''Titanic'' director thinks big, and the Academy Awards are bound to notice

During the decade of research he devoted to that moment on April 14, 1912, when the Titanic met its fate — and especially during the two years in which he struggled to bring his magisterial, three-hour-and-17-minute, $200 million Titanic to the screen — James Cameron had plenty of time to contemplate what his own fate might’ve been if he’d booked passage on the voyage.

”Because I do have a sense of duty and responsibility,” insists the 43-year-old writer-director-producer-editor, who endured a year in which the media painted him as a reckless, megalomaniacal spendthrift, ”I probably would have been one of the dumb saps who stood around on the ship. But because I am also pretty analytical, I might have had the smarts to count the number of people in the lifeboats, realize there was room for more, dive off the ship, and swim to one to save myself without displacing anybody else.”

Certainly, Cameron spent most of 1997 narrowly escaping disaster. Titanic ran over schedule and over budget; it took two studios, Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount, to handle costs; it missed the July 2 release date that was supposed to guarantee blockbuster status. ”Jim is so single-minded he refused to compromise and be knocked off course,” testifies Fox film chairman Bill Mechanic, who had to police the escalating budget. ”You don’t set out to make one of the most expensive pictures ever made. It was a weight on his shoulders he’d have preferred not to have.”

The director, whose $90 million Terminator 2 and $120 million-plus True Lies weren’t exactly home movies, may have been daunted by Titanic‘s scale, but the shocking lesson the film may teach is that sometimes, bigger is actually better. Whether or not the film ever sails into the black, it’s already winning praise as a lush, richly detailed love story — one that might surprise fans of Cameron’s whiz-bang contemporary adventures and his muscular futuristic thrillers — and is being hailed as the front-runner for next March’s Academy Awards.

Cameron says he connected with the spectacle and drama of the Titanic tragedy from the first, experiencing ”one of those ‘click’ moments. As a filmmaker who’d dealt with all these themes — the testing of a love, enormity of emotion, self-sacrifice in the face of crisis — I realized Titanic was a perfect backdrop for that type of storytelling.” But he could never have predicted the degree to which the film would upend his professional life, his financial life (he gave up his director’s fee and profit participation as costs grew), and his personal life (after marrying Terminator 2‘s Linda Hamilton, he deferred their honeymoon to return to editing).

Still catching his breath, Cameron has yet to decide on his next project. But if he is crowned come Oscar time, can he ever return to his old genre ways? ”With Titanic, I give myself permission to do straight dramatic subjects,” he says. ”But I could go from the highest-end, big-budget science-fiction film to a very small drama and feel comfortable with either one.” Cameron thinking small? Now, that would be a departure.