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An Oral History Of ‘Titanic’

In the summer of 1995, director James Cameron began work on a new movie called “Titanic.” Cameron, who had already made his mark on Hollywood with action films including “Terminator” and “Aliens,” was undoubtedly successful, but had grown increasingly concerned that he was being boxed in. So, despite industry executives doubting him at every turn, Cameron embarked on his true passion: to direct a romance.

Now, almost 20 years after its theatrical release, the men and women who brought this incredible story to the screen remember how it all began. This is the story of “Titanic,” the movie that changed everything.

Chapter 1: All Hands On Deck

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Scott Neeson (former president, 20th Century Fox International): I was sitting in my office waiting for my next hit to arrive. I was doing what I always do: answering my phone every two minutes and saying the words “Hello, do you have an idea for a blockbuster? This is the president of Fox speaking.” Pretty much no one had pitched me anything I liked, and looking back, I think that’s because they’d never pitched me anything about a boat disaster. In October 1995, though, I picked up the phone, and something changed.

James Cameron (director, writer, producer, editor): The year was 1995, and I was in a creative rut. I had just come off of directing Terminator and Aliens, which were two films that cost a lot of money and where everybody died. Don’t get me wrong, I loved those movies, but everyone was either killed by an expensive robot or an expensive alien. And that’s when I realized: I had burned myself out. So I called Scott.

Scott Neeson: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It was fate that I was on the phone with none other than James Cameron. He said he wanted to direct a small, low-budget romantic comedy where nobody died. He said he wanted no deaths, even by natural causes, and he wanted it to be dirt-cheap. At that point, I picked up a second, much larger phone on my desk and said the words “Hello, I have an idea for a blockbuster. This is the president of Fox speaking.”

James Cameron: When I first pitched Titanic, Scott told me, “Hello, this is Scott Neeson speaking into a phone, and James Cameron, you’re going to continue to be a star.” Back in those days, the film wasn’t even called Titanic—it was called Safe Boat—and when I explained it to him, he immediately started changing my vision.

Kate Winslet (Rose DeWitt Bukater): James called me up and asked if I would be in a small romantic comedy called Safe Boat, which had no money attached to it, where everyone was alive the whole time. It was to have only two actors, and it was to take place in a boat that was safely parked in a driveway. I was immediately hooked. I couldn’t say no.

James Cameron: The cast was absolutely incredible. Everyone was poor and unrecognizable.

Kate Winslet: At the time, I was poor and unrecognizable.

Emmett Christiano (personal barber to James Cameron): James cast me precisely because I had never acted before, and in fact, when I tried, I was very bad. He told me that he would have to pay me very little, and I would never have to worry about getting famous from the film. In fact, he said the grueling shooting schedule would take time away from my job as a barber, so I would actually lose money.

James Cameron: Everything was perfect! But then I heard that Leonardo DiCaprio had somehow gotten his hands on the script and wanted to play Jack. I had turned him down for lead roles in both Aliens and Terminator, and apparently he felt this was his best chance to star in one of my films. That is, unfortunately, when everything started to go south.

Leonardo DiCaprio (Jack Dawson): Due to ongoing litigation involving Mr. DiCaprio that took place during the shooting of Titanic, any public posting of Mr. DiCaprio’s thoughts or insights into this film shall be considered unlawful and not in accordance with the regulations of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

William Lindstrom
District Attorney, Los Angeles County

Kathy Bates (Molly Brown): Leo getting cast as Jack immediately brought a lot of unwanted attention to Safe Boat. Right after he signed on, investors wanted flashier plots and bigger stakes. Safe Boat went from being about two lovers kissing on a boat to being about two lovers dying on a boat.

Kate Winslet: Suddenly, the studio didn’t just want the lovers dying—they wanted them drowning.

Kathy Bates: And on top of that, they didn’t just want two people drowning—they wanted thousands of people drowning. They wanted a boat to snap in half and for thousands of people to drown.

James Cameron: To put it lightly, 1995 was a total disaster. Safe Boat had become Dangerous Boat, Dangerous Boat had become Dead Boat, and Dead Boat had become This Titanic, which finally became just Titanic. Then, to make matters worse, I dropped my car keys off a boat that, to my horror, was not sitting in a driveway, but floating on the ocean. I had to buy a submarine and travel 12,000 feet down into the Atlantic to find them. We were so, so far from our original vision, and believe me, I had no faith that it would work.

