James Cameron is no stranger to using experimental technology in service of exciting storytelling. His latest underwater action adventure, Sanctum, which the Academy Award winning filmmaker executive produced, is inspired by the true story of producer and renowned caver, Andrew Wight, who led an expedition to explore and dive into a remote cave system hidden beneath the Nullarbor Plain in Australia.
When a freak storm caused the cave entrance to collapse, it left 15 people trapped deep underground until they were rescued from the harrowing ordeal. The experience left an indelible mark on Wight and led him to develop, in collaboration with Cameron, a film inspired by these life-changing events. Along with writer John Garvin, Wight crafted a classic coming-of-age story set in an alien world that is as beautiful as it is terrifying.
MoviesOnline sat down with James Cameron to talk about his new film. He explained what makes a story about survival in an alien environment so appealing and shared his thoughts on the future of 3D filmmaking. He also discussed his ongoing interest in exploring shipwrecks and how he hopes to turn a spotlight on social and environmental issues that he feels are important. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: Was the appeal of the story really about survival in an alien environment?
Cameron: We wanted to do a survival story. We were researching the psychology of survival before we crafted the story. We came up with the story. Nobody sent it to us. It was based on something that had happened to Andrew (Wight). It was part of his life, but we jumped off from there to tell a fictional story and we’re not making any bones that this isn’t a work of fiction. It’s based in true events – both the things that happened to Andrew and incidents that happened on other cave diving expeditions that we’re aware of through the cave diving community. Everything you see happened to somebody, somewhere, maybe not all on the same expedition, if you will. But, in crafting the story, we studied the psychology of survival. We read books on the subject plus just our own accumulated knowledge and experience because we wanted to get into that thing that happens inside people where they have to adjust to a situation which appears completely hopeless. Some people are able to make that adjustment, others aren’t. Some people become more heroic than they could have imagined was possible for themselves. Other people who you think of as leaders could become quite cowardly or could implode. Everyone reacts quite differently. I think the appeal of this kind of movie for audiences in general is to test themselves against the circumstances of the film and think “Wow, what would I do if I was in that situation? Wow! I can barely breathe watching this let alone actually doing it! Can I hold my breathe that long?” Here’s a little more abstract example: If I knew I was slowing down the group and that they would all die as a result of taking care of me, would I have the courage to sacrifice myself for the group? People ask themselves these questions when they’re watching a movie like this in the safety of a movie theater in a way because you never know when something bad could happen. God willing we all don’t have to experience anything as extreme as what happens in Sanctum, but I think that’s the appeal. I think that’s why we have nightmares. Our brain is running simulations to put us in jeopardy to see what we’ll do or to acclimatize us to that idea that something bad could happen. It’s just how human beings are wired because the entire time we were evolving we had to jump quick or the leopard would get us or whatever it was. It’s Darwinian.
Q: Were there any discoveries during the making of the film that you can share either in terms of technique, technology or storytelling?
Cameron: Every time my cameras go out on a movie, whether in this case it’s one of my own films I’m producing or other films, whether it’s Tron or the Cirque du Soleil thing we’re doing or Ang Lee’s now shooting Life of Pi with a variant of the fusion cameras, and other filmmakers like Scorsese and different people are using them, every time they go out we learn something new and then we take what we learn and we put it into the next generation of the cameras so we’re constantly improving. It’s kind of like building a race car, racing it, then running back to the shop and working on the engine some more and tinkering with it to improve it. And we get a lot of feedback from filmmakers – we need this, we need that — or from directors of photography. So the cameras are getting better, smaller, lighter, smarter, doing more of the work for the crews. What I want to see is everybody be able to use them, not have to think about them, and make good 3D movies because that will lift the entire market. I don’t just want to be associated with a few good 3D movies and the audience is saying all of the other ones are crap. So it’s incumbent on me and my partner, Vince Pace, in the camera business to spread ourselves as thin as we can to work with as many filmmakers as we can and share what we know and encourage them to not just learn what we know but create their own aesthetic and their own way of using it. Everybody’s going to do the 3D slightly differently the same way that people are going to deal with color differently. Some movies downplay the color, some color is very vibrant. Color design is very different. We’ve got to think of 3D like color or like sound, as just part of the creative palette that we paint with and not some whole new thing that completely redefines the medium. I think that’s where people are getting stuck. You’ve got established directors saying why do I want to change what I’m doing. I’ve got this working. You’ve got new filmmakers coming in who are a little bit concerned just to get a foothold and don’t want to be trying to scale two mountains at the same time. So, in both cases, psychologically the idea of switching to 3D is working against them. So the more transparent we make it, the easier we make it for them, the better it is for us. That’s why I look at each one of these films, and Sanctum definitely I was closer to, but all of these films we learn so much and we apply it. We feed it back into the engineering.
