Titanic is back. The 1997 blockbuster featuring star-crossed lovers Jack and Rose is being released in 3-D. Starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, Titanic was the highest-grossing movie in history — until Avatar.
Both films were directed by James Cameron, who has just returned from a landmark expedition to the deepest point in the ocean: a spot in the far western Pacific called the Challenger Deep.
"They don't call it the Challenger Deep for nothing," Cameron tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "Because the idea is that if you can go to the deepest spot in the ocean, you can go anywhere in the ocean. There are so many of these extremely deep places that, together, form the last unexplored frontier on our planet."
Seven miles down in the ocean, Cameron says, you enter a world of darkness and extreme pressure, like "a train car sitting on your thumbnail. There was life down there," he adds, "but the overall impression when you get there is that this is as sterile and barren as the moon. And I never felt more apart from the world."
That darkness and loneliness can be transcendent, Cameron says, when you're experiencing something human beings have never seen before. "So there's a responsibility to bring that back, and tell that story ... and I don't mean this as a reference to my film, but to be a sort of an avatar, somebody that is the embodiment of human consciousness."
And, of course, there's always the possibility that you might find aliens down there, the way explorers did in Cameron's early film The Abyss. "Well, I've seen plenty of aliens," he says, laughing. "I mean that metaphorically. I've done lots of deep dives, and I've seen stuff that I certainly never could have imagined, and there's something pretty amazing about that."
Cameron says that while Hollywood special effects can be jaw-dropping, it's almost impossible to be as creative as nature has been in adapting to extreme habitats like the Challenger Deep.
Cameron says he got the idea to make Titanic after being inspired by a real-life exploration of the famous wreck. "I sort of joke about this, but it's more true than not, that I made the movie because I wanted to do an expedition to the wreck of the Titanic, and I did explore it," he says.
While Cameron has criticized the conversion of 2-D movies into 3-D in the past, he says he has been planning the upgraded version of Titanic for years. "I always believed it could be done, and it could be done well," he says. But, he says, too many films were converted quickly, on the cheap. "When we converted Titanic to 3-D, it took us 60 weeks, $18 million, and 300 artists to do it right, and I was involved every step of the way."
And it was the smaller-scale scenes that were surprisingly effective in 3-D, Cameron says. "Rose running through the corridors trying to find Jack, as the water pours into this kind of maze that she's lost in," he says. "You feel the kind of claustrophobia, and her sense of, you know, rising desperation, I think, is really enhanced by the 3-D."
Cameron says he considers himself both an explorer and a filmmaker. "I think the through-line there is storytelling. I think it's the explorer's job to go and be at the remote edge of human experience and then come back and tell that story. So I don't see them as that separately."
Cameron films his expeditions, and he says that after life support, the technical system that most concerned him in the Deepsea Challenger was the filming equipment.
"If I see something amazing at the bottom of the ocean and I'm not able to shoot it and bring it back in 3-D, then it's a tree falling in the forest. So I see them as being two aspects of the same basic impulse," he says.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
"Titanic" is back. And this time, the 1997 blockbuster with star-crossed lovers, Jack and Rose, is in 3D.
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MONTAGNE: "Titanic" stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, and it was the highest-grossing movie in history, until "Avatar." Both, of course, were directed by James Cameron, who this week reached the depths of the ocean in his tiny sub in an area in the far Western Pacific called the Challenger Deep.
He joined us to talk about "Titanic" and the dive.
Welcome to the program.
JAMES CAMERON: Hi. Thanks for having me on, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Well, this dive is the deepest place and obviously the most challenging place. I mean...
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CAMERON: They don't call it the Challenger Deep for nothing, even thought it was named after a ship called - you know, a British survey ship called Challenger. You know, âcause the idea is that if you can go to the deepest spot in the ocean, you can go anywhere in the ocean. There are so many of these extremely deep places, that together, form the last unexplored frontier on our planet.
MONTAGNE: So, there you are, down nearly seven miles. What was it like down there other than very, very dark?
CAMERON: You lose the sunlight in the top few hundred feet of the water column. And so, you're falling through darkness for sort of 90 percent of the descent. And you're in a realm of extreme pressure where, you know, where any life that lives there has had to adapt to pressure that's like the equivalent of a train car sitting on your thumbnail. And there was life down there. I saw these little arthropod creatures and a couple of other very small animals.
