The salvage of Titanic (Part 1)

 

If there is a 1990s equivalent to early Hollywood pioneers like Cecil B. De Mille or Erich von Stroheim, it is surely James Cameron. Like them, he has been described as an autocrat as well as an auteur. He is writer, producer, co-editor and unofficial cameraman on Titanic, as well as director of the film in which, not for the first time, he is breaking budget records - $200 million is the accepted cost of Titanic, even before the expensive publicity.

Cameron films are different in other ways too: "You don't just join one of his films," says editor Mark Goldblatt, "you sign on for a tour of duty." So Titan meets Titanic, you could say.

The director is a hook-nosed, polite, bearded, greying 43-year-old. For better or worse, his film has burst the barriers of the auteur-action genre. And the vanguard is where Cameron likes to be. He is the man whose "tech noir" epics - The Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens, The Abyss and True Lies - have taken more than $1 billion at the box-office worldwide.

Did Cameron ever think things were getting out of hand? "Every day! I was nuts." He calls the budget overruns "a crushing burden", but the man who has been described as an "adrenalin junkie" relishes pressure. He likens the process of high-profile film-making to the public painting competitions he used to go in for as a boy. And on set, he uses what Titanic's cinematographer Russell Carpenter calls "a controlled frenzy".

His crews consider themselves combat veterans: the shouting ("I was prone to some frustrated outbursts"), the endless takes. They wear T-shirts that say: "I shoot with James Cameron - you can't scare me." Fuelled by vitamin B-12 and wheatgrass juice, he was prepared to spend a significant chunk of the six-month shoot literally in deep water, working seven days a week, 17 hours a day.

What do his actors feel about him? "I'm not talking about The Abyss and I never will," said Ed Harris. "Jim has a motto: duck or bleed," said Jamie Lee Curtis after True Lies. After Aliens, Sigourney Weaver said: "He really does want us to risk our lives and limbs for the shot, but he doesn't mind risking his own." The tone of the comments is much the same today.

Billy Zane - as the film's villain - describes him as the coach you want to please: tough but rewarding. Leonardo DiCaprio says politely that Cameron is the captain of his ship - a captain who'll certainly tell you if you aren't in the right boat. Earlier in 1997, the stories said, he was less happy.

Cameron says the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 hasn't left our consciousness today. It was the biggest ship in the world and went down on its maiden voyage with 1,500 people still on board. "Imagine a 747 filled with all the movie stars in Hollywood crashing. We'd all feel that we shared in it in some way. It's even more on people's minds these days - something to do with the millennium coming." The scale on which he shot was going to be appropriate. Premiere magazine called it "deliriously ambitious".

Three years ago, Cameron watched a copy of A Night To Remember, the 1958 film about the disaster, and promptly rattled off a treatment. He pitched it as Romeo And Juliet on the Titanic - and that was before the release of Leonardo DiCaprio's last movie.

DiCaprio is cast opposite Kate Winslet and the romance between the star-crossed lovers occupies at least half of the three hours 15 minutes running time. The studio would have been happier with more established stars.

They couldn't find a place that suited Cameron's vision of Titanic, so they built their own. It took 100 days to raise from the ground a whole new facility and cost $40 million to buy 40 acres (16.2 hectares) of Baja, California and a studio where the 90 per cent scale-replica ship, 775 feet (233 metres) high, was raised and lowered by hydraulic lifts inside a 17-million gallon (3.7 million litre) tank.

Frontier-of-the-art digital effects provided everything from the iceberg crash and 1,000 digital people to the frosted breath on those in the sea and the virtual actors who performed the more dangerous stunts.

Shooting began in autumn 1996 but there was no way it was ever going to be easy. The rumours really started circulating after last Christmas, when the cast came back for what they took to be a few wrap-up shots. In fact, shooting took another three months. There were stories, probably unfounded, that a Mexican gangster was planning to assassinate Cameron. Eighty people had already gone to the hospital after someone put angel dust into the lobster chowder.

During those three months at the beginning of the year - three months of night shoots, three months in the water, three months of 300 extras with the caterers paddling food to them by kayak - estimates of the cost rose from $120 million to US $160 million to $200 million. The money men went along with it. They had no choice.

"The budget when we started supposedly reflected all the things that we were intending to do - it's not like we made things up as we went along," says Cameron. "But it was just such a big project that no one really knew what it was going to cost. By the time we did, I was halfway through the shooting, so we were kind of stuck. We had to finish it. Nobody was happy about that, least of all me.

"It was just getting that ship and getting it lit that really cost the money." The devil, he says, was in the details - lifeboat davits (crane-like devices) made by the same company that did the real ship's originals, expensive safety procedures and Cameron's decision to hire two of the five submersibles in the world that could take him down 4,000 metres (13,330 feet) to film the wreck of the real Titanic. Time will tell whether it was worth that sort of accuracy.

"It's the first time I've ever dealt with a historic subject so maybe it made me crazy . . ." The shoot finally wrapped at the end of March. A month later, it became apparent that the film was not going to be ready for the planned release date at the beginning of July. Or the next one, in the middle of July. Or the one at the end of July. To the tune of much public bickering between the two studios involved, Fox and Paramount, it became a Christmas movie. This time, the problem was the digital effects, which had got too much for the original company - Cameron's own Digital Domain - to handle solo.

Halfway through the excruciating process, Cameron gave the studio back his share of the money. "I turned around and I said, `Look, I told you guys it was a good idea to make this movie, I told you it was going to cost this amount of money and it's not. I feel I've screwed up here and you guys are the ones who are paying the piper.' So I gave them back all my fees, and all my back-end participation - my profits.

"I said, `OK, you're going to gamble. If this film isn't a hit you're never going to get your money back, but if it is, you don't have me as a gross profit participant in between you and the possibility of recoupment.' " So that changed the attitude of Twentieth Century Fox. Everything conspired against them at this point, including an electricity short which cut the film off when they tried to show Fox's owner, Rupert Murdoch, what he was getting for his money. "The end result is that I worked for three years on a movie that I won't see a dime from, even if it is a success beyond Jurassic Park. I can't say that I'm happy about that, but I feel satisfied that I did the right thing in a tough situation.