Mentored by executive producer James Cameron, this week’s underwater cave adventure, Sanctum, began as an idea from Cameron’s diving collaborator Andrew Wight (Ghosts of the Abyss), with whom the director worked in developing the 3-D camera technology that he used for Avatar.
In 1988, Wight was part of a group of divers that became trapped in an underground cave; narrowly but miraculously, all of them managed to escape with their lives. Years later, Wight, together with Cameron and co-writer John Garvin, decided to bring the tension of that experience to a 3-D feature set in those claustrophobic spaces deep below the Earth’s surface. They enlisted director Alister Grierson, whose debut feature Kokoda captured the ordeal of Australian troops in the jungles of Papua New Guinea in World War II, and shot the film both on location and in studios in northern Queensland.
We sat down with the three filmmakers for a chat about the film.
RT: Andrew, this film begins with you and your 1988 experience — how does Sanctum recall that?
Andrew Wight: Well, ’88 was sort of one of those “Oh my God” moments where you think, truly, you’re going to die; and then you make a movie and you go, “I am gonna die.” [laughs] They were both pretty tough. But no, there’s a cathartic process and this has been a great way to really exorsize all those demons, and I think in a profound way being able to share an experience — really a tense experience. You can sit in a theater for a couple of hours and feel like you’ve been there, without having to get wet.
Andrew and James, you worked together in developing the camera that would come to be used on Avatar. What was the breakthrough, with this technology, where you realized this is something you wanted to do next?
James Cameron: Well, you know before we started this film, Andrew was with me when we were on the expeditions that tested the camera system along the way. But we had never seen what it would look like to shoot 3-D in a cave, especially underwater. So before we even started writing a script on this, we went to a cave system in Florida called Ginnie Springs and we shot together in the cave, for two days, just shooting. We really realized right away that the claustrophobia, the sense of being underwater and being surrounded in the darkness by this kind of very, very dangerous environment — but quite beautiful environment — was really powerful in 3-D. We wanted to put the idea of caves and 3-D together, because we knew that being inside a tight space plays better in a 3-D movie than big open expansive vistas and mountain ranges and things like that.
Alister, how did you feel when you were approached to direct? Was it daunting to be working with James Cameron?
Alister Grierson: Cameron was fine, it was Wight who was the problem. [laughs] Obviously it was very exciting; it was one of those strange fantasy sort of things, in a way. You get the phone call and the next thing I knew I was with Jim in Auckland, where he was at the back end of shooting Avatar, and I had a chance to look at the equipment, and see Jim’s process in terms of how he was working. Our shooting style was a hybrid version of what Jim was doing, of course, because we didn’t have CGI and motion capture elements and so on. It was a very kind of surreal experience in a way, but then you get grounded very quickly because you then have to do your job — you’ve got to raise the money, you’ve got to prepare and then you’ve got to shoot the thing. And it was a difficult shoot; it was an arduous experience. There were a lot of technical challenges.
JC: We picked Alister because he had done such a remarkable job with his first film, Kokoda, in terms of creating performance, creating a sense of this kind of despairing mood in the jungle, and we thought, okay, fine, a lot of these lessons that he obviously had to work through as a director, will apply well to our film. We knew that there were going to be layers and layers on top of that in terms of technical difficulty, but to me it’s the essence of a storyteller, that’s what makes a person right for the task; we knew we could supply all of that technical expertise to back him up.
Sanctum is released nationwide this week.
Click here for James Cameron’s Five Favorite Films.