James Cameron: Fantastic Voyage
Twenty-five years later, it’s easy to forget that Titanic was expected to sink at the box office. Following a wave of negative press over the movie’s ballooning budget and the need to push Titanic off the summer schedule, many expected James Cameron’s period drama to fail. Of course, we all know that the movie exceeded any and all expectations. Cameron was still finishing post-production on Titanic when he was interviewed for this article from the December 1997 issue of Movieline magazine and success was anything but guaranteed.
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.
Q: Let’s talk casting. You looked at every young actress for your lead character Rose. Why Kate Winslet?
A: I resisted Kate when she was initially suggested. I said, She does period movies, I don’t want that. I want to be able to take the audience through that barrier with somebody new. Kate auditioned on film and it was a very simple decision. I realized she was just about the most talented actor around for her age.
Q: Were you a Leonardo DiCaprio fan?
A: The only thing I’d ever seen him in was What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He wasn’t that hot yet; Romeo & Juliet was still in production. He was just this charming guy with the ability to walk in and win a room–which was one of the fundamental things about the character, Jack. So then I had to assess how committed he would be and how his acting was. I asked him to read with Kate. He did something that just rubbed me the wrong way: he sat there smoking a cigarette, slouching, as if the whole thing was too much trouble. I didn’t think he was paying attention. Then he gets up there and he does the scene. And it was like, boom, I saw it. He’s the guy. It was only for a second. It’s like you see a UFO through the trees and try to tell somebody and they think you’re high. I ran downstairs and said, He’s the guy. And they went, Well, where’s the tape? [But] Leonardo wouldn’t let himself be taped, so it was like a Sasquatch sighting. Then I had to sell him to the studio. They were pretty lukewarm, I have to say. Then Leo decided he didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t quirky enough for him. He wanted, I don’t know, warts or a hump or a cocaine addiction. I said, No, that’s not the guy. He’s like a Jimmy Stewart character, pure of heart. Then, there was a moment the lightbulb went on for Leo, and he realized that that would be a really hard thing to make great.
Q: Billy Zane was a curious choice for Cal, the upper-crust fiance of Rose.
A: I wanted to go a bit off-center with Cal, because I was afraid that, as written, he stood the chance of becoming a caricature or a cardboard villain. Billy impressed me as somebody with a lot of complexity. There is a real mind at work there. He had 10 million ideas, and he’d fling them off his tongue and fingertips like jewels. If you didn’t use them, he’d come up with more.
Q: Given that cast, you were left with a big-ticket movie whose biggest stars were a sinking ship and you.
A: I don’t know how much you can sell on the filmmaker, unless that filmmaker happens to be Steven Spielberg. There’s Steven and there’s everybody else. To the average guy on the street, if they know who I am, I’m the guy that did Terminator. And liking Terminator and liking Titanic are two different subjects.
Q: Did the studio want bigger stars?
A: It was a question of, Well, can you get somebody else? I was like, Who? Who is 19 or 20 years old and fills your requirements? There was nobody. Tom Cruise was too old. He would have loved to have been in Titanic. He would have loved to play Jack. Now, I heard that from his agent and I didn’t talk to Tom about it, so I don’t know if that was bullshit or not. OK, I could have made a Tom Cruise movie, but I would have had to change the whole thing, and then it would have been Tom Cruise, who’s like, what, 35, in love with a 17-year-old girl. Maybe she would have had to be what, 25 or 26, and now she’s 110? I don’t think so! There’s something so pure and innocent about these kids. She’s 17, he’s 19, there’s an innocence to that. Titanic is about the slaughter of innocence.
Q: So the package became the riskiest big-budget film ever.
A: I’d chosen to tell a story where the characters are very young, and there aren’t many actors that age who are stars globally. From the initial pitch, almost three years ago, that was a known. Three-hour movie. Hundred-million-dollar range. No stars. You still want to play? I put it in those terms. I pitched it positively, but I didn’t want to dance around the negatives.
Q: The idea of love on the Titanic must have surprised your friends at Fox who awaited the next Terminator saga.
A: The pitch was one simple line: It was Romeo & Juliet on the Titanic. They were like [laughing], “Hey, greeaat, that’s exactly what we want you to do. Forget all that highly successful Aliens and Terminator 2 stuff, you know?”
Q: You got a frosty response?
A: I would call it warm to lukewarm. They weren’t negative. Peter Chernin is a very smart guy. He knew the potential. But there was always a shadow of legitimate doubt that the guy who made those techno-thrillers could pull off a love story. To have their names dragged into the ring with it very publicly, and very expensively–this is where the lukeness of the warm came from.
