The Titanic, the ship, did not prove to be as unsinkable as initially expected. “Titanic,” the film, has proven to be far more seaworthy.
Although Hollywood insiders expected the film, which was the first movie budgeted over $200 million, to be writer-director James Cameron’s own iceberg - his first costly flop after a string of hits (“Terminator,” “Aliens,” “Terminator 2” and “True Lies”) - “Titanic" more than surprised its early detractors by becoming not just a box office hit, but a full-fledged pop cultural phenomenon. It became the highest grossing movie of all time within months of its release – the first film to cross the billion-dollar global total – and it made international stars out of leads Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
Earlier this year, the film re-proved its box office buoyancy after a 3D-converted theatrical release brought in an additional worldwide gross of $342.1 million, raising its cumulative all-time box office total to a staggering $2.19 billion.
But it’s the combination of intimate story and eye-popping spectacle that has kept “Titanic” at the forefront of the hearts of film lovers. On Sept. 11 the film is ready to stun again, this time on Blu-ray in both lavish 3D and 2D versions. Jon Landau, Cameron’s producing partner on both “Titanic” and the even more successful 3D phenomenon “Avatar,” offers an exclusive remembrance of the film’s wild ride – along with a little tease about the “Avatar” sequels to come.
It must be a treat for you, 15 years later, to see the evergreen quality of "Titanic" as formats and different theatrical releases come out.
I think whenever you set out to make a movie you hope that it'll endure. You really never know if it will, but to see the response that we got from the [3D] theatrical release and the people who still hold the experience of seeing this movie near and dear to their hearts, there really can be nothing more rewarding. And now, thanks to the quality of Blu Ray, we're able to deliver that in their homes, which we weren't able to do when we first went to the home entertainment market 15 years ago. We were on VHS back then. That was really the big, huge: 99% of our sales were VHS sales. So the idea that we could finally bring a high quality presentation, both 2-D and 3D, into people's homes to let them relive "Titanic" is very exciting for us.
As part of the filmmaking team that pioneered the new popularity of 3D with “Avatar,” what gets you excited about the 3D home video version of "Titanic"?
I think people have a misconception about why 3D is important to people, as filmmakers. For us, we believe that 3D engages the audience more in your narrative storytelling, and in fact it is the dramatic scenes that play at a heightened level because of the 3D. I think that's what people discovered when they saw "Titanic" in 3D: the sinking is the sinking and it's great and it looks spectacular, but in those intimate moments – when you go into Rose's room and see that her mother is tying the corset – the 3D puts you in the room with her, almost like a silent voyeur.
Can you talk about what Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were like then, during the making of the film, and what it's been like to see what this film really did them for them, personally and professionally?
Well, look, when we were casting "Titanic" it was very important for us to find the best actor and actress for those two roles, ones who could be chameleons and ones who you could believe it was a first love. That's what 'Titanic' is about: it's about a first love. We did an old fashioned screen test with a number of different actresses, Kate being one of them, and she blew us away. I mean, she blew us away with her performance, and to watch the two of them go through the filmmaking process, both only really having done small movies before, Kate in particular. It's her story, the movie. She wore the burden of this huge production on her shoulders at the ripe old age of 20, or whatever she was at the time – and Leo, at the same time, when he was very young. But what he was able to do was to turn it on and turn it off. When he wasn't needed on the set he was back there playing video games, playing basketball, having a great time. But when you got him on the set it turned and he was all professional, all in character and always delivered for us.
The release of "Titanic," I think, was very hard for both of them, because I don't think either one of them ever wanted to be stars. That was never their goal. Their goals were to be great actors, and suddenly Leo couldn't go out. He couldn't go to the supermarket down his block anymore. I think that suddenly he started wearing the baseball cap and covering his eyes and doing those things. So I think that was a very big adjustment for them, to suddenly become celebrities and stars out of this film.
Even with all of Jim Cameron's previous successes, this movie was a bit of an underdog when it was first released, then it turned into a full-fledged phenomenon. What was that experience like?
When we set out to make the movie, we thought that it was an important movie, an important story to tell, not just because of the romance, but because of the metaphors and the themes that people could walk away from the movie with. During the making of the film, our goal at the time was to make a movie that would be akin to something like "Dances With Wolves," where we knew it was going to be a three-hour-plus movie. We would hope that it would do okay at the box office, but none of us could have ever expected the phenomenal success that we were lucky enough to realize. As we began to experience that in the release, I was so proud of Jim and the fact that through the process of making this movie, which was such a difficult movie to make, he never lost sight of the story. He never lost sight of the characters, and that's why people go to movies. That's why they go over and over to movies, because of the characters, it's because of the relationship. He didn't get caught up in the spectacle. He didn't get caught up in the production hardships. He didn't get caught up in the visual FX. He always kept the focus on story and character.
You and Jim will be working on new "Avatar" movies – two in a row! What's been the process on that? Have you cracked the story yet?
I think that we've cracked the basic story for both films. Each film has to be a standalone movie on its own – and the way that I look at it, Jim Cameron has done two sequels in his career and I'd argue that both times those sequels have at least lived up to what the first movies delivered on. That's what we plan to do this time, and it all starts with the script. Jim is diligently working on that, with the stories having taken shape and we're already working with WETA Digital and our team of people down at Manhattan Beach Studios to make sure that this production brings technology and efficiency to new levels in the virtual production world.
Is there an innovation you're planning at this point that's going to raise the bar even farther than "Avatar" had?
You know what, I think that we are. I don't know that it's definable. I don't know that it'll be as obviously stated. I think it'll be a result of the final product, when you see the performances up on the screen. Again, movies are about the close-up and the more emotive and engaging we can make the close-up performances as we move forward the better our storytelling is going to be.