost in a sophomoric way.”

But Cameron sees nothing wrong with pyrotechnics. “It’s fun to blow things up. I liked blowing things up when I was a kid, and it’s fun to blow them up now.” As for the allegation that True Lies is loaded with race and gender stereotypes, he is unrepentant: “It was a very tongue-in-cheek shoot-em-up. And you know what? I’m not a p.c., candy-assed director.”

Social values aside, there are those who think he has had a pernicious effect on Hollywood’s economy by pushing movie budgets into the stratosphere. But Cameron insists that’s nothing new. “What about D. W. Griffith?” he asks. “What about Cecil B. DeMille? David Lean? What about Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus or Gone with the Wind? There have always been people who believed in the operatic scale. Everyone acts like it’s a new thing, because the numbers are unprecedented. But the cost of a loaf of bread is unprecedented. People make a big deal out of the fact that the real Titanic cost just $7 million in 1911. But today, it would cost half a billion.”

In Titanic, Winslet’s character makes an amusing comment about Freud and “the male preoccupation with size.” But as unfashionable as it may be, Cameron adores bigness. “I can always relate to the builder, people who build bridges and great machines, even though

it’s now considered passé.” And the Titanic character he best relates to is the ship’s designer Thomas Andrews, “who spent three years building this great, beautiful thing only to see it destroyed through the folly of others.”

Building Titanic the movie, however, was a sobering experience. “Stress for me is a way of life—it’s like being a commander of a nuclear submarine,” says Cameron. “But now that I have a five-yearold daughter, I need to modify my lifestyle.” He says he would “like to be known more as an actor’s director, and as a screenwriter. And he talks of one day making a low-budget film with no special effects.

It is hard to imagine a kinder, gentler, smaller James Cameron. In a sense, he is the Terminator, Hollywood’s unstoppable force. And his taste for adrenaline is not confined to the screen. Gale Anne Hurd remembers that on her first date with him they crash-landed a hot-air balloon and shot off AK-47s in the desert. To unwind, he likes to ride through the desert on a dirt bike, or go scuba diving or bungee jumping. Once he went on holiday to the South Pole. “And my new challenge,” he says, “is to learn how to fly a helicopter.”

Cameron takes on the world with a brash ambition that might seem acutely unCanadian. But he has never applied for U.S. citizenship, and still sees himself as an outsider in America. “I always let it be known that I’m Canadian,” says the director. “Moving to the United States, there was a sense of exoticism about the culture that I’ve always felt ambivalent about. I feel like I’m in it and I can do it, but I don’t feel I’m of it. And I feel that way now about Hollywood. Especially now, having clawed my way up, I don’t want to be part of it as much as I thought I did.”

But Hollywood is like that. Everyone who works there talks about the place as if it belongs to someone else. Or as if, like Oz, it is a mirage, a gigantic special effect. But if the Dream Factory did not exist, no doubt James Cameron, like the wizard behind the curtain, would have invented it. □