ET spoke with the director, Billy Zane, Victor Garber and more of the cast about the film’s legacy 20 years later.
“You can be blasé about some things, Rose, but not about Titanic!”
Those words, spoken by the grandiose villain Cal Hockley to his dispassionate fiancée, Rose Dewitt Bukater, proved true both for the then-unprecedented ship and its fateful journey in 1912 and the record-breaking juggernaut film that told its story in 1997.
Twenty years after the film’s release, it’s hard not to see Titanic as an inevitable success: one of this century’s greatest love stories featuring two of today’s top stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, set against the backdrop of one of humanity’s greatest tragedies.
But before the film’s release, it was the subject of much scrutiny, with many mocking its premise, excessive budget and pushed release date. Before Rose and Jack ever made it to theaters, Titanic was nearly dead in the water, with two studios -- Paramount and Fox -- shouldering the financial burden of the $200 million budget, which at the time, was the highest price tag in cinematic history.
“The logistics just piled up so much that for every day I shot, I got two days behind schedule, which is not even mathematically possible,” director James Cameron tells ET. “It’s like, ‘OK, where’s my incentive to keep living here, let alone directing?’ So I just tuned that out at a certain point and just hunkered down and focused on the work. Because I thought at the end of the day, we’re not going to make any money, and I’m probably not going to work again, so at least I can have made a good film in the process.”
With immense pressure from the studios and public ridicule weighing on his shoulders, Cameron, 42 years old at the time, tackled one of the most ambitious filming projects to date. He and his team took on the task of reconstructing an almost-to-scale ship at their compound in Rosarito, Mexico, where filming took place for several months through the fall of 1996 and into the following spring.
“Driving over the rise in Rosarito Beach and seeing the ship for the first time was extraordinary,” recalls Frances Fisher, who played Rose’s mother, Ruth Dewitt Bukater. “It looked like a ship docked on the shore. It was a breathtaking and pretty spectacular sight.”
It wasn’t just the ocean liner itself that was recreated. Cameron also brought in historians and props specialists to construct ornate interiors, which were directly modeled on the original ship. He found the Titanic’s carpet manufacturer and convinced them to reproduce 18,000 square feet of the weave that was on board in 1912. The silverware had the White Star Line flag and the dishes had their original pattern. Items that were only seen for a moment or were even just in the background of a single shot were all produced with the height of authenticity.
“I did feel a responsibility to the tragedy. I think you can see it, and that came from diving the wreck,” explains Cameron, who traveled to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean to see the real Titanic, which appears at the beginning of the film. “That came from really going to what is essentially a cemetery, a tomb, if you will. And that imbued me with a sense of respect, to be respectful of the tragedy always, and not sensationalize and not turn it into a big adventure movie, a Poseidon Adventure type thing -- not that there’s anything wrong with that -- but this was a real event, a real story. And then I think that became contagious across all the departments, all of whom felt that they needed to step up and do accurate, world-class work.”
Those details were not lost on the costume department, which recreated high society period garb. “Even the very last background player in the back of every shot was dressed completely authentically,” Fisher says. “Down to our underwear, everything was real.”
That detail, however, proved problematic when the female actors needed to go to the bathroom. “The women in our dresses couldn’t fit into these thin little port-a-potties, so we had to be driven back to the dressing rooms, standing up in a truck because you couldn’t sit down,” she explains. “It was really hard, even in the vans, to get in those big skirts, so we would all time it together. We didn’t want Jim to have to wait for us. It ended up being about a 20-minute thing every time.”
But it was this attention to detail that put the actors immediately into every scene. Billy Zane, who played Cal, recalls filming one of the movie’s first scenes, where he is boarding the ship on the dock.
“The sea breeze blew constantly and 2,000 artists in perfect period attire milled about in every corner as far as you could see,” he says. “I could sense just by silhouette that at any given moment, they too shared the collective glee of the privilege to be on that deck. We were aboard the Titanic.”
