James Cameron’s 3D epic underwater adventure Sanctum follows a team of underwater cave divers on a treacherous expedition to the largest, most beautiful and least accessible cave system on Earth. When a tropical storm forces them deep in the caverns, they must fight raging water, deadly terrain and creeping panic as they search for an unknown escape route to the sea or risk being trapped there forever.
Sanctum was shot on location off the Gold Coast in Queensland and in caves in South Australia as well as at the Village Roadshow Studios. The film uses the Cameron/Pace Fusion 3D Camera System and employs stunning 3D photography techniques developed to lens Avatar.
Last weekend MoviesOnline sat down with Alice Parkinson and Ioan Gruffudd at the Los Angeles press day for their exciting new film. They talked to us about their characters, the intense training they underwent for their roles, and the challenges they faced acting underwater. They also described their scariest moments on set and why getting a buzz cut before you go cave diving might be the smartest decision you’ll ever make. Here’s what they had to say:
Q: Alice, your character is really headstrong and lacks the listening skills needed to survive. What similarities do you share with her and what was the appeal for you as an actor of playing Victoria?
Alice: I really love that Victoria is a strong, capable woman. She’s an adventurer. I love that she doesn’t use her gender as an excuse to get out of things. It was very important for me, particularly in that one scene, I was very adamant that she was fighting for life right to the end. She never gave up and it was never this kind of “Oh my god! Oh my god! I’m going to die.” It’s how on earth do I try and live. What can I still do? And sure, maybe she doesn’t make the right decision but the thing I find interesting in the film is the question that a lot of people are asking themselves [which] is what would one do in that situation, in a survival situation? I suspect that what we think we’d do may not be what we choose to do. I think there are a lot of very silly, foolish decisions that we make in high stress situations, and for the lucky ones out there, the survival masters like the character of Frank, for example, sure, he might make all the right decisions, but no matter how experienced you are, I think if you’re in an extreme life-death survival situation, who knows what you’d really do and what kind of decisions you’d make.
Q: Ioan, who did you channel to come up with that American accent and create your character and what attracted you to the role?
Ioan: Wow! Who did I channel? It’s really an organic sort of process. You start off with the character on the page. You fall in love with that character and you have to represent that character well and I think it’s just an evolution there. Using the accent and speaking the lines with the accent in fact opens the door to who the character really is. He’s obviously a very confident, egomaniacal, billionaire playboy entrepreneur, the CEO of his own company. But what I tried to bring to the part was the fact that he does this for real. He’s not just playing at being an adventurer. He’s a very experienced cave diver. He’s not an adrenaline junkie in that sense. These guys meticulously plan their caves. They do everything possible not to be in these sort of circumstances. This was beyond their control. The entrance to the cave collapsed. What would one do? And what’s fascinating about Carl is the fact that he starts this journey very confidently, very arrogantly, and we think that possibly he might be the heroic figure as the movie progresses. But no, he becomes the weakest character, the most vulnerable, the most cowardly, the most backstabbing, the most selfish. I think that’s what attracted me to the project is that incredible character arc that he had.
Q: Was there anytime during the shooting of the underwater scenes or even in the training that led up to it where you just said I don’t think I can do it?
Ioan: There was a realization and a dawning, having fallen in love with the script on the page, then physically going through the rigamarole of the training, that it suddenly dawned on me “Wow, what have I let myself in for?” But, because it was introduced in such a loving, caring, sort of safe way, we built up the skills gradually over three or four weeks before the movie started and we kept up those skills over the period of the weekends during the filming. So, by the time we got to the actual diving which was the last four weeks of the movie, we were very proficient and very confident and knew each other – all those elements that one needs to survive in that sort of environment. But let’s not forget we are actors making make-believe so there was never any element of true danger for us making this movie.
Q: Your character is fighting constantly with Roxburgh’s character, what was it like bouncing back and forth with him?
Ioan: Well I think he’s not only one of Australia’s greatest actors. I think he’s one of *our* greatest actors. He’s phenomenal. So when you’re playing against somebody like that it always raises your game as an actor and he’s got such incredible intensity on screen and just alive when he’s standing there next to you. I mean, you can’t really go wrong when you’re bouncing off somebody who’s as experienced and as talented as Richard. It was the same with every other actor on the set. Alice and I had to play lovers and then fiancées. That’s a very strange thing to have to do as actors. You have to immediately have a history before you walk onto the set and how does one achieve that. We’re not physically lovers. That’s why we’re such good actors, I think. Equally, with every other actor on the set, I think the camaraderie that developed and evolved through the training gave us a free relationship, a history, before we stepped onto the set which is very, very rare because usually you come to set on the first day and you’ve never met the other person. But we had a four-week intensive work process, a physical work process, where we got to know and love one another before we stepped on which I think informed the characters’ relationships on screen.
