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Patt Morrison Asks: James Cameron, a man overboard

The director of 'Titanic' talks about movies, history and diving to the deepest spot on Earth, alone.

April 14, 2012|Patt Morrison
  • James Cameron, the science-enthralled director and underwater explorer, is seen in 2010.
James Cameron, the science-enthralled director and underwater explorer,… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

The Challenger Deep, a fissure in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, lies farther below the Earth's surface than Mt. Everest reaches above it. And James Cameron, the science-enthralled director and underwater explorer, made it his Lindbergh moment, soloing humankind's deepest-ever plunge last month in a purpose-made submarine fitted out — natch — with 3D cameras. One hundred years ago today, the world's most famous accidental deep dive took the ocean liner Titanic to the bottom of the Atlantic. Cameron made that story into the film "Titanic." I spoke with him just before his epic descent, and asked him to ruminate on the ship that disappeared in 1912 and his own disappearing act into the ocean depths. You know what they say — whatever floats your boat.

It was diving that brought you first to the subject of the Titanic and then to Titanic itself. What did you think a film could add to something so well documented?

I wanted to graft my fictional element into the tapestry. Part of it was to evoke that time with its rigid class distinctions and what that meant symbolically, this distinction between haves and have nots. That's obviously a big topic of conversation in this political season with the 1%.

The event was refracted in the media of its time quite differently — [as] heroic first-class people who stepped back and allowed the ladies onto the lifeboats, ignoring the carnage among the crew members and third-class [passengers] who were left to fend for themselves.

I don't think [it] was a particularly innocent age. It may have appeared that way, but the forces that would take us into highly technological warfare [in World War I], with machine guns and mustard gas and tanks, were already at work.

Being a kid of the '60s, I had a jaundiced view of history. I wanted to read between the lines. I wanted to look at the corporate whitewash. I wanted to see where people may have had reason to dissemble a little bit.

You go through the [Titanic inquiry] testimony, and for me it was the Pentagon Papers. I got a sense that history is a bit of a consensus hallucination. Our view of it is warped by those who spoke the loudest and with the most power to impress. People trusted authority. They didn't look any deeper. Today we sort of tear it all apart and question everything.

I once was assigned to interview Titanic survivors, and I was moved to be sitting at one degree of separation from it all.

When you touch the hem of history like that, it all takes on a greater meaning. [It] had the same effect when I dove the wreck. Seeing the remains of the decking, right where the band would have stood and played — we thought: This is the place.

You feel that same thing when you're at Gettysburg or wherever there's been some great disruptive event; you feel almost like there are these aftershocks that rebound through time.

But didn't Robert Ballard's finding the wreck in 1985 diminish its significance? When you bring myths into the light, they seem smaller.

I think that happens, but I don't think it's happened with Titanic. The wreck is so mysterious and majestic and in such a remote place. If we dragged it onto the beach into the sunlight, it'd be very different. It'd just be this sad old rusted hulk. In situ, it's like this great haunted mansion. For me, [Ballard's] finding the wreck was the inspiration for wanting to do the film. Wrecks are on the bottom of the ocean for a reason, and the reason is usually something very bad.

Titanic was the ultimate novel-like story, the classic sense of hubristic folly, that we're too big to fail — and where have we heard that before? Then all of a sudden it comes a cropper and everybody looks around, like, I can't believe that just happened, when in fact it was almost inevitable.

"Titanic" is back in theaters. But will people bother to go, when they can watch on a device in their pockets?

3D is a great reason to bring the film to theaters. [But] there's a sense that appointment entertainment is getting extremely eroded. People [make] a little contract with themselves: "This is a film that I want to see on the big screen where I won't be interrupted, I won't be on my cellphone, I won't be putting it on pause, I won't be doing my homework." It's very different from watching it on video.

Or on a screen the size of a Post-it note.

I don't like to think I'm making movies for iPhones! God bless people if they want to follow a bit of the story, if it's helping keep the movie industry alive and vigorous. But I still believe in that sacred experience of the big dark room with a bunch of strangers where you check the dipstick on your humanity.

You've done countless dives since you first explored the Titanic. What have they taught you that you'll use diving the Mariana Trench?

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