James Cameron Made The Decision To Focus More On Jack And Rose In Titanic's Editing Room

(To celebrate "Titanic" and its impending 25th-anniversary re-release, we've put together a week of explorations, inquires, and deep dives into James Cameron's box office-smashing disaster epic.)

In 1912, the Titanic — a ship that was called "unsinkable" — hit an iceberg and sank, killing over 1,500 of the souls onboard. Some of those people were well-known business magnates, authors, and company owners. Many of those celebrities (some of whom survived) appeared as on-screen characters in James Cameron's 1997 epic film "Titanic." Some of them include Molly Brown (called "The Unsinkable Molly Brown"), played by Kathy Bates, business tycoon John Jacob Astor IV (Eric Braeden), Colonel Archibald Gracie IV (Bernard Fox), a writer who penned a book about the disaster, Benjamin Guggenheim (Michael Ensign) the mining titan, Isidor Straus (Lew Palter) and his wife Ida (Elsa Raven), the former owner of R.H. Macy and Company, among many others.

When the film came out, some people were curious about why Cameron focused on a love story between two fictional characters rather than real people who either survived or had their final moments documented in some way. One of those people was interviewer Charlie Rose, who spoke to Cameron in 1997 before the film was released. Rose had seen the film and had questions about how the decision was made.

'It puts you in an emotional place of openness to the greater tragedy'

Rose (Charlie, not Kate Winslet's character) had a quibble about the narrative and asked Cameron why, with people like Benjamin Guggenheim dying on the ship, we don't learn more about them. He said, "I wanted to hear more about what they were saying to each other. You see it, but you don't hear much conversation." 

Cameron said that the decision was made during the editing process and that he did actually shoot some scenes with these characters that he was "very enthralled with." Still, he explained, that had been covered before. He was happy with the actors and their performances, "so it was worthy to spend the time to shoot it." When he went to put it together, though, things shifted. Cameron continued, saying:

"In the cutting room, I found myself focusing more on Jack and Rose because I felt personally that one could be very factual about Titanic and very correct and not be as truthful emotionally. And in a way, sometimes, by spending more time with the fictional characters, it puts you in an emotional place of openness to the greater tragedy without the specific details." 

Jack and Rose are the audience's way into the story. If we're focusing on other characters, it becomes about "who was on that ship" instead of "so many people from all walks of life were on that ship." I certainly feel that way. I didn't want to watch a who's who film. There are documentaries about that. Plus, the famous ones were all rich, and a whole lot of people were on that ship who weren't. Seeing half the tale through Jack's eyes was pivotal for the story Cameron was telling. 

'You experience the thing that has never been filmed about Titanic before, the aftermath'

As Cameron said, having the love story there put the audience in a different emotional place, setting them up for the end of the film. Cameron explained: 

"I think that the audience does go through this kind of experiential curve where they do allow themselves to open up, and at the end, when you experience the thing that has never been filmed about Titanic before, the aftermath, the immediate aftermath of the people in the water and the moral dilemma of the people in the lifeboats, you're very sensitized at that point, and I think it has a lot of power for that reason."

Those final moments got me in the heart more than any other. You expect someone like the morally bankrupt Cal (Billy Zane) to grab a random child to get into a lifeboat, but watching the panic and fear in the survivors that kept them from returning for more people is gut-wrenching. Whether it was the fear that drowning passengers would pull the boat under, that the tiny lifeboats would be sucked in along with the giant ship, or just a terrified desire to get away, it is hard to watch under any circumstances. When you've been following two characters that you've come to love, you fear for them, giving you a tiny bit of insight into what everyone was thinking in those moments. 

Excuse me. My eyes are leaking, and I have to go take care of that now. 

"Titanic" will return to theaters for its 25th anniversary on February 10, 2023.