SINK or SWIM 'Titanic' director James Cameron loves the risks and rewards of a big-budget picture.

December 22, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

He's been compared to root canal and Mr. Hyde, but James Cameron is the picture of amiability as he meets a luncheon companion at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington.

As he eagerly shows a visitor a book about shipwrecks given to him earlier that day by Robert Ballard, who discovered the Titanic wreck in 1985, the 43-year-old director seems more like a big kid than the enfant terrible he's been made out to be. Only the occasional hint of gray flecking his neatly trimmed blond hair and beard indicate that he's recently dodged a very big bullet.

On second thought, make that "bullets." For months, the incoming fire on Cameron's "Titanic" has been loud and unceasing, as the press pounced on every piece of bad luck that bedeviled the $200 million production (in case you haven't heard, "Titanic" is the most expensive movie ever made).

Not only was Cameron behind schedule and over-budget during the film's eight-month shoot in Nova Scotia, Mexico, Britain and Los Angeles, but this summer word began to spread that the cast was being treated badly. Cameron yells at people, sources said. Extras were being forced to stay in frigid water for 18 hours at a stretch. It was whispered that safety was being severely compromised; bones had been broken and even a crew member's off-hours car accident was laid at Cameron's door.

In the midst of it all, the two studios that were financing "Titanic," 20th Century Fox and Paramount, began sniping over when to release the movie (Cameron, who wanted Dec. 19 all along, ultimately got his way; "Titanic" opened on Friday.)

Then it got personal. "You can be the epitome of reason and civility when you're not making a movie," wrote one trade magazine editor, "then transmogrify yourself into the Director from Hell when principal photography gets under way."

"Cutting the movie was like being in a tornado shelter," Cameron recalls of the editing process on "Titanic," which he also wrote, directed and produced. "There's all this stuff raging outside, and you're basically in an isolated environment. The only time I came out to fight was when the L.A. Times wrote a really nasty piece and criticized our safety. And it was a very, very safe set like all my sets are."

Defending his record

Cameron wrote a 1,000-word article for the Times defending his work practices and safety record. "I think we successfully laid that one to rest with the facts," he says.

(Let it also be known that Cameron himself, who is an experienced diver and did most of the underwater photography on his 1989 film "The Abyss," filmed the most dangerous sequence in "Titanic," wherein the bridge is flooded by water crashing through its windows; he was outfitted in a wet suit and a crash helmet.)

And the personal attacks? "I don't take anything that's against me personally terribly to heart," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, dissing my film, that can hurt."

But few people seem to be dissing "Titanic." The film, which had its world premiere in Tokyo in November, is being heralded for bringing epic-scale grandeur back to the big screen, and critics are especially complimentary toward Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, who play two young people who find love aboard the doomed ship. Who knew that with $200 million, 500 visual effects, a crew of 800, a cast of 150 (plus 200 extras), Cameron was creating a love story?

"Yeah, I know," he says, laughing. "And it was impossible to communicate that with everything that everybody was saying, because all they were thinking was big, big, big. But ultimately the movie is tiny, tiny, tiny. It's the size of the human heart."

Human heart? Maybe. Tiny? Most definitely not.

At three hours and 15 minutes, Cameron's film unfolds at an unhurried pace, and filmgoers are shown the Titanic in all its grandeur and fine detail. From sweeping overhead shots that reduce the ship's 2,228 passengers to the size of insects, to the most intricate carving on a clock adorning the ship's three-story grand staircase, the liner's inconceivable size and attention to human comfort are given equal weight. The result is an epic historical romance on the scale of "Dr. Zhivago," a film that Cameron saw four times in a row when he was a teen-ager and invoked often during the filming.

Resurrecting the epic

"Somewhere along the way I said: 'I want to make a movie like that. I want to make a movie that inspires the feeling that I had when the flowers were in bloom in that movie,' " Cameron recalls. "I found that film tremendously emotional."

In fact, Cameron has resurrected a type of film -- the long, period epics involving casts of thousands and huge budgets -- that have fallen out of favor in Hollywood in recent years.

"The thing people have to remember is that when Kubrick made 'Spartacus,' when all of the other big epics that we consider classics were made -- and a lot of other epics were made that are not classics -- somebody had to say, 'We're puttin' on a big show.'

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