When submersibles meet the Titanic, James Cameron is an inspiration
By Alex Marshall
James Cameron, the Academy Award-winning movie director behind “Titanic,” knows about the risks of deep ocean exploration. A seasoned underwater explorer himself, in 2012 he prepared to plummet nearly 7 miles to the world’s deepest known ocean trench.
“You’re going into one of the most unforgiving places on earth,” he said in an interview with The New York Times shortly before setting off: “It’s not like you can call up AAA to come get you.”
Yet he wanted to take the risk. Seeing things “human beings have never seen before,” he said that year in another interview, was more thrilling than filmmaking. “Forget about red carpets and all that glitzy stuff,” he added.
This week, in the days since a submersible vessel carrying five people disappeared on an expedition to see the Titanic’s remains, many movie fans have been waiting for Cameron to give his take on the situation.
Cameron’s 1997 movie “Titanic,” which made over $2 billion at the box office to become one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, reinvigorated interest in the tale of the ill-fated luxury liner, feeding the mystique that spurs some wealthy experience chasers to head miles underwater to see the wreckage site. Cameron has made dozens of visits to that spot in the North Atlantic, and knows the terrain well.
Cameron did not immediately respond to a request for comment made through The Walt Disney Co., which distributed his most recent film, “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
But in past interviews, Cameron has revealed many of the psychological factors that drive explorers to visit shipwrecks, despite the risks, and has also explained why adventurers feel the need to see the Titanic’s ruins with their own eyes.
“I love shipwrecks,” he said in a documentary released with a DVD edition of “Titanic,” and RMS Titanic was “the ultimate wreck.”
Cameron has said that, as a boy, he became obsessed with heading deep below the sea. “I can think of no greater fantasy than to be an explorer and see what no human eye has seen before,” he said in a 2011 Times interview.
In 1988, while making “The Abyss,” about a drowned nuclear submarine, Cameron learned to operate a remotely piloted submersible. Then, in 1995, before he had even written the “Titanic” script, he visited the ship’s wreck to film it for that movie.
Cameron captured the footage by going underwater in Russian-owned submersible vessels. His brother, Michael, a mechanical engineer, constructed a special casing for a 35-millimeter movie camera so that it could withstand the water pressure at 2 1/2 miles below sea level.
In the years since, the director has repeated that trip to the Titanic wreckage and become a major figure in the field of deep sea exploration. “I’ve owned and operated my own submarines and pretty much know everybody in the deep-ocean world outside of the oil business,” he told the Times in 2010. That year, he brought together a panel of underwater technology experts to advise the Obama administration on dealing with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Cameron also directed the documentary features “Deepsea Challenge 3D,” about a 2012 trip to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific, and “Aliens of the Deep,” an exploration of the strange, subaquatic creatures that live in the ocean’s depths.
In February, he released “Titanic: 25 Years Later With James Cameron,” a documentary streaming on Hulu, which tries to answer some frequently debated fan questions about the movie, including whether the characters Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) could have survived by climbing onto a wooden door that floats in the ocean in a key scene.
Such thought experiments are worthwhile, Cameron says in the documentary. “If nothing else, it gives you an appreciation of what those people went through,” he said.