Director James Cameron was originally inspired to make Titanic while making The Abyss, a science-fiction underwater film. He also reportedly had a fascination with shipwrecks. Cameron himself went under to explore the remains of the actual Titanic twelve times, at an average of 16 hours each spent there each time. A special camera, designed by his brother, was built to withstand the underwater pressure.
Titanic, Cameron's 1997 film, was the first movie to make over $1 billion dollars worldwide. Its $600 million dollar U.S. box office was the all-time record until Cameron's own 2009 film Avatar overtook it. Titanic still holds the never-to-be-equaled record of being the #1 weekly box office champ an incredible 15 weeks in a row from 1997 to '98.
It made a silver screen icon of star Leonardo DiCaprio, although, strangely, despite the film's 14 Oscar nominations, he was snubbed by the Academy.
Leading lady Kate Winslet, playing “Rose,” got her Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress, along with Gloria Stuart (who played “Old Rose" in the film, and hadn't appeared in a movie in over 30 years). This proved the only instance on Oscar history of two people both being nominated for playing the same character in the same movie (both were nominated for Best Supporting Actress -neither won- although Titanic did garner 11 awards).
The studio executives' first choice to play the male lead was Matthew McConaughey, but both Cameron and Winslet wanted Leo DiCaprio. Originally, Cameron wasn't that familiar with him, but at their first meeting, Cameron noticed that "all the women in the building" showed up to catch a glimpse of young Leo. Although there was no “Jack Dawson" (DiCaprio's character), Cameron was to discover that there was a “J. Dawson" on board the real-life Titanic. He was an engineer who drowned in the disaster.
Cameron's original choice for Rose was Gwyneth Paltrow, but Kate lobbied hard to snag the role. The Rose character was named in honor of Cameron's grandmother.
Early on in the film, Kate "flashed" Leo. This was to get him used to seeing her in her birthday suit, because they would be spending much time together filming the famous nude scene. On the day of the nude scene's filming, Kate was getting made up, when Leo walked in accidentally and said “Whoa!" Again, to get him used to seeing her nude, she told him to stay. (Incidentally, Cameron himself drew the "nude portrait" of Rose featured in the scene, as well as all of Jack's drawings.)
Leo claimed to be "water sensitive" and would seldom appear in any water scenes where the water was "too cold.” The water in the hallway scenes was 50 degrees, but the water in the "out in the ocean" scenes was warmed to 80 degrees.
Kate was actually terrified of water (“Please God, don't let me die,” she found herself often saying). She actually almost did drown in one scene, where her coat accidentally got caught on some scenery. In the spirit of no compassion, director Cameron gave her only a minute to gather herself before he made her do the next take.
Both Kate and Leo have admitted to urinating in the water, for two reasons: 1) to keep warm, and 2) they were too lazy to get out of the water and walk to the bathroom. Although many of the extras had to get doused in the 50 degree water, Cameron had Jacuzzis all over the set for them to warm up in between takes. In the climactic scene where Kate is floating in the ocean on the driftwood board, she was very nervous. DiCaprio calmed her down by stroking her legs.
Like Winslet, Gloria Stuart, the 87-year-old actress, lobbied hard to get her role as “Older Rose.” Cameron gave her free reign to ad-lib, if she wished. Her original line “I was quite a hot number" was changed by her to “I was quite a dish.” She thought the new line was "less vulgar.”
After Titanic was released, Gloria wrote a letter to Cameron, asking for a writing credit and some money because her line was "the only line in the movie that got a laugh.” Cameron wrote her back: “No credit and not a penny.”
Billy Zane, who played the bad guy, in the film, was actually a very nice "down to earth guy" on the set. Although there is an unwritten "extras don't mingle with stars" rule in every film, Zane, who started out as an extra in commercials, often fraternized with his "lessers.” An extra remembers Zane going out, several times, on night excursions with several of the film's stand-ins.
Cameron was very big on authenticity. Every woman in the movie had to wear a corset, even the extras who were barely seen. Every extra on Titanic went through an etiquette class so they would know how people in 1912 acted, talked and moved. The waiters were also taught how to serve and act.
The picture painted by Picasso shown in the film was actually a real Picasso painting (The Guitar Player) flown in from a museum in Paris.
On the final day of filming, perhaps the most bizarre incident of the entire Titanic shoot took place. One or more pranksters actually "spiked" the clam chowder served to cast and crew with PCP (angel dust). 80 people were taken ill, many hospitalized with hallucinations. Actor Bill Paxton said he "felt listless for two weeks" after the incident.
Titanic ended up costing a whopping $200 million dollars, at the time the most expensive movie in history. It costs less to send a man to the moon!
Originally pitched to studio executives by Cameron as “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic,” the film made it's official premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival on November 1, 1997. According to the New York Times, the reaction was "tepid.”
But the Hollywood premiere took place on December 14th of 1997 and all the celebrities who attended were raving over the film. It made a "very good, but not spectacular" $28 million dollars its opening weekend. But word of mouth (any film's best friend) spread like wildfire. Repeat business was strong, particularly among young women and girls, who responded to the film's romantic element (and of course, DiCaprio.) Interestingly, and tellingly, Titanic's biggest single day at the box office was almost two months after it's initial release- feb. 14, 1998- Valentine's Day.
With the $200 million dollar tab, many Hollywood nay-sayers predicted its sure doom, but Titanic surprised everyone and not only became the movies’ all-time biggest grosser, but also a certified "movie classic.” Titanic’s all-time record gross was to eventually be broken by another James Cameron film, 2009's Avatar, which became the first, and so far only, film to out-gross Titanic at the worldwide and domestic movie box office.