The Insane True Story Of How "Titanic" Got Made

Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, and director James Cameron on the set of Titanic.

Everett Collection

The first time I saw Titanic, my father left the theater in the middle of the movie to get a haircut. I didn’t notice he was gone. I wasn’t conscious of any reality but Titanic, even though I already knew exactly what was going to happen. One of my friends had briefed me on what to expect: Jack and Rose fall in love, the ship sinks, and Jack finds a piece of wreckage floating in the sea and helps Rose clamber onto it, saving her from the freezing death that claims him before the lifeboats return for survivors. But it wasn’t fair, my friend explained: It was obvious to her that there was room for them both.

It didn’t matter that I knew exactly what was coming. I couldn’t think about anything else while the movie played. And even when the lights came up and I realized my father was missing, his absence didn’t seem to matter much. I was 9, but I already understood he had a habit of wandering off when he got bored. I was even used to it. What was new was this feeling: that I had to get back to Titanic as soon as possible. The credits were barely rolling as I began to strategize my next viewing. I knew that the movie had completely devastated me, and I knew that all I wanted was to be devastated again. But why?

Viewers — many of them adolescent and preadolescent girls like me — would go back to Titanic over and over again while it was in theaters. It was the No. 1 movie in the US for 15 consecutive weeks, a feat that has yet to be surpassed, and likely never will be.

Well before it was released, James Cameron’s passion project became notorious as the most expensive movie ever made, with a final budget of $200 million. Then it became the first movie in history to earn $1 billion at the box office. And it achieved this success despite months of advance press claiming that the movie was all but doomed; despite the widespread belief that James Cameron, who previously helmed the Alien and Terminator franchises, had no business trying to tell a story about love; and despite the fact that Titanic, in a way that is now all too easy to forget, is an immensely difficult movie to watch.

When Titanic was released on video in September 1998, its 3 hours and 14 minutes had to be split across two VHS tapes. The same studio heads who were convinced Titanic could only recoup its budget at best (success was almost mathematically impossible) had seen its gargantuan runtime as just one of its many liabilities. Critics also pointed to its ungainly length as proof of its failure to play by the rules: It was a “bloated leviathan,” a “behemoth,” and a tiresome epic that, according to the Washington Posts Desson Howe, left viewers “thinking the unpardonable thought: ‘OK, sink already.’”

Titanic’s length was also bad news for movie theaters, since it meant they had to schedule fewer showings — and sell fewer tickets — than they could with a normal movie. After screening Titanic for a test audience in Minneapolis, however, executives at Paramount and Fox, which had jointly financed the production, began wondering if Cameron’s folly might not be a disaster of Waterworld proportions. The audience laughed and cheered and gasped at all the right moments, and gave the movie and its characters astoundingly high ratings on the survey cards they filled out after the showing.

“It went well,” a Fox executive said cagily. “Not great, but well.”

When all was said and done, Titanic had cost a little over $1 million per minute of screentime, and it was sometimes hard for studio executives to look at the movie Cameron described as a way to honor the disaster’s victims without wondering just how much this history lesson would end up costing them.

Cameron had been dreaming of Titanic since Robert Ballard located the ship’s remains in 1985 (“I’ll be goddamned!” Ballard exclaimed as Titanic loomed into view, a line Cameron later borrowed for his own characters). After watching National Geographic’s special on Ballard in 1987, Cameron made a few notes: “Do story with bookends of present-day [wreckage] scene…intercut with memory of a survivor…needs a mystery or driving plot element.”

The bow of the Titanic, seen in the 2003 film Ghosts of the Abyss.

Everett Collection

Cameron had always loved diving and deep-sea exploration, and The Abyss, his third film as director and sole writer, had been a love letter to both. But that was fantasy; Titanic was real. And when Cameron first decided to pursue the project, the prospect of going to the wreck of Titanic might have been incentive enough to pitch the movie. When he first met with 20th Century Fox Chairman Peter Chernin to discuss Titanic, in the spring of 1995, he asked for $2 million to fund a deep-sea expedition. It was an amazing sum of money to the Russian scientists and submersible pilots who took Cameron to the wreck. It was nothing compared to Titanic’s final price tag.

