James Cameron’s Titanic is one of the biggest and most successful films to come from Hollywood. In 25 interesting facts below, we’ve got the behind the scenes story.
Titanic was released in 1997 and became one of the most successful movies ever made. Enormous awards and box office success led to James Cameron’s epic love story becoming the biggest film of its generation and making superstars of its two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The budget and production were enormous and have a making of story to match. We’re telling that story now by way of 25 enormous facts about Titanic.
1. It was based on a real-life tragedy
As you more than likely know already, the RMS Titanic was a real British passenger liner, operated by the White Star Line. On 15 April 1912, the ship struck an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City, United States and sunk to the bottom of the North Atlantic. Of the 2224 passengers and crew aboard, 1517 went down with the ship. In addition, is one of the most famous and documented tragic events in British history and has retained its grip on public imagination for over 100 years.
Understandably, James Cameron saw a lot of potential in the story of the Titanic for a big-budget feature film.
‘The Sinking of the Titanic’ by Graham Coton
2. The film’s budget was enormous
The RMS Titanic was 882 feet and 46,000 tons of wrought iron. Who better then, to direct a film about it than James ‘Iron Jim’ Cameron?
No stranger to big budget movies at this point in his career, Cameron had already directed the most expensive film ever made twice – Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, and then True Lies in 1994. And with a huge $200m budget, Titanic became the third Cameron movie to be the most expensive ever made.
James Cameron on the Titanic set
3. Cameron went down to the real Titanic
It’s known that James Cameron has a passion for deep sea diving, and he was keen to avoid using stock footage of the real Titanic wreck. So those shots of the wreckage that we see in the present day portions of the film aren’t digital, that’s the Titanic footage shot specifically for the film. Apparently, the first time he went down to the wreck, Cameron became so overwhelmed that he broke down in tears.
Footage of the Titanic, shot for the movie
4. The film brought some technical innovations
When Cameron and his team shot the real Titanic footage, he wanted to film outside the submarine. Cameron’s brother, Mike, worked as a camera operator on the film and helped out. He developed new deep ocean remote operated camera vehicles (BOTS) that could withstand the pressure being applied to it when so far underwater. (The Titanic wreck is 2.5 miles down on the seabed). And those camera vehicles developed by Mike Cameron have been used on many productions since.
Mike Cameron played a key role in the film
5. Recreating the ship was a huge undertaking
In shooting the ship in the 1912 sequences (most of the film), a combination of production and design methods were used.
- The first time we see the ship in the film it is docked at Southampton. That Titanic is a combination of scale models, matte paintings, and forced perspective.
- A 30ft scale model of the ship was built, as well as a life size set of the ship. Only the starboard side was finished on the life size version, so when shooting on the port side the crew would set the shot up backwards and the film would then be flipped in editing.
- On the full size set, the stern of the ship could be detached and revolved 90 degrees.
- Cameron’s own effects studio (called Digital Domain) did a lot of CGI work. One of the most famous shots in the film is where we move down the entire ship from bow to stern. That’s Digital Domain’s handiwork.
The Titanic in all its glory as created by Digital Domain
6. Parts of the real ship were recreated in painstaking detail
The ship’s interior sets were highly detailed. The dining room is exactly how it was on the real ship. We see the gymnasium in one scene. And the grand staircase area is especially memorable – again, an exact recreation of the real grand staircase found on the Titanic.
The Titanic sets alongside their real life counterparts
7. The crew may have been poisoned during production
In the middle of filming, there was an incident where 80 crew members were taken ill. It was later discovered that somebody had mixed PCP (a powerful anaesthetic) into their lunch. At first it was thought to be shellfish poisoning but then Cameron noticed the DP Russell Carpenter leading a conga line. Then the assistant director Kathleen Bobak was talking to Cameron over a walkie-talkie while looking straight at him, and she tried to stab him with a pen. Cameron realised something was amiss and had an investigation take place. The culprit was never caught but Cameron would later speculate it was an ex-crew member who had had an argument with the caterer and poisoned the food to try and get the caterer fired.
