It has been over 20 years since director James Cameron created his feature-length masterpiece, Titanic. The movie, based on the tragic sinking of the R.M.S Titanic in 1912, captured the hearts of critics and audiences alike. It won 11 Oscars, including awards for Best Picture and Best Director. The film also helped jet set careers for stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, whose characters fall in love aboard the ship before its tragic demise.
But telling this story and conveying the heartbreaking disaster was no easy feat. Many know Cameron to be a perfectionist on set. This is what makes it so interesting to learn what life was like for the cast and crew in order to bring his vision to fruition. Here are some of the most fascinating facts behind the making of Titanic.
Timed to Perfection
Director James Cameron strived to make his movie as real as possible and he wanted to connect to the true story as much as he could. With this in mind, he made sure that the entire movie, besides the opening credits and present-day scenes, added up to a total of two hours and forty minutes.
This was the exact time it took for the real Titanic to sink in 1912. In addition, the collision with the iceberg both in real life and in the movie lasted exactly 37 seconds.
Kate was Meant to be Rose
Kate Winslet was very adamant that the role of Rose was meant to be hers. Before landing the role, the actress would send James Cameron daily notes assuring him that she was the only woman for the job.
She wrote to the director that he should not bother seeing anyone else. It seemed this tactic worked in her favor. Her persistence won over Cameron and he decided to hire Winslet for the role.
Cameron’s Shipwreck Fascination
Before James Cameron began filming the movie, the director went on numerous diving expeditions to see the remains of the Titanic for himself. He was fascinated by the shipwreck and describes his deep-sea dives as an emotional experience.
His time underwater, seeing the ship is what inspired him to make such a monumental movie. In total, James made 12 dives and ended up spending more time with the Titanic than the actual passengers did before the tragedy.
A Real Love Story
Although the story of Jack and Rose was fiction, the movie does acknowledge a real relationship onboard the Titanic. You might remember the heartbreaking scene that pans through the sinking ship, showing the various passengers as they realize their fate.
The scene includes an elderly couple holding each other on the bed while water floods their room. This was based off real-life couple Ida and Isidor Straus. They were the owners of Macy’s department store in New York, but both died on the Titanic. Ida was offered a seat on a lifeboat but turned it down saying, “as we have lived together, so we shall die together.”
An Awkward Moment for Leo
In the seductive scene where Rose asks Jack to draw her “like one of his French girls,” DiCaprio’s scripted line was not exactly what he ended up saying. Leo’s line was supposed to be “lie on that couch.”
Apparently, the actor was a bit nervous for this scene because he instead said: “over on the bed…the couch.” James Cameron liked how real it sounded so much, he decided to keep it in the movie.
Recreating a Frozen Ocean
When filming the scene in the Atlantic Ocean, after the Titanic sank, the crew had to get creative. In order to recreate this chaotic moment, they had to fill a 350,000-gallon tank with water. The water was only 3 feet deep.
In order to give the actors the look of frozen corpses, makeup artists applied powder on their faces that then crystallized when exposed to water. In addition, they also applied wax to their hair and clothes.
Alright Alright Alright
Leonardo DiCaprio was not the studio’s first choice to play Jack. The role was initially meant to go to Matthew McConaughey. Director, James Cameron, however, insisted on DiCaprio.
Both Leo and Kate were eventually offered and accepted their leading roles before the script was even written. All they received was a 165-page outline that Cameron wrote. Sounds like they both have amazing instincts. These roles are what kick-started their careers into high gear.
Giving the Extras a Story
Many of the less significant roles, as well as the extras in the movie, were based on actual survivors. Cameron felt it important that even the extras had their own narrative.
One example is the scene where a man lifts his two young girls onto a lifeboat and reassures them by saying “it’s only for a little while.” This is based on a real testimony from one of the girls who survived the sinking.
Eye Games in the Engine Room
In order to make the engine room appear bigger in the movie, the casting directors had to recruit shorter stuntmen. The extras were only five feet tall so that the surrounding props would appear bigger than they were.
The engines in the actual Titanic were each 63 feet long and weighed 720 tons. It was important to mimic this as closely as possible in order for audiences to understand just how massive this ship really was.
Icy Cold Waters
In order to get the most authentic depiction of the Atlantic’s cold waters, the tanks were filled with freezing cold saltwater. To prevent any health hazards, the cast and crew wore wet suits while filming and there were even hot tubs on set for the staff and actors to warm up.