Q: How did the studio feel about your realization this would be tougher than originally advertised?
A: Trepidatious would be the most accurate description. I went to Peter Chernin and said they were looking at a higher number than what they wanted to spend. They saw it as Jim Cameron’s art movie–if we can just, please God, survive this one, maybe he’ll make something commercial for us in the future.
Q: Let’s talk about your other films. You seem to like turning film traditions on their ear.
A: I like to go to the hard places to see if I can do it. Getting the audience to cry for the Terminator at the end of T2, for me that was the whole purpose of making that film. If you can get the audience to feel emotion for a character that in the previous film you despised utterly and were terrified by, then that’s a cinematic arc.
Q: With Rose, you’ve again given a female a strong emotional development curve. You’ve made a career empowering women, turning them into action heroes. From The Long Kiss Goodnight to Point of No Return and Cutthroat Island, why can’t anybody else do female action?
A: With The Long Kiss Goodnight I sort of thought they went down the right road until the end, which got crazy. In the case of the others, they basically wrote a male role and put a woman in it. It has to be done in female terms. Linda Hamilton’s character in Terminator 2 was a mother. She was motivated by maternal instincts and I’ve always felt the maternal thing was the most powerful and primal motivating force. If you take that away and it’s just some tough chick who’s trying to outdo the men, it just lacks substance. She doesn’t feel organically real as a person.
Q: Though disguised by hardware, your films have always had sophisticated adult storylines and characters with strong emotional arcs. Did you consciously decide to finally let that take center stage with Titanic?
A: I consider all my films to be love stories. This one, I wanted everybody to call it that first and foremost. I don’t think anybody would call Terminator a love story, even though it was. Aliens to me was a love story between this woman and the little girl, maternal love. For me, every film has its emotional template first and all this other stuff gets put on it. I wanted to do a film that shifted the balance.
Q: Has the lack of recognition for your writing bothered you?
A: Not really. To me, the writing has always been a means to an end. I like to direct, I don’t really like to write that much.
Q: Since your characters are so strong, ever consider doing a small film, where the only special effect is emotion?
A:I’d like to do a one- or two-million-dollar film that is so clearly stripped of any production design or visual effects it must be analyzed entirely on the basis of the writing and the acting.
Q: You’re at the forefront of movie technological advances, yet your films focus on technology gone awry.
A: That’s a definite theme in all my films. In Aliens, you had people who relied on their technology, their weaponry and their communications equipment, and it fails, and they’re overwhelmed and destroyed. Their arrogance was, We have the stuff, we can deal with anything. It was really a metaphor for the Vietnam War, where the most technological army in the world fought one of the least technological armies in the world, and lost. Terminator and T2 had its anti-technology message. Titanic falls right into that. Titanic was the symbol of greater luxury, progress, speed and power.
Q: On Aliens, were you intimidated following Ridley Scott?
A: It didn’t make much sense. It’s like, I’ve got a promising career as a director, I’ve just done The Terminator, now I’m going to go out and have the absolute cheek to try and make a sequel to one of the most venerated sacred cows of science fiction. But I knew I was there to basically worship that first film. I liked Alien so much I just wanted to go do that. I didn’t think it through on any kind of career positioning, I just thought, This is going to be so bitchin’.
Q: Why are good sequels so few and far between?
A: There’s an art to writing a sequel. It’s a delicate balance of surprise and familiarity. You have to have the touchstones, honor the precursor. But you have to constantly surprise and take it in new directions, but do it in a satisfying way. As much as I admired the filmmaking in Alien3, I thought that by killing off the characters that you cared about and fought for in the second film, in the first five minutes of the third film, you sort of shit on the audience. And I don’t think the audience ever quite forgave that.
Q: Will you do Terminator 3 or True Lies 2?
A: Both are possibilities. I have a better idea for a second True Lies than I do for a third Terminator right now. Arnold [Schwarzenegger] and Tom Arnold would like to come back, and I know Jamie [Lee Curtis] would like to come back. I love those characters. I think they’re a lot of fun and that the comic potential between them is just as fertile.
Q: It was risky to create a James Bond-ish character who’s married.
A: The James Bond films are rotten at their core. The guy’s a womanizing drunk. He’s a complete scumbag, he really is. It’s male fantasy: I’m married and faithful but I’d really like to be that guy and have a different woman every other night. If you’re going to do a comedy, you don’t just send up the gadgetry. What you send up is the moral center, or the immoral center of it. What would it really be like to try and live that fantasy? It ain’t going to work because that’s not who most men really are. Most men really want something else. That struck me as a hysterical premise: what if James Bond was married and pussy-whipped?