8. Cameron makes several cameos in the film
James Cameron always tends to show up in his own films. Usually, it is a voice cameo only, but in Titanic he does make a physical appearance too.
There are actually 12 Cameron cameos in total. Most of them are voice-only appearances but we do see him twice:
- Near the start of the film, we see a passenger getting his beard checked for lice when Rose boards the ship. That’s a bearded James Cameron.
- And in the famous scene where Jack draws an illustration of Rose, we see close ups of Jack’s hands doing the sketch. Those are Cameron’s hands.
James Cameron’s beard is checked for lice before he boards
9. Cameron is a great illustrator
As well as being a very talented filmmaker, James Cameron is also an excellent illustrator. He did a lot of the design work for some of his earlier films like The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), and some of his sketches show up in Titanic, too.
That’s because Cameron drew all the work in Jack’s portfolio himself. Including the one-legged prostitute Jack mentions – who we get a quick glimpse of.
The one-legged prostitute as drawn by James Cameron
10. The film went way over budget
Cameron had to deal with some pretty major issues during production. He originally told the studio (20th Century Fox) he could make the film for $80m. It quickly became apparent that was way too conservative an estimate. The set constructions became so costly and time consuming that the budget went up to $135m. Fox had to turn to Paramount Pictures to put in another $65m. And that’s why there are two production companies in the credits.
11. Cameron’s attention to detail on the film was astonishing
James Cameron has always had a reputation as being borderline obsessive in his movie preparation, and Titanic proved to be no exception:
- There’s a famous picture taken on the real Titanic of a young boy playing with a spinning top. Cameron recreates that scene in the film. And the boy’s father in that scene is played by a Titanic historian called Don Lynch.
- Cameron wrote backstories not just for the main characters, but the extras as well. And he spoke to about 150 extras individually and explained their backstory to them.
- The film is 3hrs 14 minutes in length. The scenes set in 1912 are a total of 2 hours 40 minutes, which is how long it took the real Titanic to sink after it struck the iceberg.
- Cameron sought out and hired the original carpet makers on the Titanic – a company called BMK Stoddard – and they replicated their work for the movie.
The picture from the real Titanic that Cameron recreated in the movie
12. ‘Iron Jim’ was in full flow on the set
The pressures from the production problems naturally took its toll and Cameron went into Iron Jim overdrive:
- When they were shooting the lifeboat scenes, Cameron threatened to fire anybody who asked for a bathroom break once they were in the water. This led to some of the extras doing going to the toilet in the water.
- Cameron wouldn’t let Kate Winslet wear a wetsuit when she was in the water. As a result, she caught hypothermia.
- Shooting the scene where Jack and Rose are locked behind the gate, Winslet’s coat got caught and she was underwater for more than a minute. She was distressed when she came up and Cameron apparently just said, “Okay, can you do one more take?” She later said: “You’d have to pay me an awful lot of money to work with James Cameron again.” (Though she then later said she would work with him).
- Because of the budget overruns, Fox told Cameron he had to lose an hour from the film. Cameron refused, and apparently said, “You want to cut my movie? You’re going to have to fire me! You want to fire me? You’re going to have to kill me!”
James Cameron on the Titanic set
13. Many of the characters in the movie are based on real people
Cameron littered the film with characters who were passengers aboard the real Titanic. Some of the most prominent are:
- Most of the ship’s crew we see are the real crew. This includes Captain Edward Smith, played by Bernard Hill. The second officer Charles Lightoller, played by Johnny Phillips. And the First Officer, William Murdoch, played by Ewan Stewart. In the film, Murdoch shoots a passenger before turning the gun on himself. There were reports an officer did commit suicide on the ship, but its not known who it was. Because Cameron used William Murdoch to fill this plot point, Murdoch’s family demanded an apology when the film came out.
