A film to remember

Tim Cornwell
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:37

THERE IS a thriving market already in props used in the making of Titanic, which is perhaps the most bizarre measure of the extraordinary success of this $200m Hollywood movie. In the three weeks since it opened in America, Titanic has ceased to be a mere epic and has become a phenomenon. It may well turn out to be an epic phenomenon, quite apart from being the most extravagant movie ever made - perhaps the last of its kind.

There is a certain logic to the sharply rising prices in the memorabilia market, for the carpeting, silverware and dishes with White Star crests used on the sets were specially ordered, sometimes from the companies that made them for the ship itself when it was launched in 1912. "There are dinner plates coming in, selling at $195 a time," said the woman from the auctioneer's. "Life jackets, burlap mail bags, not a whole lot left now." The 13ft fibreglass anchor, priced at $25,000, had already gone, along with five out of the six lifeboats, none of them seaworthy.

A particular kind of craziness about Titanic - which opens in Britain on Friday week - has taken over Hollywood. Young bloods in the industry are seeing the film three times, to luxuriate in three-and-a-quarter hours of lavish movie-making. They linger in cinemas to the very end of the lengthy credits. "Most films that you spend this kind of money on turn out to be disasters," said Jerry Pam, veteran Hollywood publicist. "I think everybody is in a state of shock that this film turned out to be so good. People are criticising it, but they still say it's a hell of a movie."

"Titanic Rides B.O. Tidal Wave", the film trade magazine Variety splashed in December, reporting the box office receipts. "Sea Saga Steams to $156m", blared the front page on Monday, after Titanic's third weekend at the top of the movie charts. "Still See-Worthy", Variety reported on Tuesday, predicting the film's "awesome progress" would continue.

That it should have turned out this way - in defiance of numerous doom- mongers in the industry - is largely to the credit of Titanic's 43-year- old Canadian director, James Cameron, a man who has been compared to Cecil B De Mille and, less fondly, to General Patten. Telling tales out of school is a crime in Hollywood, but stories of Cameron's dictatorial drive and frequent blow-ups kept emerging last year, amid a sense that his film was out of control. In one of the drowning scenes, where frozen bodies begin to bob in their life jackets, an elderly man working as an extra began swimming front crawl towards the camera. Cameron, on a platform overseeing the shot, was yelling at sodden extras their cues to die and drown. "Somebody give me a f-ing rifle," he cracked over the PA system, as the man kept on swimming.

Stunt men who bailed the wrong way out of life- boats were berated and blamed for running up $35,000 an hour in costs. Crew members had T-shirts printed that said: "I shoot with James Cameron - you can't scare me." Extras on interminable night shoots in the water prayed for first light. "He just suddenly lost it, when he felt that somebody was not taking his film seriously. It was quite arbitrary. It was quite horrible sometimes," remembered one British crew member. But no one who was involved is complaining now.

Cameron is lauded for his admiralship of a true Hollywood epic. He marshalled 1,800 extras in a single shot (Titanic's departure from Southampton), and donned a survival suit for long takes in water-filled rooms. He has recreated some grand vision of Hollywood fakery on an imperial scale reminiscent of the 1920s, in which the Titanic sailed and sank again off Baja California, and hang the expense.

CAMERON grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, a place of hokum, bright lights, and breath-taking views. The thundering falls convey the deadly power of water, but they are surrounded by a chintzy, cheaper version of Las Vegas. With his brother Mike, he designed a plexiglass diving bell, and sent a mouse down the Chippewa Creek. Years later, Mike would design the 35mm cameras within high-pressure titanium housings in order to shoot the real Titanic at a depth of 12,000 feet - footage that was incorporated into the film.

Cameron, meanwhile, went to see King Kong vs Godzilla at the age of nine; he later boasted to his mother, she told Esquire magazine, that "I can make something better than that". When the brothers moved to California, Cameron worked as a truck-driver and machinist before joining the production company run by Roger Corman, the tireless producer of Hollywood B-movies. Corman, while his own films seldom pushed beyond the level of cult classic, became known for fostering precocious talent, such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

There was no particular sign that Cameron was singled out as a protege in his days as an art director. Corman's trademark was low-budget, rapid- fire productions and even then, an associate said, Cameron's imagination was too big for him to hold to deadlines. His beginnings with Corman, however, mark a career based on junk-food films; that, along with his abrasive style, make him an unlikely favourite for an Oscar for best director. Cameron's first adventure in directing was in 1982 with Piranha II: Flying Killers, a feeble film, distinguished by the fact that the fish take flight. He co-wrote Rambo: First Blood Part II, with Sylvester Stallone. The breakthrough came in 1984 with The Terminator, which made the names of both Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but cost only $6.5m.

The films that followed set one cost record after another: Aliens ($18.5m), The Abyss ($40m), Terminator 2 ($93m) and True Lies ($100m). Each time these films were reported as Cameron's "biggest gamble". "State of the art, mind-blower type of things aren't cheap," he announced with T-2. "Spectacle costs money," he declared with Titanic. As his budgets grew more expansive, so did his directing style. Forcing through his vision of a film, he becomes a man possessed, almost uncontrollable, wanting to make the whole film himself, it is said. He talks of emulating Gone with the Wind and particularly Dr Zhivago. Even Arnold Schwarz- enegger has obliquely called Cameron's style "demanding". His personal life seems no less driven; this September, he unexpectedly married Linda Hamilton, female lead of the Terminator series, and mother of his five-year-old daughter.

