Man overboard! After a production as lavish and pricey as the doomed ship itself, James Cameron finally unveils his epic film — but will it be unsinkable?

On a warm August day in Malibu, Calif., James Cameron sits inside a dark editing room staring at a video monitor. As the director scrambles to meet a release date that has already been pushed from July to December, his epic Titanic still runs long, and he’s shaving footage in order to bring it down to what will be its final running time — three hours and 14 minutes. Call it artistic revenge. For Titanic — the most technologically ambitious and most expensive film in Hollywood history — has no doubt shaved some time off the director’s life as well.

Cameron points to one monitor, which shows his stars, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, wading waist-deep in seawater inside the ship’s once-opulent first-class dining room. ”Take a good look,” he says, ”because you’re the last to see it.” And with a single deft keystroke to his editing machine, the minute-long segment disappears.

”That’s a million-dollar cut,” he notes, ”because that’s how much it cost to film it.” A million dollars? Consider that a mere drop in a very deep bucket. On Dec. 19, Titanic will finally steam into North American theaters at a price said to exceed $200 million, not including distribution and marketing. Half Merchant Ivory costume drama, half amusement-park thrill ride, it hopes to become a cross-gender, cross-genre, cross-demographic, cross-your-fingers megahit. It better be: Just to break even, Titanic will need to earn $400 million worldwide — and it’ll have to do it on Cameron’s name alone. Despite the prestige of a cast that includes three Oscar nominees, the film doesn’t have a single international box office star.

Like Titanic the ship, which has inspired dozens of books, a Broadway musical, and several other films since it met its fate on April 15, 1912, Titanic the movie is already the stuff of legends, rumors, hearsay, and mysteries — including reports of injuries on the set, the director’s tantrums, the still-unsolved poisoning of cast and crew in Nova Scotia, and the battles between Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox, the two studios that financed the film. And even now, as bad press is giving way to good buzz, Cameron’s reputation hangs in the balance, as does the bottom line of Fox, which financed the bulk of the production.

Yet as he works, the 43-year-old Canadian-born director — who also wrote the script and who, for the first time, is serving as his own editor — seems as cool and implacable as an iceberg. Perhaps it’s because he’s been here and done this twice before (with the budget busters-turned-blockbusters Terminator 2 and True Lies). Cameron jokingly refers to Titanic as ”a $190 million chick flick,” but he’s hardly oblivious to what’s at stake. Taped to his editing machine is a suicide device — a razor blade with the simple instruction ”Use only if film sucks.”

The arduous journey of Titanic began a decade ago. After seeing Robert Ballard’s 1987 National Geographic documentary about the discovery of the wreck, Cameron jotted down these ideas: ”Do story with bookends of present-day [wreckage] scene … intercut with memory of a survivor … needs a mystery or driving plot element.”

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