"Titanic" Is a Tough Shoot; What Else Is New?

Monday, May 5, 1997

As the writer, director and co-producer of "Titanic," I would like to respond directly to some of the issues raised in Claudia Puig's recent article ("Epic-Size Troubles on 'Titanic,' " Calendar, April 19th).
With every film I make I try to challenge myself as an artist and a technician, to push myself beyond what I have done before. I enlist a team of people around me who likewise welcome the opportunity to test themselves, their skill, their craft and their personal endurance.
Just as it does not serve a mountain climber, in the retelling of the tale, to suggest that the mountain conquered was a gentle grade, it does not serve those who have been tested by fire on one of my films to describe the experience as routine. It is therefore easy for a journalist with what appears to be a negative agenda to assemble quotes from my cast and crew, taken out of context, and paint a picture of a cruel and heartless production that cares only about commerce and not people. Nothing could be further from the case.
For me, "Titanic" has been a work of pure passion unlike anything else I have ever done. Before the main production, I mounted an expedition and dove to the wreck of the Titanic, 2 1/2 miles under the Atlantic to shoot it for this film. I sat on the deck of the great ship and saw through the tiny viewport of the sub the places where all the dramas had played out, the heart-wrenching goodbyes, the heroism, the terror of the final plunge. I vowed to myself to make a film that honored this great tragedy by somehow conveying to a modern audience the emotion of the event, and of the people who survived it, and the far greater number who perished. I knew it would take everything I had as a filmmaker, and maybe some tricks I hadn't learned yet, to make the film that was in my heart.

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To reduce the impact of budget overages on 20th Century Fox, I have waived my producing and directing fees, as well as any economic participation in the revenues from this film. I was not asked to do this, but decided unilaterally to do it, as a demonstration that I take responsibility for my films when the chips are down, just as I take credit when they do well. I did it, and continue to do it, through a grueling post-production because I love this film.
My manner on the set is intense, and I never give up until I know the scene is the best it can be. I ask people to rise to my level of commitment every single day. Most of my team are people who have worked with me before, some of them for more than 10 years. My director of photography has shot more than 350 days with me. My camera operator, who I consider my right hand, has been with me since "The Abyss." There were literally scores of veterans of my previous films, both in cast and crew, working on "Titanic." Nobody forces these people to work on my films. They are not slaves or indentured servants. They love the intensity and the challenge.
And because they are the best, they get paid as the best. And when the hours get long, they are paid overtime, as is fair. They love this, too. When did this country cease to celebrate the work ethic, and the principle of striving for excellence? It seems to have become a dirty concept these days to work too hard, to care too much, to give your all.
On the issue of safety, my safety record on my films has been far above the industry norm. My safety methodology is rigorous and, as a result, time-consuming. I refuse to do a stunt scene until it has been rehearsed, checked, rechecked and rehearsed again--until every conceivable variable has been attended to. After 12 years of directing mammoth action sequences, I had one set injury requiring emergency treatment before "Titanic" (for a burn on the arm during "True Lies").
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Then, in one scene involving 90 stunt players, three of our stunt team players got broken bones in two days as a result of other stunt people falling on them. This happened although the stunts were rigged according to industry standards and had been choreographed and rehearsed on video, on the set, for literally weeks in advance.
Some might consider these injuries the "normal" hazards of stunt work. I do not. I elected to stop shooting the scene this way and instead incurred additional expense using computer animation to get the same result.
This instance has been blown out of all proportion with stories of dozens of injuries and wanton disregard for safety. In fact, we went on to four subsequent months of shooting, including the bulk of our heavy stunts and action, with no further mishaps above the Band-Aid level.
In addition to our strict precautions, we also provided advanced emergency medical response teams on site. Our full-time medical staff included doctors and trained paramedics, and we had a "Lifeflight" helicopter parked at the studio on heavy stunt days. To my knowledge, nobody else does this.
The Screen Actors Guild investigated us, as a result of the rumors, and not only gave us a clean bill of health for our safety practices but concluded that "the producers have taken extraordinary measures to ensure the health and safety of the cast and crew."
"Titanic" was also targeted regarding long working hours. As your article states correctly, we shot a majority of the film outside at night. It doesn't take an astrophysicist to figure out that this inherently limits the workday to about 12 hours of darkness.
Long hours are a way of life in the film business. "Titanic's" hours were the same long hard hours you would have on any film, anywhere in the world. Film people in general pride themselves on their stamina. They know they are an elite group, privileged to work in an industry that millions worldwide can only long to do.
Am I driven? Yes. Absolutely.
Out of control? Never.
Unsafe. Not on my watch.
Copyright 1997 Los Angeles Times

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