In the mid-1990s, people thought filmmaker James Cameron had lost his mind. He was literally spending hundreds of millions of dollars making a film about the sinking of the Titanic. And then he had the crazy idea of telling a love story — between first class passenger Rose Dewitt Bukater and third classer Jack Dawson — against the backdrop of that setting.
Even crazier? His choice of leading couple. Leonardo DiCaprio — whose credits had included at that time This Boy’s Life (1993), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), The Basketball Diaries (1995), Romeo + Juliet (1996), and Marvin’s Room (1996) — was cast as Jack. Kate Winslet of Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Hamlet (1996) was cast as Rose. For a film of this size and budget? Well, obviously Cameron knew what he was talking about and Titanic was one of the biggest hits of all time, turning Kate and Leo into household names and moviedom’s favorite couple. Now, 20 years later, we’re taking a look back at Titanic through a number of behind the scenes facts!
Before we do so, however, here’s a quick timeline to the actual HMS Titanic. 1912: The ship finishes construction in Belfast, Northern Ireland after a two-year period. April 10, 1912: The Titanic leaves Southampton, England, stopping at Cherbourg, France. There, the “unsinkable” Molly Brown and John Jacob Astor boarded. Afterwards, the ship stopped at Queenstown on the south coast of Ireland. With 2,223 people aboard, the trip to NYC began. April 14, 1912; 11:40 p.m.: Less than five days after the voyage began, the ship struck an iceberg. April 15, 1912; 2:30 a.m.: The Titanic, torn in half, lay at the bottom of the North Atlantic.
“Titanic didn’t just ‘sink,'” explained the film’s executive producer Rae Sanchini, commenting on the ship’s final hours. “She literally ripped in two at the surface, with over 250 feet of stern lifting out of the water and, at one point, stood nearly vertical to the ocean’s surface. Her dramatic death throes lived up to her pretentious name. The maiden voyage of the ‘ship of dreams’ ended in a nightmare truly beyond comprehension.”
James Cameron observed, “Titanic was the first big wake-up call of the twentieth century. Technology had been delivering a steady diet of miracles for the better part of two decades — the automobile, sound recording, radio communication, the airplane, motion pictures. Everything was just exploding with possibilities; it was all going to be great and wonderful in the never-ending upward spiral of progress. And then, boom — 1500 people die in what had been advertised as the best, safest, most luxurious ship ever built. Our so-called mastery over nature was completely refuted and forever destroyed.”
James Cameron’s intent with Titanic
In the production notes for Titanic, James commented, “My goal in making this film was to show not only the dramatic death of this infamous ship but her brief and glorious life as well. To capture the beauty, exuberance, optimism, and hope of Titanic, her passengers and crew and, in the process of baring the dark side of humanity underlying this tragedy, celebrate the limitless potential of the human spirit. For Titanic is not just a cautionary tale — a myth, a parable, a metaphor for the ills of mankind. It is also a story of faith, courage, sacrifice and, above all else, love.”
The power of the Jack and Rose story against the tragedy of Titanic
“The tragedy of Titanic has assumed an almost mythic quality in our collective imagination,” James has said. “But the passage of time has robbed it of its human face and vitality. I hope that Rose and Jack’s relationship will be a kind of emotional lightning rod, if you will, allowing viewers to invest their minds and their hearts to make history come alive again. Their connection on an emotional level is what transforms Rose from this sort of Edwardian first-class geisha who is dying on the inside into this spirited young woman on the cusp of a new life. Jack possesses this natural energy and purity of spirit which makes that transformation possible.”
For Kate, it was first and foremost a love story
“It was never about a sinking ship,” Kate said at the time. “It was never just another Titanic movie. You know, that was merely a part of it, and it happened to be the place where the story was set. That’s what it was for me, always.”
The great experiment
Talking to ABC News, Leo once explained just why he and Kate decided to do the film. “Titanic was very much an experiment for Kate Winslet and I,” he said. “We’d done all of these independent movies. I loved her as an actress and she said, ‘Let’s do this together, we can do this.’” It was an experiment that paid off given the impact that the film’s ultimate success had on his career. “I used [my fame] as a blessing, to make R-rated, different kinds of movies, to throw the dice a little bit on things I wanted to act in. People would want to finance those movies now. I’d never had that, before Titanic,” Leo added.
