Sink or swim? While history looks back on James Cameron’s towering epic film Titanic as one of the greatest box office hits of all time, there were many, many times where its success was less than certain. The production of the deeply ambitious big-budget spectacle was fraught with peril – and we aren't talking about icebergs in the fog!
Ballooning expenses, dangerous scenes, confounding decisions, and a whole lot of risk-taking could have sent the movie straight to the bottom of the cinematic seas. It’s hard to believe now that everything from Leonardo DiCaprio’s casting to Celine Dion’s award-winning song almost didn’t happen, but this was a voyage almost as dangerous in many ways as the real Titanic’s Atlantic crossing.
It’s amazing how many calamities the production survived, keeping Cameron’s unforgettable vision intact. Just as with the legendary ship, the movie was bigger than anything that came before it, captained by an uncompromising director who pushed full steam ahead into some treacherous waters. But this boat definitely stayed afloat. Just wait 'till you see what it had to navigate through before safely harboring at the port of cinematic history.
Here are 17 Crazy Things You Didn’t Know About The Making Of Titanic.
17 Stairway to Harrowing
“Hey, we took the lens cap off the camera, right?” Filming giant scenes of epic destruction can be one of the most unnerving moments in a director’s career. When blowing up buildings or crashing cars, there’s often one chance to get things right as you won’t be un-exploding buildings after the scene is over. For Titanic, the scene where the water comes crashing into the Grand Staircase room was one such moment.
Recreating it precisely at great expense, having designed it to break apart in a very specific way, Cameron had one chance to get it right because the whole set would be trashed in the take. Obviously, the scene worked out great. Cameron’s experience from Terminator 2 when the Cyberdyne building gets blown up may have helped him work that one out.
16 James Cameron visited the actual sunken Titanic
Before making Titanic, director James Cameron spent a whole lot of time visiting the actual wreckage of the doomed ocean liner himself. An avid and passionate deep sea diver, Cameron sunk to the bottom of the ocean and saw for himself the final resting place of the giant vessel. And it wasn’t just one or two times. He actually went down there so often, he ended up spending more time on the ship than any one of the original passengers did.
That adds up to days and days of living over a mile deep under the sea.
He may as well have started singing that song from The Little Mermaid! The experience was highly inspirational and led to a perfectionist approach in every aspect of creating the final film, which audiences totally felt on the screen.
15 Leo needed a stunt hand for the drawing scene
One of the most touching scenes in Titanic is the one where Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is sketching his one true love, Rose, played by Kate Winslet. She is posing as he lovingly renders her beauty. Nothing cements the trust and faith in their bond as this moment does. The thing is – Leo can’t draw!
The hand we see in the scene belongs to none other than James Cameron, who is an accomplished illustrator.
Okay, so they used a stunt hand, so what? Trouble was, Leo is a righty and Jimmy is a lefty. To maintain the illusion that it was Jack drawing, the film team had to mirror-image the shots in post-production, maintaining the consistency of the character’s dexterous orientation. Talk about camera tricks!
14 The ship sinks in real time
Speaking of James Cameron’s perfectionism, here’s a crazy fact that defies belief – but it’s real. Two hours and forty minutes of the 3-hour epic take place during the entirety of the event which sunk the Titanic. From that iceberg collision to the last gasp of the ship’s hull fading beneath the waves, that 2:40 was 100% accurate. That means that in real life, it took that long for the boat to go down.
On screen, the audience feels that event in the real time that it happened. Yeah – it was that quick and you’re living what the doomed passengers did while you watch.
Making that happen is no small feat.
Amidst all the logistics of shooting such a complex film, the editing, the fights with producers – Cameron recreated the real thing down to the second. That’s beyond amazing.
13 All 150 background extras had characters and backstories
Titanic the movie, just like Titanic the boat, had a lot of people on it. With over 150 actors playing the ship’s passengers and crew, that’s a whole lot of people to deal with for any movie. But Cameron, in his unceasing quest to be as exacting as possible, took things up a notch. The director took the time to meet with each and every one of the extras and give them their own names and back stories. This is a serious level-up in maintaining authenticity.