Q: Richard mentioned when you were shooting the underwater scenes that you used a lot of mic control whenever you felt panic coming on. Was there any technique you used when you were underwater and there was no communication between you and the crew?
Alice: For me, it was about concentrating on your breathing. When you’re underwater, the actual sound or the lack thereof that you’re experiencing underwater can be quite relaxing. It’s a bit of a Zen state sometimes. So what you’re hearing mainly is your own heartbeat and your own breath and instead of being frightened by that, I kind of got into a zone where I would use that to calm me down if I ever felt like I was getting a bit too out of my comfort zone. So it was kind of like a meditation, relaxation method where you’re really concentrating on your breathing. You’re reminding yourself that, as Ioan said, at the end of the day we were never in any real danger. We knew that if anything did go wrong, there were plenty of people very close by who would be able to help us out. We also actually did some extraordinary training where we knew exactly how long we could hold our breath underwater so that if all hell broke loose and all the safety divers went to have a cup of tea and then you were really on your own, you could rip off your gear and swim to the top and you’d be okay. That’s some serious kind of dedicated training and thank god we all did it.
Q: Alice, when your hair got caught in the chain, what went through your mind?
Alice: Damn, I should have got that buzz cut last week. It actually occurred to me really serious female mountain climbers, I have no idea why they don’t just go blade one. If I was a serious mountain climber, there is no way I would have long hair. It’s just kind of cruising for a bruising.
Q: How did you guys take care of your skin being in the water that long?
Alice: Oh, it’s great moisturizing. (to Ioan) Isn’t it?
Ioan: Yeah. It really is, bizarrely.
Alice: Constantly. Plus we shot in Queensland, Australia which is 40 degrees temperature and 100 per cent humidity as well, so having dry skin was never a problem in that environment.
Q: Your character went from good to bad to good to bad. He was apologetic and then the next minute he was trying to kill Frank. Where did you get all of that from when you were doing it?
Alice: Ioan is a man of mystery. There are plenty of guys with complexities in there.
Ioan: Yes, exactly. I’m just an enigmatic character.
Alice: But he goes from good to bad all the time.
Ioan: It’s just pleasure as an actor. It’s just pure imagination. One doesn’t know how one would respond in these circumstances and I think the beauty of it from the story’s point of view is we see these people go from good to bad constantly. They’re really grappling with their survival instincts and what is the right thing to do and what is the selfish thing to do. And sadly, Carl couldn’t cope in the end. He got a second chance at redeeming himself and still again he wanted it all for himself so I think we’ve taken it to a whole other dimension. We’ve heightened the story that happened back in 1998 to these cavers in Australia. I’m sure Andrew Wight, our producer, has told you his experiences. So we’ve just taken it to another level because after all it is a movie, it’s a story. We wanted to be thrilled and educated and entertained at the same time.
Q: Ioan, you’re no stranger to gigantic James Cameron water bound productions. I was wondering whether or not your association with this film came before you knew what type of film it was going to be? And if not, and you knew it was going to be another James Cameron associated water pic, are you a glutton for punishment?
Ioan: Well I survived the Titanic. You’re absolutely right. In fact, the character that I played in the Titanic was a survivor. He was a real character that survived that horrible ordeal that evening, a Welshman from North Wales. So it goes to show how thorough Cameron is in his casting. He wanted a guy that came from Wales because this character came from Wales. In this circumstance, the movie was directed by Alister Grierson. We musn’t forget that. Cameron, obviously an adventurer in his own right, and one of his best buddies, Andrew Wight, another adventurer and cave diver, so this is how the movie was conceived by these two fantastic guys. And to have Cameron there overseeing us as a presence throughout obviously gives a lot of confidence moving forward. But let’s not forget Alister Grierson is the visionary behind this story that brought this to life and Cameron is very proud to run with it, I think.
Q: You both sound very calm after the fact but I’m wondering, for each of you, what was the scariest or tensest moment on set?
Ioan: Just on a personal level, bizarrely it wasn’t the diving or the throwing myself off the cliff. It was in fact doing that fight sequence with Rhys Wakefield there towards the bitter end because emotions are high, the intensity is high and we’re actually doing it for real. We’re surrounded by a body of water. Rhys is literally trying to keep me under the water, I’m trying to struggle out of the water, and we’re exhausted. It’s a physical exertion fighting so I was constantly breathing at the wrong time. Breathing whilst I was underwater instead of grabbing a breath. So a lot of those eyeballs rolling are real because I’m gasping for air. That’s fascinating because here we are shooting a movie about the most dangerous sport in the world but we never felt in any danger until that point which has nothing to do with diving or being in a cave.
Q: Can you tell us your thoughts on Carl’s decision to try to escape and survive on his own?
