Rough Waters

It's unfortunate, but it can't be helped: to talk about ""Titanic" is to talk about money. There was a time, though it seems long ago, when the public and the press talked about movies as entertainment, as political statements, sometimes even as ar t. That was before ""Heaven's Gate," before ""Waterworld," before the media became obsessed with budgets, Mike Ovitz and opening-weekend grosses. That was before the era of James Cameron.

The economic trajectory of director Cameron's career is a fever chart of Hollywood inflation. ""Terminator," the heavy-metal sci-fi sleeper that made his name back in 1984, was a low-budget beauty costing $6.5 million. Two years later his ferocious ly exciting ""Aliens" came in at $18.5 million, which looks cut-rate today. The price tag on ""The Abyss" (1989) was 40 mil. Then began the run that made him the perennial King of the Most Expensive Movie Ever Made. ""Terminator 2" (1991; $93 million); ""True Lies" (1994; $100 million). And now ""Titanic," at $200 million and counting, the largest budget ever lavished on a movie in the United States.

The man's clearly a genius at spending other people's money. And so far he's been worth it: his films have made more than $1 billion. The funny thing is, he often finds a way to cheat himself out of the profits. This 43-year-old Canadian--arguably the most obsessive director in a business in which obsessives are a nickel a bunch--invariably finds himself so determined to get his vision on screen exactly the way he wants that he's forced to sacrifice what so many people in the industry covet most: his paycheck.

Would you believe that Cameron directed ""Titanic" virtually for free? When 20th Century Fox, sweating blood at the soaring cost of the 10-month shoot, tried to pressure him into cutting back, Cameron felt he had to give back his $8 million produci ng and directing fees and forfeit his future cut of gross receipts--which, if the movie hits big, could amount to as much as $15 million more. (OK, he did keep his six-figure fee for the screenplay.)

Cameron has been called many things: arrogant, brilliant, slave-driving, the reincarnation of Erich von Stroheim. But you can't say the man is in it for the money. On ""True Lies," the same trade-off occurred: to get an extra $35 million to make it his way, he gave up his ownership of the film. This pattern goes all the way back to the movie that established him as the foremost kick-ass action filmmaker of his day. To guarantee that he'd get to direct his script of ""The Terminator," he sold the r ights to it (and its sequel) for $1 to his producer, Gale Ann Hurd, who later became his second wife. He may be the man no studio in town can say no to, but he's one lousy businessman.

""Great wealth makes me uncomfortable," he says, sitting in his spartan house in the Malibu hills, its dining room decorat- ed with dinosaur fossils. ""Great poverty would also make me uncomfortable--I would like to be clear about that. But I look around at the evils of the world, and so much of it can be attributed to the concentration of wealth and power with a few. Never was that more clearly seen than in the microcosm on board the Titanic."

As you no doubt know by now, the 3-hour-14-minute ""Titanic" is no mere disaster movie. The film (which opens in the United States on Dec. 19 on 3,000 screens) is Cameron's bid to be the new David Lean. It's an epic love story about a 17-year-old American aristocrat (Kate Winslet) who is betrothed to a rich and hatef ul suitor (Billy Zane) but falls in love with an impoverished, free-spirited artist (Leonardo DiCaprio), who won his third-class passage in a card game. It's ""Romeo and Juliet" on a sinking ship (that's how Cameron first pitched it to Fox). Odd as it ma y sound, Cameron had thought of both ""The Abyss" and ""True Lies" as love stories, but he knew he'd failed to convey that. This was his attempt to get right what had eluded him both on screen and in his personal life. (In September, when he seemed about to wed actress Suzy Amis, he abruptly married Linda Hamilton, his fourth wife and mother of his 5-year-old daughter.)

BUT ""TITANIC" IS ALSO A MOVIE about money and its evils. With fine irony, Cameron has spent more dollars than any other filmmaker to make a film that denounces the rich; he has employed the most state-of-the-art technology to issue a warning about the hubris of Technology. In Cameron's vision--one that comes out of his blue-collar background--the wealthy Edwardians in the gilded cabins of first class are frivolous, life-denying monsters, and the working-class stiffs down in steerage are the salt of the earth. Surely no one signing the checks at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. realized they were bankrolling a quasi-Marxist epic.