- Kathy Bates plays Margaret Brown. She became known as ‘Unsinkable Molly Brown’ when she made her lifeboat to go back and rescue passengers. There was a musical made about the real Molly Brown in the 1950s, starring Debbie Reynolds.
- J. Bruce Ismay, the MD of White Star Line (Jonathan Hyde), sneaks aboard a lifeboat. The real Ismay was vilified in the press at the time for saving himself while women and children were still aboard.
- Thomas Andrews was the MD of Harland and Wolff – the Belfast shipbuilding company who built the Titanic. In the film he’s played by Victor Garber and, as we see in the movie, handed out life jackets before going down with the ship.
- One of the most incredible stories is about a couple called Ida and Isidor Straus – the owners of New York department store Macy’s. Isidor was offered a place on a lifeboat but said no because there were still children aboard. Because he said no, Ida said no. Cameron pays homage to the Straus’ by giving us a shot of a well-dressed older couple hugging and lying on a bed as the ship sinks.
Real Titanic passengers – clockwise from top left: Captain Edward Smith, Molly Brown, Ida and Isidor Straus, J. Bruce Ismay
14. Cameron took inspiration from another classic film
Titanic wasn’t the first successful Hollywood film to be based on the tragic events of 15th April 1912. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, A Night to Remember was a disaster movie set aboard the Titanic. Based on the eponymous 1955 book by Walter Lord, it was released in 1958. Cameron wasn’t only inspired by A Night To Remember, he took some scenes directly from it:
- In Cameron’s film, in the scene when Thomas Andrews tells Captain Smith the ship sinking, he says it is, “A mathematical certainty”. That line is taken from A Night To Remember.
- A famous tale from the real Titanic is the ship’s band continuing to play as they went under. In both films, the band prepare to leave, only to come back together and carry on playing. The music they play is called Nearer My God To Thee, which is what also played on the ship.
- In both films, we see a shot of Ismay in a lifeboat as the Titanic sinks behind him.
- And, in Cameron’s film, as Jack and Rose are running round the sinking ship, they come across a defeated Thomas Andrews looking at a painting. This image of Andrews is taken from A Night To Remember
The, “mathematical certainty,” scene from A Night To Remember
15. Kate Winslet shocked Leonardo DiCaprio when they first met
The two main character’s in the film are 17-year-old aristocrat Rose DeWitt Bukater and artistic third-class passenger Jack Dawson. Rose and Jack are played, famously, by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Their on-screen chemistry is a huge part of the success of the movie, and they got on very well in real life, too.
This started in their very first meeting. Winslet knew she had to be naked in front of DiCaprio so, to break the ice when they first met she flashed him.
Kate Winslet as Rose in the film
16. Winslet made some script contributions
It’s not a surprise that an actress as accomplished as Kate Winslet has received acclaim for her performance as Rose. What’s interesting though, is that she also had a hand in creating some of Rose’s character moments. It was Winslet who came up with Rose’s line when she and Jack are on the bow of the ship as it sinks: “This is where we first met”. And Winslet also came up with the idea of Rose spitting in Cal’s face towards the end of the film as she wrestles to get away from him.
17. The film did something at the Oscars never done before
We see Rose at two separate stages of her life in the film. 17-year-old Rose is played by Kate Winslet. We also see Rose in the present day (1995) as a 100-year-old lady who visits the wreck of the ship. The older Rose is played by Gloria Stuart – an American actress whose career spanned over 70 years.
Through the performances of Winslet and Stuart, Titanic was the first film to be nominated for two acting Oscars for people playing the same character. Winslet was nominated for Best Actress, and Gloria Stuart was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Neither won, but it was an unprecedented achievement.
Gloria Stuart and Kate Winslet met before filming
18. Winslet was very keen to get the part
A young, relatively inexperienced actress at the time, the chance to work on a huge James Cameron production was a definite step forward in Kate Winslet’s career. As such, she was eager to land the part of Rose. Having auditioned, Winslet sent Cameron daily notes from England, went to Los Angeles to meet him, and frequently called him asking why he’d not cast her yet. When Cameron finally gave her the role, Winslet sent him a rose with a message: “From Your Rose.”
