Titanic's Production Took A Wild Turn Due To Some PCP-Laced Chowder

Nearly 25 years after its initial release, James Cameron's "Titanic" is remembered for a great many things. First and foremost, it remains one of the highest-grossing movies in history and a success on just about every other level imaginable. It won Best Picture at the Oscars, set a record for nominations at the time, and made mega-stars out of its two leads. It is the definition of a blockbuster.

But the filming of Cameron's epic is also remembered for one of the most bizarre and wild on-set incidents ever recorded. Namely, a bunch of cast and crew members ate chowder laced with PCP, leading to rampant sickness, confusion, and, yes, people being high out of their minds.

The incident in question

On August 9, 1996, as was reported by Entertainment Weekly at the time, more than 50 members of the crew ate chowder as part of a late-night meal during the shoot in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, this meal resulted in dozens going to the hospital for what was initially suspected to be food poisoning. However, it was later discovered that everyone was high on PCP. Someone laced this chowder with the drug in question and somewhere around 60 people ate it. As a result, the production was thrown into turmoil.

Bill Paxton, who plays one of the key roles in the film, recalled at the time, "One minute I felt okay, the next minute I felt so goddamn anxious I wanted to breathe in a paper bag. Cameron was feeling the same way." That doesn't happen with food poisoning. That happens when a movie set is unexpectedly besieged by a mind-altering drug. The Halifax Regional Police later confirmed that the cast and crew had been drugged.

Marilyn McAvoy, a member of the movie's art department, recalled, "I didn't have any experience with drugs, but [others] were saying it was like the beginning of an acid trip." Dr. Rob Roy, who treated several people who were affected by the incident, didn't mince words when talking about his patients' conditions: "These people were stoned," he said at the time, adding that they "had no idea what was going on."

Conflicting reports and chaos

As anyone might expect, the scene was pure chaos from then on out. Paxton also recalled that "the crew was all milling about. Some people were laughing, some people were crying, some people were throwing up." According to Vanity Fair, Cameron was actually stabbed with a pen during the incident by one of the crew members. "I'm sitting there bleeding and laughing," the director recalled. The filmmaker also helped to paint a vivid picture of the madness they all witnessed:

"People are moaning and crying, wailing, collapsed on tables and gurneys. The D.P., Caleb Deschanel, is leading a number of crew down the hall in a highly vocal conga line. You can't make this stuff up."

In 2017, McAvoy spoke with Vice about the PCP-fueled night of filming, explaining what it looked like once everyone was given medical attention. An attempt was made to isolate everyone to prevent further issues, though it didn't go according to plan:

"Eventually we all got put in these cubicles with the curtains around us, but no one wanted to stay in their cubicles. Everyone was out in the aisles and jumping into other people's cubicles. People had a lot of energy. Some were in wheelchairs, flying down the hallways. I mean, everyone was high!"

Not to make light of a messed-up situation, but there is an amusing element to all of this. To this day, there remains debate as to what kind of chowder the affected members of the production ate. Cameron believes it was mussel chowder, while Paxton contended it was clam. The Halifax Police, meanwhile, said it was lobster.

Okay, so who put PCP in the chowder?

Aside from not knowing precisely what kind of chowder was laced with drugs, there is one major question that lingers all these years later: Who did it? Officially speaking, nobody has ever been identified. There are, of course, theories and various suspects. One of the prime suspects at the time was UNAD Quality Foods, the company responsible for providing the chowder. Was it one of their employees? Not so fast.

Earle Scott, CEO of UNAD Quality Foods at the time, was rather insistent that his company had nothing to do with the drugging. "It was the Hollywood crowd bringing in the psychedelic s***. I don't think it was purposefully done to hurt somebody. It was done like a party thing that got carried away." 

So, if not the catering company, then who? Cameron put forth the most plausible theory, revealing that, in his mind, it may have been a jaded crew member who had been fired just ahead of the incident.

"We had fired a crew member the day before because they were creating trouble with the caterers. So we believe the poisoning was this idiot's plan to get back at the caterers, whom of course we promptly fired the next day. So it worked."

Despite the mystery and the mishap, it ultimately didn't hurt "Titanic" one bit. The film became a cultural phenomenon and cemented James Cameron as one of the most commercially successful filmmakers to ever do it — even under the temporary influence of PCP.