Andrew Wight, who produced Ghosts of the Abyss and Expedition: Bismarck, and who has made many documentaries with both the Discovery Channel and the longer-established
National Geographic Society, suggests: "I think there was probably more of a potential for a pissing match with NGS. Discovery was quicker
to defer to Jim's judgment and experience as a world-class filmmaker. I don't know that he would have gotten the same latitude from NGS to do what he has done."
The expedition arrived at the site in the ocean 16,000 feet above the Bismarck's wreck on May 27 of this year, the 61st anniversary of the ship's sinking. The two German survivors they had brought with them, Walter Wentz and Karl Kuhn, threw a wreath from the back deck into the gray, rolling ocean. Two days later, Cameron did the first of six dives.
For Cameron, going inside the Bismarck was a very different experience from the Titanic. For one thing, he didn't know what was going to be around the corners. "The Bismarck had a much more threatening feeling," he says. "It felt grimmer. I mean, there's a romanticism around the Titanic. And you know when you're exploring those spaces in the bow, the dining room, you can appreciate them for their past beauty. But they're not in and of themselves the scene of the death, because most of the people evacuated abovedecks and went into the water or got to the stern. In the Bismarck, you're surrounded by death everywhere you look."
To get approval for filming, Cameron promised the German government that his crew would not be disturbing any human remains. Cameron's team argued that in high-pressure, low-calcium water, aided by opportunistic deep ocean bacteria, the bodies would have long since dissolved. When you die like this, everything dissipates over decades except whatever leather you were wearing. "What you get is – it's like something from a science fiction movie – there will be a set of clothes there," Cameron explains, "and the shoes."
From their dives, Cameron and his people pieced together what happened to the Bismarck in its final hours, and much of Expedition: Bismarck will deal with evaluating such evidence, particularly in relation to whether in the end the proud Germans scuttled the ship, as survivors have claimed. (Cameron's conclusion seems to be that they did, and that, though the ship would have sunk eventually, it was the scuttling that directly dragged it down.) Just as in his movies and in his life, Cameron is prepared to challenge the line between fantasy and reality in order to dramatize the truth as he sees it: He filmed a week of reenactments with about 25 actors in North Carolina.
His brother Mike was involved throughout the expedition, and they both have big plans for the groundbreaking new ROVs. In fact, when this story was first being reported, Mike agreed to take me out off the California coast to explore a wreck with one of the ROVs. Then word came that the brothers had fallen out, and Mike would no longer cooperate with the story. It was then that I recalled the look on James Cameron's face when we had been discussing his turbulent youthful collaborations with his brother. "It's always been like that," he had said, and smiled; maybe the falling out had already begun by then. "And the psychology of that persists today."
"That's called families, and that's called brothers," says Wight, who sometimes flies helicopters with Mike for fun on his days off from working with James. "One week they're not talking, the next week they are. And when you're close in age and you have one brother who has done exceedingly well publicly, and you reckon ... and you probably are as smart if not smarter ..." He stops and reconsiders. "Sibling rivalry, at any age, doesn't care whether there's someone wanting to do an article on you."
Wight describes how the Cameron brothers work together: "One will propagate an idea and then, like a terrier dog, one will pick it up and run with it and then claim it as his own and develop it, and then it'll bounce back to the other for more refinement, which usually results in the first major argument. It can be adversarial – they really push each other to the limit... . If you ever meet Jim's mother, she's quite a card when it comes to talking about Mike and Jim – she just wants to knock their heads together and make them grow up."