Ioan: I don’t have any personal experience that I can draw upon where I would have to make a split decision, a life or death decision like that. Thank goodness. God forbid. But I think [that’s] what’s interesting, because we’ve set up the relationship between Carl and Frank from the get go that these two guys are at loggerheads – Frank, the really experienced, salty seadog, hard man, and Carl, the sort of carefree adrenaline junkie-adventurer – always at loggerheads in a power struggle. So I think at that point in the movie, as much as his own survival, it was a defiant act towards Frank because Carl possibly thought hey, had we taken my journey, had we just waited, my whole entire company would have been sending people down there to find me, to save me. So I think there was an element of that in there too which adds such a lovely layer to the whole thing, not just the fact that he was hell bent on surviving, there was that sort of defiant act towards Frank as well, I think. And a sad act as well for Rhys’s character, for Josh, because I think Josh loved Carl and so the horrifying realization for Josh to see a guy that he looked up to and thought oh wow, this great adventurer that’s jetting off here and there is suddenly becoming this horrible man with these animalistic qualities that came out in that moment.
Alice: It’s kind of a changing of the guard there because Carl plays that father figure for Josh and then it’s not until that father figure is destroyed in his eyes that his real father can become the true father figure. I think that’s a really kind of beautiful changing of the guard there in that sequence.
Q: Can you talk about the directing process and what it was like working with Alister Grierson and also how you stayed focused on delivering a performance when you’re contending with so many physical challenges in this film?
Alice: I think a lot of the physical challenges that we faced in this were actually blessings in disguise because when you’re being challenged so physically you don’t have time to go into your head and worry about characterization or accent or whatever it is. You’ve got to perform in the moment. It’s got to be organic. You have no choice. So I think that’s an actual blessing. As to how Alister helped to focus us and to cheer us up on set, I have to say there were times when I felt like I was playing a Rugby Union Match. Do you recall those moments where he would be off with his little microphone on the side and going “C’mon! C’mon!” It was occasionally disconcerting when it was a fairly intimate scene but he was great keeping the energy up and constantly reminding us of the stakes in this story and I think that’s so crucial because at the end of the day it’s a survival drama. We’re dealing with life and death, and most importantly, we’re dealing with true stories. We’re dealing with real lives and real people who have faced these horrible situations. So I feel that the focusing that Alister did and his reverence for the story really helped us as a team. We had this responsibility to tell the story and I think Alister has really helped us have the reverence for telling the story as well.
Q: Alice, did the scene with your hair read the way that it played out on screen? Also, what was the process like shooting that when everything went awry?
Alice: That’s a very good question about [going] from the script to [the screen]. That scene, particularly for me when I first read it, I’m going to bust it right open here. The character in the original script was saying “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god” while this was happening. I remember reading it and just saying “I don’t want to go there” because for me this is a woman and she’s an adventurer in her own right. She’s a mountain climber and sure she’s gotten herself into a situation that is very foreign to her so she’s out of her depth and genuinely frightened, but I don’t believe she was a character who ever thought she was going to die. Like any great adventurer, right to the last moment she’s trying to save herself. Sure, she may have made a stupid decision but she hasn’t given up right to the end. For me, I was absolutely adamant that that scene was about a woman trying to live, a person trying to live, not a person hoping that they wouldn’t die. And I actually remembering having a chat to James Cameron — he was on set towards the end – about this scene. I was letting him know I didn’t want to play it like “Oh my god…” because we’ve all seen that four million times, and I don’t know how it comes across, but from what I’ve seen I feel pretty proud that I’ve achieved a little bit of that, I hope.
Q: You mentioned the last four weeks where I believe you did the bulk of the diving, do you have any idea how much time you spent underwater? Also, how much of that time was you versus the doubles?
Ioan: I would hazard to guess that it was 50/50 to be honest with you. They all took place on night shoots so we could get the darkness obviously and it was a fantastic process. Again, like these cave divers, everything is planned. I think Frank’s character says “Plan the dive and dive the plan.” So we would collectively gather every evening with the director with a model of what we had underwater of the cave environment and little mini-divers on pieces of string and then we’d show “This is where the camera is going to be. This is where you guys are going to be.” Then we’d move onto the car park and then we’d block it out as if we were blocking out a scene on a television set. When we were down there, we knew exactly what to do at any given time. So, to answer your question about the hours, it was a normal working day until the light came up. We started first thing in the evening and then they would probably finish off with the stunt guys doing the wider diversions where you couldn’t necessarily see somebody’s face behind the mask. But the beauty of the movie is that it is us doing it at any given time when a close-up isn’t needed of a particular character. You can tell it’s us and it’s us underwater in this fantastic environment that the director of photography and the production designer had created for us.
Sanctum opens in theaters on February 4th.