James Cameron is known for being in control of his sets. He learned hard lessons early on, and since then he ran a tight ship. They may not always make their days, but they got the shots he needed and built movies that were certified hits.
But on the last day of shooting in Nova Scotia the usually stoic James Cameron felt like something was wrong. As Vanity Fair puts it he was "Standing in the middle of the set he had been working on for weeks, he couldn’t find his way out. He was feeling “suddenly and very distinctly woozy.” By the end of the night, there would be crew members conga dancing and racing wheelchairs through a hospital corridor. And the chowder was to blame."
Picture yourself on August 8th, 1996. You're on the set of the most expensive movie ever made. Every part of the set cost a ton of money and matters. It's close to midnight. This is a night shoot, so you break for lunch around then.
There's a wide array of food, but it's cold out. So you reach for the clam chowder... and that's when things get weird.
“Some people were laughing, some people were crying, some people were throwing up,” Paxton told Entertainment Weekly back in 1996. “One minute I felt O.K., the next minute I felt so goddamn anxious I wanted to breathe in a paper bag. Cameron was feeling the same way.”
What was going on?
Cameron initially thought the shellfish contained “paralytic shellfish neurotoxin, which is very dangerous.” But not everyone on the crew knew about those things. Of the more than 60 people who ate the chowder, they felt like they had been drugged.
So they all got rides to the Dartmouth General Hospital... but the scene deteriorated from there.
“Eventually we all got put in these cubicles with the curtains around us, but no one wanted to stay in their cubicles,” set painter Marilyn McAvoy told Vice. “Everyone was out in the aisles and jumping into other people’s cubicles. People had a lot of energy. Some were in wheelchairs, flying down the hallways. I mean, everyone was high!”
This insanity began to boil over as the drugs took full effect.
It got dangerous!
Someone stabbed James Cameron in the face with a pen. He sat there bleeding and laughing, unsure of what was going on while others were wailing on gurneys and fighting and even zooming around in wheelchairs.
They worked off the assumption this was food poisoning, but the police eventually came and asked for a tox screening.
After a long and thorough investigation, the case was closed due to a lack of suspects on February 12, 1999.
To this day no one has any idea who actually laced the chowder with PCP, although many people have their own theories. Of course, the caterers were defensive. "It was the Hollywood crowd bringing in the psychedelic shit” insisted the catering company’s C.E.O., Earle Scott.
James Cameron had other ideas. “We had fired a crew member the day before because they were creating trouble with the caterers. So we believe the poisoning was this idiot’s plan to get back at the caterers, whom of course we promptly fired the next day. So it worked.”
Lucky for them, no one ever died, and the drugs wore off eventually.
Still, this is one of those Hollywood legends that lives on. Titanic went on to be one of the most successful movies of all time. Stories of the work behind the scenes grew into legends, and unlike the Titanic, legends never die.
What's your weirdest on set story?