During the prepping of "Titanic" in the summer of 1996, producer Jon Landau had a portentous nightmare.
He dreamed that the 775-foot-long replica of the historic ship that was to be built for the movie was made of toothpicks and collapsed under the weight of hundreds of passengers charging to the front of the vessel as it started to sink.
It's no wonder Landau--the other producer of James Cameron's period epic--was having night terrors. He was embarking on what would be the most arduous voyage of his professional career, the responsibility for the mammoth production resting squarely on his shoulders.
As has been well-documented, "Titanic's" lengthy production ordeal was wrought with logistical, technical and other unanticipated problems that contributed to the movie going roughly a month over schedule and its $120-million budget soaring past $200 million.
The 37-year-old Landau, a plain-spoken, self-possessed individual with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard, boundless energy and a take-charge personality, did more than help Cameron and his crew navigate myriad physical production obstacles. He also was in the unenviable position of playing go-between for one of Hollywood's most successful and notoriously demanding directors and the anxious studio executives whose company was on the line for financing what would turn out to be the most expensive movie ever made.
At the time, of course, nobody anticipated what a cultural phenomenon and global commercial success "Titanic" would turn out to be. It is now the biggest movie of all time, with $1.2 billion in worldwide box-office returns to date. The film, which Cameron estimates could ultimately yield its two backers--20th Century Fox and Paramount--a combined profit of about $600 million (split 60-40 in Fox's favor)--is also the front-runner to sweep Monday night's Academy Awards.
But, as anyone connected with the behemoth production will tell you, it was a long, hard road to the Shrine Auditorium.
"I was the person on the hot seat," said the raspy-voiced Landau in an interview at the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge. He and Rae Sanchini, who runs Cameron's Santa Monica-based production outfit, Lightstorm Entertainment, were the day-to-day liaisons with Fox, the studio that financed most of the production and absorbed all the overages.
Landau, who Cameron said ran the entire "marathon" with him from start to finish, was the person who "took a tremendous amount of flak from the studios."
It helped that Landau was familiar with the inner workings of a studio, particularly those of Fox--where he was head of physical production for 5 1/2 years before breaking out on his own and signing on to produce "Titanic" with Cameron. The two had worked together on "True Lies" and "Strange Days" when Landau was at Fox.
Although his studio experience no doubt served him well, Landau's role as the eternal harbinger of bad news--apprising executives that "Titanic" was way over budget or that Cameron needed another X-millions of dollars to execute a particular feat--wasn't an easy one.
"There was a lot of pressure throughout the course of filming and throughout post-production and pre-release," Landau said. Fox, he said, "was very tough, but rightfully so. And I was the guy who I believe got the brunt of it. It was very difficult, because I wanted to please all three masters: the studio, the director and the movie. And it was my job to balance that . . . to not lose sight of that."
Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth, who was Landau's former boss at Fox, remembers him as someone who would always "fight for the filmmaker as much as he'd fight for the studio if he thought something was right for the movie."
Landau said that on "Titanic," it was "easy to fight for the things we were asking because we believed they were necessary for creating the initial vision of the movie." Cameron, acknowledging that "we were over budget before we started shooting," suggested that "most producers produce a budget, not a movie. The hardest thing to do is weigh additional expenses against the aesthetic gains to the film--you have to tap into a director's brain a bit. [Landau] understood what a filmmaker needs."
When asked how he viewed his role on "Titanic" vis-a-vis Cameron's--who also produced the movie and wrote and directed it--Landau said, "Jim dreams the dreams and it's my job to make them a reality."
It took Landau and Cameron--both opinionated, willful and aggressive--some time to establish a comfortable working relationship.
Cameron said that as in any marriage, "we had some big shouting matches. . . . Sometimes I had to vent to him or he had to vent to me, but 99% of the time we were cool with each other. . . . We trusted each other 100%."
While Landau may be pugnacious by some co-workers' accounts, Cameron said, "people basically like him. He has a sense of humor, he always keeps morale up, and he has a tremendous amount of energy."
As an executive at Fox, Landau would do things like treat 100 people to the opening of a new movie or arrange a 24-hour field trip to Las Vegas or a midweek river-rafting outing. He loves dressing up every Halloween and last year, he boasts, "Titanic" notwithstanding, "I was Mr. Potato Head."
A native New Yorker who moved to Brentwood when he was a junior in high school, Landau grew up around show business. His parents, Ely and Edie Landau, were producers whose credits include "The Chosen" and "Hopscotch." Ely Landau, who also was a producer of the 1965 classic "The Pawnbroker," was perhaps best known for bringing quality stage adaptations to TV and movie audiences, including "Long Day's Journey Into Night," starring Katharine Hepburn, and for his landmark 1950s TV series, "The Play of the Week."
After graduating from USC film school in 1983, Landau had various jobs on productions--from gofer and production assistant to the supervisor of post-production on a break-dancing film called "Beat Street," which he says introduced him to his future wife, Julie, who now works at Disney in post-production accounting.
Landau worked in production on films such as "Making Mr. Right" and "Manhunter" before producing his first movie in the mid-1980s, Paramount's "Campus Man." He then worked on the Disney films "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and "Dick Tracy."
Landau joined Fox as an executive in 1989, supervising such films as "Die Hard 2," "Home Alone" and "Alien 3," but always viewing the job as "a steppingstone to something else."
As a studio executive, he saw his job as "sometimes hand-holding the director" as well as "making sure the studio's vision of the movie was adhered to."
On "Titanic," he says, "I felt like I was the mayor of the city" in that "I had all these constituents [including heads of various departments such as special effects, props, wardrobe] that needed help and support--sometimes moral support, sometimes financial support."
Cameron said Landau "was ingenious in coming up with eleventh-hour solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems." One of Landau's most memorable feats, recounted Cameron, was juggling the entire production schedule when they learned the main exterior set [the ship] was going to take two months longer to build than originally thought.
"He kept us going," recalled Cameron. "He had to pull forward everything we possibly could shoot . . . and we never stopped shooting once."
In addition to overseeing the all-consuming production, Landau was charged with supervising the 100-day construction of Fox Baja Studios, a 40-acre oceanfront facility in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, which housed the mammoth movie sets, the largest shooting tank in the world and five sound stages, one nearly the size of a football field.
Landau said: "Nobody had actually worked on a set that big before, and in water. So there were things we realized as we got into it that we had not anticipated" and that accounted for much of the film's huge overruns.
Landau said he can't imagine ever working on another film with the "enormity and complexity at every level" of a "Titanic."
Landau, who lives in Sherman Oaks with his wife and their two sons, 6 and 10, said he tries hard to balance his family and professional lives even when he's on a long, grueling shoot like "Titanic," for which his wife and eldest son performed stunts. Then again, this is someone who sleeps only a few hours a night and is clearly consumed by his work.
Though some portion of his time is still devoted to "Titanic," Landau has moved on to other projects for Fox under his production banner, Blue Horizon Films. The two he's currently working on--a comedy spoof and a contemporary international suspense thriller--bear no resemblance whatsoever to "Titanic."
And, while the producer said he'd love to work with Cameron again someday, it's evident that he wants a name for himself in no one's shadow.