By Jerry Marlow
In August of 1996 I opened a letter from On Location Casting Inc., which was mailed out to all members of the Titanic Historical Society, asking me to be an extra in the new James Cameron film, “Titanic.” The letter, inviting indeed, read:
Would you like to walk the decks of the Titanic? Step gracefully down the stairs of the Grand Staircase, dance a waltz with the first class passengers or a lively jig in the third class General Room? Would you like to see “behind-the-scenes” at the making of a major motion picture?
On Location Casting, Inc. would like to invite THS members to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I immediately sent off what was requested and was contacted three days later. Much to my surprise I found an exciting message on my answering machine when I came home from work that day. It was from the casting company. “Hello, this message is for Jerry. This is Amy Catenford calling from On Location Casting. Jerry, I received your letter and would like to cast you in the film as a steward. But it would mean taking a leave-of-absence from your job for six months. There is pay involved. You would be housed with the actors in Mexico, and receive a weekly salary. Please give me a call at your earliest convenience.”
When I phoned Amy back she gave me precisely 48 hours to give her the “yes” or “no” to the offer. I could tell from my conversation with her that things in Hollywood move very fast. So without delay I approached my employer with a request to take a leave-of-absence from work.
Like so many companies in the ‘90s, my employer was downsizing to make ends meet. In their words, I would be, “Re-hire-able.” At the same time, a resignation from a 10-year veteran of the company would be most welcomed. After thinking it over to myself, I concluded, You can always find another job, but you can’t always be a cast member in a big budget Titanic movie.
My mind was set. I would accept the casting agency’s offer. At the same time, I was in disbelief that this was actually happening to me. Amy Catenford could sense this when I phoned her back with my decision. I will never forget her last words at the close of our conversation, “Don’t worry, you are in the film for sure.”
What followed was a good week of mentally preparing myself for this venture. Life as I knew it then, was about to be completely put on hold.
The day I decided to give formal, written notice of my intent to leave my job, I phoned On Location Casting to make sure everything was still “go.” Nothing up to this point had been in writing. Amy had some very distressing news for me. Apparently, according to her, Fox wanted them to recast all the extras in the film with Mexican nationals, and that they didn’t want to pay American wages. She didn’t think they were going to be able to use me at all.
Disaster had struck! I was sinking by the head! A deep, non-fatal, knife wound in my side would have been less painful than this news. I wanted that part more than anything in the world. It would have been an honor to play a steward on that ship. I wasn’t the least bit concerned about money. I would have done it for free.
Three days after I faxed a letter to Ed Kamuda, founder of the Titanic Historical Society, explaining just how upset I was at the way I was treated by the casting agency, I received another phone call from Amy. She told me they wouldn’t be able to give me their original offer, but they could use me for a few days as an extra later in the production, at which time they would call me. I was very happy with that. Just being able to be a part of this film was more than I could have ever dreamed of. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was the last I would ever hear from her.
A couple of months passed, and still no word from the casting agency. So I thought I would give them a call. When I dialed the number, which was somewhere in Mexico, it sounded like the phone line was either connected to a fax machine, or possibly changed. I called directory information for all area codes in the Los Angeles area, and there was no listing for On Location Casting, Inc. This was, indeed, the end. I had to reconcile myself to the fact that it just wasn’t meant to be.
Time, as they say, is a healer. Just when I thought I had shaken it off, a friend of mine at work brought me a picture of the movie set she had cut out of Star magazine. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought to myself, My God, they’ve completely rebuilt the Titanic! And they have the nerve to sink her without me!
You would think I would have been over it by then. Over the fact that I was offered, then rejected. Not that easy for Jerry Marlow. I began to think about what it was going to be like when the movie was finally released. My favorite subject in the world, Titanic. I was going to have to see it! How could I possibly enjoy it? It would destroy me every time I saw it, to think that I was supposed to be in the film. I was supposed to be a steward on the Titanic! A movie star! Had this been any other film, “Terminator 3,” “Aliens 4,” or “Jaws 26,” I could have not have cared less about being rejected. As a matter of fact, up until On Location Casting had approached me, I had never experienced the desire to be an extra in a film, period.