Set against this impressive backdrop that featured thousands of extras in addition to the principle cast was an epic love story that was initially pitched by Cameron as Romeo and Juliet on board the Titanic. It was the pitch that sold the studios, but he was then tasked with bringing it to life and making an audience believe that two strangers could fall in love in just a few days.
“We wanted to take people to the level where they would believe so much in what these two people were sharing, this extraordinary love, that you would forget that the ship was going to sink,” Winslet told ET in 1997. “And you wouldn’t think about the consequences of that and what it might mean for the two of them. And so that was the hard part, was really hanging onto our integrity and making sure that was constantly coming across as honestly as we could possibly convey it.”
It was the story of Rose, a first class passenger engaged to a man she didn’t love and forced into a life she didn’t want, and Jack, the third class drifter and traveling artist who saw the gift in life that he didn’t intend on wasting. The onscreen chemistry between Winslet and DiCaprio was undeniable, and it became something the two future superstars have had to answer to throughout their illustrious careers.
Still friends to this day, they maintain there was never anything between them romantically.
“I think we were just very, very lucky,” Winslet said at the time. “Really, the minute we met we just totally clicked. Believe me, I was convinced I would meet him and fall in love with him as every other female in the world seems to be doing. But I met him and thought, ‘What a great guy.’”
The film also featured an iconic cinematic moment when Rose asks Jack to “draw me like one of your French girls,” wearing only the Heart of the Ocean diamond necklace. In fact, it wasn’t DiCaprio, but Cameron who sketched Jack’s entire portfolio and was responsible for the pivotal image.
“It’s my then-42-year-old hand doubling his 21-year-old hand,” Cameron says, revealing that the drawing scene was shot just a couple of days into the shoot. “So Kate and Leo, they’d been through the rehearsal process, they’d just gotten know each other, and here she is having to drop trou in front of him… I think Leo was a little, tiny, tiny bit overwhelmed by it because there’s a little gaffe in it. I don’t know if it was intentional, you’ll have to ask him, but I don’t think it was. Where he says, ‘Get on the bed, I mean the couch.’ And he actually just said that. It’s plain to see where his mind was, and I left it in the film because I thought it was funny. It was just that one take, which led me to believe it was, in fact, unintentional.”
When ET spoke with DiCaprio in 1997, he had a much less flustered reaction to the scene, commending his co-star on her professionalism. “It was like jumping right into it, you know, for her,” he said. “I wasn’t uncomfortable at all. I felt uncomfortable for her. But the scene worked out well.”
Though Winslet wasn’t smitten with DiCaprio, the rest of the world quickly fell for the promising actor. Jason Barry, who plays Jack’s Irish friend Tommy Ryan, says, “[Leo] was a great guy, fun, very gracious, good actor, humble… Obviously ridiculously good looking. He was just one of those guys where you go, ‘Christ! With a face like that, you’re going to go a long way.’ But he had the talent to back it up. Kate the same, she was really sweet -- two really good people who they deserved everything they got after that movie. They nailed it.”
Victor Garber, who played Titanic designer Thomas Andrews and shared many scenes with Winslet, has nothing but praise for her work. “Honestly, just acting with Kate Winslet, all I had to do was just look at her,” he says. “When you’re working with someone who’s that gifted, it just makes everything much easier because all you have to do is respond to what she’s doing and you’ll be OK. I really treasure that experience.”
Zane adds of his onscreen rivals: “They were like my younger brother and sister. We played, were there for each other, made jokes at ‘Dad’s’ expense that he would pretend not to hear, and kept each other grounded. You know, family.”
While the film’s stars received plenty of praise, it was Titanic’s true captain, Cameron, who was issued the brunt of the criticism during the filming. Stories came out about his demanding nature, unsafe working conditions on set and his hostile attitude during the stressful shoot. But for the actors who worked closely with him, it was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“Exceptionalism needs more champions,” Zane says of Cameron’s perfectionist reputation. “If he is perceived for having a seeming lack of congeniality at all times, I think it is a small price to pay for excellence. The irony in regards to my personal experience is that I found Jim Cameron [to be] one of the funniest, [most] charming and generous collaborators I have ever worked with or had the pleasure to know.”
