When Titanic debuted in December 1997, it’s reception quickly surpassed the expectations of everyone who had been involved with its production. Titanic raked in over $20 million in sales its first weekend alone. The film proved so popular that it was the first film in history to gross over $1 billion, hitting an initial worldwide gross of $1.8 billion. Prior to it’s smashing success, however, producers were worried at the initial screening that their careers would be over. Cameron stake his entire career on a chance to spend more time with the sunken ship. Being one of the most difficult films any of the actors had ever worked on, there are plenty of on-set secrets to dive into 20 years after its release.
Bare Bones Introduction
When Titanic hit theaters in December 1997, it was an instant hit. The epic romance is still one of the most successful films of all time, but there were many moments throughout its production that made the film’s crew seriously doubt the likelihood of success.
When Kate Winslet discovered how she would be dressed in the famous portrait drawing scene, she wasn’t uncomfortable, but was unsure about Leo. To lighten up their first scene Kate, introduced herself by giving DiCaprio a glimpse of what the future held…
Relieving A Burden
During the many hours spent filming in the water, James Cameron wanted to make sure none of the cast members left the tank in the middle of the shoot. Cameron even went so far as to threaten to fire anyone who considered asking to take a bathroom break.
Many extras therefore just relieved themselves in the water because of that policy, though Kate Winslet shared that they weren’t alone in that regards. It wasn’t just hours spent submerged in frigid water that made the film difficult.
Wrecking The Past
The film was almost overly committed to historical accuracy, to the extent that some original clothing was used for the time period.
It took the costume department nearly a year to build up the wardrobe they needed for all of the extras, and complicating matters further, the pieces often would get wet. On a certain day, James Cameron needed more extras in the water, so he took a boatful of them, who were all wearing vintage, and dunked them in anyway.
A Sinking Ship
As production for the Titanic progressed, the only buzz the film was getting was negative. Due to a number of delays, sky high expenses, and reports of repeated injuries, the press was sure that the movie would bomb.
Executives at both the original studio, Twentieth Century Fox, and Paramount were ready to come to blows over the disparity between the film’s budget and the actual costs. At one point, the situation was so bad, nearly everyone was convinced the film would bomb.
Heart Won’t Go On
The hit song played over the film’s closing credits hit a number of speed bumps before it was allowed into the film. For starters, James Cameron never wanted a pop song in the movie in the first place.
However, it likely wouldn’t have made the cut if Celine Dion hadn’t performed the vocals. Even she had to be convinced of the song’s merit by her husband, René Angelil, who was a friend of the composer, James Horner.
Freezing The Extras
For the film’s ending sequence, the makeup department had a lot of work to do in order to make the scene convincing.
In order to make it appear like the actors were actually freezing, they were coated in a special powder that would form crystals when it made contact with water. In order to make it look like everyone had wet hair, the makeup arts coated their hair in wax. The only problem was the chemicals in the water kept washing off the powder.
Gut Wrenching Finish
On the last night of filming, the cast and crew became the victims of a vicious prank. Someone decided it was a good idea to spike the soup that everyone was eating, but it caused far more damage than fun.
Over 80 people got sick after eating the soup, and more than 50 were hospitalized with hallucinations. James Cameron made himself throw up in so the substances wouldn’t absorb into his blood stream. They were never able to catch the perpetrator.
The Titanic set was a hotbed of injuries, but the saddest casualty of them all was probably Leonardo DiCaprio’s pet lizard. Somehow, the lizard got loose on the lot and was hit by a truck. Leo was devastated to find his battered lizard.
However, with a lot of extra care, he was able to nurse his pet back to health. He was probably much more careful about keeping him safely caged after that, or only took him out in enclosed spaces.
Cold To The Bone
Kate Winslet refused to wear a wetsuit under her costume like all of the other actors who were spending days on end submerged in water. Though James Cameron insists that he had the tank warmed to a comfortable 80 degrees, Kate came down with pneumonia anyway.
Her illness almost caused her to quit the production, so Cameron scrambled to find a reason that would convince her to stay. Pneumonia was far from the only bodily injury suffered during filming.
When the RMS Titanic was constructed, it was designed to be the most luxurious and modern ship ever made. The cost of construction was $7.5 million in 1912. In 1997, that totaled out to be a little over $120 million.
The Titanic film was so expensive to make, however, that its costs totaled $200 million in 1997. With inflation, the Titanic’s construction is almost $200 million of today’s dollars. The film still costs over $100 million more, working out to $300 million in today’s dollars. It’s a good thing it earned it all back.
Keeping The Gaff
It’s no surprise that Leo might have made a few mistakes his first days on set. In the iconic portrait drawing scene, Jack tells Rose to lie, “Over on the bed…the couch.”
The scripted line was supposed to just have Jack telling Rose to lie on the couch. Leo genuinely forgot the line, and was correcting himself mid-sentence for saying “bed.” Cameron liked the effect of the slip, and therefore left it into the final edit of the film.