There aren't a lot of filmmakers in Hollywood who were once truckdrivers. That's what Cameron did after dropping out of Cal State Fullerton. He started out in the film business building models for Roger Corman B-movies; he still thinks of moviemaki ng as something you do with your hands. ""If I get to the end of the shooting day and my hands aren't black, it's been a bad day," Cameron says. With the Titanic, he got to play with the biggest model of all--a 780-foot replica of the ship (it's 90 perce nt to scale). An avid diver, Cameron was inspired to make ""Titanic" by the opportunity to film the actual wreckage. This adventure alone cost Fox $4.5 million. His stunning footage of the real Titanic forms the present-day framing device of the movie.

""No director is more driven than Jim," attests first assistant director Josh McLaglen. ""He's difficult, demanding, we all know that. But he, more than any director today, knows it all--lighting, camera, special effects, everything." On the set, t he short-fused Cameron ran the show with military brusqueness. Impatient with the pace of his crew, he'd grab a roll of tape and put up the lights himself, recomb an actor's hair or take the handheld camera from his operator and shoot a scene himself. Th e drawings that his young hero creates are in fact Cameron's drawings, the hands sketching on screen his.

For his two 22-year-old stars, the long shoot was a grueling test of endurance. ""It was the hardest film absolutely I've ever done," says DiCaprio. ""Having to sit in ice-cold water all day, dunking and redunking, jumping in, jumping out and screa ming at the top of my lungs. It takes a toll. I complained like hell most of the time. That's the only way I was able to tolerate it." DiCaprio knew how to let off steam, but the English Winslet held in her pain, stiff-upper-lip style, and paid a price f or it. She was sick one out of every four days. ""I think it was hard on everyone," Winslet allows. ""But I have nothing but admiration for a man who has a duty as a filmmaker. I mean, [Cameron's] a genius."

That's what she says now. At the time she often felt the only thing keeping her sane was her bond with Leonardo. ""We were just, like, joined at the hip," says DiCaprio, who kept her spirits up doing impersonations, showing off his pet lizard and g enerally acting like a goofball. They could be seen huddled together, chain-smoking, throughout the shoot. Their characters consummate their love in the back seat of a car stored aboard ship, a scene in which the half-naked actors were covered in gel to indicate the sweat of passion. ""I can't tell you how disgusting it was to shoot that scene," recalls Winslet. ""When I watched it on screen I said to Leo, "We look so gorgeous in that scene. We look so young, and it looked so lovely, and it was so vile' ."

The lengths that Cameron would go to get the details right border on mania. One of the film's most elaborate scenes--involving a thousand extras augmented seamlessly by hundreds of computer-generated people--is the Titanic's departure from the Sout hampton pier. Since the movie's Titanic had only one side, the image of this scene had to be flopped so that the ship was facing in the historically correct direction. Because of that, all the lettering had to be written backward, from the signs on the b uildings down to the tags on each piece of luggage, even though the viewer's eye wouldn't read such tiny details.

Wanting to capture the wild extravagance of this pre-income-tax era, when wealthy wives routinely spent $6,000 on a dress worn once, Cameron had his costume designer, Deborah Scott, scour the world for vintage clothes. The $8.4 million costume bud get alone would finance several independent movies. Production designer Peter Lamont built a Titanic as close as possible to the real thing, down to the exact shade of green on the leather chairs in the smoking lounge. The sumptuous sets have made-to-ord er replicas of the lighting fixtures, the china, the stained-glass windows--and since all of it was going to be destroyed, nothing could be rented. ""To the best of our knowledge," attests Cameron, ""there was no violation of historical truth. We have a great responsibility. Whatever we make will become the truth, the visual reality that a generation will accept."

For all his talk about historical responsibility, it's hard not to see in Cameron's obsession with accuracy a hint of understandable panic. Any director at the helm of a project this monumental has to have moments of profound, terrifying doubt. Wha t better security blanket than verifiable facts? But Cameron knows perfectly well that an audience will forgive him for getting the number of portholes wrong as long as his storytelling transports them to another world. There's a wild discrepancy between Cameron the stickler for details and Cameron the fantasist, who devises cliffhangers and chases as primally farfetched as ""The Perils of Pauline." Make no mistake. The allure of ""Titanic" is not its usefulness as a historical artifact but its invitati on to swoon at a scale of epic moviemaking that is all but obsolete.

AND ON THIS LEVEL ""TITANIC" fulfills its pledge. When Cameron's camera pulls back from a close-up of the exuberant DiCaprio at the prow of the ship and lifts to peer down from the sky at the Titanic passing majestically underneath, you feel the ki nd of jaw-dropping delight you felt as a child overwhelmed by the sheer size of Hollywood's dreams. ""Titanic" is big, bold, touchingly uncynical filmmaking. The money he spent is right up there on screen.

