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'Titanic's' Rider of the Storm

There's no doubt director James Cameron is captain of this voyage--though it's been a rocky one at times as production costs keep rising.

March 11, 1997

ROSARITO BEACH, Mexico — A young girl is being carried toward a distant lifeboat through a scrum of ruddy-faced men in bowler hats. The unsinkable Titanic has begun to sink.

"That's very good, Alison," James Cameron says, purring like a cat reassuring a canary. "Now let me hear you cry. Look over your shoulder and start to cry for mommy."

Wearing a silver flight jacket to ward off a chill midnight breeze, Cameron speaks into a public address system, his voice echoing across the ship. "Now remember," he gently instructs the red-cheeked child. "You're cold and you're scared and you're crying for your mother."

Even with more than a hundred extras, stunt and crew members crowded around, it is unusually quiet on the deck of this massive, 775-foot-long replica of the ill-fated ocean liner. Perhaps it's because the crew is unaccustomed to hearing such beguiling tones from the autocratic director.

When Cameron calls for action, three camera crews film a mad rush of men surging toward an empty lifeboat, their way blocked by ship's officers with revolvers. "Give us a chance to live, you limey bastards!" one of them howls. Nearby, Titanic seamen frantically pass out life jackets to wide-eyed women in woolen frocks.

The action is so supercharged that it might seem believable even on a studio sound stage. But it is especially vivid on this hulking shell, its hundreds of portholes ablaze with light. Built to 90% scale, the Titanic's boat deck stands five stories tall.

If the height doesn't unnerve you, the deck's precarious tilt will. A set of hydraulic lifts has pitched the entire ship forward by six degrees, leaving the Titanic's bow submerged in a 17-million-gallon seawater tank that encompasses 8.5 acres in overall surface area.

Seeing the moonlit waves pounding on the beach below, it is easy to imagine the fearful chaos that erupted the night of April 14, 1912, when the supposedly indestructible ship hit a massive iceberg in the North Atlantic. Mortally wounded, the Titanic stayed afloat less than three hours before plunging into the icy waters, killing more than 1,500 of its approximately 2,220 passengers.

It takes nearly that much time for Cameron to film this one boat deck scene. After a dozen takes, his beguiling manner is gone. Barking orders to his crew, he's gruff, profane and surprisingly funny. When the speaker system fails, he uses a bullhorn.

For Cameron, making a mega-million-dollar disaster movie is like making war--no quarter is given. A soundman who flubs a take tries to apologize, only to be cut off in mid-sentence. "I know what went wrong," Cameron snaps. "You weren't listening for the past 15 minutes." When a pair of extras botch a scene, he gives them the hook. "See that couple standing between me and my actors," he tells an assistant. "I don't want to see them again. Lose 'em!"

Black ski cap on his head, a fierce glitter in his eyes, the sinewy director, 42, looks like a Navy SEAL preparing for a predawn raid behind enemy lines. "We're in combat mode here," he says during a break in filming, which begins at 7 p.m. and ends at dawn. "This scene is about the problems they had launching their lifeboats--and now that I've shot the scene, I know why. We've got production assistants and walkie-talkies all over the ship and we still can't find people half the time."

He shakes his head. "If it's this [messed] up now, imagine what . . . it must've been in real life."

Cameron has a hand-held camera in his hands--he's going to shoot much of the next scene himself. "I thought our footage looked too formal, too polite. My goal is to put the audience right on the Titanic, so you feel what it's like to be going down with the ship."

Cameron cracks a businesslike smile. "And whatever that feeling is--it is not polite."

Project Seen as Laden With Commercial Risk

To hear the chatter around Hollywood over the past months, you wonder if Cameron is going down with his ship too. To many observers, the project is burdened with multiple commercial risks: It's largely set in stuffy 1912, everyone knows how the story ends and Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the young actors playing the film's fictional star-crossed lovers, have yet to show consistent box-office appeal. As Douglas Coupland put it recently in an essay about disaster films: "What exactly is 'Titanic' but 'The Poseidon Adventure' minus Shelley Winters?"

A drumbeat of media reports has also portrayed the movie as spiraling out of control, tens of millions of dollars over its already astronomical $110-million budget. Visitors to the set here at Rosarito Beach, 24 miles south of Tijuana in Baja California, have returned with tales of on-set injuries, theft by locals and tyrannical behavior by its director, whose crew on "Terminator 2" made T-shirts saying, "You Can't Scare Me--I Work for Jim Cameron."

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