Chapter 2: On The Open Waters

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By the end of 1995, the wheels for “Titanic” were fully in motion—all Cameron needed to do was make it. So, in early 1996, the cast and crew began filming, an experience that would push them to their mental and physical limits.

James Cameron: By 1996, I was in full crisis mode. Safe Boat was officially dead, and production for Titanic was in full swing. Executives would constantly say to me, “James Cameron? Just so you’re aware of what’s going on, your voice doesn’t matter anymore. We don’t care that you wanted your movie to be cheap; we want to spend lots of money.”

Scott Neeson: We had the biggest budget Fox had ever provided, and by God, we were going to use it. During Titanic, the studio gave me just one limitation: spend as much money as you humanly can. I’ll admit that we started off small: The first thing we bought was a full-scale replica of the Titanic. But after that, we realized there was more money to spend. So, we bought a $200,000 iceberg from the Arctic and had it flown in. And then we bought a bottle of $200,000 olives to dress the set. And then we bought a sad song from Celine Dion. And then we bought a bottle of $200,000 olives for Celine Dion.

James Cameron: This was the worst possible scenario. This was supposed to be a movie where we spent no money and no one died.

Kate Winslet: See, the thing about Safe Boat was that it was never supposed to be dangerous. When we got to the set, though, something had changed. Instead of my character living comfortably for 100 years in a speedboat in a driveway, now I was being held over the bow of a boat by Leonardo DiCaprio. It was terrifying. He would just hold me up and open his mouth as wide as he could. The most James could get him to do was whisper, “I’m the king of L.A. The city of angels.” But he can tell this story better than I can!

Leonardo DiCaprio: Any anecdote Mr. DiCaprio shares about the pre-production, the shooting, or the lasting legacy of Titanic published in a public forum shall be considered a direct violation of California and federal law, and publishers culpable shall be prosecuted. This gag order is to protect the scale model of the Titanic used in the filming, which received undue pain and extreme injury from the actions of Mr. DiCaprio, during shooting and for years after, for which the U.S. Justice Department is seeking a full and complete conviction.

William Lindstrom
District Attorney, Los Angeles County

Kate Winslet: It was the faintest whisper. Almost like a hiss.

Kathy Bates: Just the whole process of filming—it was really hard to watch sometimes. James would constantly stomp around set carrying a megaphone and yelling things like, “I directed Aliens and Terminator, so you will listen to me when I am directing Titanic,” or “My baby is dead, and I have totally lost control of every aspect of this film.” You could tell he was never really in control of the film.

Billy Zane (Caledon Hockley): The producers even insisted on changing small details, and they absolutely would not budge. James originally wanted to have everyone nude, but Fox forced his hand and only let Kate be nude because they wanted to spend money on everyone’s wardrobe.

James Cameron: Leo couldn’t be nude. Billy couldn’t be nude. I couldn’t be nude. Even during the sex scene, people couldn’t be nude—Kate was the only person they allowed to show any skin at all. The only reason we pumped the carriage so full of steam during the sex scene was because no one was allowed to be nude. We couldn’t just have people in full early-1900s garb making out. No one would believe it.

Billy Zane: At that point, James got so mad that he threw his car keys back in the ocean.

Scott Neeson: We were just about to wrap, and of course I get a call from the set that said, “Scott Neeson? Come quick. We need you to spend more money. Also, James Cameron is back in his submarine and sinking toward the ocean floor to find his car keys.”

James Cameron: I was 12,000 feet below the sea looking for my car keys again. I had given everything I had to Safe Boat, and now millions had been poured into making it into a movie where a large ship cracked in half and then sunk to the bottom of the ocean, which is where my goddamn keys were. And at that exact moment, I vowed to stay down there until I found them. It was the only thing I had control over, and I wasn’t giving it up.