Getting On His Good Side
James Cameron is a notoriously stubborn person to work with, which is no surprise considering he micromanaged the epic film.
For all of the complaints the cast and crew had about his directing style, there was only one person who managed to soften his demeanor. Gloria Stuart, who played Old Rose, managed to charm the director. As a joke, Stuart often called him “Herr Director” in an ode to his near German levels of efficiency and precision.
Upscale Hot Dogs
In time for the film’s 20th anniversary, Billy Zane, who played the cruel fiancé, Cal, divulged some on set secrets to the New York Post. Zane shared that the set was peppered with hot tubs for the cast to warm themselves in between takes, even while in a tux.
He continued, “Then someone walks by and you just reach into a basket and you’re noshing on a hot dog in a tux in a hot tub, just deadpan, without any reaction, like this is completely normal.”
Bumps And Bruises
Kate Winslet found herself pretty battered while filming the movie. At a certain point, the makeup artists wanted to take pictures of her extensive bruises, so they could refer back to them later.
On top of that and her pneumonia, Winslet also chipped a bone in her elbow, which led to her saying, “You’d have to pay me an awful lot of money to work with James Cameron again.” We guess the price was right for Avatar 2.
Bowing To Tyson’s Complaints
Famed scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, was just as pedantic about details then as he is now. When the movie was released, he wrote a letter to Cameron to tell him that the configuration of stars in the final scenes wasn’t correct.
Tyson complained again in person the first time he met Cameron, and then a third time when Cameron did an event at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Cameron got the hint and had Tyson send the correct configuration for the re-released film.
Thorn In His Side
Winslet was utterly convinced that she was the best choice for Rose. The production saw a massive number of well-known actresses for the part, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman, and Jennifer Aniston.
Winslet was persistent, constantly calling and writing to Cameron about choosing her. At a certain point, she even said to him, “You don’t understand! I am Rose! I don’t know why you’re even seeing anyone else!” It’s almost as if she was channeling Rose before she got the part.
Hidden From Gloria
Gloria Stuart, the 86 year old actress who played Old Rose didn’t even know Rose’s fate in her final scenes, which was revealed by her grandson, Benjamin Stuart Thompson.
Though Gloria asked Cameron if Old Rose was meant to be dead or just dreaming in her final shot, he apparently replied, “Just lie still, Gloria. You don’t need to know!” It seems even her friendly rapport with the director didn’t help her to find out that bit of information.
The shooting schedule for Titanic was an intensive process, often starting in the middle of the night, which continued for months on end.
In the dinner scene where Jack joins Rose’s family in the first class lounge, Leo was so tired after spending hours getting all of the shots needed for the scene, that he was losing his patience. At a certain point, he reportedly pick up a fork, turned to Kathy Bates, and asked, “Which one of these do I use to lobotomize myself?”
A then-unknown Lindsay Lohan auditioned to be one of the featured little girls in the film. Though the producers liked her for the role, James Cameron worried that her red hair would be too confusing next to a red-head protagonist.
The thinking went that audiences might suspect Lindsay’s would be character might appear to be related to Rose and her mother Ruth. In her place, they cast Alexandrea Owens as the little girl, Cora, that Jack talks to in third class.
Smoke And Mirrors
The production team needed to employ a number of tricks in order to make the boiler room scene look believable.
For starters, in order to make it look like there were an appropriate amount of boilers, the set was constructed with a mirror at the end, which doubled the number of boilers seen from three to six. Because they couldn’t quite construct the set to scale, they also used short actors so it wasn’t apparent to audiences that the boilers were small.
The Cost Of Destruction
Titanic ran into its fair share of challenges as it had to shoot the destruction of the ship. The scene where the grand staircase finally floods wasn’t done until the very end of the film.
The cinematographers only had one chance to get the shot right, because the force of the flooding water they were pumping into the set would destroy it completely. Luckily for both the crew and for James Cameron, they got the exact footage they needed.
Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet have shared that they were less than impressed with their performances in the film in retrospect. Winslet went so far as to say that her American accent was truly “awful” while her acting “could have been better.”
Leo was not quite as harsh on himself, but he did add that he considers himself to have been a “young punk” in the film. Regardless, the film catapulted both stars into distinguished film careers.
Too Ruddy For The Role
One of the many young male actors to have auditioned for Jack was Paul Rudd. The studio had been more interested in both Matthew McConaughey and Johnny Depp prior to Leo, but they each turned it down.
On the other hand, Rudd was interested in the project because his father was captivated by the Titanic’s history. During his audition, he must have bored casting directors because he was rattling off a list of facts about the ship.
Predicting The Disaster
In 1898, a novella was released by an American writer named Morgan Robertson. The novella was titled The Wreck of the Titan. The name was already similar enough to set off alarm bells, but the events of the story are even eerier.
The novella’s plot follows an ocean liner that sets off on a journey across the Atlantic ocean. Several days into the journey, the ship hits an iceberg, at roughly the same speed the Titanic was traveling. Moreover, there were too few life boats onboard.
