Bill Paxton remembers “Titanic,” and the career James Cameron gave him

 Bill Paxton is 56 now, awaiting the late spring History channel premiere of “Hatfields & McCoys,” in which he co-stars with Kevin Costner. And he’s still basking in the glow of his last series,”Big Love,” a show that had critics swooning.

But about 16 years ago, Paxton had “an incredible front row seat” to the making of an epic, a film that became the biggest blockbuster ever at the time. It was “Titanic,” now back in theaters in 3-D for the 100th anniversary of the great ship’s sinking. And Paxton, longtime pal of director James Cameron‘s, was one of its stars.

“I saw all the trials and tribulations Jim had to face to make his dream come true,” Paxton recalls. “The memory that sticks with me is watching this friend and colleague of mine take on this monumental challenge of bringing this story to the screen.”

The budget was huge — “out of control,” some sniped. The reviews weren’t all raves, not by a long shot. But the box office? People kept coming and coming and coming. The final take was $1.84 billion, enough to make it the highest-grossing film of all time, until Cameron made “Avatar.”

“The media were so negative, and everybody was going, ‘What happens? Oh, the ship sinks.’ Jim took that thing on, took it on the chin and persevered. That’s a testament of a true artist.”

Paxton plays the deep-sea treasure hunter who sets the story in motion, searching for a diamond that one of the last Titanic survivors, Rose (played as an old woman by Gloria Stuart), once wore. His was a “charismatic presence” that opened the film, Andrew Sarris wrote at the time in The New York Observer. Paxton, unlike a lot of the skeptics, saw this hit coming years before it arrived.

“For me, the whole journey started when I read ‘A Night to Remember’ by Walter Lord back when I was a teenager. One of the first things I realized about Jim when he hired me to be on his night crew for Roger Corman‘s ‘Galaxy of Terror’ back 30 years ago was that we both have a love of all things underwater, anything diving related — Jacques Cousteau, Jules Verne and the Titanic. I went on several dive trips with Jim, and we kept that in common over the years. One day he came out to lunch at my house and told me he was getting serious enough to start an outline to write and then make this movie about the Titanic.”

The outline led to a script, then a $200 million, spare-no-expense movie. Paxton was there, with Cameron, every step of the way.

“I’ve always prided myself on being Jim’s adjutant, tried to be his right-hand man on the set, helping him get whatever was called for done,” Paxton says. “My wife turned him on to Beatrice Wood, the 100-year-old ceramicist that he used as a template for Rose. She was a very well known artist (she died in 1998, at 105) who lived near us, and he wanted to meet a 100-year-old woman before writing (the part of) the elderly Rose. Beatrice turned out to be perfect because she was mischievous and full of devilment, and a lot of her turned up in Gloria Stuart’s performance.”

In the years since “Titanic,” Paxton has directed a couple of well-received movies of his own — “Frailty” and “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” It’s something he is getting back to, now that the long run of “Big Love” is over and the long Romanian shoot of “Hatfields & McCoys” is finished. He’s been hired to direct the big-screen version of the TV series “Kung Fu” and is just now lining up a casting director “to find our version of Kwai Chang Caine.”

And as he does, he’ll be leaning on what he’s learned from Cameron on the sets of such films as “True Lies,””Aliens”and “Titanic.”

“You couldn’t have had a better education in the film trade than being an apprentice to James Cameron.”

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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