Who to call? My mother, of course. When everything else fails. Mothers are always supportive, particulary mine. Much to my surprise, she was shocked that I was still upset. “I never could understand your fascination with all of this,” she went on. “It’s only a movie. My God, Jerry! A ship sinks! A bunch of people die! What do you do when there’s a plane crash? Do you get this excited about a plane crash?”
It is truly sad when you can’t even get the sympathy of your mother. She must have thought I was insane at that time. Maybe I was.
How dare they offer me the world, and then take it back!
Finally I contacted the feature department at 20th Century Fox, and obtained a phone number for On Location Casting in Rosarito, Mexico. This time, when I dialed their number, I expected it to be the last time. All I wanted was their mailing address in Los Angeles. My plan was to write them a letter, explaining to them just how I felt about their dealings with me. A friendly young lady by the name of Tina picked up the phone. I recognized her name from the original letter I received from On location Casting. I asked her if Amy Catenford still worked for the company. Apparently she did, but she had some other commitment which took her away from working on the film early in its production. Just for the heck-of-it, I decided to tell my story, one more time. Tina was very understanding and sounded like she had some compassion for me. She said she would see what she could do about using me for a couple of days as an extra. Of course, I wasn’t holding my breath. I figured I had nothing to lose. So I waited.
Oh yes, one thing I left out about my job: At the time, I worked graveyard shift. And if you have ever worked that shift you know it’s not easy. It is very difficult to get good rest when the sun is shining, and the rest of the world is hard at it. Something always seems to be more important than sleep. Two days after the last phone call to Mexico, I had such a day. I believe I went to bed around six o’clock in the evening, worn out from a long day of running around town taking care of my weekly trips to the market, bank, public library, etc. It was way past my bedtime. I would have to rise at 11 o’clock to make it to work on time at midnight.
I was awakened around eight by the sound of knocking on my bedroom door. My roommate, John, had some fantastic news for me. He told me there was a message from the casting agency, and they wanted me to report to their office for fitting the following morning at 9:30 a.m. Hallelujah! There is a God! I thought to myself. After I played back the recording to have a listen for myself, I began to dance around in circles like a child, putting on a real show for my roommate, who incidentally happened to be the most supportive friend of my Titanic dream. He was one of maybe a handful of my friends who knew just how upset I was over the whole ordeal. He knew this meant the world to me. Jokingly I said to him, “Oh, do you think I should go?”
“You better go, or I’ll have you committed!” he said.
We both laughed, and I began to pack my bags right away. Wait a minute! I have to be at work at midnight! Luckily a good friend of mine swapped days with me at the last minute, so I could go! I tell you, I don’t know what I would do without my friends. There is no way I could have driven to Mexico in the morning after work, and be there on time. I decided I would drive to San Diego that night and check into a hotel. I would be able to cross the border in the morning and avoid all of the traffic.
So off I went in my little Japanese economy car. I’ll never forget how excited I was when I jumped on the freeway, singing aloud a few bars of the Navy son Anchors Aweigh. At this point, I felt I had really accomplished something. Being an extra in a movie is easy, anyone can do it. But being an extra in a movie that you want to be in, isn’t. I can tell you that from experience.
Two hours later I checked into a hotel in San Diego. I am a very light sleeper, and it is not very uncommon for me to not sleep the first night I crawl into a strange bed. This night was no exception. The combination of being a light sleeper and of being as excited as a child on Christmas Eve, I couldn’t sleep a wink. I lay awake all night, tossing and turning. When I saw the morning light creep through the curtains, I knew it was all over. Oh, the trials and tribulations of being a grave yarder. I had worked third shift for about two years, and was never able to get used to surviving on little or no sleep. Yet I managed to survive anyway. Thank God for coffee.
A quick stop through the drive-thru of Jack in the Box, and I was back on the freeway, heading for the border.
The Mexican border. What a shock, if you have never been there. Although the scenic route I took was beautiful, the air was not at all refreshing. It was very obvious to me that this country did not have strict smog rules.