When Titanic opened in theaters across the US, on the weekend of Dec. 19, 1997, it became the No. 1 movie in America by the skin of its teeth, edging out the latest James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, by a margin of $3.5 million. But to the executives who had nervously overseen Titanic’s production — and watched its budget nearly double, from $110 to $200 million — this wasn’t particularly encouraging news. For Titanic to earn a profit, executives calculated, it would have to attract viewers in utterly unprecedented numbers: Even if it sold more tickets than Dances With Wolves, the most profitable three-hour-long movie ever released, Fox would still be $70 million in the red.

And to be a success? It would have to somehow repeat its $28 million opening-weekend ticket sales — and stay the No. 1 movie in America — for weeks and weeks in a row, in a way no movie had in nearly a decade. It would have to be more than just a movie. It would have to become a cultural obsession. And it did.

Cameron had once — optimistically, as the final budget reflected — called Titanic “a $190 million chick flick.” By Jan. 31, 1998, 20th Century Fox estimated that 7% of all American teenage girls had seen the movie twice. They weren’t the only ones going back to see Titanic a second time, and perhaps a third, though they did receive the most press. In 1997, the average return viewer rate for a theatrically released movie was 2%. Meanwhile, Titanic’s was 20%. In February 1998, a survey found that 76% of Titanic's repeat viewers still planned to see it again. It made more money — $32 million — during its 11th weekend in theaters than it did during its first. (It helped that this weekend also happened to fall on Valentine’s Day.)

Theaters that previously worried about losing money on a movie they could screen only two or three times a day started squeezing in showings as early as 8 a.m. and as late as midnight, letting out satisfied viewers at 3:30 in the morning. Adults, people with families, responsibilities, and jobs, flocked to see Titanic. Because for a little while — for 3 hours and 14 minutes, to be precise — the rest of their lives disappeared. Titanic gave people a way to make the rest of their lives disappear, and so they kept coming back, and finding that the world James Cameron had created for them still felt just as real as it had the first time.

What made Titanic not just a movie, but a destination? And what did it take to will such a world into solid reality?

Winslet and DiCaprio in a scene from TItanic

Everett Collection

“It is the night before shooting starts,” Kate Winslet wrote in her diary on Sept. 15, 1996, “and here I am, all pin-curled up and hungry, ready to go. Thinking about Rose. She was so young. I need to think about her childhood, her youth, and find my way through the 17 years of her life. I'll never sleep tonight.” The next morning, Winslet added: “No sleep. This is it… My life is not my own and probably never will be — and that's Rose talking.”

During Titanic’s seven months of production, the line between Kate and Rose would sometimes blur — but it had been that way from the beginning. After she auditioned for the part, and Cameron left her waiting as he deliberated casting, Winslet tracked him down on his car phone, reaching him when he was on the freeway. “You don’t understand,” she told him. “I am Rose.” And she was.

Kate Winslet was 20 when she began filming Titanic, and spent her 21st birthday shooting Jack’s death scene. “We were lying there on the raft, sort of shivering together,” she told Rosie O’Donnell while promoting the movie, “and I said ‘Leo, it’s my birthday today.’ And he said, ‘That’s great, sweetie. You know what? I don’t care.’”

DiCaprio himself turned 22 while Titanic was in production. In the same Rosie appearance, Winslet said she and Leo had been “the naughty children on the set,” and remembered how, while filming the scenes where Jack and Rose waited for the lifeboats to return after the ship’s sinking, “Leo would sometimes say to me, ‘Sweetie, sweetie, I gotta pee.’

“I’d go, ‘So have I.’”

They would pee in shifts, taking turns swimming over to another part of the tank — which was about the most romantic gesture anyone could get either of them to recall from Titanic’s set, though people tried. “He doesn’t think that he’s gorgeous,” Kate Winslet told Vanity Fair, around the time Leomania became a bona fide pandemic. “And to me, he’s just smelly, farty Leo.”

When she wasn’t called on to talk about his sex appeal, Winslet sang DiCaprio’s praises as an artist. “He’s gifted from God, as far as I’m concerned,” she told O’Donnell. In another interview, she mused, “Leo is such a brilliant actor. And he doesn’t know it. He really doesn’t know it.”

James Cameron knew he wanted DiCaprio to be his Jack Dawson, but DiCaprio didn't want to be his Jack.

