James Cameron talks about rereleasing the 1997 classic — and getting fans back on board

Some directors do interviews in their trailers. Some do them at their Malibu beach houses. Then there’s James Cameron, 57, who talked to EW from somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where he was attempting to become the first person in history to make a solo dive into the Mariana Trench to the deepest undersea point on earth. But as much as he’d love to talk about plumbing the ocean’s depths, Cameron has another nautical-related endeavor to promote: the 3-D rerelease of his 1997 juggernaut Titanic, the Leonardo DiCaprioKate Winslet epic that raked in $1.8 billion worldwide to become the highest-grossing film of all time until Cameron’s own Avatar surpassed it in 2010. ”The studio is freaked out that I’m out on this expedition instead of stumping for the movie I got them to spend all that money to convert,” he says. So it’s with pride — and to mollify Paramount — that he suggests: ”Let’s talk about Titanic.”

There’s plenty to say. The 3-D conversion cost $18 million and took 60 weeks of intensive labor by a team overseen by Cameron. But producer Jon Landau says that the rerelease, which coincides with the 100th anniversary of the real-life sinking of the Titanic, is about more than just adding a third dimension to the film: ”Some people have only seen Titanic on VHS or DVD or their iPhone. To give audiences the opportunity to see it in theaters is our driving force.”

Just days before making history with his deep-sea dive, Cameron dove into his own history to talk about bringing Titanic back to the big screen.

Titanic has not exactly been the hardest film to see in the past 15 years. So why put it out in theaters again — and what does the 3-D bring to the experience?
I think ironically the biggest enhancement is that it’s in the theater, that it’s not on video. There’s a fundamentally different relationship between the audience and the film when it’s in the theater. You make a deal with yourself that you’re going to sit for three hours and 15 minutes and watch it unbroken — not pause so you can go make a phone call or fix a sandwich — and the film acts on you very differently. It’s a much more powerful emotional experience. I think the 3-D makes it even more special, because even if you’ve seen Titanic in a theater before — and there’s a whole generation that hasn’t — you haven’t seen it in 3-D. The feedback we’ve gotten from everyone that’s seen the film in 3-D is that the enhancement is very real, that it’s profound.

Avatar set a high bar for 3-D movies, but since then there have been a lot of films converted to 3-D in postproduction that have been slammed for looking lousy, and you yourself have been very critical of 3-D conversions. So what gave you the confidence you could do better with Titanic?
It is possible to do a good conversion. If I didn’t think that were true, I wouldn’t have converted Titanic. I knew we could get very close to the reality factor of having shot it in 3-D, but it was going to be an uphill battle and it was going to take a lot of time and a lot of money. We could do that because we knew Titanic was worth it — it had already proven itself in the marketplace. 3-D conversion, to me, is just not viable for new movies. It’s viable for Jurassic Park or Jaws or some other much-beloved film, but I don’t think it has any place in production going forward. It’s a cheap work-around the studios have done to try to capitalize on the audience interest in 3-D. But they’re not earning the right to charge the extra ticket price by providing the quality.

What movies that were actually shot in 3-D have you liked lately?
Hugo is the one film that’s really done it right — not only was it absolutely flawless technically, but the 3-D enhanced it creatively so much. I’ve heard all these filmmakers crying to the moon about the problems they have shooting 3-D, and I’m like, ”Come on, you spineless pukes! Man up!” [Laughs] There’s Cameron’s message to the filmmaking community: Man up, you spineless pukes!

How have Leo and Kate reacted to the prospect of Titanic being rereleased all these years later?
It’s funny: Leo was shooting The Great Gatsby in Sydney when I was finishing this up, so I had an 18-minute reel brought in and he joined me one night and watched himself 15 years later. He was just cracking up the entire time. He was literally snorting and spit-taking the whole way through, saying, ”I’m such a punk! I’m such a kid!” I think he hadn’t seen the film in a few years, but he enjoyed it. He had emotionally distanced himself from the film after it came out — he wanted to not just be that guy from Titanic. And the impression I got is he felt safe coming back to Titanic now because he’s proven himself so many times. I haven’t sat [and watched it] with Kate, but from what I’ve read, she’s had the same reaction: She was kind of amused by how she looked then and maybe critical of her acting choices. I doubt that, though, because her performance is so good.

What about you? Looking at the movie again, were you tempted to go in and make any tweaks like George Lucas did when he rereleased the original Star Wars trilogy?
There is an impulse to want to revise it. But I think every film should represent the time when it was made — both the technology that was available and the state of mind of the filmmaker and the actors. I could have redone half the shots in the film and made them look better, but what’s the point? Everybody’s got to set their own ground rules for themselves.

When you consider the legacy of Titanic, how have you seen the public’s attitudes toward the movie shift over time?
It’s gone through a number of iterations. There was ridicule while it was being made, with the expectation that everyone was going to have great sport with this huge disaster. Then there was the realization that it was a quality film. Then there was the giddy high of it becoming the highest-grossing film in history and that whole phenomenon, which took me a while to understand. Then there was the inevitable backlash over the next few years, where men especially said, ”My girlfriend dragged me to that film. I hated it. It was cheesy.” When in fact they were bawling like babies, most of them. [Laughs] But the response we’re seeing now is a genuine openness to see the film again. In the blogosphere I’m seeing a whole lot less ”Oh, that thing is so last-century — why doesn’t it just crawl off and die?” and more ”I love that film. It was an important moment in my life.” I already feel vindicated we’ve done the right thing in bringing this back and the audience will be there for it. I can pretty well promise people a good experience in the cinema. Even if they think they know the film, I think they’re going to be in for a surprise.

Making History…and a Movie
Cameron has pursued his fascination with the ocean’s depths on screen in films like The Abyss, but on March 25 he took his obsession deeper than ever — literally. After years of planning, Cameron piloted a torpedo-shaped submersible craft nearly seven miles below the Pacific Ocean’s surface to the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep, the lowest point in all the world’s seas. The sub was equipped with advanced scientific research equipment and 3-D cameras, and Cameron plans to use the footage he shot as the basis for a National Geographic special and a big-screen documentary. With all that technology crammed into a 24-foot vessel, there wasn’t much room for the 6-foot-2 director to move. He tells EW, ”It’s definitely cozy.”

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