For once, the special effects are in the service of the story. In the spectacular 80-minute sinking of the ship, you don't wonder what's real and what's computer-generated. What you feel in your gizzard is the horror of the experience, the depths o f the folly that left this ""unsinkable" ship so vulnerable to disaster. While the women and children are loaded into lifeboats (there were only enough for half the 2,200 passengers), the third-class passengers are locked belowdecks like animals; those w ho escape are shot trying to make it to the boats. Cameron makes terrifying poetry out of chaos: it's impossible to forget the images of the ship breaking in half, the deck rising perpendicular to the water as passengers pitch to their death, bouncing of f the ship's giant propellers into the freezing ocean.

But it is the love story between the suicidally unhappy Rose and the sanguine, open-hearted Jack that occupies stage center. This upstairs-downstairs romance is shamelessly melodramatic, but it plays. The rotters in Rose's class regard the upstart with the condescension they'd extend to a filthy pet, and Rose's coldly ambitious mother (Frances Fisher) is horrified her daughter might lose her fiance's fortune. Cal (Zane) sets his ominous valet (David Warner) dogging their romantic tracks. None of t his is subtle, but DiCaprio invests his stock character with such quicksilver charm, and Winslet captures Rose's stifled ardor with such pained delicacy, you can't help but root them on. Is it the great love story Cameron so desperately wanted to make? N ot quite. Visually, his lovers are an odd match: next to DiCaprio's boyish feline beauty, Winslet looks womanly and a little worse for wear. And once the disaster strikes, their individual fates become overwhelmed by the communal horror. This heart, at l east, couldn't break once these lovestruck kids were surrounded by floating frozen corpses.

Cameron should have lavished more of his perfectionist's zeal on his dialogue, which is far cruder than his filmmaking. And what was he thinking when he cast Zane as the caddish Cal? His performance has all the sneering subtlety of a silent-movie v illain. How much more interesting the human drama would have been if Cameron had allowed his characters a shred of moral ambiguity. This is one lesson unlearned from David Lean. But Cameron's strength is in painting canvases with broad, visceral, unironi c strokes, and for 194 minutes he holds you in his grip. This is one grand, generous entertainment--old-fashioned filmmaking brought up to date with the most spectacular technology available.

Now that the much-delayed wait for Cameron's movie is over, there are a lot of nervous people in Hollywood wondering about their balance sheets. When Fox first agreed to the risky proposition of a three-hour period love story, ""Titanic" was suppos ed to be a $110 million movie. Fox thought it could avoid the perils of filming at sea that plagued ""Waterworld" by building its own studio in Rosarita Beach, Mexico. This 40-acre plant cost $20 million separate from the budget. There were hundreds of m iscalculations in the budgeting, from the price of marine plywood (10 times the estimate) to the cost of miles of electrical cable (more than the original budget for the entire lighting job). When you add in the worldwide marketing bills, ""Titanic" will end up near the $300 million mark.

In a panic, just before shooting began, the studio went searching for a partner to cushion the financial blow. Paramount stepped in for $65 million, getting in return all U.S. and Canadian distribution. The partnership got nasty when Cameron was un able to deliver the movie for its projected release on July 2. The two studios then fought over the new release date, Fox taking offense when Paramount wanted to open in the United States up against its big Thanksgiving contenders ""Alien Resurrection" a nd ""Anastasia." Then Paramount got huffy when Fox premiEred the film at the Tokyo Film Festival Nov. 1, stealing thunder from its carefully timed media campaign. For the heavily invested Fox, success will mean not losing a fortune. ""We may make a littl e money," says a wishful Bill Mechanic, the studio chairman.

Cameron says today that if he'd known what it would take to bring his vision to the screen he'd have stopped before he started. But it's unlikely he means it. ""Regret" is not in the guy's vocabulary. ""What you lose for the cost of one "Titanic' i s one Eddie Murphy movie and maybe two Steven Seagal films. And maybe one other film," says the unabashed director, who has just lost at least two Oscar voters. ""If people believe, as I think a lot of them do, that most of the movies these days suck, th ere's a pretty good chance that the films you're not getting were probably going to suck anyway."

The logic may be faulty, but it's a classic Cameron true lie. And he'll be happy to say it straight to your face.