Twenty years ago this December, James Cameron’s Titanic sailed into theaters. It was made for a then-record breaking $210 million, and proceeded to break more records at the box office with a haul that has grossed over $2 billion. It was nominated for 14 Oscars and ended up collecting 11 overall, including for best picture and director for Cameron. Audiences went home with tears in their eyes and Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’sJack and Rose in their hearts.
Time to bring out the tissues again. Cameron has recently remastered his classic, and Titanic will return to theaters beginning December 1, this time in a laser-projected Dolby Vision format the filmmaker hopes will see wider industry adoption. Ahead of that re-release, on Sunday, the National Geographic Channel will air the documentary Titanic: 20 Years Later with James Cameron.
Cameron spoke with Vanity Fair recently about some of Titanic’s unanswered questions, what a sale of the 20th Century Fox movie studio would mean for him, and how his work on the Avatar and Terminator franchises is progressing.
Vanity Fair: Do you think any movie studio in 2017 would greenlight a movie like Titanic today?
James Cameron: They’re greenlighting movies twice that expensive.
But different ones.
It was a very peculiar set of circumstances that even got that film greenlit in the first place. It was an anomaly and of course I’m lucky and grateful that it happened. But I don’t think the industry has changed that much in 20 years when it comes to risk aversion. They were risk averse then, and they’re risk averse now. And all the trends everybody’s always talking about, “Oh, well it’s only franchises, it’s only comic books.” You know what? It was that stuff back then. It’s not like we’re getting any smarter.
Kate Winslet has a role in one of the Avatar sequels, which you’ve said partly take place underwater. Can you tell me about it?
"She does, and she’s very excited about it. She blazed through for a couple of days of rehearsals and saw the world that we had created, and how we do the work, and she’s very excited. She plays a character who’s part of the Sea People, the reef people. The one thing she did do is demand that she do all her own water work. I said, “All right, that’s fine, we’ll have to teach you how to free dive.” The other actors are up to three- and four-minute breath holds. We’ve already been doing underwater capture. We did a scene last week with six teenagers, well, actually five teenagers and one 7-year-old underwater holding their breath for a couple minutes and acting, actually doing a dialogue scene under water because they speak kind of a sign language.
One question that people ask me a lot about Titanic, and I’m assuming they ask you this a lot, is at the end, why doesn’t Rose make room for Jack on the door?
"And the answer is very simple because it says on page 147 [of the script] that Jack dies. Very simple. . . . Obviously it was an artistic choice, the thing was just big enough to hold her, and not big enough to hold him . . . I think it’s all kind of silly, really, that we’re having this discussion 20 years later. But it does show that the film was effective in making Jack so endearing to the audience that it hurts them to see him die. Had he lived, the ending of the film would have been meaningless. . . . The film is about death and separation; he had to die. So whether it was that, or whether a smoke stack fell on him, he was going down. It’s called art, things happen for artistic reasons, not for physics reasons."
Well, you’re usually such a stickler for physics . . .
"I am. I was in the water with the piece of wood putting people on it for about two days getting it exactly buoyant enough so that it would support one person with full free-board, meaning that she wasn’t immersed at all in the 28 degree water so that she could survive the three hours it took until the rescue ship got there. [Jack] didn’t know that she was gonna get picked up by a lifeboat an hour later; he was dead anyway. And we very, very finely tuned it to be exactly what you see in the movie because I believed at the time, and still do, that that’s what it would have taken for one person to survive."
Given the nudity and violence, how did Titanic end up with a PG-13 rating? Did you have to make a case to the M.P.A.A. for it?
"Maybe it’s the haze of time, but I don’t recall it being controversial. When we submitted it we did say that the nudity was artistic and not erotic. And I guess they bought that. And at the time, I think their standard for a small amount of frontal nudity above the waist was more relaxed than it is now. Which is a little bizarre, but there you have it."
What do you remember from the night Titanic won the Oscars?
"I remember almost getting in a fight with Harvey Weinstein and hitting him with my Oscar."