The Cast and Crew Of 'Titanic' Once Ate Chowder Laced With PCP, and Chaos Ensued
It’s no secret that nautically themed films are often absolute hell to work on; Jaws had to contend with a seasick crew and a robotic shark that constantly broke down, the Waterworld set sank, and presumably everyone working on The Lighthouse had to put up with Willem Dafoe’s authentic ocean stench. But none of these hold a waterproof LED candle to the madness that went down on the set of James Cameron’s Titanic, the acclaimed epic drama about love, loss, and an old lady who throws away a priceless diamond like a total asshole. Seriously, couldn’t she have just, like, donated it to charity or something?
If they gave out Oscars for behind-the-scenes calamities, Titanic would be … well, Titanic. There were budget problems, injuries, and illnesses when actors portraying the shipwreck victims reportedly suffered kidney infections after long hours working in filthy water. The person who had the worst experience was seemingly Kate Winslet, who caught pneumonia, almost drowned, chipped a bone in her elbow, and was harassed by Cameron who derisively referred to her “Kate-weighs-a-lot.” Cameron’s trademark on-set dictatorial rage was cranked to eleven during the making of Titanic; there have been stories of non-stop yelling, physical assault, and an insane schedule that one crew member called “the closest thing to slavery that I’ve ever laid my eyes on.”
But one notorious Titanic misadventure stands head and shoulders above all others. On the evening of August 8, 1996, Cameron’s production hit the metaphorical iceberg that was a suspicious seafood chowder. This story has been passed around the internet a lot over the ensuing years, often with an accompanying photo of Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio looking as sick and dazed as if Cameron had just explained, at length, the concept of Unobtanium.
But the incident actually took place in Nova Scotia during filming of the modern-day bookend scenes starring Gloria Stuart and Bill Paxton, before Leo and Kate even began working on the project. Shooting near Halifax, far from Hollywood, the production relied on a “backwater” wedding caterer to provide some “memorable meals.” On the last night of filming, their midnight lunch consisted of chowder which, depending on you ask, was either clam, mussel, or lobster-based -- but there’s no arguing that it contained a soupçon of P.C.P.
Unbeknownst to the crew, they all gobbled up the spiked chowder. Compounding the looming disaster, the chowder was really good. It was so tasty that people “were going back for second bowls” and “ate a lot more than usual.” When they got back to set, everyone “seemed confused” and had “trouble getting their work done.” A “female stand-in” fainted. The steadicam operator started seeing “colors and fog” while others saw “streaks.” Paxton felt “so goddamn anxious I wanted to breathe in a paper bag.” Some claimed that it “was like the beginning of an acid trip.” As reported by Vanity Fair, Cameron himself was immediately affected and, worried that his psychedelic symptoms were evidence of a “paralytic shellfish neurotoxin,” he quickly forced himself to puke. According to actor Lewis Abernathy, who played Paxton’s hirsute buddy, one of Cameron’s eyes turned “beet red … just like the Terminator eye.”
When Cameron was done yakking, he returned to the set to find everyone gone “like The Twilight Zone.” A grip herded him to the dining area where an assistant director was separating those crew members unaffected by the chowder from those who were about to take a magic carpet ride straight to Tripsville. That night much of the crew was taken to Dartmouth General Hospital where things somehow got even weirder. People were “moaning and crying, wailing.” With few cases of nausea, it became apparent that this wasn’t simply a case of food poisoning. Everyone was so friggin’ high that they started racing wheelchairs down the hallway and formed a spirited conga line led by legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.
As documented in the Cameron biography The Futurist, the director used his walkie talkie to radio his AD while she was standing directly in front of him. She then leapt at Cameron and stabbed him in the face with a pen before being dragged away by hospital staff all while Cameron sat “bleeding and laughing.” Paxton, freaked out by the “bedlam,” quietly ducked out of the ER with a teamster and went back to the set where he drank an entire case of beer which he later said “seemed to help.” The mania at the hospital eventually died down, and devolved into a game of hacky sack as the collective high mellowed.
The next day the police were called in. Thankfully, one of the producers had saved samples of all the food, and a toxicology report determined that, yup, the chowder was spiked with P.C.P. Why would anyone sneak angel dust into the Titanic crew’s food? Well no one knows for sure and, not unlike the film career of Rob Schneider, it remains one of Hollywood’s great mysteries.
The local police worked on the case for two and a half years, but eventually came up with nothing. Some wrote it off as a prank by “locals who wanted to have a party on the last night of Hollywood in Halifax.” The catering company’s CEO claimed that it “was the Hollywood crowd bringing in the psychedelic shit” adding that “it was done like a party thing that got carried away.” Others were convinced something more sinister was going on. “It had to be an inside job,” Bill Paxton told the Calgary Herald in 1998. “It couldn’t have been somebody from the outside. Somebody had a grievance.”
Could it have been one of the caterers themselves? Cameron reportedly freaked out at one of the servers earlier in the shoot when he was given a hot cup of soup, which he suddenly threw away, screaming: “Don’t you ever serve me boiling soup again!” Of course, solving a mystery where the suspects are disgruntled employees of James Cameron would discourage even Hercule Poirot. One theory, suggested by Cameron, was that it was a former crew member, who had recently been fired for “creating trouble with the caterers.” Cameron added that, since he promptly fired the caterers, the mysterious culprit’s plan ultimately worked.
While this may all be funny in retrospect, it certainly could have ended in tragedy. 87-year-old Gloria Stuart was present that night, but thankfully didn’t ingest the chowder. Still, it serves as a good reminder that it took the indefensible actions of an unidentified criminal for people to actually have a fun time while making a James Cameron movie.
Top Image: Paramount Pictures