Q: To direct Terminator, you sold your rights for $1 to cowriter, producer and, now, ex-wife, Gale Anne Hurd.
A: It’s certainly a deal she remembers very well.
Q: Is that a major impediment to Terminator 3?
A: Absolutely. We weren’t married or going together then, it was strictly a business deal. I wanted a bond between us that operated on a realm other than money. I basically said, I will give you the rights, and in return, no matter what happens, she would never make the movie without me as the director. It was essentially a handshake deal; the dollar was symbolic. It was like a blood oath. We would partner against all the scumbags we knew we would have to go into business with in order to get the movie made. We figured they’d try to divide the camp. Sure enough, they tried to get me to cut Gale loose. They tried to get Gale to cut me loose. They offered Gale $1 million to produce the movie if she would do it with another director they got to choose. She said no. So you know what? It got me the film made. I got what I needed for that dollar. And then everything else came from Terminator. In some ways I regret it. It was probably the silliest business decision in one analysis, and in another it made quite a bit of sense at the time.
Q: It’s hard to imagine a third going without you or against your wishes.
A: I don’t own any of the rights but I have a moral ownership or creative, aesthetic ownership of it, and Arnold [Schwarzenegger] has said pretty definitively that he won’t make the film without me, which is a loyalty to me and himself. He knows that I know how to chart us through those waters and be true to the characters and make him look good. He’s at a delicate stage in his career where he has to make his decisions carefully in order to preserve and protect what he’s created and create that career longevity that an Eastwood has. He can certainly do it, but doing a T3 the wrong way is a good way not to do it. I’m not saying someone else can’t solve it. I think I solved Aliens pretty well and I wasn’t involved in the original. So someone could come along and solve it. But there’s no guarantee. What I can guarantee is that it won’t suck.
Q: Given the press coverage, any misperceptions about you?
A: Two big misperceptions came from Titanic. That we were unsafe, and that I’m hard on actors–that I’m sort of the heir apparent to Otto Preminger’s monocle. I would call myself a crisp disciplinarian when it comes to the crew, and when you’re doing a very, very large, logistically complicated, tactically complicated production, you have to be.
Q: But the cast?
A: It’s a whole different thing. Even though I don’t act, I understand what it’s like to stand in front of the camera, naked and terrified. I rarely have bad behavior from actors, temper tantrums or breakdowns. I’ve never had an actor break down and leave the set. The closest thing was Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, when she was doing her big revival scene on The Abyss, and she’d just gotten to the moment where her eyelids start to flutter open and she was coming back to life. And the film ran out because they hadn’t loaded the camera properly. The operator called a rollout and Mary just sort of broke down and left the set. But it had nothing to do with anything but the intensity of the moment. Other than that, never.
Q: You put Linda Hamilton through two Terminator films and she married you–I guess that weighs in your favor.
A: See, I get along great with actors! I’m sure there are a few actors walking around that may have specific beefs. Generally speaking, I have a working method that interfaces very well with the actors. I’m absolutely, utterly, crazily passionate about the scene. We’re here to make a scene and we’re not going to be inhuman about it, but we’re going to do everything we can do and not stop until we know we’ve done it.That’s how actors think. They don’t want to do two takes. So when a director comes along who asks what can we do differently, they respond to it.
Q: Now that you’ve worked for free for the last three years, will you go back to work quickly, or are you worn out?
A: I’m more energized now than I was a couple of months ago, when I felt I never wanted to make another movie again. It’s too much trouble, too much time off your life, too much time away from your family. Filmmaking is a lot like childbirth. You ask a woman an hour after she’s delivered if she wants to have another baby and she says never, never. Then a year later she’s pregnant again.
Q: You mentioned people think of you as the man who made The Terminator. After this, will you become the man who made Titanic?
A: Ideally, I should be invisible in this film. There are directors who try to create a signature style and impose it, like a Brian De Palma, who’s always showing us how great he is at moving the camera. When you come out of Titanic, it’s the movie that has a life, and the characters. I like that.
Q: Yet perception of Steven Spielberg changed with Schindler’s List.
A: Yes, although Spielberg had already done the precursor to Schindler’s List with The Color Purple. He’d shown the impulse to do something with some substance to it. Titanic is more likely to be my Color Purple than my Schindler’s List. Problem is, this is my Schindler’s List!
Michael Fleming interviewed Jean-Jacques Annaud for the October 97 issue of Movieline.