James Cameron isn’t the kind of man to be hampered by self-doubt. But during the darkest days of the making of Titanic, when the budget was skyrocketing, deadlines were bearing down, and the press was circling in gleeful anticipation of a disaster, even the man behind The Terminator and Aliens felt his confidence shaken. “I had a razor blade taped to the screen of my Avid [editing machine] with a note on it saying, ‘Use in case the film sucks,'” admits Cameron. “When everybody — everybody — doubts you, it’s hard not to doubt yourself. But I was looking at the footage, saying, ‘Guys, I’m seeing a good movie here.'”
It wasn’t just a good movie. Titanic was the type of artistic and popular success that occurs maybe once every generation. It won 11 Academy Awards and became the highest-grossing film of all time. It made Kate Winslet a star and Leonardo DiCaprio an icon. If Cameron himself didn’t become King of the World, as he boldly proclaimed at the Oscars, he certainly was anointed King of Hollywood, a title that was only reinforced when he defied the odds again years later with box office topper Avatar.
Fifteen years after Cameron’s Titanic sailed, the epic is available today on Blu-ray for the first time. The director checked in from anniversary celebrations in Ireland to recall the near disaster behind his disaster film.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about your state of mind during post-production.
JAMES CAMERON: We wrapped in early March and the next few months were rough because we were getting heavily shelled by the press that we were the biggest idiots in the history of Hollywood. Titanic was going to be the next Waterworld. The film studios had me utterly convinced that there was no conceivable way that the film would be profitable, so the only thing I had left to cling to was that we would make a quality movie.
When you put together your first raw cut, did you know what you had at that point?
Our very first screening was about 35 or 40 minutes longer, and we didn’t like it. We got to the end of it and we all looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, man. This thing is just lying there.’ It’s soggy. It’s too long. Too many stories. And I made some draconian decisions and chopped out a subplot that ultimately transformed the film.
As you mentioned, the press was pretty brutal. Did you always believe the huge budget attracted the unwanted attention, or did you feel like any of the criticism was personal?
I don’t think it was really personal. I think we just set ourselves up with something that looked from afar like a loser. The thing that irked me the most about it was that they hadn’t seen a foot of the damned movie. They really didn’t know what they were talking about. But I think it was all necessary for how it turned out, because with them betting against us so hard, it just made us… better. It forced us to be better, to make the best possible movie.
Was there a turning point for you?
In summer we had a screening [in Minnesota] that went exceptionally well. We had, like, the highest numbers on the cards that the studio had ever seen. The love story was working. People were having this huge cathartic emotional reaction. That was the first inkling that this film really worked. We worked forward from that point with a strong sense of confidence. At least we had a good movie. I might never work again, but at least I was going out with a bang.
But the pressure must have only gone up when the release date was pushed to December.
It was horrific pressure. It was seven-day weeks, 16-hour days. Finally, I just called time out. I called Peter Chernin at 20th Century Fox and said, ‘Look, we’re just going to shoot ourselves in the foot here. Let’s just do a little aikido move here. Let’s just sidestep the negative momentum and let the press fall on their face, and let’s push out six months in to the holiday season.’ We’re a three-hour movie, so we’ve got to have legs. And you’re not going to have legs in the summer. So I proposed an idea that was actually pretty radical at that time. Peter, to his credit, didn’t say no — most studio guys say no to anything that’s new. I guess they figured, ‘Well, let’s double down. Let’s protect our investment.’ We slowed down, we took our time. We got the music right, we got the editing right. And as we approached the December release, we started to get these amazing reviews. So we started to think, ‘At least we’ll have a critical hit.’ No one believed — even after the film was released — that it would be a financial hit. It wasn’t until the second or third weekend that we realized something truly phenomenal was happening. But no one was more surprised than myself when my prediction came true, when we had a field day in January and February.
But Titanic just barely won its opening weekend.
That’s the thing that everyone forgets. It’s not like the film was an overnight hit. There was a slow build to it. It just didn’t go down. It just defied gravity.
Was there a moment, though, that you could finally exhale. If not vindication to your critics, then just a quiet moment where you realized, “I did it.”
Once the phenomenon kicked into gear, and we realized that something truly extraordinary was happening. The highest single-grossing day was the 60th day of its release, which was Valentines Day – which is insane. That never happens. But the day we learned we were going to break even — maybe it was early in January — was probably the day I popped some champagne. Because that seemed like an unattainable goal.
In the history of Hollywood I-told-you-so’s, Titanic might be the biggest example of vindication ever. Did you ever —
Look, my philosophy in life always, in everything, is to take the high road. So the one thing I did not do is thumb my nose at the naysayers after the fact. Just because I think you have to be gracious in victory as well as defeat. I tried to be gracious in victory. Secretly on the inside I was thinking, ‘Yeah, f–k all y’all.’ [Laughter]
So Titanic becomes the biggest movie of all time and then you top that with Avatar. So I have to ask: When it comes to filmmaking, when was the last time you heard the word, ‘No’?”
Oh, all the time.
Yeah. With movies like Titanic and Avatar, when you’re that far off the reservation, people are going to be skeptical.