The film was surprisingly accurate on one point, though they didn't know it at the time. Computer displays in the movie show the Titanic resting at a depth of 12,347 feet. When the wreck was discovered in 1985, it was resting at a depth of 12,415 feet.
A model of the Titanic was built for $350,000. When it was finished, it was too big for its tank. A bigger tank had to be built, for $6 million. This tank could hold 40 million liters of water, and it was built next to the smaller tank, which had been used for a number of movies. Reportedly, the total cost of $6 million was $1 million more than the cost to build the original RMS Titanic.
Novelist Clive Cussler hated this movie so much that he refused to allow the sale of any film rights for his other Dirk Pitt novels. He finally relented 20 years later, and agreed to sell the rights to three novels. The first to be filmed was Sahara (2005), which Cussler also hated. It was 25 years before another Dirk Pitt adventure made it to the big screen.
When the camera pans across the Titanic just after it surfaces, a very tiny bit of movement occurs in the lower part of the picture, about midway along the hull. As a gag, the special effects crew created a tiny prop of two figures working a hand pump.
An aged Greek steamship called the SS Athinai, formerly the Grace ocean liner SS Santa Rosa, played the RMS Titanic. Before production, the vessel had been destined for scuttling and scrapping. Production Designer John DeCuir supervised workers from Greece, France, and Italy to transform the vessel into the Titanic.
Regarding the film's cost, producer Lew Grade famously said "It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic! [Ocean]". In 1996, when the £3.3 million operation to raise the Titanic was abandoned, Grade added: "As I said all those years ago, it would be cheaper to lower the Atlantic than raise the Titanic. It was a terrible tragedy, so many lives were lost, and God knows what else. People said there were diamonds and gold on board, but I never found any. They should let it rest in peace now. You can't do anything about the people that went down in her. It's futile."
M. Emmet Walsh's character was originally Al Giordino, Dirk Pitt's literary sidekick. He was called Giordino in some early publicity materials. He was also killed off towards the end of at least one early draft of the script.
Lew Grade originally turned down the project. After the original director left and the script was re-written, Grade saw the film as the start of a potential James Bond-like franchise with lead character Dirk Pitt, and bought the rights. The movie's failure at the box office has been cited as one reason Grade left the movie business.
The DVD sleeve cover notes that this film was "made five years before the actual discovery of the Titanic's whereabouts in 1985". Aside from one of the smoke stacks, the RMS Titanic is intact in this film. At the time, no one knew the ship had split in two when it sank, as depicted in the later film Titanic (1997).
The Titanic model used for filming was on display at Anchor Bay, Malta, in a building close to the set used for the town of Sweethaven in the film Popeye (1980). Later, it was moved next to the deep water tank at the Rinella studios in Malta. A storm hit the island in January 2003, damaging the model beyond repair. The remains of the metal model were then moved to a new seaside location.
In order to create the look of a ship that had been sitting on the ocean floor for decades, production designer John DeCuir built dams outside the replica vessel's hatches and doorways and then flooded the interior with sea water.
Publicity for this picture declared that several elaborate models of the ship the RMS Titanic were manufactured for the production. One of these models was constructed from the actual blueprints of the original Titanic. This model measured twelve feet high and was fifty-five feet long.
The initial screenplay by Eric Hughes followed the original book much more closely. Original director Stanley Kramer felt Hughes's screenplay was too politicized, and its version of Dirk Pitt wasn't likable enough to be a hero. He hired Adam Kennedy to rewrite the screenplay into a more traditional adventure film. Clive Cussler made it known that he preferred Hughes's version of the script, but Lew Grade felt that Kennedy's version had more box office potential, and filmed with that script when he took over the project.
When revealing his plan to raise the Titanic, Pitt alludes to the American government having successfully raised "that nuclear sub a couple of years ago". This is a reference to Project Azorian, a CIA project to retrieve the wreck of the Golf II-class Soviet submarine K-129 from the floor of the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the project was only a partial success. When the mechanical claw used to raise portions of the sub to the purpose-built retrieval ship Hughes Glomar Explorer failed in the summer of 1974, two thirds of the already-raised debris fell back to the sea floor. A planned follow-up mission to retrieve more of the sub had to be canceled after the Los Angeles Times reported on the story on March 27, 1975, quickly followed by the New York Times. The latter had planned to break the news even earlier in February 1975, but had been dissuaded from doing so by the US government. At the time of Raise the Titanic's release in 1980, very few details of Project Azorian had yet been disclosed to the public, and so it was assumed by many that the project had been more successful than was actually the case.