Paramount Boards The Ship
Twentieth Century Fox was the first studio to sign on to the making of Titanic, but because Cameron was so insistent on getting all of the details as close as possible, the costs increased exponentially.
Fox actually needed the help of another studio in order to cover it all. In addition to constructing a ship off the coast of Mexico that was almost as large as the original Titanic itself, Cameron cajoled the White Star Line to manufacture replicas of the original decor.
A Glorious Life
Despite the film being made more than 80 years after the sinking of the Titanic, it turns out, one cast member was alive when it happened.
Gloria Stuart was 86 when the film was shot, meaning she was the only cast member who was living in 1912. Because Old Rose was supposed to be 100 in the film, the actress had to wear age make up to appear even older than she was. Stuart herself died in 2010 at the age of 100.
Down To The Minute
When all of the 1912 scenes are compiled together, the runtime equals out to the exact amount of time it took for the Titanic to sink, a precise two hours and forty minutes.
The exact run time of those scenes may not have been intended, considering Cameron had several hours more footage he could have used. It may not have been as coincidental that the crash with the iceberg in the film lasts 37 seconds, which was the same amount of time as the real ship.
Sparks That Fizzled
Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio became one of the most recognizable on-screen couples of the 20th century. Their clear chemistry caused many people to speculate whether or not the actors themselves were involved romantically.
Even 20 years after the release, Kate has to clarify that they were only ever friends. She shared the secret of their lifelong friendship with ITV, saying, “We were both very young. And luckily, and this was the fortunate thing, we never fancied each other.”
While speaking to the New York Post about his time working on Titanic, Billy Zane had more to say about some of his most famous scenes. For starters, his table flip was completely improved, as Cameron wanted the actors to create their own dialogue.
More challenging though, once he decided to flip the table, he had to avoid Kate’s costume. He said, “I think after, like, seven takes, I got maybe one drop [of orange juice] on one of the dresses.”
There’s a scene in Titanic where Jack teaches Rose how to spit like a man. The end result was a charming interaction between the two characters as they fall in love with one another.
The scene, however, had never been scripted! James Cameron had a vague outline of what he wanted the characters to do, but he left the details up to Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio. The entire exchange with two spitting off the edge of the ship was improvised.
Finding The Truth
When James Cameron was writing the original Titanic script, he wanted to choose feature fictitious main characters at the center of the story. Rose DeWitt Bukater and Jack Dawson were names that Cameron thought up himself.
After the film was released, Cameron learned that there had been a real J. Dawson on board the Titanic who died during the sinking. However, the real-life Dawson was Joseph, not Jack. He was an Irishman from Dublin who is now buried in Nova Scotia.
As the ship goes down in its final moments, there’s a shot of an elderly couple, hugging each other on a bed as the water rises over them. The couple was based on two real Titanic passengers, Ida and Isidor Strauss, who had been the owner of Macy’s.
Ida had a chance to be saved in a lifeboat, however, she turned it down, saying to Isidor, “As we have lived together, so we shall die together.” The scene showing this was cut from the movie.
Like Crossing An Ocean
According to James Horner, who composed the music for the film, the first cut he was shown was over 36 hours long. That’s almost half of the time that the Titanic actually spent traveling.
With days on set regularly 14 hours or more, it’s not a surprise that Cameron had an immense amount of footage to sift through. Luckily for the audience, he was able to cut it down to a cohesive three hour movie, and Horner provided a beautiful score.
Time Stands Still
In the final scene, young Rose is seen coming down the grand staircase once more, greeting Jack once more after a lifetime apart.
While it’s not clear if the moment is symbolic of Rose’s passing, or she’s simply dreaming of her long lost love, the creative team snuck an extra Easter egg into the scene. As Rose comes down the stairs, the clock is striking 2:20 am. That is the exact time the bulk of the Titanic sank into the ocean.
Room For Two
In the years since Titanic’s release, fans have begun arguing that its heartbreaking conclusion was avoidable. No, fans aren’t arguing that the ship shouldn’t have sunk, but rather, there should have been room for both Rose and Jack on the door Rose floated on until her rescue.
The show Mythbusters even proved just how much space was on the door, which had been based on a real Titanic artifact. James Cameron said, however, that narratively, Jack couldn’t have survived.
Comedy Of Manners
Due to Cameron’s need for nearly 1000 extras who worked on the film throughout the course of its production, he made sure to hire 150 regulars, which reduced the time it took them to get fit into costumes.
Moreover, he wanted the extras to be as realistic as possible, so the core extras were also given a three hour class on the customs and mannerisms of people who lived in 1912. The class was taught by Lynne Hockney, Titanic’s choreographer.
A Steamy Surprise
Kate had a few stories of her own that she’d kept hidden for nearly 20 years. One of the most famous love scenes ever to appear in the movie includes Kate’s hand wiping the fogged up glass of an antique car.
Kate shared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, “I don’t think it was scripted. I think we came up with it on the day. It did get quite sweaty in the car, but we were spritzed down with spray Evian bottles…”