By giving each actor their own motivations, they went from being props to individual characters.
Viewers can go back and watch how all of them are more “alive” than the background players of similar Hollywood spectacles. Yet another reason this movie floated higher than the rest.
12 Sinking Some Serious Money
James Cameron is no stranger to big budget movies. He’s made a lot of them. Avatar and Terminator 2 broke budget records in their time. So why should Titanic be any different? Spoiler: it wasn’t.
At $200 million, it was easily the most expensive movie ever made when it came out.
Today with ballooning budgets for everything from Justice League to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, such sums seem almost quaint. But check it out – the movie Titanic cost more than the actual ship!
Adjusted for inflation to 1997 dollars, the boat was constructed at a cost of about $150 million – or about three quarters of what the film cost. At this time, we don’t have comparables for iceberg costs.
11 The mystery of "J Dawson"
For anyone who may have any doubts to the contrary, let’s say this right now: the story of Titanic is fictional. Okay, yes, there really was a Titanic, and James Cameron went crazy making every known aspect of the event as authentic as possible. But the pivotal love story between Rose and Jack was totally made up.
There was no Jack Dawson on the Titanic, it’s just a name Cameron made up for his character.
Except that there really was a man named “J. Dawson” who died on the Titanic! Joseph Dawson went down with the ship on that fateful April evening in 1912 and is buried in Nova Scotia. But Cameron didn’t know the name until after he wrote the script!
Was Mr. Dawson speaking from beyond the grave? Remember – Rose disappeared and used a fake name.
10 Kate Winslet refused to wear a wetsuit
Audiences may not believe this, but almost every single actor on the set of Titanic got wet. Now before everybody laughs this off, it may be that none other than Kate Winslet missed that particular memo.
Unlike virtually every other member of the cast, Winslet refused to wear a wetsuit as per the production’s request.
Of course people sitting in cold water for hours on end should wear a nice, insulating wetsuit. You know – to stay warm? Well, Winslet refused and then got pneumonia and almost quit the movie after but Cameron convinced her to stay.
Look, we all appreciate method acting. The dedicated actress wanted to really use that miserable water-logged feeling to play her character. A gentle suggestion: use sense memory techniques next time and save your health!
9 Cameron forfeited his salary
Hindsight is 20-20, they like to say. It's easy to look back and think: of course Titanic would sail on to be one of the most profitable movies of all time. But if you think that was the common wisdom during production, you would be very, very wrong. In fact, cost overruns and extended shooting schedules made a lot of people at Paramount incredibly nervous.
Things got so bad that James Cameron had to put his money where his mouth was.
As a token of confidence and commitment to the studio, the director forfeited his $8 million salary and percentage to try and allay budget concerns. It was a huge risk, but obviously one that paid off and solidified Cameron’s reputation forever. Yes, it all worked out, but for a minute, disaster was feared.
8 The Cast didn't get bathroom breaks
Yes, at one time or another, most likely in our childhood, we have peed in the pool. And we are ashamed. At some point in adulthood, we finally take matters into our own hands, and act like civilized humans, get out of the pool, and relieve ourselves in the bathroom like proper people. But on the set of Titanic? Things in the water got suddenly warmer. A lot.
James Cameron was under such pressure to stay on schedule during the filming of the lifeboat scenes, he threatened to fire any actor taking a bathroom break. So what could they do? Pee in the tank.
Yes, even Kate Winslet said she did. Could that be why she wanted to skip the wetsuit?
7 Winslet's injuries
It’s very obvious to anyone watching Titanic that those actors' roles were very physically demanding. Along with professional stunt people falling from great heights to extras getting batted around by millions of gallons of water, those actors really took a beating. And Kate Winslet was no exception.
All those scenes where the boat is falling apart, knocking her this way and that, resulted in a whole pile of injuries.
There came a point during filming that she got so banged up, makeup artists used her actual bruises as photo reference to maintain continuity for her look in the film. Not only that, she chipped a bone in her elbow during one day’s shooting. We’ve all heard of how actors are supposed to use their pain in these scenes, but this is ridiculous!