The US salvage fleet was portrayed by the U.S. Navy's U.S.S. Denver, U.S.S. Schenectady and U.S.S. Carpenter in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego, California, while the Russian ship was portrayed by the C.S. Long Lines. In total, these vessels used around US$22,000 of diesel fuel per filming day, or around US$64,000 per day in 2016 dollars.
The 55-foot model of Titanic used for the refloating scenes was constructed and first floated at CBS Studio Center in Studio City, California, before being shipped to Malta for filming. Its maiden sailing took place in the Gilligan's Island Lagoon.
This film was shot in 1978 but did not launch into theaters until 1980, a production period that spanned around two-and-a-half years, similar to that of Titanic (1997). As such, the film was first released about four years afters its source novel "Raise the Titanic!" by Clive Cussler was first published in 1976. The book was Cussler's first best-seller. The film's title drops the exclamation mark from the book's title.
The film was released about 68 years after the RMS Titanic sunk in 1912, and about 17 years before James Cameron's Oscar winning film Titanic (1997). This film's critical and commercial failure caused some initial doubt around the development of Cameron's film.
This film wasn't Lew Grade's only flop, but it was the biggest, and its failure pretty much ended his career as a movie producer. His other flop was Can't Stop the Music (1980), produced by EMI, which had been trying to break into movie making. They even formed a joint venture with Grade, called Associated Film Distribution, for American releasing. Both movies flopped so badly that Grade and EMI's film divisions, and by extension, AFD, all sunk. The remaining backlog of releases was sold to Universal who acquired ITC's shell by the late 1990s. The EMI library, via Cannon, ended up with StudioCanal, later acquired by Universal.
Lew Grade later wrote that he "thought the movie was quite good," particularly the actual raising of the Titanic and Dirk Pitt walking into the wrecked ballroom. He blamed the film's failure in part on the release of S.O.S. Titanic (1979).
In the movie, Pitt reveals his plan to raise the Titanic to a skeptical Admiral Kemper, General Busby, and Director Nicholson aboard the presidential yacht. In real life, the final presidential yacht, USS Sequoia, had been auctioned off two years earlier at the direction of US President Jimmy Carter. When ITC Entertainment asked the State Department for permission to borrow the yacht for filming, a substitute had to be found. A member of Congress suggested the Potomac, a 70-foot vessel launched in 1958 as the Seven Seas by Manitowoc, Wisconsin-based Burger Boat Co. Owner Joe Wheeler, a Louisville, Kentucky businessman, had just refitted her at great expense to serve as a floating showroom for the oil and water filtration and security systems manufactured by his company, Wheeler Industries. The film's producers paid US$6,000 (US$17,500 in 2016 dollars) to use the Potomac, and Wheeler donated the money to the Special Olympics. Four months before the movie's release, the Potomac was used to entertain the wives of Israeli president Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat while Begin and Sadat met with President Carter to work on the Camp David Accords, which saw Israel return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. Earlier in her life, the Potomac had belonged to Kleenex fortune heir and race car driver James Kimberly.
Footage purporting to show Titanic surrounded by boats in New York harbor some 68 years after leaving Southampton, England was actually composited from stock footage of the 1976 Operation Sail event, which included almost two dozen tall ships from around the world, and celebrated the United States' Bicentennial.
Novelist Larry McMurtry, who considered the book "less a novel than a manual on how to raise a very large boat from deep beneath the sea," claims that he was one of the 17 writers who worked on the screenplay.
With the exception of Larry McMurtry, the 17 writers who worked on the screenplay petitioned the Writers' Guild for credit on the released film. Credit was given to Eric Hughes and Adam Kennedy, the latter of whom was mostly responsible for the final draft.
In the Cussler novels, Pitt is an active duty major in the USAF. In the movie Pitt is a retired Captain in the USN. Perhaps to avoid confusing viewers in this nautical themed movie, Pitts' military background was altered.