Kate Winslet was one of the few people to enter the water without a wet suit. The loud gasp she lets out when first getting into the water in the movie was a genuine reaction. The actress came down with pneumonia after filming these scenes.
One of the movie’s most iconic lines was not even in the original script. When Jack and his friend Fabrizio board the ship, Jack stands at the bow of the ship, raises his arms up in the excitement and yells out “I’m king of the world!”
This line was actually improvised by DiCaprio. It ended up earning Premiere Magazines number 4 spot of “The 100 Greatest Movie Lines.” It seems Leo was right in his exclamation.
Make Room for Jack!
Many people debate the fact that Jack could have fit on the wooden panel that saved Rose’s life after the Titanic sank. This argument aside, there is a lot more to this piece of debris than audiences realize. The wooden piece is actually based on a genuine artifact that survived the sinking.
You can find this artifact on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. In reality, the panel was much smaller than the one we see in the movie, so it was probably accurate to say that in reality, Jack would not have fit.
Dogs on the Titanic
Ever wondered what happened to the animals aboard the Titanic? Many of the passengers brought their pet dogs along with them on the voyage. When the ship began to sink, all the dogs were released from their kennels and some were even seen swimming in the ocean once the Titanic went under.
This sad detail was understandably left out of the movie although James Cameron did initially film scenes showing the poor dogs swimming in the Atlantic. Only three dogs were reported to survive the accident, one of which was a tiny Pomeranian. This is probably why the movie decided to give the elderly Rose a pet Pomeranian.
My Heart Will Go On
James Cameron’s original vision for the movie did not include any songs at all. He didn’t even want to include a song in the closing credits of the film. Despite this, composer, James Horner reached out to lyricist Will Jennings and singer Celine Dion and asked them to write one for the movie.
They then presented the song, “My Heart Will Go On” to Cameron who loved it and agreed to include it in the closing credits. The song was so successful and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1998.
A Female Jack Dawson
In the movie, Jack Dawson is a third-class passenger who sneaks onto the first-class decks. On the real Titanic, they made sure to separate the classes very strictly. That being said, there was a third-class passenger with a similar narrative on the real ship.
Hilda Maria Hellstrom, who was a third-class passenger, really did sneak up to the upper-class area and never got caught. Luckily, she was able to get on a lifeboat when the ship sank and survived to tell her story.
A Beautiful Sunset
One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when Jack takes Rose to the bow of the ship and holds her as she stands on the edge. This is when she says her famous line, “I’m flying, Jack!”
What makes the scene even more romantic is the gorgeous sunset in the background. This sunset was actually real and not CGI as you would expect. James Cameron timed the scene perfectly to capture the best view for the young couple.
Too Many Redheads
Child star, Lindsey Lohan auditioned for the role of Cora Cartmell. Back then she was only eight years old and still an unknown actress. She had a great audition and almost got the part but James Cameron changed his mind at the last minute.
He thought that her red hair would confuse viewers, thinking they might assume her character was related to Rose and her mother, Ruth. Alexandrea Owens got the part instead and Lindsey, as we now know, got her big break elsewhere.
Breaking the Ice
Knowing that she would have a nude scene with her co-star, actress Kate Winslet wanted to get the awkwardness out of the way as soon as possible. In an effort to do so, upon meeting Leonardo for the first time Winslet decided to lift up her top and flash him.
The nude scene was actually filmed on one of the first days of production, so we imagine Kate wanted to make it as playful and low stress as possible for both of them.
No Time for Drawing Lessons
Leonardo DiCaprio might have mastered the art of acting, but he is no sketch artist. In fact, he was so unskilled in that department, that they had to put someone else’s hands drawing Rose in one of the movies most sensual scenes.
The hands you see on screen actually belong to James Cameron himself. Being that Cameron is left handed, they also had to mirror image the shot so that it would better resemble Leo’s right hand. All the sketches in Jack Dawson’s sketchbook were also drawn by the director.
When Nature Calls
Filming the scenes in the water took a while for the cast and crew to perfect. Cameron wanted to get these scenes down perfectly and was laying down the law on set. He was so strict that he did not even let the cast and crew take bathroom breaks when filming certain scenes.