Fisher adds that “he gives 100 percent and he expects you to give back 100 percent. Those of us who did had a great, great time.”
Recalling one particular day on set, when Cameron was filming an important scene with DiCaprio next to the grand staircase. Fisher says the director noticed a large black scuff mark on the floor tile -- a problem, since the ship was supposed to be brand-new. He quickly asked members of the staff to find something to remove the stain, she says, “because he was so enthusiastic and had just done every job on a set ever, he found something before anybody else and got down on his hands and knees and scrubbed that spot off the tile. It just shows his dedication to whatever is happening in the moment to solve a problem with no ego at all. And that’s the kind of guy Jim Cameron is.”
=Cameron’s attention to detail was crucial as he filmed complicated choreographed scenes on the deck of the ship as it was sinking. Ewan Stewart, who played First Officer Murdoch, recalls being at the center of the chaos in the second half of the film.
“It was like being part of some sort of strange dream where everything looks pretty accurate if you concentrate on one little bit of it,” he says. “When the actors and all the background actors are kind of whipped into the emotion of the scene or impending death, that’s quite an electric atmosphere to be a part of.”
Stewart had to film several scenes at the edge of the ship as they were lowering lifeboats -- not the favorite task of someone with a fear of heights. “I remember being genuinely scared,” he admits. “I’m not great with heights, and it’s literally just hundreds of feet of a drop down from the top of the ship. James would come over, ‘No, no, I don’t believe you could see!’ And him being fearless, he’d crouch right over the edge and show me what he wanted me to do, and I’d have a go at it and gingerly peer over the edge. That’s what I remember really scaring me was night after night of looking down hundreds of feet thinking, ‘My God, there’s no net or anything here. I could fall over here.’”
Thankfully, he didn’t, and Cameron insists that reports of an unsafe set were entirely false. It remains one of the most frustrating rumors he heard throughout shooting. “In fact, if you did the math on it, it was pretty nuts,” Cameron notes. “We did something like 6,000 stunt person days, and we had one injury that required going to emergency -- it was to set a broken ankle. There were cuts and scrapes and bumps and things like that, but in terms of working safely, first of all, it would take about six movies to add up to 6,000 stunt person days, and across those six movies, I defy anybody, no matter how safely they’re working, to shoot six big action movies and come out with only one relatively minor injury,” adding: “I put safety first in everything that I do. I just don’t believe people should get hurt making movies and that’s just been a mantra for me, so that one was irksome.”
While everything on set was orchestrated, factoring in each cast and crew member, the lighting, the sets and the action, Cameron remained opened to a few improvised moments by his stars. His favorite example comes in the second half of the film, when Rose is running away from Cal and to Jack. In an unscripted moment, Cal grabs her by the arm and she spits in his face to get away from him.
“As scripted, she pulled out a hat pin and stuck him with it, which is all I could think of when I was writing,” Cameron explains. “It seemed OK, but Kate was the one that came up with the idea of connecting the dots between the scenes where Jack teaches her how to spit like a man and when she actually does it to Cal. I think the genius of that ellipse, the closing of that ellipse is entirely hers.”
Not everyone, however, was as taken with the improvisation. “There are few things you remember as well as being spat upon, let along 17 times,” Zane says. “I recall Kate having to swish KY jelly for consistency and it was upon learning the contents of her gelatinous spittle, that I felt being on the receiving end of that juice was better than preparing it in one’s mouth prior to launch.”
Few scenes were as lighthearted as that. To do justice to the tragedy of the real-life ship sinking and the thousands of lives lost, Cameron and his team had to portray the deaths of real people. And while respect for the dead weighed heavily on the director and script writer’s mind, there was one particular death that brought up some controversy after the film was released.
First Officer Murdoch is portrayed in Titanic as first shooting a passenger on the deck of the ship and then shooting himself. The scene was contested by Murdoch’s descendants, who noted that there was no proof that he had done any of those things. Cameron, who poured tons of research into every frame of the film, noted that there had been several real-life eyewitnesses who gave testimony to the fact that an unnamed officer on Murdoch’s side of the ship and in his general area had both shot someone and possibly also shot himself.