I was driving no time at all before I saw the movie site. I’ll never forget what it was like the first time I saw the ship. There it was, the Titanic, as big as life! Finally I had arrived at Fox Studios Baja. But this didn’t resemble anything I had ever seen in Hollywood. The complex looked more like a military outpost than a movie studio. If it weren’t for the four towering funnels rising high above the Titanic set, I would swear they were shooting a Desert Storm picture.
Having never driven into Mexico before, I wasn’t sure how far Rosarito was. I had arrived over an hour early. I went to the front gate and spoke with a guard who told me I couldn’t pass thru the gate until my scheduled time with the casting agency an hour later. He was kind enough to allow me to park just outside of the gate until that time.
No problem. I just happened to bring with me my hard back copy of Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember. I had, up to that time, read the book more times in my life than I could count. It stands out to me as the Holy Book on the subject. I will always enjoy it. Thank you, Mr. Lord. Two chapters later, the guard tapped on my car window. It was time for me to go in. They gave me a pink, laminated card which read, “Titanic extra,” to clip on to my shirt. In exchange for the card I had to leave them my driver’s license. No problem, I would have given them the shirt off my back to be where I was then. Hell, I would have even been my own stunt double!
I had no idea what to expect next. I knew they were almost finished with the picture. A crane was busy removing the two forward funnels from the Titanic set as I walked past it, heading for the casting office. Luckily I thought to bring my camera. I snapped several pictures and continued on my way, stopping occasionally to get a different view of the set. It was magnificent. Every detail was exact. Every porthole, every rivet. The cargo cranes, lifeboat davits, deck benches, and ventilators, were all perfect. Through the open Promenade Deck I could see the windows to the Verandah and Palm Court. I was in awe.
As I walked through the doors leading to the casting office I wondered who they would cast me as, or as they say at the agency, “fit” me as. What a colorful world I had stepped into. The extras and their costumes looked fabulous! I could easily distinguish the third class passengers from the second class, and the second class from the first class. Great care was obviously taken in the wardrobe department.
I soon discovered what was in store for the day. Above the voices and scrambling of hundreds of people changing into costume, a loud, authoritative woman could be heard. This was the voice of Bo Bobak, the second assistant director of extras. But you would have never thought she was second in command. She was obviously running the ship. Loudly, she bellowed, “Carpathia crew members, over here! If you were fitted as Carpathia crew, you need to report here!”
Wow, I thought. I may have missed the Titanic! But could I have made it in time to rescue her survivors?
When I gave the girl at the desk my name, she, of course, could not find it on her clipboard. I certainly didn’t drive to Rosarito expecting smooth seas after all I had been through already. I explained to her that this was my first day, and that I was from the Titanic Historical Society. She asked me to have a seat, and that they would call me when I was needed.
I opened my backpack, pulled out my book, and took a seat just outside the area where about six hairdressers were busy putting the finishing touches on freshly fitted extras. Deep into my book I fell. Thomas Andrews had just made his tour with Captain Smith, surveying the damage the ship received from her collision with the iceberg.
What perfect ambiance as I read. Young men walking all around me wearing White Star Line sweaters and uniforms. First, second, and third class passengers strolling about. The perfect setting for reading Walter Lord’s classic account of the disaster. Sitting next to me was a mother and her 10-year-old daughter. The beautiful young girl was fitted as a first class passenger. She was darling in her little dress and coat. She glanced over at what I was reading and said, “Hey, I’m reading that book.” She pulled a fresh paper back copy of A Night To Remember out of her purse. I was impressed. Her mother went on to explain to me that her daughter had appeared in the film throughout, and that she had become very interested in the story of the Titanic. She had appeared in the Southampton scene and, most recently, the sinking scene. The proud mother was very excited about seeing the movie upon its release. Apparently there is a shot where the girl runs out on the Boat Deck, frightened, and separated from her parents. “It was a beautiful shot,” explained the mother. “I really hope they keep it.”
An hour crept by, and I began to get antsy. The woman at the casting desk told me it wouldn’t be much longer. So I sat back down.
“Titanic survivors!” yelled Bo. “If you’re a Titanic survivor, don’t forget to grab a lifejacket!” She pointed to a big pile of the ghostly, white lifejackets stacked on a table across the room.
