James Cameron’s Titanic had a budget of more than $200 million. At the time (1995-96), it was the most expensive film ever made, but the production still faced limitations due to the fact that the story took place on a massive ocean liner. Filming at open sea obviously was not an option, so Cameron and co. bought a 34-acre plot of land in Rosarito, Mexico, a small beach town close to Tijuana, and built an oceanfront movie studio from the foundation up, including a water tank big enough to sink an ocean liner replica in. It was a very economical choice: Real estate in the area was cheap, Rosarito is only a four-hour car ride from LA, and producers could pinch pennies by hiring local labor.
After Leonardo DiCaprio declared himself “king of the world” and filming wrapped, Rosarito’s economy was booming. Fox Baja Studios continued to make movies during the tourism influx of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when buses full of spring-breakers, surfers and families rode down from the US to soak up rays on the beach and get hammered at local bars. There was also Foxploration, a studio-operated tourist attraction that included a Titanic museum. The party, however, was short-lived.
Over the next decade, narco-lords took control of Mexico. The sharp increase in drug-related violence and an outbreak of swine flu in 2009 quickly repelled tourists and foreign bigwigs. Fox sold the studio to local investors in 2007, and Foxploration closed, leaving behind only a few faded highway billboards as proof that it had ever existed.
Rosarito’s landscape has since been taken over by abandoned businesses and for sale signs, and the nightlife scene is becoming a faint memory. Just about the only hint of Rosarito’s former fame as a movie town are the hundreds of locals who appeared as faceless extras in Titanic.
We met three of them to talk about their experiences working on the second-highest-grossing movie (behind Cameron’s Avatar) of all time: Sergio Sotelo, a hospital worker who was born and still lives in Rosarito; Aislinn Puig, a hotel concierge who now lives in San José del Cabo; and Liza Ampudia, a housewife who moved to Bonita, California.
VICE: How did you hear about the casting call for Titanic extras?
Sergio Sotelo: There were ads on lampposts all over town, and all my friends were talking about it. I went to a small casting office where they took a Polaroid of me and got my information.
Liza Ampudia: I found out they were doing auditions at a shopping mall in Tijuana, so I went there. Later on, they called and told me I’d been chosen, and so I went to Rosarito for the fittings and all that.
What was your role as an extra?
Aislinn Puig: One day, they called up a bunch of girls around my age and made us stand in line. Then the director of photography walked by, staring at each one of us. He pointed at me, and they gave me a pregnant-belly prosthetic and a huge dress. I was a third-class passenger, and I was supposed to be with child, but at first no one knew I wasn’t really pregnant so everyone in production kept giving me their seats. That’s how it was for a few months. Later on, when we filmed the water scenes, I played a dead body.
Sergio: I was in third class. I was poor, and they gave me this little beret, a yellow scarf, a small jacket – they gave you absolutely everything except for your underwear.
Liza: I was a second-class passenger. The first time they called, I acted out saying goodbye to the passengers on the boat as the ship left. In another scene, when the ship is sinking, I was sitting in one of those rafts, and there were other scenes where I had to run, when the ship is lopsided.
What was your typical workday like?
Sergio: Early in the morning, a small bus would drive by and pick you up. We had to do the same scene over and over again while they shot it from different angles. They would yell, “Action!” and everyone would start moving, and then James Cameron would yell at someone, because he had this really bad temper, and everyone would get scared.
Aislinn: I thought it’d be all glamourous, that I’d be running into Leonardo DiCaprio, but, oh, surprise! There were tons of extras, and the director just comes and treats you like a cow. If you blow it, they yell at you, and they fired a lot of people for doing stupid things. There was this young guy who made a peace sign as the camera went by, so he got fired – the film cost millions of dollars, and he ruined a shot. James Cameron yelled at him pretty badly in front of everyone; he was a fucking Nazi, but then I realised he was just under a lot of pressure because of the movie. I met him later, during one of those Titanic events at Fox Studios, and he was pretty cool.
What was your experience like interacting with stars of the movie?
Aislinn: Danny Nucci [who played Leonardo DiCaprio’s friend Fabrizio De Rossi] was always in character, so you’d be partying with him and he’d speak to you in Italian. That guy would even hit on my sister in an Italian accent. Billy Zane rented a house on the hill, far from where everyone else in production was staying, and he’d throw parties there. That guy was pretty cool. Kate Winslet was pretty nice with everyone, but she didn’t really party. Who really went out a lot was Leonardo DiCaprio. I never partied with him, but I know the guys at Rock & Roll Taco [a local bar] and they said it was always a problem when it was time to pay the check. He would always say that he was Leonardo DiCaprio and that he didn’t have to pay.
How much did they pay you?
Aislinn: Forty dollars a day, plus they fed you and provided transportation.
Liza: Between 80 and 120 dollars a day. I felt it was discriminatory: At the end of the day, when we got paid, there was a stand that said dollars and one that said pesos. The Americans got paid a lot more. I don’t know why I was considered American, but I think it happened when I filled out the form. My sister didn’t write that she had an American passport, so she got paid in pesos, and I got paid in dollars.
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