Rosarito Relives the Tragedy of the Doomed Luxury Liner.

By Paula McDonald

ROSARITO BEACH, Mexico-Most of Rosarito spent the fall of 1996 waiting to die.

It wasn't that an insidious virus had crept through the city, poisoning the air and the people. Rather, a phenomenon swept into town, unexpectedly infecting the air, the atmosphere and the entire area with a burning fever-the fever of show biz.

It charged the air with instant electricity and changed Rosarito forever.

Almost overnight in September, the focal point of this historic seaside escape shifted south. Suddenly, the huge superstructure of a fabled, doomed luxury liner appeared eerily floating like a mirage on a dry desert shoreline.

Since September, a lot of black rubber has been laid along the Rosarito-Ensenada toll road at KM 39. Shocked expletives continue to escape the lips of unsuspecting tourists and locals alike as they first top that little rise a few miles south of town. "Holy Whoever..! What IS tever..! What IS that?"

The first noticeable changes began late last summer when helicopters began to buzz overhead and Limos raced down the toll road toward the magnificent film set. "Bill....golf tomorrow morning?" "can't this week. I'm waiting to die."

More than 1000 area residents and townsfolk-permanent and temporary-have died; and they will die many times more during the next three months.

They've died floating face down in icy water; swept down grand staircases by torrential bursts of raging sea; and died screaming for half-empty lifeboats that would not turn back. They've watched their children swept away in wild eddies and they've clung to the vertical deck of a ship for as long as they could, dangling 100 feet in the air, knowing full well they were doomed.

Hours later, with eyebrows and eyelashes blue with frost, with hair frozen stiff and streaked with white, with skin the pale lavkin the pale lavender-blue of those long drained of life, the living dead would gather in the 20th Century Fox lot commissary tent to laughing, smoking and playing cards and reflecting on the exhausting events of the day--just a brief, chummy respite before dying again. Eat...drink...be merry for, later tonight, we die again.

For many, it's the most exciting thing they have ever been part of. They're part of "Titanic," slated to be one of the most expensive movies and certainly the most meticulously filmed disaster films of all time. The rumor is that "Titanic" may also make cinematic history with its special effects. And Rosarito is part of this extravaganza.

Is this the Rosarito you remember? You wouldn't believe what it looks like now with a permanent 20th Century Fox studio facility a quartet of four-story sound stages, each the size of a city block. And the world's largest open-air water tank (a 15-million-gallon, eight-acre, on-land "ocean" in which tan" in which the Titanic will actually sink within the month). Booms, cranes, dollies and wind machines are everywhere. Construction and activity level on site is frenetic, day and night. According to local sources,this mega-facility was slated to be $20- million; but the meter is still running with more to come. Fox is here to stay, the movie industry is here to stay, and "Titanic" is just the start. It's a big start, but Rosarito is handling it well. Imagine a $170-million-dollar movie being produced in your back yard. Wow!

With "the master of disaster" no less-James Cameron, (special-effects wizard of "Terminator," "Alien" and 'True Lies" fame) at the helm, 'Titanic" will hardly be just one more melodrama about the sinking ship. Given his special brand of special effects, the script's intense climactic crescendos and a sizzling love story, insiders peg it to rival last summer's box office smash, "Independence Day" in both budget, scope and audience appeal.

Supposedly, the meter is still ticking on the film's budget, too, with educated estimates by industry insiders, like Disney executive Joe Ross predicting that it may top out at close to $200 million. (To put that in perspective, "Evita's' budget was a mere $55 million.)

So many people in town are involved in the film's production that it has profoundly impacted Rosarito's current and future economy. But few townspeople have grasped the long-range economic impact of Fox's continuing presence (a full-blown movie studio with a back-to-back calendar of future films to be shot here); yet everyone understands star power. Academy Award nominee and hot new heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio is "Titanic's" star; and, except for a brief, three-week Christmas break, he has been holed up in Rosarito for the duration. Even Arnold Swartzenegger and Tom Arnold (both Cameron buddies) were here for the studio's ground-breaking in July. That gets noticed! English co-star Kglish co-star Kate Winslet ("Sense and Sensibility") provokes a little less hysteria around town compared to DiCaprio or Arnie; but, she has already earned high respect locally for her hard work, patience and being down-right pleasant. She's been on location for the duration, too, leaving only to fly home for the holidays. In addition to DiCapio and Winslet, Kathy Bates, Billy Zane ("Dead Calm") and Frances Fischer (longtime girlfriend of Clint Eastwood) are all part of the cast.

