Titanic anniversary: 20 fascinating facts about the epic blockbuster that almost sank

From James Cameron's outbursts to a bad batch of Nova Scotia chowder, 20 facts about the record-smashing 1997 movie.

From James Cameron's outbursts to a bad batch of Nova Scotia chowder, 20 facts about the 1997 movie

Titanic stars Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet at the bow of the ship
Titanic, starring Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, turns 20 this week. ((Reuters))

It was an epic film about an epic disaster. The year was 1997, and at the time Titanic was first released in Japan on Nov. 1, it was the biggest-budget film of all time — and one that incorporated everything from cutting-edge deep-sea submersibles to a life-size model of the ill-fated luxury liner.

Made by Canadian director James Cameron, the film also catapulted Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to fame, and rekindled interest in the 1912 sinking, which cost more than 1,500 people their lives.

But how much do you know about the making of the film? To mark the 20th anniversary of the movie Cameron pitched as "Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic," we've gathered 20 fascinating facts.

1. Titanic was inspired by James Cameron's fascination with shipwrecks

From childhood, James Cameron had a fascination with shipwrecks. But while he was researching submersible systems for The Abyss, he met National Geographic explorer in residence Robert Ballard, leader of the crew that discovered the wreckage of the Titanic; it was then that the idea for a film began to solidify. At the time, he reportedly jotted these notes: "Do story with bookends of present-day [wreckage] scene … intercut with memory of a survivor … needs a mystery or driving plot element."

2. Cameron spent more time on the Titanic than the people on the Titanic did

In 1995, Cameron took two deep-sea submersibles to the floor of the Atlantic and came back with powerful footage of the real Titanic wreckage, which appeared in the present-day segments of the film.

In total, he made 12 dives — many of them between 15 and 17 hours — and in the process spent more time on the Titanic than the passengers did in 1912.

"It was sort of like going to Mecca first, and getting religion," said Cameron in an interview. "We went there with very specific objectives, and I took two things away from the experience. One, get it right. Do it exactly right. We've got the real ship on film — everything else has to live up to that level of reality from this point on. That imbued everybody in the art department with the same kind of crusade of correctness.

"But there was another level of reaction coming away from the real wreck, which was that it wasn't just a story, it wasn't just a drama. It was an event that happened to real people who really died," continued Cameron. "Working around the wreck for so much time, you get such a strong sense of the profound sadness and injustice of it, and the message of it. You think, 'There probably aren't going to be many filmmakers who go to the Titanic. There may never be another one — maybe a documentarian.' So it sort of becomes a great mantle of responsibility to convey the emotional message of it — to do that part of it right, too." 

3. The perfectionist director performed every major function on the film

Most major films have separate writers, directors, producers and editors — but Cameron performed all of those tasks, and even drew the portrait of Kate Winslet that appears in the now-famous sketch scene. In one year, he reportedly had just two days off: New Year's Day and the day he married his fourth wife, actress Linda Hamilton.

He wasn't reeling in huge paycheques, either: because the film went so far over in both time and budget, he only accepted a six-figure writing fee so he could keep financiers from souring on the project.

"The film cost proportionally much more than T2 [Terminator 2] and True Lies," he said in an interview. "Those films went up seven or eight percent from the initial budget. Titanic also had a large budget to begin with, but it went up a lot more. As the producer and director, I take responsibility for the studio that's writing the checks, so I made it less painful for them. I did that on two different occasions. They didn't force me to do it; they were glad that I did."

4. The film had many Canadian connections

Titanic is one of Hollywood's biggest films, but it also had plenty of Canadian connections. Director James Cameron is Canadian, and Celine Dion's theme song for the film, "My Heart Will go On," skyrocketed up the charts.

Many scenes were also shot in Nova Scotia and British Columbia. In fact, a significant portion of the film was shot in Halifax and off the East Coast — including aboard the Canadian icebreaker CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent.