But the overall impression, when you get there, is that this is as sterile and barren as the moon. And I never felt more apart from the world, the normal world, of, you know, kind of life, and sunlight and people.
MONTAGNE: Was that a nice feeling, a transcendent feeling?
CAMERON: Yeah, exactly, that's the interesting thing. It is somewhat transcendent when you're just sort of alone and that far removed. Because you know you're in a place that human beings don't belong and that they've never seen or experienced. And so, there's a responsibility to bring that back and tell that story, to be - and, you know, and I don't mean this as a reference to my film - but to be a sort of an avatar, somebody that is the embodiment of human consciousness.
MONTAGNE: Clearly your approach is serious and sophisticated. I am wondering though is, was the little boy in you hoping to glimpse alien creatures down there?
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CAMERON: Well, I've seen plenty of aliens. I've, you know, I mean that metaphorically. I've done lots of deep dives. And I've seen stuff that I certainly never could have imagined. And there's something pretty amazing about that. You know, when you work in Hollywood it's a world of artifice and you can create anything with visual effects - anything that you can imagine. But it's almost impossible to be as imaginative as nature has been in adapting to these extreme habitats.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about the movie. And is it true, you first became interested in making the "Titanic" partly because you were fascinated by what was then a new expedition of the actual sunken Titanic?
CAMERON: Well, that's absolutely true. I mean I sort of joke about this, but it's more true than not, that I made the movie because I wanted to do an expedition to the wreck of the Titanic and explore it. And I did convince 20th Century Fox to pay for an expedition to the Titanic to film it for a movie, which is a pretty trippy idea if you think about it. It's kind of cheeky that we're going to do a real deep ocean project, in order to shoot footage for a fictional film.
MONTAGNE: When it came to turning "Titanic," transforming it into a 3D movie, about the time "Avatar" came out, movie makers were rushing to convert, very quickly, 2D movies that had been filmed in 2D. And you were - rather, famously - railed against that as a sort of opportunism. Obviously you were prepared to do something different.
CAMERON: No. Well, see, I was always planning on doing "Titanic." - we did our first test to convert "Titanic" to 3D in 2005 - even before I had started "Avatar." So, you know, I always believed it could be done and it could be done well. What I was saying in the aftermath of "Avatar" - when people were doing, you know, films like "Clash of the Titans" and doing a five-week wonder or six-week conversion - you have a choice, today.
We have the best digital 3D cameras that have ever existed. You can make a movie in 3D. We didn't have that choice on "Titanic," short of creating a time machine.
MONTAGNE: So what did you do? I mean I...
CAMERON: Well, when you go - but you see the thing is, when we converted "Titanic" to 3D, it took us 60 weeks, $18 million, and 300 artists to do it right. And I was involved every step of the way, making creative decisions throughout the process.
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, there were some scenes that seemed built for 3D. I think like you're walking up the gangway into the ship, that long walk up there. But I'm wondering, your favorite scene...
CAMERON: I think that what was surprising to me was that the less sort of spectacular scenes, not the big scenes with thousands of extras and the ship breaking in half, and all that. But some of the sort of more intimate two-character scenes took on an enhanced sense of reality, and almost the sense that you were just there.
You know, Rose running through the corridors trying to find Jack, as the water pours into this kind of maze that she's lost in. You feel the kind of claustrophobia and her sense of, you know, rising desperation, I think is really enhanced by the 3D.
MONTAGNE: Just one last question: do you consider yourself more of a filmmaker or an explorer?
CAMERON: I think it's both and I think through-line there is storytelling. I think it's an explorer's job to go and be at the remote edge of human experience, and then come back and tell that story. So I don't see them as that separately, as everybody else does. You know, when I'm doing an expedition, I'm making a film about the expedition and about what we learn and what we see. And, for me, when I'm in the sub the technical system that I'm most concerned about - at least, well, maybe second most. First most is the life support system.
But second is, you know, the lighting and the camera systems. Because, you know, to me if I see something amazing at the bottom of the ocean and I'm not able to shoot it and bring it back in 3D, then it's a tree falling in the forest. So I see them as being two aspects of the same basic impulse.
MONTAGNE: James Cameron directed "Titanic," which comes out in 3D next week. This week, he successfully reached the deepest place on Earth, the Challenger Deep.
Thanks very much for joining us.
CAMERON: Hey, Renee, thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.