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April 10, 2003 10:00 AM

It seems director James Cameron and actor Bill Paxton just can’t swim clear of the Titanic.

Their latest movie together, the 3-D IMAX documentary “Ghosts of the Abyss,” charts the Oscar-winning director’s voyage to the burial site of the real-life lost ship.

Paxton, who costarred as a modern-day captain in Cameron’s 1997 “Titanic,” narrates and appears in the new movie.

Speaking to PEOPLE at Wednesday’s New York premiere (“Ghosts” opens nationwide Friday), Cameron, 48, said he first visited the wreckage site in 1995 — and it was curiosity that brought him back.

“The idea was, how can we go room-by-room, deck-by-deck, and just image the entire inside of the shipwreck?” he said of the new movie, for which he spent eight weeks on location.

Cameron hasn’t directed a new feature since the mega-success of “Titanic,” and the filmmaker admits that observers must think he’s hit a roadblock. But he insists, “I’ve been doing lots of other things … it took a few years to get the technology mature enough to do this expedition.”

The director also re-enlisted his friend and leading man, Paxton. “He had talked about going back to the Titanic, and he said if he did go, he wanted me to go along,” says the actor, 47. “And I said, ‘I’d love to.'”

Paxton, however, wasn’t the only person Cameron had to persuade. Adds Paxton: “Of course, I had to convince my wife it was a good idea.”

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