He was under so much pressure to stay on schedule while filming the lifeboat scenes he actually threatened to fine any actor who took a break. The cast was instead told to do their business in the pool.
An Offer He Had to Refuse
The role of Captain Smith was originally meant to go to Robert De Niro. The Godfather star was more than ready to take on the role but health issues got in the way soon before they started filming.
The role went to Bernard Hill, who later went on to star in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As great as Hill’s performance was, we can’t help but wonder how De Niro would have played the Captain.
A Breath of Cold Air
There is only one scene in the whole movie where the condensation clouds from the character’s breath were not digitally added. This was important to include so audiences could understand just how cold the night the Titanic sank really was.
The only scene where you can actually see the actors’ breath is when Victor Garber’s character, Thomas Andrews scolds his second officer for sending boats out without filling them to capacity.
The portrayal of the fictional character, Rose, won the movie not one, but two Academy Award nominations. Kate Winslet, who played the young version of Rose received a nomination for Best Actress and Gloria Stuart, who played the present-day Rose was nominated as Best Supporting Actress.
This is the first time a single character received two different nominations for an Academy Award. The next time this happened was in 2001 with the movie Iris. Oddly enough, this movie also starred Kate Winslet. Gloria, at 87 years old was also the oldest person to be nominated for an Oscar.
Breaking the Budget
Making this movie went so far over budget that Cameron only accepted a six-figure writing fee so that the rest of his earnings could go towards the film. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made with a final budget of $200 million. This was only surpassed in 2010 with Avatar, which was also a James Cameron film.
Titanic was such a success that it was worth every penny spent. It was the first to cross the billion-dollar mark and after its 3D version release on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, it became the first movie to earn more than $2 billion.
A Terrifying Experience
As you might imagine, making the sinking of the ship look realistic required a huge supply of water on set. For Eric Braeden, who played John Jacob Astor, his final scene required three times the amount that was originally planned. They had to use approximately 120 tons of water to emulate Astor’s death.
Due to that fact, there was no way for Braeden to rehearse this scene prior to filming. Braeden explained that mentally preparing for it was terrifying. John Jacob Astor was a real passenger on the RMS Titanic and was the richest passenger aboard the ship, if not the world.
A Sea Sick Cast
On the final night of the shooting, the cast was served clam chowder for dinner. Apparently, the meal had caused 80 people to take ill and more than 50 were sent to the hospital.
Upon hearing about this, James Cameron puked out his food and was luckily unaffected. It turns out that someone had spiked the meal. Some cast members, including Bill Paxton, reported feeling fatigued for weeks following.
Keeping Your Friends Close
James Cameron had his friend, Lewis Abernathy in mind when he wrote the role of Lewis Bodine, the bearded technician depicted in the present-day scenes of the movie.
When Cameron could not find anyone that he felt would do the part justice, he enlisted Abernathy to take on the role. When Lewis was asked to play himself he told James, “if you want to mess up your movie by casting me, buddy, alright.”
Sailing in Style
The rooms that Rose and her family stayed in through the movie, B52, B54, B56 were based on real rooms on the Titanic. They were said to have been booked by powerful investment banker, J.P. Morgan, however he canceled his ticket prior to the ship’s departure.
Some say that upon his cancellation, English businessman and managing director of the Titanic’s manufacturer, White Star Line booked the rooms in his place. This fact was never proven.
Zero Room for Error
One of the most epic scenes in the movie was the destruction of the grand staircase. Set designers arranged the scene to break apart in the best way possible for the script to work as planned.
Building the room was a huge expense, so destroying it needed to go flawlessly. There was no way they could rebuild it again so the pressure was on for the film crew to get it right. They only had one chance and they nailed it.
Investing in Their Extras
There were over 150 actors playing the passengers and crew of the ship. James Cameron made sure to sit down with each one of them in order to give them their own names and backstories.
In addition, Cameron also provided all the extras with a lesson on customs and mannerisms of 1912. The class was taught by the movie’s choreographer, Lynne Hockney.
We already mentioned that making the movie was an expensive endeavor. So much so that the film actually ended up costing more than the ship itself.
After adjusting for inflation to 1997 dollars, the real RMS Titanic cost around $150 million to construct. That is about three-quarters of what it cost to make the film.
The Real J. Dawson
Although the story of Jack and Rose was completely made up, it turns out that there really was a J. Dawson who died on the Titanic. Cameron had no idea about the real Dawson when writing the script.
