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Inside Kate Winslet's Near-Drowning On The Set Of 'Titanic' — And James Cameron's Surprising Response

Photo: Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock.com; AirstarInternational, Wikimedia Commons 
Kate Winslet and a photo of the Titanic replica used in the film

"Titanic" is one of the most iconic films of all time—so much so that it's returning to movie theaters today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its 1997 premiere.

The film, directed by James Cameron, made a relatively unknown Kate Winslet a household name, rocketed Leonardo DiCaprio to superstardom, and changed the movie special effects game forever.

Even now after a quarter century, "Titanic" is still the third highest-grossing film in history, behind "Avengers: Endgame" and Cameron's own "Avatar."

Given all that blockbuster glory, it's easy to forget that "Titanic's" production was such a mess it endangered not only the film's box office chances but also its actors lives.

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Kate Winslet called the making of 'Titanic' an 'ordeal,' and she nearly drowned while filming. 

Part of what made "Titanic" such a success—and an "ordeal"—was Cameron's insistence that the movie's sets and stunts be real and not CGI whenever possible.

This meant that when Kate & Leo were doing those death-defying underwater scenes, that was no CGI wizardy—and in Winslet's case, "death-defying" became literal.

While filming a scene on the flooded Titanic set, Kate Winslet's coat got caught and pulled her underneath the water.

The incident happened while filming on the movie's Rosarito, Mexico set, where Cameron built a 700-foot replica of the Titanic. 

During a scene in which Winslet and DiCaprio's characters flee an enormous flood of water as the ship sinks, Winslet's long, heavy overcoat got caught on a metal gate.

The water on the set continued to rise, trapping Winslet beneath the surface for a terrifyingly long time.

"I had to sort of shimmy out of the coat to get free," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I had no breath left. I thought I’d burst."

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James Cameron made Winslet immediately film the scene again, even though she'd nearly drowned.

Cameron is known for being an exacting director, and not even a near-death experience could deter him from getting his shot.

Once Winslet had escaped her coat—and drowning—"Jim just said, ‘OK, let’s go again,’" she told the LA Times. "That was his attitude. I didn’t want to be a wimp so I didn’t complain.”

Cameron defended his decision, telling the LA Times, "she was never in physical danger, but she perceived that she was... If I had it to do over again, I would probably do the same thing."

Winslet told the LA Times that while Cameron is "a nice guy", she was at times "genuinely frightened of him."

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Winslet also suffered hypothermia and the flu on "Titanic," and there was a second scene in which she nearly drowned.

Winslet told the LA Times she chipped a bone, suffered a giant gash after slipping on the Titanic replica's deck, and was so bruised "I looked like a battered wife."

She also came down with the flu, and during a 2017 appearance on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," Winslet revealed she also got hypothermia while filming in the production's water tanks.

And when it came time to film the scenes in which she and DiCaprio flail underwater after going down with the ship, Winslet nearly lost her life a second time.

"For my close-up shots, I was actually weighted down 12 feet under water" she told the LA Times. "Looking back, I can’t believe I allowed that to be done to me."

She had trouble using her air supply, which resulted in her inhaling water while unable to swim due to the weights. And this time, she did not indulge Cameron's work ethic.

"After three takes, I simply said I couldn’t do anymore."

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The production of 'Titanic' was such a notorious disaster the film was expected to be a giant flop.

"Titanic" was the most expensive film ever made at the time, with a budget of $110 million dollars—which quickly doubled as the production hit iceberg after iceberg.

The schedule of "Titanic's" filming in Mexico, Los Angeles, Nova Scotia and the UK ballooned, too, from six months to eight months.

Meanwhile, "Titanic's" 800-person crew and cast of 1,000 extras became a revolving door due to Cameron's perfectionistic demands on unfathomably long shooting days.

And the problems only continued once filming wrapped— post-production delays pushed its release from summer to Christmas 1997, cementing expectations it would bomb.

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Winslet wasn't the only one on the 'Titanic' set that suffered—cast and crew contracted infections and were poisoned with PCP.

The water tanks on "Titanic's" set were filled directly from the Pacific Ocean in Rosarito, Mexico, a resort town just south of Tijuana—and that water wasn't exactly the cleanest.

“The water was filthy, dirt blew into it, and actors splashing around in it got kidney infections," Winslet told the LA Times.

And in a pre-wrap celebration in Nova Scotia, where the film's present-day scenes were shot, the entire cast and crew dealt with poison of a different kind.

Lobster chowder served at the party was somehow spiked with the hallucinogen PCP, sending several people to the hospital.

All in a day's work on one of the most iconic—and messiest—films of all time.

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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice and human interest topics.