Chapter 3: Remembering The Titanic

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Shooting wrapped for “Titanic” in 1996, and over a year later, the film finally premiered on December 19, 1997. Despite initial skepticism from critics, Cameron’s masterpiece immediately went on to capture the hearts of America and the world at large. What, then, made “Titanic” special, and still makes it a masterpiece today?

James Cameron: It was a true wonder the movie we know today was ever finished. By the end, producers were just spending money to prolong filming. Scott came up with this elaborate plan to shoot an alternate ending where instead of everyone dying because of an iceberg, everyone died because of food poisoning from very expensive olives. At that point, all I wanted was for it to be done.

Kate Winslet: I remember the premiere. People were sobbing. Men, women, and children were sobbing. The minute the opening credits started playing, they were sobbing. People were sobbing within a 50-foot radius of the theater. They sobbed through the end credits. I, personally, have never stopped sobbing.

Emmett Christiano: It was incredible. The movie was nominated for 14 Oscars: Best Picture; Best Actress; Best Boat Disaster; etc. And I had been booted from the cast at the last moment, and I wasn’t even hired as the on-set barber. For the first time in my life, I had been snubbed for 14 Oscars.

Leonardo DiCaprio: Mr. DiCaprio has repeatedly thrown himself on the mercy of the court, but the U.S. Government has spent 15 years building a case that will serve to bring justice for the scale model of the Titanic, which, despite not having personhood, was so vilely and unthinkably harmed by Mr. DiCaprio that it is in the interest of the U.S. Government and the general population of the United States to try Mr. DiCaprio for these crimes.

William Lindstrom
District Attorney, Los Angeles County

Scott Neeson: I guess that, at the end of the day, I just wanted to pick up the phone and talk to people about money. Even today, I’ll go to my office, go through my budget, and order things for the set of Titanic. Just last year, we shot another alternate ending where everyone is rescued from the Titanic but then are all killed by expensive robots and expensive aliens once they get to land. Fox still gives me $200 million each year to spend on the set of Titanic, and I’ve never failed to use it all.

James Cameron: The thing I hate most about Titanic is the survivors. When the movie first came out, they would call me at the bottom of the ocean and tell me I ruined my original screenplay, Safe Boat. I told them every time that I never wanted to make a movie about all their dead friends, but they never listened.

Celine Dion (singer, “My Heart Will Go On”): My song is still available on iTunes for $0.99.

Kathy Bates: I knew we had really done something special when James Cameron found his keys. Right after Titanic broke the record for the highest-grossing film in U.S. history, James found his keys and said, “I hate my life, but it’s time for me to stop living 12,000 feet below the ocean’s surface.”

Scott Neeson: So, James calls me up and says he has a pitch for another love story. I say, “Sell it to me, baby.” And he sells me this screenplay for another romantic movie called Tall People Who Aren’t Blue. It was about two tall humans who did not have blue skin, and who live in the woods together and never have any conflict. I’ll spare you the details, but basically, there’s one protagonist of each gender, they fall in love, and the entire movie is shot on glorious, inexpensive 2D film. Say what you will about James Cameron, but the man’s a hitmaker.

James Cameron: I hated what they did to Avatar, and I’ve spent the past five years trying to launch my keys into outer space.

Scott Neeson: Even now, Titanic is the only thing people call my phone about. I’ve never really been interested in anything since, but I always ask them if they have an idea they’d like me to steal.

Kate Winslet: To this day, Titanic is still a movie that shows people just how much money movies can cost.

Leonardo DiCaprio: In addition to the moratorium on publishing any of Mr. DiCaprio’s thoughts on Titanic, I would like to personally warn any large wood and steel replica boat to maintain a substantial and vigilant distance from Mr. DiCaprio at all times, while also keeping in mind that Mr. DiCaprio is known to crouch in trees for days at a time, completely still, just waiting. I put my complete trust in the U.S. judicial system to rule in a just way on this matter, for that is all I have left.

William Lindstrom
District Attorney, Los Angeles County

James Cameron: How will people remember Titanic? Who can say? I know that personally, I will always remember Titanic as Safe Boat, the first and only screenplay of mine that I liked and will ever like. See, Safe Boat wasn’t just about explosions, or nudity, or money—it was about none of those things. It was about love. But unfortunately, some love stories are simply never meant to be told. And perhaps this was one of them.