By this time, I was tired of reading. If I would have kept on, I would have surely fallen asleep. So I entertained myself by watching the Titanic survivors walk over to the table and retrieve their stage props. Props they had probably worn for months of shooting. Occasionally there would be a flash of a camera as the cast posed for keepsake photos. All of these snapshots, I’m sure, were taken without approval. No cameras or watches were permitted on the premise.
An attractive young brunette, in her early twenties, took the seat to the right of me. Her name was Sandra, and she had just driven down from Los Angeles. We struck up a friendly conversation. She was an up and coming actress who blew off an audition in L.A. this very day just to be an extra in the film. “This seemed like so much more fun,” she commented. “I just had to see what was going on down here.”
Then, a young man, around 30 years old, took the seat to my left. He was in sweats, and looked like he had just returned from the gym. I could tell he had been here before. He greeted several familiar faces of extras he recognized as they trotted past us, en route to the shooting site. What I didn’t know then was that this guy was going to turn out to be one of my best buds. Steve Lassiter, a San Diego resident, gave me the complete rundown of his history as an extra in the film:
“The Southampton scene was awesome! There were over 1,500 extras on the set that day. I was a dock worker,” he said.
He went on to explain how amazingly the scenes were directed. Cameron, along with his assistant directors made sure each group of extras knew exactly what they were to be doing. The orchestration was magnificently executed, Steve said. The costumes and cast were perfect.
“Kate Winslet was gorgeous when she stepped out of her motor car, at the dock, in a beautiful violet and white dress,” he delivered with star struck eyes. “I never was much for redheads, but she was an exceptional beauty.”
Being a dock worker was his first job in Titanic. He had returned for later shooting as a third class passenger in a sinking scene. The action took place on the Boat Deck after all the lifeboats had left the ship. The remaining passengers and crew raced towards the stern in horror as it angled higher and higher out of the water.
Stuntmen jumped over the side, about a 40-foot fall, into the 17 million-gallon tank of water over which the set was erected. Steve couldn’t believe how close the jumps were together. “One false move and they could have landed on one another,” he said, “surely resulting in death.”
Cameron had to yell several times, “Cut!” Apparently in the middle of shooting many extras would stop what they were supposed to be doing to watch the stuntmen jump over the side. “You’re supposed to be running for your lives” The angry director would belt out, “I don’t want to see this happen again!”
Our conversation was interrupted when Bo Bobak walked over to us. Apparently all of the fitted extras had already left the building for the shooting site. One of her assistants, Rudy, was standing fast at her side. She looked down at us, “Why haven’t these people been fitted?”
“I don’t know,” replied Rudy.
“Get them over to wardrobe right now! I need Carpathia crew!” She said in a you-had-better-snap-to voice.
The three of us, Steve, Sandra, and myself, moved over to the entrance to wardrobe. In front of the doors stood Carpathia officers as if ready for an inspection. Sandra was asked to report to the other side of the building where the ladies were to be fitted. Steve and I were called into the wardrobe area.
Over on one wall were enlarged photographs and artist renderings of famous Titanic crew members and passengers. There was Capt. Smith, Bruce Ismay, the Astors, and the Strausses. I began to feel a sensation of excitement building in me. Here I was in wardrobe. I never thought I would ever get this far. Who would they fit me as?
Just at that moment a wardrobe person walked over to me. He asked, “Are you supposed to be a steward or a seaman?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, wishing I had the answer for him.
He gave me a quick look up and down. “Seaman,” he said.
And with that, the man escorted me down a long aisle of costumes. I was asked for my pants, shirt, and coat size. He then pulled a Cunard jacket and uniform pants from a rack.
Much to my surprise, he informed me that all of the uniforms of Carpathia and Titanic were authentic, and not reproductions.
I was then handed my shoes and a White Star Line sweater. I politely informed him, “But the Carpathia was a Cunard ship, not a White Star Liner.”
He nodded his head, “I know; we ran out of Cunard uniforms. Just turn the sweater backwards and put on your coat. They’ll never know the difference.”
“How clever you are,” I exclaimed.
With that he handed me a Cunard cap. Everything fit, including the shoes.
