Going Down with the Ship: An Interview With the Meme-Worthy ‘Titanic’ Band
Exciting news for fans of romance, shipwrecks and stretching your bladder to painful new limits — James Cameron’s classic 1997 blockbuster Titanic is back in theaters this weekend. And while we all love Rose, Old Rose and Jack (who may or may not exist), the most heart-rending moment in the film arguably belongs to another set of characters: The Titanic band, who nobly continue to play even as the ship slowly descends into the icy ocean depths.
All these years later, the doomed group has seen a resurgence in popularity, appearing in a multitude of Titanic memes that have become the preeminent form of accepting fateful disasters on social media, commenting on sporting events, elections or just general turmoil that is in no way aided by more Titanic memes.
So who played these virtuous musicians? Amazingly, most of them belonged to a real chamber music ensemble: I Salonisti. I spoke with violinist Lorenz Hasler — not the guy who says it’s been a “privilege” playing, but the other violinist who feels bad about ditching their friend and goes back. The band leader was played by another musician with more film experience, but the rest of the ensemble was filled out by I Salonisti — although, as Hasler tells me, that wasn’t always the plan.
Apparently, the group was originally only going to supply some music for other performers to mime playing in the movie, so they recorded around 20 tracks in Switzerland. But according to Hasler, “Roughly a month later or so, we received a phone call: ‘Cameron would like to have you in the film.’ He wanted real musicians, because he said if you have actors acting to the playback, it’s never the same. But a group that works together every day or every week has a different presence.”
Initially, Cameron wanted the European group to work for five months, but they talked him down. “We were there for 10 weeks, which is quite a lot compared to the minutes we have in the film,” Hasler says. “But he had us play live in every scene in which the band was heard. So there were many takes where we sit there and play, but the camera is never on us.”
Yeah, that’s right, even when they weren’t actually on-screen, the band was on set playing their tunes purely because it helped create an atmosphere for the other actors. Like in the background here:
As for their big scene, in which they decide to go down with the ship, it was “postponed” because the “mechanism to raise or lower the ship had broken.” This caused a problem because the group had a gig booked in Europe — meaning they had to fly to Italy on a Friday and be back on a Monday to shoot the now famous moment, which was a somewhat daunting task as, remember, these guys weren’t actors. But after rehearsing with Cameron for days, the scene was captured in a single take. “That was one shot,” Hasler explains. “We performed it once.” And while Cameron “wasn’t always easy” on the other actors and could be “despotic” (which... checks out), that wasn’t the musicians' experience: “I was very impressed with his presence. I mean, the way he could sort of make you feel what he thought would be the feeling.”
And yes, Hasler is aware of the memes (“I think the first one I saw was for a Spanish football team”), but what stands out the most to me after talking with him is how these stories about collaboratively selecting music with Cameron, entertaining Billy Zane with anecdotes about concert musicianship and being teased by the crew for their quickie Italy trip are far from what you usually hear about the making of Titanic — namely that the set was full of stress, anxiety and PCP-laced chowder.
“For us, maybe it has to do with the fact that we were not in the film industry circuit,” Hasler tells me. “We are really outsiders who sort of landed on Mars. And I guess for the Martians it wasn’t nice, but for us, it was great.”
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