Epic-Size Troubles on 'Titanic'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With complications approaching the proportions suggested by its title, James Cameron's "Titanic" probably will become the costliest movie ever made and miss its long-targeted Fourth of July weekend opening, according to industry sources.

The expected postponement would create a massive opening on one of the year's most lucrative box-office weekends for the remaining films, which include Columbia's "Men in Black," a droll space alien yarn starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith; Warner Bros.' "Wild America," a teen adventure film with Jonathan Taylor Thomas; and a decidedly lighter oceangoing tale, 20th Century Fox's comedy "Out to Sea," starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.

Officials at Fox and Paramount, which are jointly financing and distributing "Titanic," would not confirm that it was being postponed. But crew members and other industry sources said that late summer, Thanksgiving or even Christmas were being considered.

Shot over eight months (about two months longer than originally planned), "Titanic" saw its budget swell from an already hefty $110 million to about $200 million, according to industry sources.

That total does not include marketing costs and will probably surpass the nearly $200 million that Universal spent in 1995 to make "Waterworld," the previous record holder.

"Titanic" crew members say the massive, grueling water-borne production was made even more trying by the perfectionist demands of its famously bombastic director.

"Yeah, the horror stories are true," said first assistant director Sebastian Silva. "If anything, the fault of the movie is just its sheer size. It was just so huge, there was no way to control it. Sometimes I'd find some of the 1,000 extras sleeping in the weirdest places, under the stacks of the ship. . . ."

Part of the huge budget went toward building that ship, a 90% scale five-story replica of the ill-fated luxury liner. A good portion of the money allocated to making "Titanic" went to build a new studio in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, where much of the movie was filmed (along with locations in Los Angeles, Nova Scotia and Britain).

Some people associated with "Titanic" speak of the ordeal of making the movie, describing it as being about as strenuous as filmmaking ever gets.

"You felt like you were part of the Titanic, like a survivor," said Bertha Medina, a production assistant who was seriously injured in a car accident after a long day on the set.

"In 'Titanic,' everything was just extreme and over the top," said Elizabeth Bolden, a grip on the film.

There was talk of 90-hour work weeks (with actual shooting done mostly at night to simulate the late hours of the disaster), a massive crew of 800 people, 80 electricians, 30 lifeguards, 100 stunt people in one scene alone. There were the ever-present medical and emergency personnel (about 50 people total) and a number of filming-related accidents. (A Fox spokesman acknowledged "eight or nine," but some reports cited more.)

"Titanic" is the product of the huge ambitions of a driven filmmaker who frequently invoked the epic grandeur of "Doctor Zhivago." "He must love that movie," said Silva. "He talks about it a lot."

Many cast and crew members say they admire Cameron for his single-minded focus. But his abrasive manner, frequent angry outbursts and intolerance of imperfection are what they usually bring up first.

"If anything was the slightest bit wrong, he would lose it," star Kate Winslet told the Times in London, where she was interviewed for an upcoming Sunday Calendar profile. "It was hard to concentrate when he was losing it, shouting and screaming. Logistically, it was a very tough film, for him as much as anyone. By the end I was existing on four hours sleep a day, but Jim was existing on three."

"He's a man on a mission, and it's either his way or the highway," said Silva. "I respect him a lot in the sense that he goes out and gets what he wants. But he is a hard person to work for. Let's face it: We were top-dollar slaves."

One crew member said that extras were fed while still in the water tanks that doubled for the Atlantic. Another disputed this, however, saying that food was expressly forbidden in the tanks.

Some say Cameron flew to his Southern California home from Baja California several times on a studio-provided helicopter. But officials said that although a helicopter was available on the set and the director did try it once, he found it quicker to drive.

"He did try a helicopter and decided it was not the best mode of transportation," said Rob Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures' motion picture group. "Did they work long hours? That's pretty standard. I was there. They all looked pretty happy to me. Of course, I was only there four hours."

Silva said that some cast and crew members were not at all happy during the shoot but that they all stuck it out.

"We all said, 'We're walking,' at one point or another," said Silva. "I cannot think of one crew member who didn't say, 'I've had it.' But no one walked."

Winslet, who said she suffered hypothermia and nearly drowned twice, contemplated leaving as well.

"You'd have to pay me a lot of money to work with Jim again," she said.

"She definitely had the longest hours of all," Silva said. "Between makeup at the beginning of the day plus the hard physical work, she did more than most actors. My hat's off to her."

But when it came to dangerous shots, Silva added, Cameron didn't hesitate to put himself in the most jeopardy.

"The most dangerous camera-operated shots were done by him," the assistant director said. "He would never ask anyone to go in there and risk that."

And there were tales that showed Cameron's humanity. He often apologized after his on-set blowups. When one of the extras complained he had been fed a raw chicken by the film's caterers, Cameron promised them to personally look into it.

"And he looked into it," Silva said. "Well, he personally screamed at seven of us and we had to look into it."

"It was just too big," he added. "I've been doing this for 12 years, and I still can't get over the size of this. There should be a law against making movies over $180 million. Jesus, you can make 18 Woody Allen movies for that. How many 'Sling Blades' could you make? About 40? $180 million is the budget for education in the state of who-knows-where. That's what I find obscene. But we saw the trailer, and the movie is going to be amazing. When the Titanic hits the iceberg and the action starts, everyone is going to love it."

Freelance writer David Gritten in London contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°