A good movie is a miracle. Films require millions of dollars and thousands of people — most of them working unseen behind the camera — and because so few of them are great, it’s worth appreciating the ones that are. But even the good ones are a product of thousands of little decisions, and if you make too many wrong ones, the whole thing could implode. Most of those bad decisions we’ll never know about because the filmmakers, luckily, realized their error and corrected them. But sometimes, we get a glimpse of what could have been a disaster — and when that happens, it’s stunning to think how close they got to screwing up their own movie.
This week, a tweet from Pat Brennan went viral about the original ending for Titanic, one of the most popular and awarded films of all time. (It won 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, and is the third-highest-grossing movie ever.) But before it came to theaters, writer-director James Cameron conceived of and shot a different finale than the one we all know. When you see this alternate ending, it’s hard to fathom that a filmmaker as smart as Cameron would have ever thought of something so hokey.
The rejected ending was included as part of a special edition Titanic DVD from about 15 years ago, and occasionally the internet rediscovers it and is horrified all over again. (This gives Titanic fans a reprieve from their other obsession: arguing about why Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack just didn’t get on that door with Kate Winslet’s Rose.) In the film’s official ending, the present-day Rose (Gloria Stuart) finishes telling her story and then, later, privately drops the Heart of the Ocean necklace overboard. (The priceless, supposedly missing piece of jewelry — which had spurred Bill Paxton’s Brock to search the wreckage of the Titanic — had been in her possession the whole time.) But in the original ending, Cameron had Rose and Brock have a confrontation where he discovers she had the necklace, prompting her to deliver a flowery speech that contains the line “Only life is priceless.” It is very cheesy and not as good as the ending Cameron ultimately went with.
Because so many people have seen Titanic — and seen it so many times — it can be kind of thrilling to watch this alternate ending. It’s like being gifted a brand new part of a movie you know backwards and forwards. But it’s also tempting to be a little smug about this rejected ending: Man, this is pretty bad. What was Cameron thinking?!?
However, I have a different perspective — well, except for the part where we all agree that it’s a bad ending. My take is that the Titanic alternate ending is a good reminder that, even with Hollywood’s most successful films, there’s always a bit of a crapshoot element to their creation. The mechanical shark in Jaws wouldn’t operate properly. Harrison Ford thought the dialogue in Star Wars was so bad that he supposedly told George Lucas, “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it.” And Titanic was widely viewed as a sure-to-be flop once the film’s release date was delayed and the budget ballooned to a then-unheard-of $200 million. The industry’s biggest hits are littered with behind-the-scenes stories about how everyone involved was convinced it would be a disaster. Eventually, those early setbacks become part of these beloved films’ legend, anecdotes ripe for repeating in every interview and 10,000-word oral history.
What’s different about Titanic’s alternate ending is that it’s a mistake you can see — it’s not some hazy, half-remembered story but, instead, something concrete and nakedly horrendous that we all bear witness to. Similar to that minuscule footage of Eric Stoltz as Marty in Back to the Future that’s available online, there’s an uncanny-valley strangeness to the alternate ending that feels wrong — like something we shouldn’t be seeing. Watching Stuart flip the necklace into the ocean and Paxton laugh in that weird, blissed-out way, it’s almost as if Titanic has, for that one moment, suddenly gone insane. The alternate ending contradicts a quaint belief we have about movies, which is that the people who make them know what they’re doing. Sure, some films have blooper reels at the end, but that’s when actors just screw up a line — by comparison, the Titanic alternate ending was something Cameron actually thought at one point was really good. You feel like you’ve been temporarily whisked away to a parallel reality where nothing makes sense anymore.
The truth is, endings are hard to get right — partly because people don’t necessarily agree on what a “good” ending is. Sometimes, as in the case of I Am Legend, an ending gets changed because test audiences hate the original, more downbeat resolution. The 1985 film Brazil famously pitted director Terry Gilliam against his studio, which wanted the story’s hero to triumphantly break free of his oppressive society. (Gilliam got to keep his more pessimistic outcome.)
You can understand the pressure to find the perfect finale: It’s the last thing an audience sees, the final bit of information they get about your movie. Stories are only as successful as their ending — they’re the payoff, the reward, for following along on this adventure — so there’s a lot riding on them. And if they’re a letdown — like, for instance, in Unbreakable, which has an anticlimactic ending — then it tarnishes the whole experience. (You also have situations, as with the horror film The Descent, in which there are different endings depending where on the planet you live, giving fans a chance to debate which version they prefer.) An ending is the filmmaker’s chance to tell viewers how to feel about the movie they’ve seen — it’s like their closing argument. So you don’t want to screw it up.
Funny enough, Cameron has often struggled with his endings. For Terminator 2, he originally opted for something that was upbeat, depicting a future in which an elderly Sarah (Linda Hamilton) is content in the knowledge that she’d stopped Skynet — and, by extension, the downfall of humanity. Ironically, this was one of those rare cases in which test audiences actually wanted something darker, which prompted Cameron to shoot the more open-ended finale that we all know. That was the right choice considering his original ending comes across as a little lightweight.
And before that, The Abyss originally was a much longer film before Cameron cut it down for commercial reasons. But when he got a chance to restore what he’d taken out in a special “director’s cut,” he brought back the movie’s grander original ending, which ups the global stakes for the imminent possibility of World War III and spends more time with oil-rigger Bud (Ed Harris) and the aliens he encounters at the bottom of the ocean. Both Abyss endings are corny, but they’re instructive in that you can see Cameron figuring out how best to nail his film’s emotional payoff. For a movie ostensibly about extra-terrestrials and cool underwater effects, Cameron ultimately saw The Abyss as a story about the power of love, which is why he picked the ending that he did. For him, it was the “right” ending.
A bad ending, or an imperfect one, can haunt a movie for years. (Seriously, it’s been more than 20 years since Titanic came out, and Cameron is still out here defending the actual good ending of his film because people are mad Jack died.) It can’t be easy for a filmmaker who’s trying to satisfy his or her artistic desires while at the same time balancing a massive audience’s expectations — not to mention a studio’s expectations — about how they want the movie to end.
But although the aborted Titanic ending is a warning about how a sweeping tragic romance could have been capsized by not sticking the landing, it’s hardly an isolated incident. Next time you rewatch a movie you really like, pause for a second and consider all the choices that went into making that movie what it became. Then ponder all the mistakes that you never knew about — all the awful creative decisions that someone caught in time and corrected. Cameron’s alternate Titanic ending is really cheesy, but it’s merely the most visible of all the near-misses filmmakers usually prefer we never find out about.