6 Celine wasn't the first choice
When Cameron first envisioned the soundtrack to his epic film, it was his dream to have none other than famous Irish diva Enya compose the music for the movie. In his mind, the Emerald Isle native had that bit of magic that would bring an extra sonic level to the project.
Unfortunately, the talented chanteuse turned the director down.
Cameron then turned to his musical collaborator on Aliens, James Horner. Despite the fact that the two had fought tooth and nail on their previous Xenomorphic outing, Horner cranked out what has remained the biggest-selling soundtrack in movie history.
Imagine no Celine Dion song? What would have the Enya version sounded like? One can only guess, but it probably wouldn’t have been, “Sink Away, sink away, sink away.”
5 "Planet Ice"
It’s very common practice for high-profile Hollywood movies to use code names in the early stages of production to throw off news leaks. For the first Avengers movie, the project was titled “Group Hug” – which is pretty funny, when you think about it. A less clever code name was “Artemis”, which stood in for the archery-focused The Hunger Games. And the cynical moniker “Corporate Headquarters” was used for the first Star Trek reboot.
So how did James Cameron hide the fact that he was filming Titanic off the coast of Nova Scotia when shooting footage of icebergs?
By using the fake title “Planet Ice”, which is a perfect decoy for a director known mostly for making sci-fi movies. Cool move, Mr. Cameron!
4 Cameron refused cuts
“Hi, my name is James Cameron, I’ve just made a $200 million, three-hour love story that takes place on a sinking boat and I swear, we will all get rich.” That sentence probably never happened, but it sounds right, seeing what a hit Titanic ended up being.
Before the film was released, however, there were some very nervous studio heads who were scared that the very expensive movie was way too long – and they wanted cuts. But Cameron would have none of it. When studio heads insisted trimming some minutes to ensure more screenings per day, the director reportedly responded by telling Fox executives that if they wanted cuts, they would have to not only fire him, but end his life as well!
Obviously, they didn’t end him. Unless they did and the James Cameron running around now is really a T-1000 pretending to be him. Uh-oh.
3 Shooting took too long
Movie productions can be long, grueling affairs. Typical filming schedules can run anywhere from 30-90 days, depending on the scope and complexity of a film. Obviously, a massive undertaking like Avengers: Infinity War is going to take longer to shoot (seven months) than say, the comparatively simpler Get Out (23 days).
For Titanic, things went long. Very long.
The original schedule called for 138 days of principal photography. That’s about 4 and a half months. But that idea sank quicker than the boat itself. In the end, it took an extra 22 days to finish up, or about 15% longer than expected. Remember, this wasn’t a superhero movie sure to sell lots of popcorn. It was a love story with a sad ending - but a happy ending at the box office.
2 Matthew McConaughey was almost Jack
For true fans of Titanic, there can be no replacement for Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson. His boyish face, his impish bravado, and his larger-than-life heart are iconic. At once underdog and hero, his baby face and inner fire made for the perfect hopeless lover who fights to the very end.
In early casting, another choice was almost made which would have left the film way more dazed and confused. Yeah, none other dude bro extraordinaire Matthew McConaughey was almost the pick for Jack Dawson. We’re sorry. But…no way, brother. Sure, McConaughey has delivered great roles, but Billy Zane would never look scary next to him. McConaughey is way too much of a swaggering figure for the part.
1 The Great Dust Bowl Mystery
It was the end of shooting in Halifax, Canada. Filming for the “present day” portion of Titanic was wrapping. Next stop would be Mexico for the giant set built for the actual boat. During one of the last meals, the catering company served up a large bowl of chowder, which most of the crew happily consumed. The problem: somebody laced the soup with PCP, otherwise known by the street name Angel Dust.
The dissociative hallucinogenic substance takes users on an out-of-body trip which can be wonderful or terrifying, but always really weird. And suddenly, 60 Titanic crew members were all out of control, with no idea why their minds were melting into their shoes. Even James Cameron fell into an altered state. To this day, nobody knows who spiked the chowder.
Do you have any Titanic trivia to share? Leave it in the comments!