“Music to drown by. Now I know I’m in First Class.”
“Memo to me… Do story with modern bookends of present-day scene of wreck, using submersible, intercut with memories of survivor and recreated scenes of the night of the sinking. A crucible of human values under stress. A certainty of slowly impending doom. Many dramatic moments of separation, heroism and cowardice, civililty versus animal aggression.”
That was James Cameron’s notion ten years before he won any backing. For what he often called his $150m chick flick, Back then, his notes concluded: “Needs a mystery or driving plot element woven through...” He found it and his pitch to 20th Century Fox was simple. “Romeo and Juiliet on the Titanic!”
What better than a love story?
Cameron, after all, had loved this way
through five wives in 22 years
- including his actresses and producers.
It was then easy to create his lovers.A brash, Cameronesque Irishman Jack Dawson, possessing all the natural energy and purity of spirit to transform Rose DeWitt Bukater's “Edwardian geisha” into a vibrant modern miss. With feelings... and desires.
Finding them was harder.“Who,” he asked, “was 19 or 20, and a star and who filled my requirements? The answer was... nobody!”
Jack Dawson . Tom Cruise was keen. Tom Cruise was always keen. He was also too old. “I would have to change the whole thing.” And Jim Cameron was not interested in making a Tom Cruise movie.
Although he had thought of him for his stymied Spider-Man film, Leonardo DiCaprio bothered Cameron - all the more so when Leo said, flat out, he didn’t want to do it. He was, in fact, hesitant about such an epic. So, Cameron examined Billy Crudup (from Stephen Frears’ Western, Hi-Lo Country). “When they asked to see me, I said no. That type of proposition is never repeated.” Or, not until he made Famous, 2000. Next ideas: Johnny Depp, vapid Chris O’Donnell, Brad Pitt, - and the overly hyped Matthew McConaughey. Plus Christian Bale... until Cameron felt two British leads was one too many.
“That was one of the many, many jobs I didn’t get, ” laughed Jeremy Sisto in a 2015 Huffington Post interview. Sisto and not DiCaprio shared Kate Winslet’s test - and those of three other hopefuls. (Sisto was too much of a gentleman to name them). “So while I was a little embarrassed to reveal one of my many failures in life, at the same time I couldn't deprive Titanic lovers of seeing that alternate universe. It was a pretty great experience. To be involved in something that had that kind of scope - anything James Cameron does has this huge scope to it. He's trying to push the limits on things. So I was just insanely inspired by it and a little heartbroken when the role didn't come my way.” His day would come in the Six Feet Under and Law & Order series during 2001-2010.
Stephen Dorff craved a career to match those of Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, with an Oscar along the way. “That would have been impossible if I'd got Titanic. Look at Leo. His career can only go downhill from here. He'll always be... that guy on the boat.” (Not quite! DiCaprio headlined three Martin Scorsese films and won an Oscar nod for Blood Diamond, 2006). .
Some Fox suits voted for their Home Alone star, Macaulay Culkin. Others swiftly agreed, eager to see the now overly expensive kid… drown!
Ethan Hawke had a chance but knew he wouldn’t have handled it “as brilliantly” as his pal, DiCaprio. Being with him after the film came out, he said, “was like hanging out with a Beatle.” Besides, Hawke was never into “the Hollywood thing,” being a brand like Cruise, Pitt, Clooney. “They’re at the top of my profession, but there’s a huge responsibility and burden that comes along with being a legitimate, full-scale movie star.” And he addd, “you never imagine the hate mail.”
All roads led to Leo. After she testing with him, Kate Winslet told Cameron: “He's great. Even if you don't pick me, pick him.”
Rose DeWitt Bukater . At first, Cameron wasn’t too keen on these young Oscar nominees suggested by casting director Mali Finn. OK, Kate Winslet had made period movies but Cameron was seeking r “a conduit for our present-day emotions.”
For Rose (named after his grandmother), Jim looked into friendly Jennifer Aniston, British Gabrielle Anwar (opposite Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman), Claire Danes (Juliet to DiCaprio’s Romeo in 1996) and the blonde with the greatest buzz around her, Gwyneth Paltrow. But she never took it seriously. “Just not my thing: all that money! I don't think it’s a good film and I don't know anyone who does - at least not among the people I respect.”