J.Dawson is now buried in Nova Scotia and for years following the movie, fans have flocked his gravesite. Some even leave flowers and love notes, thinking they are writing to the handsome character depicted by DiCaprio.
As we know, James Cameron was committed to making his movie as historically accurate as possible. Wardrobe was no exception. It took the costume department nearly a year to create the clothing for the entire cast.
Some of the garments used were original pieces from the actual time period. Despite the expensive, vintage outfits, Cameron did not hesitate to risk damaging them and asked the cast members to enter the icy cold water in full costume.
The young DiCaprio had reportedly brought his pet lizard on the set of the movie. This turned out to be a mistake because the poor thing was set loose, run over and badly injured.
Being the animal lover that he is, Leo was devastated when he found out what happened to his pet. Luckily, with the right care, the star managed to nurse his lizard back to health.
Winslet Took a Few Hits
Being part of the movie was a physically demanding job, especially for stars DiCaprio and Winslet. Kate spoke about getting banged up while filming. She even admitted that the bruises seen in the movie were real and recreated by makeup artists for future scenes
Winslet also reportedly chipped a bone in her elbow when shooting. She also spoke about almost drowning during a scene inside the sinking ship. Her coat snagged on the gate and pulled her under the water.
Cameron is a notoriously stubborn man who is oftentimes hard to work with. One particular cast member did manage to get on his good side though. Gloria Stuart, who played the present-day Rose was one of the few on set who managed to charm Cameron.
The director even had a nickname for Gloria, “Herr Director.” This was a nod to her German levels of precision and work ethic. No wonder these two got along so well.
Alive in 1912
Not only was Gloria the only person to warm up to Cameron, she was also the oldest cast member on set. Gloria was actually the only person involved in the movie that was actually alive during the sinking in 1912.
Stuart was 86 when she played present-day Rose in the film. Even then, the actress had to wear makeup to appear older as her character was meant to be 100 years old. Ironically, Stuart passed away in 2010 at the age of 100.
DeGrasse Tyson’s Complaints
Famed astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson is known for being a world-class expert of the stars. When Titanic was released, he wrote a formal complaint to Cameron to inform him that the configuration of the stars in the movie’s final scene was incorrect.
Tyson also spoke of the issue to Cameron in person. He adhered to the scientist’s complaints and changed the configuration for the re-released film in 2017.
Smoke & Mirrors
In addition to hiring short extras to make the engine room appear larger, the production team also employed a number of tricks on the sets boiler room scene.
In order to make it look more realistic, the set was constructed with mirrors to double the number of boilers. The set only had three boilers but due to the mirrors, the film appears to include six.
Matthew McConaughey was not the only familiar face to audition for the part of Jack Dawson. Other famed actors who read for the role were Johnny Depp and comedian Paul Rudd.
Rudd had a specific interest in the role due to his father’s captivation by Titanic’s history. Apparently, during his audition, he listed off many facts about the event. We guess this was not enough to win over casting directors.
Reconstructing the Ship
James Cameron enlisted, British shipping company White Star Line to manufacture a replica of the original Titanic. This was the same company that produced the actual ship in 1912.
The replica for the movie, built off the coast of Mexico, was almost as large as the actual ship. White Star Line also recreated the original furniture and decor of the Titanic for the film.
Hidden Easter Egg
In the final, heart-wrenching scene of the movie, Rose is seen coming down the grand staircase, in what appears to be a touching dream or memory of present-day Rose.
In the scene, she is greeted by Jack as he extends out his hand to take hers. What you might not have noticed is that the clock behind Jack reads 2:20 AM. This is the exact time the Titanic sank into the ocean.
Hot Dogs & Hot Tubs
Actor Billy Zane, who played Rose’s fiance, Cal spoke about life on set. He talked about the hot tubs that were prepared for the cast to warm up between takes. He said people would casually sit in these tubs adorned in their 1912 tuxedos.
Zane also spoke about the hot dogs that were served on set. He said, “then someone walks by and you just reach into a basket and you’re noshing on a hot dog in a tux in a hot tub, just deadpan, without any reaction, like this is completely normal.” We wish we had footage of that scenario.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Famed actress, Kathy Bates’ character, Molly Brown was based on an actual passenger aboard the Titanic. Margaret Brown, known today as “the unsinkable Molly Brown” was an American socialite and a first-class passenger on the ship.
