Titanic Turned Kate Winslet Off Working With James Cameron

I was a heavy Titanic nerd as a teen; if you ever needed to know how many rivets held the ill-fated ship together, I was your guy. I read Walter Lord's "A Night to Remember" over and over, and I spent many hours poring over those haunting images of the wreck in Robert Ballard's "The Discovery of the Titanic." As a result, I was pretty sniffy about "Titanic" when it first hit theaters.

Like everyone else, I was wowed by the way Cameron re-staged the disaster on a massive scale, but cringed at the cheesy dialogue and Celine Dion's theme song, which was on the radio roughly every 15 minutes at the time. My main beef was that relegating the real-life passengers to the background in favor of a fictional upstairs-downstairs romance felt disrespectful to those who died.

My Titanic mania has faded over the years, so I can no longer give you the tonnage of the ship or a breakdown of survivors and victims by passenger class. As my geekery waned, my appreciation of "Titanic" increased with each viewing, to the point that I now absolutely love the film. I've come to adore its extravagance, corny script, melodrama, and even that bloody song, as a work of epic camp. Then, when the iceberg strikes, it turns into one of the best action movies ever made.

Would "Titanic" be so beloved around the world without Kate and Leo looking so swooningly fresh and beautiful at the heart of the movie? For my money, these are two of their greatest performances, wrestling so sincerely with that ridiculous dialogue and somehow selling it. The film rocketed them to global fame, with Winslet receiving an Oscar nomination. Yet, for all the success and accolades, she vowed never to work with Cameron again.

So what happens in Titanic again?

We open in the present day as oceanographer Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his team are scouring the wreck of the Titanic for a fabulously huge diamond known as "The Heart of the Ocean." When their latest televised search only turns up a nude sketch of a woman wearing the stone in a necklace, they receive a call from an elderly woman claiming to be the person in the picture. They fly her out to their research vessel quick-sharp to probe her about the jewel's whereabouts, which prompts a three-hour flashback...

Now it's 1912, and the supposedly unsinkable RMS Titanic is about to set sail on her fateful maiden voyage. Penniless artist Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) wins his berth in steerage on a hand of cards, while several decks above in first class, Rose DeWitt Bukater (Winslet) settles into her luxurious staterooms with her mother and insufferable fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane).

Rose is only marrying the guy to maintain her family's social status, on their uppers since her father died. As the liner heads out across the Atlantic, she is struck with despair at her situation, considering throwing herself overboard rather that wed such a monster. That's when she meets Jack, who talks her down. They become fast friends, much to the disapproval of Rose's mother and Cal.

They inevitably fall in love, and Rose resolves to disembark in New York with Jack rather than Cal. Their happiness is short-lived as the Titanic strikes an iceberg and the plight of many of the passengers becomes evident. With the ship sinking in the Atlantic without enough lifeboats and Cal on a jealous rampage, can they survive the disaster?

Cameron went bigger than ever before on Titanic

"Titanic" was the first film to hit $1 billion at the box office and racked up 11 Oscar wins, including Best Picture. Yet for all its runaway glory, success was by no means certain during production. Costs spiralled and studio executives panicked because, as always, Cameron wasn't doing anything by halves. Aside from filming at the actual wreck site, he built a 17-million gallon tank in Mexico and a scale replica of the ship to recreate the disaster.

Cameron had long developed a reputation as a punishing director to work for, and his exacting methods and explosive temper was blown up to supersized proportions on set (via The Times):

He became known as an uncompromising, hard-charging perfectionist and 300- decibel screamer, a modern-day Captain Bligh with a megaphone and walkie-talkie, swooping down into people's faces on a 162ft crane.

For his part, Cameron has always insisted that he suffers as much for his art as anybody else and that his dictatorial approach comes from a deep, burning desire to make every one of his movies the best it can possibly be. He said of the production (via Far Out):

I had dark hours on Titanic as dire as Piranha II. We missed the iceberg by that much. But I'm at my best when I'm neck-deep in ice water trying to work out how we're going to keep the lights turned on when the water hits the bulbs.

That's fair enough, but we are talking about a guy who designs his own submersibles for his hobby of exploring the bottom of the ocean. Cameron is probably happier than most people when it comes to spending several hours in a tank of water, as the testimonies of his cast and crew reflect.

Kate Winslet almost drowned making Titanic

"Titanic" was a tough shoot for everyone involved, with actors and crew members suffering flu and kidney infections from spending so much time in the water. Winslet was very vocal about her experiences on the film, telling of exhausting 20-hour shifts, grueling night shoots, Cameron's notorious temper, and a few scary moments. Then 21, she told Los Angeles Times, "I chipped a small bone in my elbow, and at one point I had deep bruises all over my arms. I looked like a battered wife."

She also suffered hypothermia from prolonged periods in the water, but the most alarming moment came while shooting a scene where Winslet and DiCaprio are trying to escape a rapidly submerging corridor, only to find their path blocked by a gate. They manage to get it open in the nick of time, but Winslet's coat got caught up and she found herself underwater and fighting to set herself free. She explained:

I had to sort of shimmy out of the coat to get free... I had no breath left. I thought I'd burst. And Jim just said, "OK, let's go again." That was his attitude. I didn't want to be a wimp so I didn't complain.

While she admitted that there were times when she felt "genuinely frightened" of Cameron, she also noted that the crew bore the brunt of his temper and that she also liked and admired him. She also praised his work ethic and commitment:

Logistically it was a very tough film for him as much as anyone. By the end I was existing on about four hours' sleep a day, but Jim was existing on three.

An offer Winslet couldn't refuse?

Despite the success and fame "Titanic" brought her, Winslet was typically candid when she dismissed the possibility of starring in another Cameron film (via The Guardian):

He has a temper like you wouldn't believe... You'd have to pay me a lot of money to work with Jim again.

She made a tidy $2 million for playing Rose and is rarely short of work, accolades, and significant fees these days. She was reportedly paid $650,000 per episode and won an Emmy for her role in "Mare of Easttown," so presumably Cameron allocated a decent chunk of his casting budget for "Avatar 2" to make her reconsider her stance and sign up to play Ronal, a member of the reef-dwelling Metkayina clan. 

No doubt both Winslet and Cameron have mellowed with age. She's now in her mid-40s and the director is approaching 70, and she is glowing about working with Cameron again 25 years after their torrid time on "Titanic." As she told the Hollywood Reporter:

It was so wonderful to work with Jim again...Time has changed him. Jim has become a father a few more times over. He is a calmer person. Chilled. You can just feel him enjoying it more this time.

Since "Avatar 2" is a Cameron movie and the subtitle is "The Way of Water," there is obviously plenty of the wet stuff involved. Cameron always encourages extremes, and Winslet and her fellow actors trained in free-diving to prepare for their parts. Working with an instructor, she conditioned herself to the point where could hold her breath for a staggering 7 minutes and 14 seconds, crushing Tom Cruise's previous record for an on-screen breath-hold. No doubt she also thought it would come in handy after her experiences on "Titanic."