Next came The Reliables: Christina Applegate, Drew Barymore, Jwennifer Connelly, Cameron Diaz, Jodie Foster, Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, Madonna, Sharon Stone, Charlize Theron, Uma Thurman and Reese Witherspoon.
Kate never quit the arena… She sent Cameron daily notes from England, went to LA and kept phoning him. “You don’t understand! I am Rose! I don't know why you're even seeing anyone else!"
Ultimately, Cameron felt audiences would go the distance with Leo and Kate.
“I always trust my first impression.
It sounds corny, but
that's what the audience does.”
He sweet-talked Leo (“he’s like Jimmy Stewart, pure of heart”) and suddenly saw Kate as “the most talented actor for her age.” Their test blew him away. No one else saw it. Leo refused for it to be taped. DVDs were already an influence...
And the film aided both Winslet and Paltrow. It earned Kate enough money to move home - and she sold her North London house to… Gwyneth and her Coldplay singer husband Chris Martin.
Older Rose . Retired since 1960, Marguerite Chapman was too ill, at 79, to be the old Rose. Ann Rutherford, from Gone With The Wind and the Andy Hardy films, passed at 79. Frances Dee, Joel McCrea,’s widow, came out of retirement at 87 to test and at 90, the King Kong scream-queen, Fay Wray, rejected Cameron’s request to play the old iceberg survivor - “To have done this film would have been a tortuous experience altogether.”. And so it was Gloria, at 87, who hated being made up to look 101 and became the oldest person to win an Oscar nod. She said one of the reasons of her longevity was... masturbation!
Caledon Hockley . Both Cameron regular Michael Biehn and Canada’s X-Files heavy Nicholas Lea tested for Cameron’s Mr. Nasty: Rose’s fiance, the arrogant snob, “Cal” Hockley. Next? Pierce Brosnan, Rupert Everett, Pulp Fiction’s Peter Greene, Jason Isaacs, Rob Lowe, Adrian Paul and Rufus Sewell (fed up of villains). "Not my thing," Hugh Grant told Cameron. Politely, he never added that he thought the script was "a little too close to Judith Krantz." Cameron caught Billy Zane as The Phantom and that was that.
Molly Brown . When Barbra Streisand passed (well, she wasn’t directing!), Cameron’s second choice for The Unsinkable Molly Brown was the flame-haired Queen of Country Music: Reba McIntire. She had proved herself an actor by in various tele-films and an award-winning Broadway debut. But she was on tour. As usual. Kathy Bates replaced her in the lifeboat.
Captain Edward James Smith . Knock, knock! And there at Dane Clark’s door was Cameron, wondering if the 84-year-old felt like stepping out of retirement to play the ship’s unfortunate skipper. Clark was flattered, but just not in the best of health. Nor was Robert De Niro: suffering g a gastrointestinal infection. Michael Caine was not free and Cameron next called on Bernard Hill, veteran UK character star of everything… Boys From The Blackstuff, Drowning By Numbers even the role in in John Lennon: A Journey in the Life. And much later, Theoden in The Lord of the Rings saga.
Spicer Lovejoy . Tom Wilkinson preferred The Full Monty to playing the ex-Pinkerton detective turned valet for the odious Hiockley. (Tom was right, Monty made him a Hollywood fixture). David Warner took over… in his second Titanic movie; he was real-life survivor Laurence Beesley in the 1987 tele-flick, SOS Titanic.
J Bruce Ismay . Committed to a stage play,Anthony Higgins passed the head man of the Titanic’s owners, the White Star Line, to Aussie actor Jonathan Hyde.
Thomas Andrews . Cameron loved the Irish actor Lorcan Cranitch as Detective Sergeant Jimmy Beck in Cracker (TV, 1993-1995) but he passed; Victor Garber stepped in.
Cameron’s previous venture, True Lies, cost $100m. Titanic doubled that - costing far more than the ocean liner, itself. And with his eighth movie, Cameron was ”king of the world” with the #1 film in history with receipts of $1.8billion… until beaten by Cameron’s next outing, Avatar, in 2009. Titanic also won the rarity of eleven Oscars (like Ben-Hur and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) including Best Film and Director. Plus one for Kate, zero for Leo.
Final Word has to go to James Cameron the final word – from February 2010. “Secretly, what I wanted to do was I wanted to dive to the real wreck of Titanic. And that's why I made the movie.”