Titanic: An Interactive History Production Notes


The best funded, best reviewed, and longest feature I’ve worked on. It was in production for well over a year and I learned that when the facts are on your side you can defend material you want in your film all that much more powerfully, even when working for a large corporation as we were in this case, electronics giant Phillips.

An interesting phenomena that happened to me during this project was that for most of the writing phase no one seemed to care much about the title and then when it started to all come together, it became a number of people’s favorite production out of all the titles that Phillips produced. It taught me you have to keep the faith.

This was the dawn of what today has become DVD. I found myself being an interactivity pioneer. I heard the word “edutainment” for the first time and Titanic won a number of awards including best interactive documentary. There were no rules as to how this stuff was done, what a menu was supped to do, how to tell a story that was also interactive, all of that. This was exciting, but I saw the interactive media end coming shortly after Titanic was released. Too much money was being pumped into an industry that, though it had some huge moneymakers, was not a dependable source of income. So though Titanic was widely released, its shelf life for availability was short. The technology was outdated almost as soon as it was released as DVD had better resolution. Later as everybody talked about the Internet being the place to go I knew that bubble would burst as well and stayed out of it.

The problems that pushed the release of Cameron’s Titanic feature film back time and time again helped doom an upgraded, more widely technologically based adaptation of my Titanic project for CD-ROM. This documentary was however used as a resource for the features Art Department and there was talk of me being hired as a historical consultant.

Phillips Interactive Media went out of business and the ready-to-market CD ROM sits in a basement somewhere in France last I heard. Someday I’d love to adapt this for DVD and get it back in release.

THE MAKING OF "TITANIC: An Interactive Exploration"

by Jay Woelfel Writer, Director, Associate Producer

Philip's Titanic CD-I was to be the interactive version of Madison Press's Book Titanic: An Illustrated History. Beyond this it was to be a comprehensive study of the Titanic disaster and its rediscovery. The book itself was not available in any form when I was first contacted about writing the script.

I was recommended because of my background in editing (film and video) and because the producer (Matthew Gross) who recommended me for the job felt it was something I might be interested in and willing to spend the many months of research on.

It was a happy accident for me since I had been interested in ships and the Titanic since I was about five years old. Some of my first memories are of going to and from Japan on a liner in the 1960's. These sorts of early liner memories are something I have in common with the primary resource experts I would be lucky enough to work with on the production, Don Lynch, Ken Marschall, (Titanic Historical Society, and Madison Press's Book) and Walter Lord. (Author of "A Night to Remember" and "The Night Lives On.") Between them they had over 80 years of collected research to share with me.

But first I began rereading every book I had, and every other book I could find, on the Titanic for what turned out to be six months before the final contracts were in place and we officially began work on the CD-I.

As soon as the production phase began I found that I only had 18 weeks to finish all research and scripting, the first section was due in only 6 weeks. During this time we also searched for all of the motion picture footage available of Titanic or survivors. There are a number of documentaries and feature films about the Titanic. I watched all of them to find a way to make Titanic CD-I unique among them.

It was a process, in many cases, of deciding what to leave out. Survivor Eva Hart, who just died this year, was omitted from our documentary because there are two other documentaries that fully tell her story. It was also a process of including people who, although well known, just couldn't be left out. Specifically this meant "The Unsinkable" Molly Brown. Material on Mrs. Brown came from the Denver historical society, since apparently her family disowns her to this day. We also covered the most famous people on board at the time of the disaster, American Millionaire John Jacob Astor and his wife, more about them later.

No footage was used from the number of feature films done on the Titanic, I felt showing this fictional material would lesson the impact of the real documentary footage we found. A guideline for everything in the disc, from music to art direction, was that it be as authentic to Titanic's time period as possible. The survivor interviews were previously unseen material shot by Darrell Rooney.

What we found shaped what we would use. Rooney had interviewed Michel Navratil and we had found extremely rare footage of Michel and his family from 1912. No other documentary had told his story, which was a good one, or shown either his interview or the historical footage. This was an opportunity too good to pass up.

All of this filmed footage was important but the bulk of Titanic would be told through photographs and illustrations. Madison Press had, at that time, published three books on the Titanic with a total of 600 photographs. We knew from the start that we needed about 2,500 photographs to tell the story we wanted to tell. Our only full time image acquisitions "staff" was The Production Coordinator, Marischa Slusarski.