“There was pretty good evidence that it happened, but was it actually First Officer Murdoch? He’s the likeliest person, and then my mind as a screenwriter started to fill in and connect the dots and say, ‘Oh, the guy who is responsible for helming the ship, on his watch, he’s the one who essentially ran the ship into an iceberg. Was he overcome by guilt? Was he trying to save as many people as he could but when the riot broke out he overreacted?’ Who knows,” Cameron explains. “So I think I got a little carried away with the narrative and was not sensitive to the impact that it might have had on the families. And this is the responsibility that one carries when you’re making what’s essentially a big docudrama because you’re telling the story of something that really happened, and I did populate it with real people.”
Stewart admits to similarly not considering the real man he was portraying. “I’m ashamed to say it, really, now -- I hadn’t really given that a lot of thought, that I was playing a real person,” he says. “I didn’t really think about it as any kind of stain on the Murdoch family name. I just thought that within the context of the scene, I was still thinking about playing a character… He just shot himself with the emotion of ‘Oh, my God, I’ve killed somebody.’”
Minor controversies aside, Titanic opened in theaters on Dec. 19, 1997, to rave reviews. After months of being mocked and blown off, the film was both a critical and commercial success. It was nominated for a record 14 Academy Awards, ultimately taking home 11, including Best Picture and a directing nod for Cameron, and to date has brought in more than $2 billion at the box office -- second only to Cameron’s Avatar.
The film’s stars were immediately skyrocketed to superstardom as the movie continued playing in theaters long after it was released on VHS. It translated to international audiences who rushed to the theaters to see Jack and Rose fall in love time after time.
In 1997, DiCaprio had a level mind about the massive success when speaking to ET, saying, “Whatever will carry me to the next level as an actor, so I can continue to do good movies. The choices I’ve made have simply been because they’ve been the best possible films in front of me and that’s why I’ve sort of done them. I haven’t purposefully chosen to become widely known… I just want to keep growing and doing good work. That’s my main objective.”
Winslet seemed bewildered by her fame shortly after the film’s release, saying at the time, “It’s very strange. I’m a bit famous. It does feel very sort of alien to me.”
Looking back on what he describes as a “dizzying” time today, Cameron notes, “It was like an enormous weight had been lifted from us and it became this crazy ride. It was almost like the yang to the yin of what the production and the post-production had been.”
With the success came plenty of critics. “The Ship Sank, Get Over It” bumper stickers and T-shirts could be found everywhere, and Cameron notes that plenty of men who had previously admitted to crying in the theater reneged on those claims. Even some of the film’s stars were criticized for “selling out” by making such a commercial movie, a fact which amuses Cameron to this day.
“Titanic was seen as [a big commercial movie], interestingly enough, only after the fact when it made a lot of money,” Cameron says. “Nobody thought of it as a big commercial movie, they thought it was a big stupid movie before then, because it doesn’t really fit the classic definition of a big commercial movie. It wasn’t an action movie. It wasn’t a contemporary movie. It wasn’t based on a Marvel comic. It didn’t have any franchise potential. It basically ticked just about every box that you don’t do if you’re trying to make a commercial movie... I always think of Titanic as the biggest independent film that’s ever been made, because it had that sensibility of an independent film.”
So what made Titanic such a success? Why, 20 years later, is there an excited buzz about its brief re-release in theaters? Why do people still care? Many point to the story of the Titanic itself.
“Just putting yourself in that position was so unbearable,” Garber says. “It just resonates in so many different ways… When something strikes you that deeply emotionally, it stays with you and you want to share it, you want your kids to see it.”
Though the gargantuan ship and the action of the sinking were highlighted in the film’s trailer and certainly throughout the story, it was the background characters’ underlying sagas that packed the most emotional punch. Families being torn apart, loved ones dying in each other’s arms and a mother reading to her children as the ship sank around them were images that lingered long after Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” finished in the final credits.