Then, after the film was released, fans flocked to Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, where many of those killed in the real Titanic disaster were buried. In particular, many wanted to see the grave of J. Dawson — never mind that it was the grave of Joseph Dawson, a worker on the ship, and not the fictional Jack Dawson, Leonardo DiCaprio's character. The film producers say they didn't even know the grave existed, that it was pure coincidence. Still, that did not deter the throngs of weeping girls. 

"After the movie, I saw fathers with their daughters standing here crying. For two or three years that lasted. Instead of spring break, fathers would bring their daughters here to see J. Dawson," said Blair Beed, cemetery tour guide and Halifax historian, in a 2012 CBC interview.

"He received more notoriety decades after his death than he ever would have had in life," said Gerry Lunn, curator of Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which saw its attendance more than double in the year after the film opened.

It took months to build the full-scale model of the Titanic that was used in the film. (Facebook/Titanic)

5. Also in Canada, there was an unfortunate incident involving lobster chowder

While shooting in Dartmouth, N.S., 50 cast and crew members were sent to hospital after eating lobster chowder. At first, food poisoning was suspected, but police later confirmed a different culprit: the chowder had been laced with phencyclidine — better known as PCP or angel dust.

"The crew was all milling about. Some people were laughing, some people were crying, some people were throwing up," said actor Bill Paxton, who played a modern-day treasure hunter in the film. Thinking the problem was bad shellfish, he hopped in a van headed for Dartmouth General Hospital. "One minute I felt okay. The next minute I felt so goddamn anxious I wanted to breathe in a paper bag. Cameron was feeling the same way."

"I was just shocked at the way he looked," remembered another actor, who saw Cameron shortly after he ate the chowder. "One eye was completely red, like the Terminator eye. A pupil, no iris, beet red. The other eye looked like he'd been sniffing glue since he was four."

A disgruntled crew member was thought to be behind the stunt.

6. They had 1 chance to get the grand staircase flood scene right

The interiors of the ship were meticulously recreated for the film; so when it came time for the scene where the water comes crashing down the grand staircase, the crew had just one chance to get it right, because everything would be destroyed in the process. Fortunately they got it.

7. Cameron became known as an uncompromising perfectionist, given to screaming fits through megaphones

Cameron was known for his unyielding approach and his unrestrained outbursts — many of them amplified with a megaphone — and the film solidified the director's reputation as "the scariest man in Hollywood."

Winslet admitted that at some points she was genuinely afraid. "There were times when I was genuinely frightened of him. Jim has a temper like you wouldn't believe."

"There were a lot of disgruntled people on the set," remembered actor Bill Paxton. "Jim is not one of those guys who has the time to win hearts and minds."

8. Winslet says she nearly drowned

Kate Winslet called the filming "an ordeal" and suffered from influenza, a chipped bone and heavy bruising in the process.

The worst experience, though, was a near-drowning during a scene where Jack and Rose are running away from a rushing wave. A coat that Winslet was wearing got caught, and she ended up being engulfed by the water, gasping for air before she was finally able to free herself. 

Winslet famously told the Los Angeles Times, "For the first time in my life on a film set I was thinking, 'I wish I wasn't here.' Some days I'd wake up and think, 'Please, God, let me die.'" Cameron, however, claimed Winslet was never in serious danger.

"I'll cop to my faults, but I'll also defend the situation in a rational way, and it goes like this: Isn't the purpose of being attracted to something intense and challenging — such as, say, white-water rafting — to come out the other side and tell everybody how you almost died? It doesn't mean you almost died. We simply let Kate think she was nearly drowning. A little sputtering and coughing does not count in my book, because I have almost drowned several times and know what it feels like," he said in a Playboy interview.

"Asking God to please let you die? I was thinking the same thing at about the same point. Titanic was a catastrophic production financially and getting worse every day. Kate probably got some unnecessary stress from me, but I would say 99 per cent of her stress was internally induced as part of her acting process."

9. People predicted the film would be a disaster

The filming of Titanic ran an astonishing $100 million over budget, and experienced costly delays and countless mishaps, and many were certain that it was destined to be a large-scale disaster in its own right.

The film critic for the Sunday Times even wrote that "Cameron's overweening pride has come close to capsizing this project," which he labeled "a hackneyed, completely derivative copy of old Hollywood romances."