"We were top-dollar slaves," said one assistant director on Titanic. "If there was anything in the slightest bit wrong, Cameron would lose it," echoed Kate Winslet, returning to London last April after months of watery and gruelling work on the set in Mexico. (Winslet said she suffered hypothermia and twice nearly drowned. But in an apologetic letter to the Los Angeles Times after the interview was published, she said she "learned a great deal" from Cameron, and "deeply regretted" giving any other impression.)

Cameron wrote, co-produced, and directed Titanic. He carried out hand- held camera shots himself, used to give the panicked feel in the latter stages of the film, and also edited it. The costs of the movie were exceptional given that it starred two new and unproven names, in Hollywood terms: Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio. The costume budget alone ran to $8.4m. Cameron's dozen dives down to the Titanic wreck cost several million more.

When budget pressures began to mount, Cameron gave back his $8m directing and producing fee - as he has on other over-budget films. He gave up his share of gross receipts, which could run to $15m, it was reported.

Cameron's imagination was first caught by Titanic when the wreck was discovered in 1985. It was sealed when he saw the film of Walter Lord's 1955 book, A Night to Remember. "The sinking of the Titanic was one of the great cautionary events of the 20th century," Cameron says. It is also a story that was virtually written for film - "almost as if there was a director following the course of the ship at every step," Lord said. The Titanic saga came broken down into a series of dramatic vignettes: the band playing as the ship went down, the lifeboats leaving half full, the women who insisted on staying with their spouse, those who escaped in questionable circumstances and those who went down gallantly with the ship. The drama did not end with the sinking: terrified families learned of the disaster, but not who had died, via telegraph messages. This led to extraordinary scenes when the Carp- arthi, arrived in New York four days later with survivors.

Cameron may have "vast climactic appetites", as one agent said, but when it comes to the look of a film he is a perfectionist. Most sea-going shots of vintage ships have involved clunky-looking models rocking oddly on oversized seas. Instead Titanic blueprints were used to design the 90 per cent scale faux ocean liner out of steel piping and wood that was submerged and raised 40 times on hydraulic lifts.

Spectacle is where Titanic delivers. As the ship leaves Southampton, helicopter shots sweep around its passengers and prow - no one ever saw Titanic this way - while computer animation is used to create a bow wave for the land-locked ship. The idea was to make a cruise-ship style commercial for the Titanic, to invite the audience to think of taking a trip.

Cameron wanted "the eye to be eating the Titanic up like a pizza". For the final sinking scene, the model was tilted to a 90-degree angle. Extras were strapped into their places with harnesses: stunt men slid down past them, and computer-cloned people were animated into the shot. Special effects teams took film of people spouting clouds of icy breath in a cold room and transposed them on to the scenes of the Titanic's last hours. One interior scene took 47 takes with Cameron adjusting the flowers between shots.

Against Cameron's immersion in technical detail, perhaps because of it, its weakness is the lack of any subtle shades. In discussing how to make his characters more human, he talks of how they are lit. In the plot, as a third-class Yankee outsmarts pompous British aristocrats to court the English Rose, there is little genuine sense of the stifling repression from which Winslet's character must escape.

Cameron's technical skill is unrivalled; he deployed soft lighting in the first-class settings to give an aura of the easy life, for example, but effects are not enough to capture period greed and grunge. "I wanted to shoot Titanic like a Terminator movie," he says. No matter. After independent films forged through last year's Oscars, Titanic has struck back for the studio extravaganza. The real shock - or relief - is for 20th Century Fox and Para- mount, the two studios that backed it, and whose executives hung on by their fingernails as costs soared. They now look to make a profit on the most expensive film in US history. And its appeal is wide: to an older generation familiar with its subject, and to 15- to 25-year- olds, who respond to the love story.

At the current rate Titanic is set to gross about half a billion dollars worldwide, with half that going to distributors. It isn't yet reaching for the revenue records set by Steven Spielberg. But throw in television and other sales, and it should easily break even, even with probably $70m spent on marketing.

Notch up another success for Rupert Murdoch's Fox, the driving force and major investor in the film. But Titanic, said Bill Mechanic, chairman of Fox, won't be repeated. As the movie's budget doubled from its original $110m, and a screening date was progressively put back from July to December, "it put a strain on the organisation and all the individuals who were involved, and on the film-makers," Mechanic said. "It was tough to live with." Fox has had its share of expensive flops, with the heavily-hyped Volcano, and Speed 2: Cruise Control. As a result, Cameron's wild ride of delivering mega-films late and over-budget - from the cyberhit Terminator 2, to the watery flop The Abyss - has in all likelihood peaked with Titanic. Another $200m Cameron film is "not going to happen", Mechanic said, at least not with Fox. The risk and the investment is just too high.

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