April 4, 2012 -- It was as if the stars aligned to make James Cameron's "Titanic" one of the greatest successes in movie history: Leonardo DiCaprio ... Kate Winslet ... a doomed ship ... one of the most compelling tragedies of the last century.
Yes, the stars aligned. Except for the real ones -- the ones the film showed in the sky over Winslet as she clung, frozen, to debris after the great ship sank on April 15, 1912.
The film first came out in 1997. Now, as Cameron releases a new version of the film in 3-D, he reveals that he's moved heaven and Earth -- or at least the heavens -- so that they'll now be accurate.
For this change, he grudgingly (or laughingly) thanks Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist and popularizer of science who directs the Rose Center for Earth and Space at New York's American Museum of Natural History.
"When I saw the movie I said, 'This guy is all wrong,'" said Tyson, laughing, when we spoke with him. "I'm not usually a stickler for detail -- I think it's better to give artists free range -- except that part of the sales pitch for the movie was that Cameron had gone to such lengths to make the film accurate.
"He'd gone diving to the wreck, he'd gotten the china right, the linen right, the costumes right, the wall sconces right. Can we go back and check those things? No, but we can check where the stars would have been."
Cameron's epic just showed random dots in the sky, added as an effect after Winslet's near-death was filmed. Tyson wrote him a letter. No answer.
Years passed, and the two men wound up at dinner together. Tyson, perhaps with the help of a glass of good wine, made his case again.
"I said, 'Jim' -- before, it would have been 'Mr. Cameron' -- 'Jim, my issue here is not that the sky was wrong, it was that you got everything else right,'" he said.
Apparently Cameron got his back up a bit: "The last I checked, 'Titanic' worldwide has grossed $1.3 billion. Imagine how much more it would have grossed if I had gotten the sky correct," Tyson quotes him as saying.
And on it went. But finally, with Cameron updating the film, he challenged Tyson to send him data for the right stars.
Cameron has put out a widely-quoted explanation: "Neil deGrasse Tyson sent me quite a snarky email saying that, at that time of year, in that position in the Atlantic in 1912, when Rose is lying on the piece of driftwood and staring up at the stars, that is not the star field she would have seen.
"And with my reputation as a perfectionist, I should have known that and I should have put the right star field in."
"He surely thought of me as some Chihuahua nipping at his ankles," he says now. But as for the "snarky" reference, Tyson says, "I take that as a sign of affection directed at me by a perfectionist."