Even Cameron himself doubted its chances. "We laboured the last six months on Titanic in the absolute knowledge that the studio would lose $100 million," he recalled. "It was a certainty."

10. The 1st scene Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet shot together was a nude scene

One of the film's most touching and vulnerable moments comes when Jack sketches a naked Rose wearing her "Heart of the Ocean" necklace — but it turns out some of the awkwardness and vulnerability the actors conveyed might have been real.

Because the set builders hadn't yet completed the main set, the cast and crew were forced to shoot smaller scenes — and the very first for DiCaprio and Winslet was that nude scene.

"It wasn't by any kind of design, although I couldn't have designed it better," remembered Cameron. "There's a nervousness and an energy and a hesitance in them. They had rehearsed together, but they hadn't shot anything together.

"If I'd had a choice, I probably would have preferred to put it deeper into the body of the shoot. We were just trying to find things to shoot because our big set wasn't ready. We were supposed to start with our day exteriors up on the big Titanic set. It wasn't ready for months, so we were scrambling around trying to fill in anything we could get to shoot. It was horrible. But having seen how it worked, I think it worked out very well for the scene."

11. When Rose's mother tightens her corset, the roles were supposed to be reversed

There's a key scene in the film where Rose's mother tightens her daughter's corset, and her actions provide a potent symbol of her parents' attempts to rein her in, and the suffocation she feels in her social position.

It turns out the scene wasn't planned that way at all; in fact, Rose was supposed to be tightening her mother's corset. But right before they shot it, Cameron thought, "I should switch this."

"I got everybody all freaked out because I said, 'I want Kate in the corset.' The wardrobe people all flipped out, because she was never supposed to be seen in her corset. I said, 'This is really important; we have to do it this way,' remembered Cameron in an interview. "The lines stayed exactly the same, but the emphasis changed so much. Those are the great discoveries that you make when you're actually taking theory and turning it into practice."

12. There are several cameos in the film — but chances are you won't notice them

Several high-profile people make cameo appearances — but chances are you won't recognize any of them.

Several crew members of the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh — the Russian research vessel that took Cameron to the Titanic site multiple times — appear in the film. Among them is Anatoly Sagalevich, who created and piloted the MIR self-propelled Deep Submergence Vehicle that transported Cameron and his crew down to the shipwreck. (At that depth, the water pressure is 6,000 pounds per square inch.)

Documentarian Anders Falk, who did behind-the-scenes shooting of the film's sets for the Titanic Historical Society, also appears as a Swedish immigrant whom Jack Dawson meets as he enters his cabin. Edward Kamuda and Karen Kamuda, who were president and VP of the society and consulted on the film, were also cast as extras.

13. The production team built a scale model of the ship that was almost full-size

The Titanic production team was able to get blueprints of the ship, and they created a scale model that was the same size as the Titanic — minus a few tweaks, among them lifeboats that were 10 per cent smaller. A horizon tank, which allows for the look of open water filming without having to shoot at sea, was built to hold the reconstructed ship, where most of the exterior ship scenes were shot. It held 17 million gallons of water.

A 162-foot tower crane acted as a construction, lighting, and camera platform.

Inside, production designer Peter Lamont's team painstakingly recreated interiors with fixtures and furnishings from the period, or with custom reproductions.

Interestingly, the grand staircase was actually grander in film than it was in real life — a full 30 per cent wider.

14. Cameron made it as historically accurate as possible

Known for his rigid perfectionism, Cameron made the film as historically accurate as possible — which meant reading volumes of accounts of the sinking, studying as much as he could about the crew and passengers, and learning every facet of the construction of the ship.

"I read everything I could," he said. "I created an extremely detailed timeline of the ship's few days and a very detailed timeline of the last night of its life. And I worked within that to write the script, and I got some historical experts to analyze what I'd written and comment on it, and I adjusted it.

