Despite early hype predicting box-office disaster to match that of `Waterworld', `Titanic' is now the hot tip to clean up at the Oscars. Billy Zane, one of the film's stars, recalls life on-board

Signing up for a James Cameron movie is like volunteering for a tour of duty in a war zone. For the macho auteur approaches each of his movies like a military campaign, of which Titanic has been the biggest, and the most gruelling, to date.

Just like in a real war there were casualties, if no actual losses: the director of photography quit; bones got broken; and Captain Jim and the actor Bill Paxton were among around 80 people affected when someone spiked the lobster chowder with angel dust.

"You'd have to pay me a lot of money to work with Jim again," said Kate Winslet, soon after the shoot. Her onscreen fiance, Billy Zane, is not surprised: "She nearly drowned a couple of times," he recalls, "and she certainly worked the longest. It was exhausting for her. She was there when the sun came up... and when the sun came up again. She was a real trooper. She's one of the most talented actresses of her generation, but it's her stamina that I now respect her for more than anything else."

As for himself, Zane (below left) says that his time under Cameron's command was an "absolute pleasure" (despite working 17-hour days), although he confirms that the popular perception of the director as a hard taskmaster, isn't without foundation.

"Jim's a daredevil visionary: he'd be the first in the water and the last out, and he demanded the same level of excellence and dedication from everyone. He doesn't baby people: it's like, you cut the mustard or you're out."

Zane, who began his movie career as a "glorified extra" in Back to the Future, isn't averse to a bit of daredevilry either. He held a lighted flare in his mouth at the end of the sea-going thriller Dead Calm, and was shut in a cage with a tiger for a scene in the comic-book adventure The Phantom. ("It was nerve- wracking. You have no idea how a tiger's going to react to a black mask or purple tights.")

Nothing Zane had done, however, prepared him for what was in store on the set of Titanic, which recently picked up four gongs at the Golden Globe awards, including Best Film and Best Director, and is expected to sweep the boards at the Oscars.

Striving for a level of realism far beyond that achieved by previous films about the ship-meets-iceberg disaster, Cameron had a 9/10th-scale replica of the Titanic built, including the luxurious first-class dining room and elegant three-storey grand staircase, which he then "sank" with some 500 actors and extras on board. Zane was among them, dressed in formal Edwardian evening wear.

"Nothing on that scale had been tried before, and we were testing it as it went. Considering the size of the ship [775-feet long, 10-storeys high] there was surprisingly little undertow as it sank. But apparently there wasn't much suction with the real Titanic either, it just went down like a cube of sugar in coffee. You'd think there'd be more, and that's why half the boats, so it is claimed, didn't come back to help people. Nonetheless, watching the ship just disappearing like that right from under you into 30ft of sea water was most bizarre. You felt that anything could happen. It was pretty hairy."

`Titanic' is on general release