It was about this time I began to feel very comfortable about my new surroundings. The people there at Fox Studios Baja had a way of making you feel special. They really took their time in making sure that every extra looked like a million dollars. You couldn’t help but feel like a star in that casting office. Everybody was so friendly, too. It was very different than I had imagined it. Everybody was enthusiastic about working in the James Cameron film.
Hats off to author Don Lynch and artist Ken Marschall. Everywhere I turned around I saw soft-backed copies of their Titanic ~ An Illustrated History. I was informed by Steve that Cameron encouraged the entire cast, actors and extras, to read the book. He wanted everyone familiar with the Gilded Age.
So off to the hairdresser I went. This had to have been the most famous haircut Jerry Marlow ever received. A “20th Century Fox Special.” The production took about 30 minutes, maybe longer. I thoroughly enjoyed this pampering. Taped up on the mirror in front of me were profile photographs of first, second, and third class passengers from 1912, with an obvious emphasis on the hairstyles. I could tell that the young man who was cutting my hair had cut many heads of hair that day. He really did look tired. But what a professional. It was most certainly the best looking haircut I had ever received. I thanked him and left the area.
In the hallway I met up with two other freshly fitted Carpathia crew. Then, one of the extras Assistant Directors escorted us out of the building, towards the direction of the shooting site. How proud I felt trotting around the complex in an authentic Cunard uniform.
As we worked our way around the rear of the titanic Titanic set, I stopped to peer up at the structure. Towering high above my head was the studio’s recreation of the massive stern of the leviathan. I looked straight up to catch a view I will never forget. It was like looking up the side of a skyscraper. What a beautiful design Titanic’s stern was. We have all seen the photographs and artist renderings of her name on the stern. But I never realized from those images just how large the lettering was. The gold letters which spelled out “Titanic” were huge.
We were led around the stern to the other side of the giant structure. There we saw stage 3, the Carpathia mockup. I was starting to feel like I was at Disneyland. Could this have been the Indiana Jones ride standing before me? One amazing sight after another. Cameron had seen to the reconstruction of Carpathia’s Promenade Deck, Boat Deck, deck houses, superstructure, and Bridge. This set, like Titanic’s, was as big as life.
We were just about to climb aboard when Deborah Scott, the movie’s costume designer, instructed us to put on our uniform jackets, which we had been carrying over our arms. It was an exceptionally warm day and a rather lengthy walk from the casting office.
“Please keep your jackets on,” she instructed. “If Jim sees you wearing the White Star sweaters, he’ll kill me.” She delivered her predicted reaction of the director jokingly, but with some definite seriousness. Cameron was a perfectionist. This, I was about to learn from first hand experience of working with the Hollywood legend.
We then ascended several flights of stairs up to the Boat Deck. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The set was beautiful. Paying close attention to details, I gave it a complete look over. As far as I could tell, it was as perfect a replica as the Titanic set. The lost liner’s lifeboats were stowed about the decks, meticulously detailed down to the tiny red White Star flags across their bows. It was as if the old photographs and artists’ paintings of the rescue ship had come to life. The ship, along with the actors and extras, were very convincing. I felt like a time traveler who had been transported back to 1912. What an unusual experience. It was exhilarating.
It was only a few moments before one of the extras assistant directors walked up to me to give me my instructions. His instructions were quite easy to follow: I was to pick up the discarded lifejackets of the Titanic survivors, which were tossed about the Boat Deck, and eventually work my way over to the giant pile of them building up on deck in front of the Bridge superstructure.
Oh, I can handle this, I thought.
Exhausted survivors of the disaster were spread out all across the deck in steamer chairs, on blankets, and atop of winches. I couldn’t get over how wonderful all of the extras looked in their costumes and hairdos. Many of them, particularly the officers of both the Carpathia and the Titanic, had faces as distinctive as any well-known Hollywood movie star. Many of these people could have been, and probably were models.
After receiving my instructions, I took it upon myself to find a starting point, since one was never given to me. I chose to stand next to Titanic lifeboat #11, which was stowed up and behind an enclosed deck bench. Seated in the bench were three third class men, all survivors of the recent sinking.
It was about this time that a man, in his early 40s, with buzzed off gray hair and a beard, walked up to me. He had a walkie-talkie on his belt. Dressed casual, in jeans, he looked like he could have been any lighting grip or camera technician. He asked me, “Do you know what you’re supposed to do?”