Kate Winslet needed to be cast in Titanic
Speaking in depth with Rolling Stone, Kate detailed how she was cast in the film. “I closed the script, wept floods of tears and said, ‘Right, I’ve absolutely got to be a part of this. No two ways about it,'” she recalled. She phoned her agent, and the agent made a couple of calls. “‘Look, just get me Jim Cameron’s phone number,'” Kate continued. She dialed the director’s car phone. “He was on the freeway, and he said, ‘I’m going somewhere.’ And I think he pulled over, and I said, ‘I just have to do this, and you are really mad if you don’t cast me.'”
It turns out that when Leo was at the Cannes Film Festival at the same time as Kate — and it was already known that he was undecided about doing the film — the actress apparently slipped away from a press junket and went to Leo’s hotel. Quoted Rolling Stone, “I was thinking, ‘Im going to persuade him to do this, because I’m not doing it without him, and that’s all there is to it… I will have him.’ Because he is… brilliant. He’s a… genius, and that was absolutely why.”
The love scene
For Leo, there was a lot that went through his mind when he and Kate shot their love scene. “We laughed about it a lot,” he told Access Hollywood. “Was this Rose’s first time? Was it Jack’s first time? Who sort of knew? Being that vulnerable all around as a character was a lot more difficult for me to do. I’ve sort of always played characters who have had some sort of demon or some internal struggle. Playing such a guy that lives so sort of open-hearted and free-spirited was difficult, harder than I thought it would be.”
A romance on many levels
In a video promo for the film in 1997, James noted that he viewed many aspects of Titanic — beyond Jack and Rose — as a romance. “Romance is in the darker, almost sort of more operatic or tragic use of the term, but the heart-wrench of literally hundreds and hundreds of women separated from their husbands, having to get into lifeboats, seeing them on the deck for the last time as they’re being lowered away into the darkness. I think that’s one of the most enduring images of the real Titanic story. And so I thought if I make that as a backdrop to a love story, albeit a fictional love story, how much more of a turbocharged experience of passion and heartbreak that might be. That was my initial gut feeling that drew me to the arena of Titanic of doing a love story on the Titanic.”
Easily forgotten so many years later is that during production, Titanic was constantly attacked by media reports of problems on the set, a production out of control, a militaristic James Cameron, a constantly rising budget and so on. Kate refused to let it get to her. “I just shut out all those kind of politics and never know anything about the budget, because it’s not what it’s about at all to me,” she said while promoting the film originally. “I think it’s really sad that when we had finished shooting, and yes we did run over, that people kind of honed in on that side of things. It’s easy to be negative about something like that. There’s world hunger going on. I sit there and go, ‘God, there must be something a bit sort of criminal about this.’ But at the end of the day, the money was spent for a reason and it’s up there on the screen and I think for a very good reason.”
Reel vs. real
This may be a little shocking, but the budget for Titanic was $200 million (long before that became common). The cost of constructing the actual ship was $7.5 million. Even when adjusted for inflation, that price tag would go up to $150 million — still $50 million less than the movie!
Rose killed Jack — and Kate agrees!
One thing that bothered many of the film’s fans was the fact — despite how romantic a sacrifice it was — that Rose let Jack slip beneath the ocean while she floated on a door. “I agree, I think he could’ve actually fitted on that bit of door!” Kate said during a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! For his part, James disagreed. As Fortune quoted him, “Look, it’s very, very simple. You read page 147 of the script and it says, ‘Jack gets off the board and gives his place to her so that she can survive.’ It’s that simple… The script says Jack dies, he has to die. Maybe we screwed up. The board should have been a tiny bit smaller. But the dude’s going down.”
The movie was an award winner
Talk about taking home the gold! Check out these wins for the film. Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Original Song (“My Heart Will Go On”), Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects. Blockbuster Entertainment Awards: Favorite Actor — Drama (Leo), Favorite Actress — Drama (Kate), Favorite Supporting Actor — Drama (Billy Zane), Favorite Supporting Actress — Drama (Kathy Bates), and Favorite Song From a Movie (“My Heart Will Go On”).
Golden Globe Awards: Best Motion Picture — Drama, Best Director, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song (“My Heart Will Go On”). Grammy Awards: Best Recording Package, Record of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Song of the Year, and Best Song Written for a Motion Picture or for Television. MTV Movie Awards: Best Movie, and Best Male Performance (Leo). Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards: Favorite Movie. People’s Choice Awards: Favorite Motion Picture, and Favorite Dramatic Motion Picture.