"I felt that when we started the production we really had a very clear picture of what happened on the ship that night. I had a library that filled one whole wall of my writing office with Titanic stuff, because I wanted it to be right, especially if we were going to dive to the ship. That set the bar higher in a way — it elevated the movie in a sense. We wanted this to be a definitive visualisation of this moment in history as if you'd gone back in a time machine and shot it."

15. The final scene they shot was the bridge flooding and the captain going down with the ship

The final scene the cast and crew shot was the one where the bridge of the Titanic floods and the captain goes down with the ship — but it turns out that the captain of the film thought he might go down with the ship as well.

"I remember the last day of shooting — we'd shot for 22 hours straight, we just had to finish everything up — and the last shot was the shot of the bridge flooding with the captain on there," said Cameron.

"I was in a wetsuit with breathing gear, and I had hockey guards on my shins in case when the glass broke it came in, and I was just thinking, 'OK, I've been up for 36 hours straight, I'm 20 feet underwater, they're about to blow all this glass, this room is going to implode.' And it's like 'Lord, take me now — this would be a really good time, because we're over-budget, it's a chick flick where everybody dies at the end, and I don't have time to finish the movie.'"

16. The film is the same length as the sinking

The film, minus the present-day scenes and the credits, runs two hours and 40 minutes — the exact time it took for the Titanic to go down in the frigid waters off Canada's East Coast.

The collision with the iceberg reportedly went on for 37 seconds — the same length as the collision in the film.

17. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made

With a budget of $200 million, not including distribution and marketing, at the time it was the most expensive film ever made, and held that title until Cameron's blockbuster Avatar surpassed it in 2010.

In terms of gross earnings, the film was also the first to cross the billion-dollar mark — and with the help of a 3D version that was released on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, it became the first to push past the $2 billion-dollar threshold.

File - In this undated file image released by Paramount Pictures, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, left, are shown in a scene from the 3-D version of James Cameronís romantic epic "Titanic." Cameron's 1997 blockbuster “Titanic” sailed beyond the $2 billion mark in lifetime ticket sales, thanks to the 3-D re-release of the film that was timed to the centennial of the ship's sinking.(AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, File)
File - In this undated file image released by Paramount Pictures, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, left, are shown in a scene from the 3-D version of James Cameronís romantic epic "Titanic." Cameron's 1997 blockbuster “Titanic” sailed beyond the $2 billion mark in lifetime ticket sales, thanks to the 3-D re-release of the film that was timed to the centennial of the ship's sinking.(AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, File) (Paramount Pictures/Associated Press)

18. It won heaps of awards

Titanic won piles of awards, among them 11 Oscars (including best picture, best director, best cinematography, best actress and supporting actress), which tied it with Ben Hur for the most Oscars won by a single film. According to IMDB, the film raked in 121 awards and 75 more nominations. 

19. It made Celine Dion a huge worldwide star

Written by James Horner, the Celine Dion song "My Heart Will go On" was the theme for the film, and skyrocketed to number 1 around the world, including the United States, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Australia. 

The song went on to become Dion's biggest hit, and with sales of 18 million copies, it became the bestselling single by a female artist in history.

It won an Oscar for best original song and a host of Grammys, including record of the year — the first time the award was won by a Canadian — as well as song of the year, best female pop vocal and best song written specifically for a motion picture or television. It also won a Golden Globe, a Billboard Music Award, and was named among the Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Scholastic Inc.

20. Like Avatar that followed, the film carries a warning for humanity

Cameron's next blockbuster, Avatar, provided a stark warning about environmental destruction.

Of course, Titanic is more of a historical re-enactment, but Cameron also saw it as a cautionary tale about class and hubris, and humans' temptation to put unearned faith into new technologies.

"There are areas that we know are dangerous, with respect to nuclear power, biological weapons, and maybe to a certain extent genetic research," he said in an interview. "But we utterly and completely embrace the silicon chip. We've let computers become a fabric of our life. We don't yet know the long-term impact of that.

"History has shown that every technology brings a curse with it. The lesson of Titanic is, just don't go so fast when you're dealing with that much power and energy, the kinetic energy of a ship that weighs 48,000 tons," he said. "Give yourself time to turn, because that's all they did wrong."