“Yes,” I answered sternly. “I’m supposed to go around picking up lifejackets after the survivors.”
“Good,” he said with satisfaction. . He walked away confident I could handle the job.
It was about this time that my buddy Steve Lassiter walked over to me. He looked sharp too, in his Cunard blues.
“How’s it coming so far?” He asked me.
“Just fine. I’m having a blast thus far!” I began to look around the deck, peeping my head around a ventilator. “Where’s Cameron? I want to meet him.”
He let out a laugh. “Why, you were just talking to him! That’s Cameron over there!” He pointed to the gentleman I had just spoke to with the buzzed gray hair and beard.
“No way!” I sputtered out. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” My face lit up like a Christmas tree. “Wow - I spoke to James Cameron! This is really exciting!”
“Isn’t it though?” Steve commented.
Around this time I began to hear the gravelly voice of Josh McLaglen, first assistant director to James Cameron, the director. He belted out, “Starting places, everybody!”
Just before they started rolling, Cameron walked up to a child survivor, who was sitting on a blanket next to her mother. Cameron asked, “What do you have?”
The little girl smiled, holding up her doll. The Director stared at the child for a good minute or two, studying the shot, as if he were a motion picture camera rolling away.
“That’s good,” said the Director. “Hold it up, so we can see it.”
It didn’t take me long to figure out that the man was a stickler for detail. What I would observe throughout the day was the personal attention he would give to many of the extras. He wanted everything perfect. I couldn’t blame him.
Josh’s voice rang out again, “Starting places, everybody! We’re rolling...
Cameron joined in, “Background...action!”
I began my very simple task of picking up lifejackets from the deck and working my way over towards the big pile forming below the Carpathia’s Bridge. A nurse moved around me to serve hot tea to recovering survivors in deck chairs. The rescue ship’s Doctor stood fast, assisting the weather beaten, disaster ridden passengers and crew of Titanic. Billy Zane, who played Cal in the film, descended some stairs to our deck, searching for Kate Winslet, who portrayed young Rose DeWitt Bukater. This whole shot probably lasted three minutes at the most, give or take a minute.
“Cut!” Cameron said.
We did about three takes before the camera men paused for a moment to reload the Panavision camera. These cameras were very impressive, as were the monitors, microphones, and equipment used in the scene.
“Reset, everybody!” Josh ordered. He worked well with Cameron. It was obvious he was his right hand man. “Rolling...”
“Alright, background...” said Cameron. “Action!”
Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 or more times we went through our motions. I was perfectly prepared for this. It was all fun to me. I was playing “Titanic” on a large scale. Here I was on the giant playground that God must have surely made for me. And there was at least one other big kid on the playground that day, James Cameron. It was a joy to watch him direct his baby. There was a boyish gleam in his eyes as he darted around the deck between shots.
Several more takes and they were through with the scene. I was excited when I learned what was going to take place next. This was the scene when the survivors first appeared on deck after being rescued from the boats. Cameron walked up to me again, and this time handed me a big stack of blankets.
“Here,” he said. “Pass these out to the passengers as they appear on deck.”
“Okay,” was my response. As simple as my task was, I was glad to be a part of it all. Then, much to my surprise, he handed me another large stack, on top of what I was already holding. I’m talking about maybe a three and a half foot tall stack of thick, wool blankets. They were extremely heavy. I anticipated problems with maneuvering them, but at the same time wanted to please one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. So I kept my complaints to myself.
We ran through a quick rehearsal. Cameron decided he wanted to move me up farther in the center of the crowd of passengers already on deck, who were anxiously awaiting the arrival of other loved ones. I was really glad he did. In this shot, the Panavision camera trucked right past my head, following Kate as she walked through the crowd.
We took, what seemed to me to be more takes in this scene than the one prior. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the blankets were weighing me down. My arms were killing me. So I did what I had to do to relieve myself of some of the strain. In between takes I would toss a couple of blankets from the bottom of my stack across the deck, and out of the shot. It was an absolute must. I was beginning to sweat bullets. I don’t even think Cameron or any of his crew realized what I was doing. But it worked, and I still managed to give the director what he wanted.