There’s that moment (actually the first one shot between Leo and Kate) where Jack draws a nude sketch of Rose, who is posing for him. Now Leo is a very talented guy, but being an artist is not one of his skills. It is, however, one of director James’s, so it’s his hand that we see in close-ups on the drawing pad, sketching away.
The power of the Rose-Jack relationship
In a 1998 promotional interview for the film, Kate detailed what drew her to the film (besides working with Leo). “[Rose’s] strength, her determination, her inner passion. Things that I just aways relate to, because I think it’s something that I have in me. I’m very kind of outdoors, wind in my hair. That was really it for me,” she said.
King of the world
An iconic moment is when Jack makes his way to the very front of the ship, Leo throws his arms out and proclaims that he’s king of the world. Apparently that was completely ad-libbed by the actor, but James loved it so much he kept it!
The other Rose and Jack
Although there wasn’t really a time when Kate and Leo weren’t going to play Rose and Jack, there were other names who either auditioned or campaigned for the project. Madonna actually did try out for the part, but reportedly seemed too old for the character. Christian Bale made no secret of the fact that he wanted to play Jack, but Cameron was against the idea of both leads actually being Brits pretending to be Americans. The studio also supposedly tried pushing both Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey for the Jack role, but the director wasn’t interested.
It felt like they were there
In talking to Entertainment Tonight in 1997, Leo reflected that he usually stayed away from big movies like Titanic because they seemed to lack “content.” This, however, felt like it could be an important movie, and once he was in the midst of production, things got a little surreal. “When you’re sitting there, running towards the back of the ship with 2,000 people screaming for their lives that looks exactly like the Titanic, while it’s going up in the air on hydraulics, you can’t help but feel like you’re really there,” he said. “Seeing the ship and just being on it on an everyday basis. Not all the time, but there were definite certain moments where I felt, like, ‘Wow, I’m really here.’”
There was a lot of panicking during production of the film, largely because of the mounting budget. It ended up costing $200 million and has, over the years, climbed to a global gross of $2.1 billion. It remained at the top of the charts until it was dethroned by James’s own Avatar in 2009, after which it settled into the number two position. The closest another film has come to beating it is Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The allure of Titanic
Back at the time of release, Leo expressed his opinion on why the the real Titanic has captured the imagination of people over the years. “It’s the mystery of this sort of ghost ship lurking at the bottom of the ocean that nobody knew the true story of. When you actually look at Titanic, it’s got a lot of themes for humanity. It has to do with our arrogance and thinking with the industrial revolution at that time that we could build the biggest and the best, and Mother Nature sort of slapped us in the face. And there was the whole third class/first class situation that went on where the first class was able to get sort of scot free, and the third class had to deal with survival on that ship. There’s a lot of unfortunate tragic things that are connected with the Titanic for all of us, you know? There’s a lot of huge messages for people,” he said.
Other films about Titanic
Just in case watching the ship go down once isn’t enough for you (and if it isn’t, wassup with that?), here’s a quick guide to some other films taking place on the doomed vessel. Saved From the Titanic (1912): Silent film somehow released 29 days after the ship sank, and starring one of the survivors. The only prints were destroyed in a fire. Titanic (1943): Nazi propaganda film where a German First Officer is the hero and the British are villains. Titanic (1953): American film about an estranged couple aboard the ship. A Night to Remember (1958): British docudrama in which the ship does NOT split in half while it’s sinking. The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964): A musical about the American socialite and philanthropist who survived the sinking (hence, you know, the title). Raise the Titanic (1980): A movie bomb based on a popular novel about raising the ship form the ocean’s bottom Titanic (1997): Kate, Leo, James Cameron. We’re pretty confident you’re familiar with that one. Titanic II (2010): The ghost of Jack… we’re messing with you. It’s set 100 years after the first Titanic sank. Now there’s a new one and history is about to repeat itself.
The fans still remember and love Kate and Leo
Appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Kate enthusiastically commented, “People are always so excited to see Leo and myself in the same space, which, at the end of the day… that’s so lovely isn’t it? It’s been 20 years and people still get such a kick out of it. It’s really quite endearing and we do love that. We were giggling about it last night.”