Behind Titanic - Way Behind

By Kit Bonner

"Four hours," I answered.

"Why didn't the Titanic hoist distress flags to signal other ships?"

With remarkable restraint, I replied, "It was the middle of the night!"

At once, one of the screeners cried out, "You'll do. Get him an ID badge!"

Hundreds of people (all seemingly young and thin) were running around the set shouting orders and making excuses to each other. Finally, I asked a young woman what I should do.

"Pretend you're important and demand something," she said. Then she was gone. So I promptly yelled for a script, a cast and crew list, and someone to take me on a tour. It worked.

As the tour unfolded, I asked my guide when the filming would begin. "Shut up, and don't ever talk to me like that again," she snapped. Since she was obviously the stronger of us, I complied. A few minutes later, she said, "This is where the makeup people work, and I will never date you!" I began thinking to myself that this was not a movie studio at all, but a veritable insane asylum.

A few moments later, she pointed out, "You don't seem to have any questions Mr. Bonner."

"You told me to shut up. And besides, I'm married and cannot date other women," I said sheepishly.

After a few seconds of blank stares, as if I were the crazy one, the bulb lit up, and she explained, "I'm sorry, but all of us are connected by personal communicators. I was telling a guy in construction to stop bothering me."

Back in the headquarters office, I was told to review the script for any errors and bring it back the next day. What I turned in the following morning was a masterpiece, with 80 changes for historical accuracy. An assistant director took one look at my handiwork and became pale when he realized I actually had corrected Director James Cameron's writing.

"Do you know what you've done?! You have written on Jim's work! No one is allowed to do that! In the future, do not write anything down, just think of it." Thus, I learned my first lesson in film-making protocol—think, but never commit.

Six weeks later, they called me back, and for the next several months I worked with the actors who portrayed the officers and crew of the ship. They performed magnificently and truly looked and behaved the parts of 1912 mariners. Periodically, I would get some highly technical and detailed instructions from one of the assistants: "Make them do some navy-type stuff!"

Occasionally, I would go beyond thinking and commit. In one scene, scantily clad Kate Winslet embraces Leonardo DiCaprio on the ship's bow. It's very romantic, but my remark that the wind-chill factor in the North Atlantic at that time of year was probably 15° went ignored. Love conquers all!

The boiler- and engine-room scenes demonstrated the sheer power of this ship and really made the film come alive. Looking for sinewy young men to play stokers for the engines, we auditioned some 150 of all ages and sizes and finally found 30 who fit the bill.

In the interest of authenticity, the art department had painstakingly painted rocks black, making them look nearly like lumps of coal but dismissing the fact that each shovel load must have weighed 75 pounds. Teaching the stokers to throw the coal into the furnaces was a real test of patience. They threw it on themselves, the floor, me, the director—everywhere but the furnace. To lighten the load, we found some actual coal, only to be told that real coal did not look as "realistic" as the expensively conceived painted rocks. Reminder—think, but never commit.

My contribution to this film pales in comparison to my seven-year-old granddaughter Sarah's. She accompanied me one day to Skywalker Sound Studios, where she suggested that we use the dinosaur foot stomps from "Jurassic Park" to emulate the rhythmic thump of the Titanic 's engines.

Acknowledging that it was worth a try, the sound engineers punched up the Jurassic Park track, and sure enough, mixed with other sounds, that's what you hear in the movie.

Sarah also frightened a number of executives during a meeting and preliminary screening of the film. "This is boring," she blurted. In response, the execs immediately began sweating and citing demographic studies of potential viewer appreciation. Sarah quelled their fears only when she told them she meant that the meeting was boring, not the film.

I have received more than 1,000 messages about the film via e-mail to my Internet website. Most center on the truthfulness of the love story, but one—from someone obviously oblivious to the workings of a 1912 ocean liner—I shall never forget.

To "how many men did it take to operate the tiller on the Titanic ?" I responded, "25 on one side of a 100-foot-long wooden tiller and 25 on the other." I'm convinced the question came from the guy who interviewed me for the consultant job in the first place.

Mr. Bonner is a naval historian and author living in Fair Oaks, California.


Mr. Bonner is a naval historian living in California. He served as a technical adviser for James Cameron's motion picture Titanic. For his behind-the-scenes look at the film's production, see the September-October 1997 issue of Naval History and the April 1998 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.

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