The intense production schedule, with endless retakes and harsh conditions, have been tough even for seasoned cast and movie makers. The outdoor night water scenes have been the real killers, in both stamina and resolve. At a crew-and-extras party on September 29, it was announced that 80 straight nights of shooting were about to begin-all-nighters in the damp October, November and December chill of a studio edging the windy Pacific shore. The party we. The party was an undisguised pep rally and a genuine plea to keep up morale.

One major problem has simply been the cold. After hours immersed in the main open-air tank or in smaller tanks, shooting either drowning scenes, lifeboat scenes, floating body scenes or falls from the deck, cast members were chilled to the bone, despite full wetsuits beneath their meticulously recreated period costumes. When they finally complained, Cameron's people immediately arranged for jacuzzis to be placed around the area the following day, allowing extras during breaks to jump fully dressed into the hot water. Nonetheless, many reluctantly quit due to severe colds, exhaustion and other ailments.

Yet, despite cold, sleep deprivation, six-day work weeks and the boredom of being called to the set only to sit idle for three nights because production schedules had suddenly changed, most of the core extras remain wildly enthusiastic and ready for more. "Indeed, it's been a fabulous experience," stated onee," stated one cast member, unequivocally, "especially, the technical aspects, those are awesome."

Unlike the recent miniseries, this Titanic will not cop out with blurred backgrounds and endless closeups to avoid production costs. Sitting in a dark theater and watching this movie, it will be almost impossible not to see, feel and experience exactly what it was like to be on the real Titanic.

Every exact detail is accounted for--from the specially labeled bottles of White Star, 1912 Mott and Chandon Epernay champagne served in the first-class dining room to the peeling RMS Titanic stickers on floating brown leather suitcases, from the brass and mahogany ship's wheel made by Rosebank Ironworks in Edinburgh to the thin, plaid blankets used on the decks, it has all been meticulously recreated. And there are priceless pieces here, under heavy lock and key, from the actual ship: jewelry, bottles and other items. They, and an entire and an entire warehouse of thousands of authentic props-Titanic dinnerware and silverware, stained-glass windows, inlaid tables, brass beds, burled-wood pianos, Oriental rugs-will all sail- and sink-once again with this ship. This is impressive. But is it impressive enough to make it next summer's blockbuster? The plot has a lot to do with it.

But, after four movies and a miniseries, why would anyone want to see yet another "Titanic" for any reason? Because this one has some big-hit twists, from Cameron's spectacular, white-knuckle effects to a "Love Hurts" plot.

What IS the story? Of course, Cameron and company are keeping it as closely guarded as negotiations for their next film deal, but, of course, again, the whole town knows. Scripts and sections of scripts have been floating all over the set and all over the city for months. The story of "the story" has spread faster than this winter's flu.

So, in the intereo, in the interest of piquing your interest and bringing you up to speed with what most of Rosarito already knows, here's the basic story line for the new "Titanic."

Open with a realistic, CNN-like news story: "Efforts to raise the Titanic are still underway and some new items have been brought up today."

One of the items shown on the news is the sketch of a beautiful young woman.

Immediately, a 101-year-old survivor calls the news station, claiming that the sketch is of her. It is, indeed, a drawing of Kate Winslet more than eight decades earlier, sketched aboard the Titanic by her lover. The story of both their love affair and the doomed ship is then relived through her eyes.

Kate is rich-very. Leonardo is poor-very. An artist who wins a ticket for the Titanic in a card game shortly before the ship sails. He races for the boat, barely making it.

Kate is traveling to America with her mother and her fiancee- also rich. But, once aboard, their relatiod, their relationship fizzles, and the engagement is broken. Distraught, Kate tries to commit suicide by jumping overboard, but is stopped by Leonardo. They fall in love. They fall deeper in love. They fall madly in love, and ka-boom. There's this iceberg...

Well, you know the rest.

Or do you? Kate survives, we know that. But what about Leonardo?

You'll have to see the movie to find out.