Today she is well known for helping load lifeboats and encouraging the women in her boat (number 6) to continue rowing until help was sighted. She also worked to help other survivors of the wreck.
Rejected by Enya
James Cameron had hoped that Irish singer-songwriter, Enya would compose the score for the movie. Unfortunately, Enya declined and Cameron hired James Horner instead. Horner had also composed the music for Cameron’s 1986 movie Aliens.
Cameron was not Horner’s biggest fans following their time together working on Aliens, which is probably why he was not Cameron’s first choice. Nevertheless, the two were able to put their differences aside and work together again. As they say, the show must go on!
Most directors like to use code names when making high-profile movies. They use these names in the early production stages to reduce the risk of spoilers and to avoid attracting any press attention.
When making Titanic, the cast and crew were asked to refer to the movie as Planet Ice. Since Cameron is well known for his out of this world sci-fi movies, the name seems more than fitting as an alias.
No Cuts for Cameron
Many executives were concerned with the length of Titanic and did not feel confident that people would want to sit through the entire three hours. Nervous that this would keep the movie from succeeding, they asked Cameron to cut the movie shorter.
Cameron not only refused to cut his movie short, he also threatened to quit if they were to press the issue any further. Despite doubts that surrounded him, the director knew that Titanic would be a sure-fire success. We imagine no one doubted him ever again.
A Rowdy Bunch
The hardworking young cast members had to come up with some creative ways to blow off steam between filming. Especially when working under the strict eye of James Cameron, we imagine they needed some downtime to relieve their stress.
Actor Danny Nucci, who played Jack Dawson’s Italian friend and third-class passenger, Fabrizio, revealed that the cast often threw some pretty wild parties on set. Whenever they had a chance, the cast and crew would gather together to let loose, no matter what time of day they were given a break.
Root Beer Party
Although the cast liked to drink together offset, naturally, while filming it was a different story. In the scenes where you see Jack, Rose and other cast members dancing and chugging beers, in reality, they are all drinking root beer.
We guess it makes sense. The last thing that Cameron needed was a bunch of young and drunk actors running around his set. We imagine if they were allowed to drink, it would make for some very different scenes.
Unsinkable Country Star
Country singer, songwriter, and actress, Reba McEntire almost played the part of the unsinkable Molly Brown. She was offered and accepted the role but had to later turn it down due to scheduling conflicts.
It’s hard to imagine this quirky country queen starring in such a dramatic movie. It certainly would have changed things up as she is mostly known for starring in comedies, including her own sitcom Reba, which aired for 6 seasons in the early 2000s.
We already know that Cameron and the set crew went to great lengths to manipulate scenes, making them look larger and more impressive on screen. These tricks were done on the small scale as well, in particular with Rose’s outfits.
Throughout the movie, Kate Winslet’s wardrobe was fit true to her size, size four. The coat she wore while the ship was sinking, however, was a size eight. This was done purposefully so that Rose would look more vulnerable in these dramatic scenes.
Do you recall the scene where Jack prevents a distressed Rose from purposefully jumping off the ship near the beginning of the movie? If you remember, Jack shares a story with Rose in order to convince her to step back onto the deck.
He tells Rose about a time when he fell into freezing cold water while ice fishing and how it feels like “being stabbed with a thousand knives all over your body.” This graphic recollection is actually a quote from a Titanic survivor describing their experience in the icy cold Atlantic Ocean.
The People Could Not Get Enough
Titanic was one of the first movies to be released on VHS while still playing in theaters. The demand to watch the film on the big screen was not wearing thin, and theaters across the globe did not want to let the fans down.
As a result, cinemas continued screening the movie longer than usual. So much so that Paramount had to send replacement reels to theaters who had played the movie so many times that they had worn out their original copies.
Hard Work Pays Off
We already made it clear that James Cameron worked night and day to make this masterpiece as monumental as it still stands today. Not only did Cameron forfeit a large portion of his salary while making the movie, he also took on an unheard-of amount of tasks behind the scenes.
Ever heard the phrase, if you want something done right, do it yourself? It seems like Cameron was a strong believer in this notion. Titanic was the first Best Picture Academy Award winner to be produced, directed, written and edited by the same person, our man James.