Barry highlighted those unexpected scenes as some of the reason for the film’s success, saying, “People didn’t expect those little moments with James Cameron… They weren’t expecting those beautiful little moments, those sweet little moments, because up until then, all his stuff was machines, there was The Abyss or Terminator or Alien, but there was a real subtlety to those beats that Cameron put into the movie.”
Cameron sums up his thoughts on the film, saying, “There are very few instances in real life where you know for sure you’re not going to see somebody again, but that’s what Titanic was all about, all those husbands and wives who said goodbye and knew that they weren’t going to see each other anymore. It’s always going to be one of the great stories, irrespective of the movie itself. And also, I think there’s something timeless about just Kate and Leo as Jack and Rose. I actually feel at this moment in time that Jack and Rose exist almost separately from Kate and Leo. Because Kate and Leo have gone on, and each one has played so many other characters and had these incredible careers. We love and appreciate them as actors for who they are and all the many parts that they’ve done. But it’s almost like Jack and Rose are frozen in time like in amber.”
But if they were so in love and meant for each other… what about that damn door? It’s one of the longest lingering questions in all of cinema -- could Jack have fit on Rose’s door? Cameron has addressed the question head on in numerous interviews, offering both scientific and artistic reasoning behind his decision to kill off Jack at the end of the film. And the door was the subject of an even more controversial episode of Mythbusters.
“They could have done it in shifts!” Barry quips. “The funny thing is, the first day I turned up on set when they were shooting, that’s the scene they were shooting. Now, I couldn’t see the size of the door that she was on. But I did think to myself, ‘Surely to God the two of them could get on something there.’ But in good dramatic style and to break the audience’s hearts, somebody’s got to die.”
Assuring ET that this would likely be “the last time I ever say anything about it,” Cameron does concede, “If people are still arguing about a movie, a Hollywood movie, 20 years later, it just means that what Leo created with that character was so endearing to so many people that it was actually hard for them to see him die. That’s what movies are all about. We should celebrate the fact that they wish he had gotten on the damn door… It makes me smile because it makes me realize how impactful Leonardo’s performance and the character he created was to this day.”
So for the last time, here is Cameron’s explanation -- in full -- of why Jack was not saved in that fateful scene:
“I think it was played in the design of the scene that Rose was so kind of stunned and overwhelmed that she wasn’t processing reality that clearly and she didn’t see that there was a big difference between being on the door and holding onto the door. But, of course, the physics of it are that if your body is 80 percent immersed in 28-degree water, you’re going to die a lot sooner than somebody who’s mostly out of the water and just being subjected to wetness and cold air. The thing is, what people are forgetting here is, I think two things -- one, it’s an artistic choice. In the same way that Romeo and Juliet is still as poignant today as it was 500 years ago when it first shocked people at The Globe Theater when Juliet kills herself. Now, why did Juliet kill herself? Because Romeo killed himself. Why did Romeo kill himself? Because he thought Juliet was dead. Now, if she had just woken up 20 seconds earlier, he would have said, ‘Oh geez, I almost killed myself. You had me worried there!’ But it was a choice. It was an artistic choice to have her not wake up in time. Was she selfish, was she stupid, was he stupid? You know, could it have been prevented, could he have taken her pulse? There are a thousand things, but that’s not the point. The point is, it’s an artistic choice and it’s a valid one. And you see it in a fleeting moment in Leo’s face as he’s in the water and he looks at the situation and he runs all the numbers in his head and he says, ‘If I get on that door, she’s going to die.’ And by the way, setting the artistic aside, from what I know about hypothermia and water immersion and its effects on you -- and I’m a diver and I’ve been in some pretty cold water -- there is no way that that particular piece of wood could have supported both of them. It could have supported them partially out of the water, but that wouldn’t have been enough. She came within a few heartbeats of dying of hypothermia as it was. She needed that free board. So I can argue the case from a physics and physiology hypothermia standpoint and I can argue it from an artistic standpoint, but I am frankly over arguing about it.”
Well no matter what, our hearts will always go on. And we will never let go of Titanic.