Then came the most exciting scene of all. Bruce Ismay appeared on deck to be “booed” by the surviving passengers of the ill-fated liner. I continued to pass out blankets as he walked passed me. It was obvious to me that this particular scene was created by Cameron. Most of Titanic’s passengers had no idea who Ismay was. The ones who were familiar with him were too much in shock to pay much attention to the fact that he survived at that point of the rescue. But this was Hollywood. I couldn’t blame the writer for adding some frosting to the drama.
Several takes went by, then we broke for dinner. When we returned an hour later, night had fallen upon us. We arrived to find the Carpathia’s deckhouses ablaze with light. It was a beautiful sight. Large spot lights were aimed straight out of the portholes from inside. If you got too close, you were blinded. But from the distance it must have looked fantastic on film.
From the open deck I glanced over the starboard rail, and up at the dark Titanic set. This was the most awesome view of all. I knew at that moment that I was very lucky to be where I was, on the set of this great motion picture. The ship was standing up on end, as if taking the final plunge. The lights were out, just as they did go out a few moments before the end. The lifeboat davits were extended out, empty, with their sea lines dangling. It was as if I were a swimmer in the water witnessing the death of the ship. It really did look real. I felt like I was there. What was missing was the horror of the true event; The freezing water and the sound of 1,500 people dying. Thank God this was only a movie.
On the port side of the large open deck, stood 50 to 75 Titanic survivors. They were dressed in warm clothing, some with blankets wrapped around them, and most of them holding umbrellas. Josh explained the scene to them.
“Okay, people. The ship is pulling into New York Harbor, and we are passing the Statue of Liberty. Make sure you are looking out at the sea as we pass the statue!”
There were no Carpathia or Titanic officers and crew in this scene. We stood behind the cameras. Steve, myself, our nurse friend Sandra, and several other officers and crew climbed the stairs leading to the Bridge wings of the Carpathia. From there we stood to get a bird’s eye view of the action. It was very exciting, standing on the port Bridge wing, looking down at James Cameron as he directed. Suddenly we heard the loud roar of a huge crane engine starting. The crane, which rose high above the Carpathia set maneuvered a long pipe with three large sprinklers on it, directly over the Titanic survivors. The pipe remained suspended about thirty feet above their heads.
I could hear Cameron saying something to one of his crew members. Then, water pressure could be seen building up in the long hose which connected to the sprinklers overhead. What followed was movie magic. As if some mad scientist had just activated his weather machine, it began to rain cats and dogs. What was so remarkable about this stage prop was the fact that it really looked and felt real. Although I and my Carpathian companions were relatively safe from the drizzle by the partially enclosed deck for which we stood, we could still feel the mist and chill which would accompany an actual rainfall.
In this first wet shot the survivors were instructed by Josh and Cameron to excitedly run to the railing to view the Statue of Liberty as the ship passed. Of course there was no statue in the water. This was done on blue screen and would be added later. So the extras had to pretend it was there. Cameron must have shot 10 or 15 takes of this. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these soaked people. There was one boy, probably a third class survivor, who got wetter than anyone. Cameron had him hanging on to some of Carpathia’s rigging for which he had climbed for the entire shoot. Poor kid. He must have come down with a death of a cold following the filming. But he kept up his role like a real trouper.
After they finished shooting this particular screen there was a surprise interruption by a Mariachi group which marched out on deck singing and playing their guitars. Cameron appeared to be most annoyed.
“Josh, … is this?” He asked his assistant.
One of the Mexicans in the group was carrying a cake with what appeared to be many candles burning. They were apparently singing a song to Josh in Spanish wishing him a happy birthday. Cameron joined in on the fun and danced a little to the music in front of the assistant director. Steve and I assumed that Cameron must have planned this. No one in his right mind would ever do anything to interrupt this director at work. But he played it off like he didn’t know anything about it. It was a special moment. All of us, cast and crew, joined together to sing him the traditional Happy Birthday song in English. It was fun. We all felt like a family.
