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There’s no doubt who’s in charge here. When James Cameron arrives on set, the crew jump; it’s time to prepare for another night of shooting the climax to one of the most eagerly anticipated films in years. For Cameron, responsible for such movies as The Terminator, Aliens and True Lies, it’s no exaggeration to say that Titanic represents the culmination of his career. PETER FORD takes us on a set visit during production and talks to Cameron.

Although Cameron’s background in special effects and design, along with the experience gained from shooting the underwater drama The Abyss, made him the logical choice to direct Titanic, he was fascinated by the more human elements of the story. "For me the scale of the film was dictated by the subject matter and I wasn’t drawn to the subject matter because of its scale, I was drawn to the subject because of its drama," he explains.

Cameron’s script follows the fictional, onboard romance between 17-year-old Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), an unhappily engaged, upper-class American, and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a free-wheeling artist travelling third class. The story of their illicit love affair is played out against the opulent backdrop of the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage and is revealed in flashback, alongside a present-day salvage operation headed by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), which is attempting to retrieve the liner’s treasures.

"The critical factor in telling a truly epic romance is that there has to be some element of tragedy"

"I’d been looking for an opportunity to do an epic romance in the traditional vein of Gone With The Wind and Dr Zhivago, where you’re telling an intimate story on a very big canvas," notes Cameron. "For me, the critical factor in telling a truly epic romance is that there has to be some element of tragedy involved to really pull at the heartstrings and get people involved in the story. The threat of death, the potential for death, does that."

To make a movie on this scale, it was vital that it should be produced by a company that wouldn’t skimp on the lifeboats. Thus Titanic is a co-production between Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount Pictures. The production’s main base, a 40-acre site built by Fox in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, is dominated by a towering 775-foot replica of the Titanic that took nearly four months to build.

Resting in a 17-million-gallon sea-water tank, it can be raised and lowered on giant hydraulic lifts, with the deck tilting alarmingly to reproduce the angle at which the liner went down. "We went into this film with the sense that we were going to do it right, that we were going to do it definitively," points out Cameron, who spent five years researching the events of the voyage.

"We decided that we had to go to the shipbuilder, Harland and Wolff, in Belfast. So we contacted them and asked for the plans and they said, ‘We’ve never released the plans of the Titanic to anyone’. But our production designer Peter Lamont actually talked them into releasing them, so our sets were built from the original plans."

The attention to detail was such that even the lifeboats in the film were made by the company that built the actual ones used on the Titanic. Each of the individual stages on the Rosarito Beach facility (which is now called Fox Studios Baja), reconstructs a portion of the ship - from the elaborate bridge to the third-class deck that Cameron and I are standing on. Like the replica of the ship itself, the deck is on hydraulics that lower it into a water tank to reproduce the effect of the vessel sinking. The water is heated to 80 degrees but for DiCaprio and Winslet, who must spend hours drenched, there’s a Jacuzzi close by - to keep them as warm as possible.

"You freefall through blackness for two and half hours!"

It’s hard to believe that Cameron and his 600-strong crew could have done more to make Titanic any more realistic, but the obsessive director had one more trick up his sleeve. In September 1995, Cameron actually dived down to the wreck of the Titanic in a deep-water submarine. The footage he shot will appear in the movie. "To actually sit on the deck of the Titanic was absolutely incredible, because I would look around and recognise windows and doors and places where certain specific, known things happened," he says. "So for me, it was this strange, living history in an environment that’s so alien it might as well have been on another planet. I mean, you freefall through blackness for two and half hours!"

Cameron and his brother designed a special camera mount to film the stricken liner. "We were shooting from submarine to submarine, so we were able to not only light the ship but also have our characters, supposedly, in the other submarine. The idea is that it’s Bill Paxton in that submersible and we’re watching them exploring and salvaging the Titanic."

The technical challenge of making Titanic doesn’t mean that Cameron has neglected his cast. Apart from Winslet, DiCaprio and Paxton, the talent line-up also includes Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, Billy Zane, David Warner and Bernard Hill. In addition, there are 150 extras permanently on call, with up to 1,000 required for the big scenes like the departure from Southampton and the actual sinking.

"I love my cast, they’re great," enthuses Cameron. "It’s one of those things where, before the fact, I would have thought about Kate Winslet and said, ‘Probably not right’. I would have thought about Leonardo, ‘Probably not right’. But you have to keep an open mind. You meet people, you find out who they are and then you start superimposing this image of who they are on the character as you’ve conceived it and then you start to say, ‘Is there any less or is there more? Do they bring something that takes the character and makes it more?’

In the case of both Kate and Leonardo it was, ‘Wow, we can do things that I hadn’t really thought of’, and that’s when casting becomes exciting. But all of the peripheral characters are historically accurate. If someone was from Scotland, we’ve cast a Scotsman."

"Denial was a big factor in the events that took place"

In making Titanic, Cameron also hopes to address some of the myths that surround the ship, as well as exploring the reasons why, 85 years after it sank, it remains such a potent symbol of human arrogance. "Denial was a big factor in the events that took place and, if the Titanic is a metaphor for the certainty of death, then the denial phase was, ‘I can’t die, this ship can’t sink’ and everybody just sat around on the deck and thought everything was going to be fine. It didn’t occur to them that it really was going to drop out from underneath them and leave them in freezing water," reflects the director.

One of the myths of the Titanic is that it sank because of design faults. "It was a well-built ship for its time," he insists. "It was state-of-the-art ship-building. It was actually pretty hard to sink the Titanic and the only way to do it was to run it down the side of an iceberg. You could have smashed it headlong into the iceberg and it would have floated." That though, is just one of the ironies of the whole story. "It was bad seamanship that ran it into the iceberg, and so it’s about the human foibles that go along with the grand vision: just the sort of arrogance of ‘Our design is perfect, therefore we’re safe’ which we know is not the case."

Cameron warms to his theme: "The Titanic was the great wake-up call for the technological age that is the Twentieth Century," he exclaims. "We were 12 years into the century when the Titanic sank and, in the previous decade, the automobile was brand new, the airplane was invented - wireless communication, sound recording, the motion picture. So you had a sense of technology being this kind of panacea and also a great sense of bounty: that our lives would just get better and better and more luxurious and no one really thought of what the downside of technology is," he concludes. "You can put your faith in it, you can build your world out of it, but you may have to suffer the consequences."
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James Cameron

When she sailed from Southampton for New York in April 1912, the Titanic was the largest, most luxurious ship ever built and the passenger list included aristocrats & millionaires, as well as hundreds of poor immigrants heading to a new life in America. Most would never see it. The Titanic, the ship that couldn’t sink, struck an iceberg off Newfoundland and went down with 1,500 people still on board. They could all have been saved: the company that built the Titanic didn’t fit it out with enough lifeboats.


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"I wasn’t drawn to the subject matter because of its scale, I was drawn to the subject because of its drama"

"In the case of both Kate and Leonardo it was, ‘Wow, we can do things that I hadn’t really thought of’, and that’s when casting becomes exciting"

"If the Titanic is a metaphor for the certainty of death, then the denial phase was, ‘I can’t die, this ship can’t sink.’"

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