He had started his career with commercials for Kraft cheese (“Hands off, the Free Singles are for Daddy!” “Aw, but Mom!”), Matchbox cars, Bubble Yum (“Only Yum is the fun that never blows out!”), and Fred Meyer fashions (“You wanna dance?” a girl asks him. “I like your sweater”). He won his first TV roles — after being kicked off the set of Romper Room, at 3 years old — in The New Lassie and Parenthood. He was good at playing junior-high heartthrobs and squeaky-clean sons, but the more he got cast in those parts, the less interested in them he seemed to be.

By the time he was cast as Jack Dawson, Leonardo DiCaprio had already been nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award for his role as the title character’s developmentally disabled younger brother, Arnie, in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Initially, director Lasse Hallström had believed DiCaprio was too handsome for the role — a judgment born out by the fact that fan mail for him was already streaming onto the set of Growing Pains.

“When I was doing Growing Pains I had quite a teen following,” DiCaprio said in a 1993 interview. “For a while, I was third in fan mail or something like that. To tell you the truth, I don't like that. Being the hunk-of-the-month annoys me. … I don't care about being a star. Anybody can be a star with a little makeup and a music video. I'm concerned about being an actor.”

James Cameron knew he wanted DiCaprio to be his Jack Dawson, but DiCaprio didn’t want to be his Jack. When DiCaprio auditioned for the role, Cameron later remembered, he first refused to read a scene with Kate Winslet, then “read it once, [and started] goofing around.” After that, Cameron said, “I could never get him to focus on it again. But for one split second, a shaft of light came down from the heavens and lit up the forest.”

DiCaprio had never played a character like Jack before: one who forced him to be, so relentlessly, in the light. Instead, he had spent his early career playing roles like the heroin-addicted Jim Carroll in 1995’s The Basketball Diaries, and Arthur Rimbaud (“young, gorgeous, and deranged”) in Total Eclipse. “How do you do that?” DiCaprio said of his role in Titanic, even after filming had ended. “I was asking Jim, ‘Can’t we add some dark things to his character?’ And he was like, ‘No, Leo, you can’t.’”

DiCaprio and Danny Nucci in Titanic

Everett Collection

“I just wasn't used to playing an openhearted, free-spirited guy,” DiCaprio told the Los Angeles Times shortly after the Titanic premiere. “I've played the more tortured roles in the past. It was difficult to be someone closer to 'me' than anyone else.”

“His character doesn’t go through torment,” Cameron later said of the role, “and Leo previously, and subsequently in his career, was always looking for that dark cloud. … [It was] only when I convinced him [this] was actually the harder thing to do that he got excited.”

Titanic represented a new challenge for James Cameron, too. It wasn’t his first romantic movie (try listening to the love theme from The Terminator sometime), but it was the first movie he had ever made where a love story served as the primary dramatic engine. When he pitched Titanic to Fox Chairman Peter Chernin in 1995, Cameron — who had cracked into the big leagues after making 1984’s The Terminator, and had seen his sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, become the highest-grossing movie of 1991 — found himself in the odd position of trying to sell studio executives on exactly the kind of movie they didn’t think he could make.

“They were like, 'Oooooohkaaaaaay,’” he later told Paula Parisi, author of Titanic and the Making of James Cameron. “‘A three-hour romantic epic? Sure, that's just what we want. Is there a little bit of Terminator in that? Any Harrier jets, shoot-outs, or car chases?' I said, 'No, no, no. It's not like that.'”

Yet James Cameron was, in a sense, a natural choice for the helm of a romantic epic: He knew how to translate love into action. From the beginning, his heroes and heroines had been made powerful by their ability to love, and by love’s ability to instill in them greater strength than any opponent could hope to defeat. The Terminator ends with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) speaking gently to her unborn son as she drives into a mounting storm; in Aliens, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) balances a little girl on one hip and a flamethrower on the other; and in Judgment Day, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), programmed to protect the adolescent John Connor, tells John “I know now why you cry” as he destroys himself to save the future of humanity.

“Building Better Worlds” is the space conglomerate slogan on display in James Cameron’s Aliens, but it could just as easily apply to the worlds Cameron builds in his movies — or rather, the worlds he allows to come into being, by stripping away the rules as they have always previously applied. In The Terminator, Terminator 2, and Aliens, this idea seems to go hand in hand with getting rid of men — and Titanic follows this example. Even if men aren’t actively oppressing women, Cameron’s movies suggest, they still have a way of holding women back from doing what they need to. Even if all you want is to save John Connor, you’re still a product of Skynet. The best protection you can offer the world is to leave it.

Krista Few / Getty Images


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