In some cases you could wait weeks to receive a photo in the mail only to have it turn out to be exactly the same photo you already had from three other sources. The result of this was that images were still being found in obscure libraries and personal collections right up until the last days of production in January 1994.

We arranged an interview with the original Titanic, and general, historian, Walter Lord. Despite being afflicted with Parkinson's disease he rose to the occasion and was a great help. We flew to New York and spent two days interviewing him and going through his meticulously organized Titanic collection.

All of these materials were incorporated into what became a complex multicolumn script over 600 pages long. I had hoped from the start that we might get a "name" to narrate the final script. Patrick Stewart was my first choice. I was told several times that we would never be able to get him, but in the end we did. It was the first interactive production he had done.

He knew almost nothing about Titanic and was moved and very excited by the material, which was ideal. During breaks during the recording session he would still be asking me Titanic questions. He treats voice over work with the same devotion he would give to an on screen performance.

Stewart's voice over track became the guideline for the timings of all the sequences. Frequently with documentaries the narrator must match his timings to already created visual sequences, I preferred to work the other way around. Patrick Stewart told me this was easier for him as well. Stewart had narrated countless Nova shows on PBS and we recorded far more material in far less time than he had for those shows.

Everything was coming together when one day while making a fact checking call to Walter Lord he mentioned casually that he had a letter written by a friend of John Jacob Astor's in 1912 which related what his wife said about her experiences on the night of the disaster. It was "common knowledge" among Titanic experts that she had never spoken to anyone about her husband's death in the tragedy. This was a real find.

This was great luck, but also a last minute addition. The voice over was already recorded and could not be redone. I took her account and was able to make it fit into the existing voice over. I did take the liberty of changing a second hand account into a first hand one. This was the only way we could use the material and was the only time I did anything like this to a survivor's account. These additional "character" voices were to be recorded by other actors in a final voice over session in a matter of weeks.

The problem was that I had to get clearance to use the letter, Walter Lord had received it from another author, I will respect his privacy and not reveal his name. Time was running out and all I had was a name and a very old address. I wrote him a letter and we starting calling long distance operators for a phone number.

I left messages in New York and in Florida before finally getting through to the person, only to then find that it was an entirely different person with the same name. This poor person was afraid I was some kind of stalker and was relieved to find out I was just a frustrated documentary director.

That was it, no clearance, no Madeline Astor. Then the next day the real person called the office, having just gotten my letter!

There are over three hours of material in the finished CD-I. But there was information that we didn't have room for, or couldn't get accurate confirmation of in time for the disc. One of these things dealt with the coal fire on board Titanic during her voyage.

Just recently Titanic coal has been put up for public sale. In order to make the sale of this coal more exciting for potential buyers they have mentioned the fact that Titanic was on fire before she sank. It is true that Titanic had a fire in one of her coalbunkers. The fire was so hot that it actually warped the metal of the bunker's bulkhead. The fire may have been one of the reasons that Titanic's passenger, designer and soon to be victim, Thomas Andrews, seemed so on edge during the voyage.

The theory now being circulated is that Titanic was racing to New York in the fear that the fire would spread and cause an embarrassing disaster on the new ship. As a result of this, Titanic was traveling too fast to steer safely away from the iceberg, and this high speed is, and has always been, the widely accepted primary reason for the disaster.

The problem with this theory is that the coal fire was completely extinguished on Saturday, well over a day before the collision. There is no cause and effect between the fire and the deadly speed.

In this case as in many cases before, and many sure to come, Titanic refuses to give up her secrets this easily. I did everything I could to tell Titanic's story accurately and with the drama it deserves. It is after all the crucial event, and in many cases last event, in the lives of over 2,200 people. Everyone who worked on the CD-I production seemed to be taken in by Titanic's tragedy and mystique and it shows in their fine combined work on the finished product.

Jay Woelfel

March 1, 1996

POSTSCRIPT: Author Walter Lord finally lost his battle with Parkinson's disease in 2002. Titanic experts Ken Marschall and Don Lynch have worked on all the Titanic projects that director James Cameron has been involved with both behind and in front of the camera. Coal from the Titanic remains on sale as part of a traveling exhibit of artifacts recovered from the ocean floor.