Originally created 12/19/97

Titanic' sails into theaters



HOLLYWOOD -- After a delay of nearly six months, Titanic is setting sail today for megaplexes across the country. Now, audiences will get their chance to see what $200 million looks like on the screen.

The movie is a three-hour-plus extravaganza that is equal parts period drama, epic romance and special-effects fun house.

"The funny thing is, on a film like Titanic, the money went into nuts-and-bolts stuff . . . stuff that used to be a lot cheaper," said the movie's 43-year-old director, James Cameron. "If we were remaking Spartacus and tried to do the Roman legion the way they did in that film, it would be a $250 million film, just because of the cost of costumes, extras and food.

"So, if you're doing a big period film, with a lot of extras - and Titanic is about a lot of people all meeting their fate simultaneously - certainly you want to sell the idea of how many people (2,223) were on the ship."

Indeed, anyone who sits through the final credits - perhaps to hear Celine Dion's rendition of the theme song - will see just how unwieldy a production this was.

More than 90 actors are listed by name, as are more than 100 stuntmen. (Another 1,000 or so extras will forever remain anonymous.) Also cited are hundreds of technicians, laborers, musicians, artists, caterers, costumers, hairdressers and assistants of all stripes.

"We used 14 visual-effects companies, the lead one being Digital Domain, which employed at different times over 300 people and worked on the film for a period of a year," Mr. Cameron said. "These people - from the assistant modelers up to the computer-graphics artists - all will make anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 a year.

"So, you're talking about very well-paid people and lots of them, for long periods of time. And, that's just one company . . . 550 visual-effects shots were done for the film."

Stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet hadn't yet begun to command multimillion-dollar salaries when they were hired, so money was saved there. Still, lead actors on any movie set are treated like royalty, and they were joined by a large supporting cast that included such veterans as Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, David Warner and Bill Paxton.

Because of the enormous cast and crew that had to be fed, housed and transported, these costs were staggering. Even the amount of money paid to extras - some of whom made as little as $20 a day - was a small fortune.

The stunt corps, too, resembled a small army.

"We had 6,000 stunt-person days on this film, which is about three times what we had on True Lies," says Mr. Cameron, who also directed The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens and The Abyss. "That's a tremendous number of stunt players. Going into it, I don't think we realized what it was going to take to function safely around such a big set."

Although Titanic originally was budgeted at $100 million, it ultimately blossomed to twice that figure. When costs for prints, advertising and publicity are factored in, the total amount could push $250 million.

Using the current mathematics of Hollywood, this means that Titanic will have to gross somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million worldwide to break even. (About half the box-office receipts go to the theater owners.) This is a gargantuan sum, but considering that foreign revenues now exceed the U.S. box office - and video, cable, broadcast, pay-per-view and airline deals all eventually will be factored in - Titanic someday might turn a profit.

Still, corners needed to be cut to keep the budget in the neighborhood of $200 million, and it wasn't going to be in the depiction of "the ship of dreams." Mr. Cameron insisted that the cinematic Titanic look just as awe-inspiring as the one he encountered on his dives to the ocean floor during the research and early photographic phase of the project.

The decision to move the production to Baja gave the filmmakers a chance to utilize less-expensive labor in the construction of their sets.

"The creation of physical structures is tremendously expensive these days, and, of course, this wasn't just a big plywood set. Our ship was built out of steel," Mr. Cameron says, noting that his Titanic was only 10 percent smaller than the original vessel. "It was the equivalent of a 75-story skyscraper, turned on its side. Later, we went in and sectioned part of it, taking 200 feet - or 20 stories - and moved it up and down hydraulically . . . sank it 45 feet into the water."

The dramatic scenes that were shot at the stern of the sinking ship when it was vertical in the water involved some technical wizardry.

"We actually built the entire poop deck - which I think was 85 or 90 feet long and 75 feet wide - on a tilt table, and had a hydraulic mechanism that rotated from horizontal up to vertical, and any angle in between," Mr. Cameron explains. "That whole deck was later taken off by crane and put on to the main set, so it was contiguous with the rest of the ship. This meant we had to film the finale first."

Mr. Cameron's quest for historical accuracy ensured that other aspects of the production would be costly. For example, he says that the $7 million initially budgeted for period costumes quickly was eaten up, and he doesn't know what the final figure ended up being.

Still, the most incredible images in a film filled with amazing scenes are those that involve special effects - a Mr. Cameron trademark.

Preview trailers and ads already reveal what happens to the passengers forced to stay with the ship. When the Titanic finally goes fully vertical, the two lead actors are left perched on the railing of the stern, while those around them plummet into the sea.

It makes for a harrowing scene, and raises many questions about how the effect was done.

The computerized falls were prerecorded, using motion-capture technology that digitalized performances by real people. The computer-generated actors - digital puppets - then were integrated into scenes.