As the shooting resumed, it became increasingly chillier outside. I was so cold that I would lean up against one of the portholes which had a spotlight shining out of it, to take advantage of the heat produced by the lamp inside.
In the next scene, which took place in the same vicinity as the last, Kate Winslet, who plays Rose in the movie, is handed a piece of jewelry, the Heart of the Ocean, by a steward. It is raining again and poor Kate gets a real soaking. In this particular shot, she appears to be stunned following the disaster and unconcerned about not having an umbrella over her head. In between takes one of Cameron’s crew held an umbrella over her head until Cameron yelled, “action!”
It was impossible for me to hear the dialogue from where I was standing. But I could tell what was going on. This appeared to be a very tedious scene for poor Kate. But I’m sure being one of the main characters in Titanic, she was quite used to being wet. Later she would admit to almost being drowned in one of the sinking scenes in an interview which appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Cameron continued to entertain me with his directing skills. I can remember him playfully confronting Kate in-between a take.
“You said you wanted the role, didn’t you?” He giggled.
She appeared to be a real trouper herself. So she smiled and continued through the many takes which followed.
Don’t ask me why, but Cameron didn’t think there was enough rain in the shot. It looked quite real to me. But he must have been looking for something else. He turned on a garden hose and held a steady stream of water over some survivors and Kate. It was a real sight to see. Here was one of the greatest directors in Hollywood playing with a garden hose. He seemed serious, but could he have been doing it just to tease the leading lady?
They must have worked on this scene for a couple of hours. I became exhausted just watching it from above. I can only imagine how tired the soaked cast and crew members were below.
Finally a break. One of the extras directors relieved the Carpathia crew of duties for the day. I was so tired from the long day and from not sleeping the night before, that I could have collapsed right there on the deck.
When we were walking back to the casting office, Steve and I ran across a piece of Titanic hull plating. I couldn’t help but fathom the thought of taking it home as a souvenir. But it was much too large. Steve kicked it around and several rivets came loose. I picked up two off the ground and pocketed them. They appeared to be made of plastic and were fastened to the hull plate by what seemed to be large staples. It is very interesting that they were as light as a feather. I remember once picking up an authentic rivet taken from Titanic’s sistership, Olympic, and it was quite heavy.
After changing back into our civvies, we were handed a piece of paper which we were to take to the cashier in exchange for our pay. The extras at Fox Studios Baja were paid daily for their work.
As Steve approached the cashier’s window to be paid, I glanced down at my watch. I couldn’t believe it. My friend and I had worked on the film for 14 hours. I did it all on only two hours sleep the night before. Was I crazy? Or just plain unsinkable?
My final surprise for the day came when I walked up to the cashier’s window. When I handed the man my piece of paper he handed me some Mexican currency.
“What?” I asked. “I’m American, I can’t spend this money!”
The Spanish speaking, elderly man, who couldn’t speak English, or at least made me believe he couldn’t speak my language, just nodded his head somewhat angrily, pointing to the writing on the piece of paper I had handed him. I showed it to Steve.
“What a bunch of crap,” He said. “They paid you Mexican wages. Don’t they know that you came from San Diego?”
“How much did they pay you?” I questioned.
“Eighty American dollars. If I were you, I would go talk to the guys in the casting office. Those pesos add up to about 30 of our dollars!”
I then walked over to the office and spoke with Rudy. He told me that I should have mentioned the fact that I was an American when I first arrived in the morning. I thought to myself, Please, my Southern accent with a twist of Californian wasn’t hint enough that I was a U.S. citizen?
I didn’t press the issue. I was so grateful to have been a part of the production that I thanked Rudy for having me down.
Shortly after returning to my home in Southern California, I contacted a dear friend of mine, who happened to be a famous television star from the ‘60s. This kind, veteran actor, who had been most supportive of my dreams throughout the years, responded to me in a letter, as follows:
“Your Titanic experience is a hell of a way to get into Show Biz - but you might as well face the facts. It ain’t easy, never was, never will be. The ‘animals’ are out there, and they always pay you in pesos, or rubles, or dinars, or some such currency. And they are basically corrupt and uncaring about ‘Us.’ But you did meet a top director - and it was an ‘experience’ - But - you never give up your Day Job.” Jonathan Harris