James Cameron: Fantastic Voyage

Director James Cameron discusses his adventures navigating rough Hollywood seas on Titanic, a film that lasts over three hours and has no big stars, no merchandising, no theme park and no sequel possibilities.


A week from finishing postproduction on the most grueling and expensive movie shoot of all time, James Cameron is showing the weight of the effort. The flowing blond hair of the past is now closely cropped, and gray has become the predominant color. Cameron is poring over the final selection of pencil sketches that are meant to be the work of the poor struggling artist whose romance with a pampered, unhappy rich girl on the Titanic lies at the heart of the movie. The sketches, scenes of intimacy ranging from nude models to an old woman and a baby, have to be good. They are. Cameron drew them himself. It's just an inkling of the energy the 43-year-old Canadian director has invested in what is by far the riskiest film in Hollywood history. On paper, it was a deal that even the Indians who sold Manhattan might have passed on. No stars. A three-hour love story set on a boat you know going in will sink. A budget of over $100 million. And this from a guy best known for movies bursting with special effects. The paper deal, of course, didn't float, and as costs rose, Twentieth Century Fox decided to share the risk by selling the U.S. distribution rights to Paramount for $65 million. Even Cameron, who's never done a film that wasn't a high-wire act, has to have been drained by the prolonged stress of making Titanic.

After apprenticing as an art director for Roger Corman--he recalls designing props that included "a spaceship with tits"--Cameron directed the groundbreaking 1984 film The Terminator. He has worked on ever broader canvases with ever bigger budgets ever since. And he's always done things the hard way. For his 1986 follow-up to the revered Ridley Scott-directed Alien, Cameron turned Sigourney Weaver into the action heroine everyone knows a woman can't be. On 1989's The Abyss, he set out (and partially failed) to reinvent outer-space sci-fi as a deep-sea alien saga. He turned the monstrous Terminator into a sympathetic character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And he turned a James Bond clone into a committed husband in True Lies.

All that may pale in comparison if Cameron pulls off the coup of Titanic. The Titanic shoot has been fraught with horror stories that go beyond technological, budget and time hassles to include a PCP-laced catered dinner, where some hallucinating crew members formed a conga line and others became gravely ill, resulting in a mass visit to a hospital (the police investigation continues). There were also complaints about the scary water scenes from the likes of star Kate Winslet, not known for professional frailty. And there were nasty, not unprecedented, reports of clashes between Cameron and his troops.

Here, in the relative calm near the end of the struggle, Cameron talks about making Titanic, and about the experiences that preceded this particular invitation to disaster.

MICHAEL FLEMING: You weathered stories of runaway budgets and other troubles with both Terminator 2 and True Lies, angles which disappeared once people saw the films. But those were picnics compared to Titanic.

JAMES CAMERON: Titanic has had more detractors in the media than any other film I've made. I haven't read a lot where the lightbulb has gone on and someone said, Wait a minute. This is a really risky film creatively. The thing I don't understand is how the media can spend so much ink decrying the shallowness of mainstream Hollywood, the fact that everything is a sequel or is there to spawn a toy line, then a movie comes along which is a big mainstream picture that breaks that mold utterly, and they tear it apart.

Q: How should people view this movie?

A: I think they should celebrate the bravery--perhaps [also] the foolishness, but the bravery--of the guys at Fox who went ahead with it. They said, "We're going to trust the filmmaker to pull off something here, because we know this guy. That's what it's all about.

Q: Is Titanic's huge budget a crushing weight?

A: The cost can only be analyzed in terms of the profitability. When I was an art director for Roger Corman, he'd come to look at my set, and instead of praising it, he'd say, This is too good, this is too good! What he was saying was, You're spending too much of my money on something I don't care about.

Q: The reports left the impression you're a director with a lot of clout who's not that concerned with the studios' ability to recoup. Is that unfair?

A: It is unfair. I have a responsibility to use my judgment and ability as a filmmaker to do the things that will get the studio their money back, and I take that responsibility seriously. There was a point when I think the studio felt I wasn't making those decisions the way they would make them. It meant a great deal to me for them to understand that I was not just trying to spend all their money to make my movie more glorious. So I gave them my fee back. The whole thing. And the points.

Q: You won't get rich from this film?

A: It took a number of crises that had big price tags hanging from them to get to that point, but I felt it was important to demonstrate that these were not mistakes made capriciously, without concern for the studio's money. In the course of executing the original plan, it ended up costing a lot more money. I felt morally compelled to put my money where my mouth was.

Q: So you've done this for free?

A: Yes, for three years. I'm not happy with that, but at least at the end of it I'm satisfied that I did it honorably.

Q: Can you make money if it's the Gone With the Wind of the '90s?

A: It's contractually not possible. But the studios can make money.

Q: Describe that day when you told Fox chairman Peter Chernin you had to skip summer because the film wasn't ready.

A: I really had braced myself for a difficult call, [but] I got the impression that he had already made the same conclusion because he didn't bat an eye. Everyone had seen a rough cut at this point and for the first time they really knew what they had, that it could be commercial and that they had lightning in a bottle. Then there was this strange sense of, We don't want to screw this up. By the time we got to that make-or-break point, I had it down to three and one-half hours. I told Peter, I can't make the film 20 minutes shorter without hacking and chainsawing it, and we won't have time to really test the impact of those cuts. He knew I was right and didn't give me an argument. The removal of that last 20 minutes was an exercise in extremely fine cosmetic surgery.

Q: Even at three hours, you won't get as many showings a day.

A: It's an additional thing Fox was thinking about when they had to [decide whether to] greenlight the film. No sequel potential, no merchandising, no theme park ride, and, by the way, it's a three-hour picture that will have fewer shows per day. There's definitely an economic hit taken when you've got a long film. But you've also had very successful long films. There's a need on the part of the audience for something of substance occasionally. A Godfather, a Dances With Wolves, a Gone With the Wind.

Q: Price tag aside, Titanic doesn't feel like a summer film.

A: People have said this is all part of some strategy to position it for the Oscars. Believe me, if you have a negative which cost in excess of $190 million, you're not making your decisions based on prestige.

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