James Cameron and Kate Winslet on the set
19. A lot of famous names could have played Jack
Kate Winslet’s co-star in the film is Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Jack Dawson – a teenaged third-class passenger with an artistic gift. He meets a tragic end when he freezes to death in the icy North Atlantic waters.
DiCaprio is synonymous with the role nowadays but there were many famous names considered by Cameron before he cast DiCaprio. Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Ethan Hawke were considered. As was former Home Alone (1990) starlet Macaulay Culkin.
DiCaprio had just finished working on Romeo and Juliet in 1996 and was worried about becoming typecast as a romantic lead. As such, he wasn’t sure about playing Jack in Titanic. And it was actually Kate Winslet who played a big part in securing him for the film. Cornered him in a hotel room, Winslet proved to be persuasive.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m going to persuade him to do this because I’m not doing it without him, and that’s all there is to it,’” Winslet would later say. “I will have him.’ Because he is f***ing brilliant. He’s a f***ing genius, and that was absolutely why.”
DiCaprio and Winslet on the Titanic set
20. A lot of stunt work was involved
Once the Titanic starts to sink, the film essentially switches genres from romantic love story to disaster action movie. As such, Cameron required a huge stunt team for the film.
150 extras and 100 stunt performers made up the Titanic passengers as the ship begins to sink. We see them playing people falling from the ship as it turns. Many off them bounce against railings, tables and the ship’s propellors on the way down.
And to film the shots where we see passengers sliding down the Titanic deck as it tilts, the stunt workers had wheels attached to their costumes and moved down a huge revolving set.
The huge Titanic revolving set
21. Another real person shows up as the ship sinks
When the stern of the Titanic is vertical, Jack and Rose are sitting atop it, waiting for the ship to descend into the water. Rose looks to her right and sees a man next to them drinking from a hip flask. This character is based on a real person. Charles Joughin was Chief Baker aboard the Titanic, and this scene recreates how he went into the water, sitting on top of the stern. He survived by treading water for 2 hours until rescue boats arrived. And amazingly, it was actually the second time he had survived a shipwreck.
The real Charles Joughin – and how we see him in the film
22. Cameron destroyed the Grand Staircase set
We mentioned the recreated set of the Titanic Grant Staircase used in the film. As the ship sinks we see the area become destroyed by water gushing in through all windows.
Filming this scene, 120 tons of water were released onto the set. Behind the scenes footage of Cameron and the crew filming this sequence is as spectacular as what we see in the film.
German actor Eric Braeden played a man called John Jacob Astor in that scene. Astor was one of the richest men in the world in 1912 who died on the Titanic, and Eric Braeden said filming this scene was the most terrifying moment of his life.
Filming the scene where the Grand Staircase becomes submerged
23. One of the film’s best lines was said on the real ship
We see another real life character in the sequence too – a millionaire playboy called Benjamin Guggenheim played by Michael Ensign. He says, “We’re dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.” It was reported that this is what the real Guggenheim said at the time on the ship.
The real Benjamin Guggenheim – and how we see him in the film
24. To say the movie was a success would be an understatement
On its release, Titanic became the highest-grossing movie ever made. Surpassing the total amassed by previous record holder Jurassic Park (1993), Cameron’s film took an astonishing $1.8 billion. Further re-releases since have pushed that total up to $2.2 billion. It remained the all-time box office king until 2009 when Cameron’s next movie, Avatar, toppled Titanic.
25. Titanic dominated at the Oscars too
Cameron’s film also had huge success at the Academy Awards. It won 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron. Only two other films have ever won 11 Oscars: Biblical epic Ben-Hur (1954) and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003).
James Cameron accepts his Best Director Oscar
And you’ve reached the end – 25 huge facts about Titanic – one of the most successful movies ever made. Please share on your social media channels, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for lots of great video content.
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