Q: What would you say is the most valuable thing you learned from making Sanctum?
Cameron: I think it’s more what we wanted to show, and for me, we wanted to show people that you don’t have to be making a $300 million movie to be able to shoot good 3D. So part of it was going in and not changing all the rules but using proven technology – maybe Alister had to solve some problems like how do I put the camera in a waterfall or how do I put it underwater but those are sort of normal filmmaking problems – but the 3D itself was not seen as a budget or schedule burden. The film was done on budget. It was done on schedule. And it was done inexpensively to the extent that I think what’s on the screen looks like it cost two to three times what we really spent. So that’s really what we wanted to show. To me, it was a demonstrator. And you’ve got to remember, Sanctum was conceived four years ago. It was slowed down because of the economic collapse and our funding fell out and we had to refinance the film and all of that, so there was a delay. But the idea when we originally conceived it was, as Alister said, there weren’t movies shooting in 3D. They were shooting animated films, sure, lots of them, and Avatar was planned, but there was only one other title that had been shot in digital 3D at that point which was Journey to the Center of the Earth. There have been many more since. But, at that time, we were trying to say look, you can do this. It doesn’t have to be a giant movie to do it. There are no barriers to entry for anybody here.
Q: You’re an experienced diver. Can you explain decompression sickness and how that affected the Crazy George character?
Cameron: You’ve got a bottle of coke, you pop the lid, bubbles form. Why? Because the cap was keeping the pressure on the gas that was in solution. When you scuba dive, you’re breathing gas under pressure. It goes into your blood in solution. No problem. It will come back out slowly, if you surface slowly. If you come up too fast, it’s like popping that lid. Bubbles swarm in your blood stream. (Claps hands) Lights out! So that’s what DCS is. Now it manifests itself as extreme pain in the joints and all the things that you saw George going through and it happened because he surfaced too fast when they were deep down on that dive and they had to come up into the air bell. They dove down and then they came back up to where the water level was and got out and so that’s what was killing him. Every diver would know and think the movie is wasting too much time explaining it, but it’s very hard to bring an audience up to speed on something like that.
Q: So Crazy George couldn’t correct it once he got back up?
Cameron: No, you’re toast. The only thing that you can do is you can get whisked away to a recompression chamber and they put pressure back on you and it squeezes the bubbles back down and reduces the amount of damage. Usually most of the damage is done before you get to the chamber. It’s the pressure while they’re in the water that does it.
Q: When diving that deep, have you encountered any unusual life forms that have never been seen before?
Cameron: There’s not a lot in caves. There’s the albinism that you get, the white, eyeless versions of creatures that you’ll find in caves. We didn’t focus on that because we didn’t want it to be about animals and we didn’t want people to think we were leading toward a monster story. We wanted to stay away from the supernatural, other than a couple shots of the New Guinean shaman just to give it a little bit of an aura, if you will. But we weren’t saying that there were demons or monsters in the caves in any way. We wanted to keep clear of that and make sure that people understood that this was a human story, a human drama of people trying to survive in a hopeless situation. But in terms of seeing cool stuff and diving, absolutely. I mean, look, almost anytime you dive you’re going to see something you’ve never seen before. It doesn’t mean science hasn’t seen it before but the diver probably hasn’t seen it as an individual. If you’re observant, there will always be some damn thing, some critter you’ve never seen before. Now when you dive in the really deep ocean like we did on some of our expeditions, you may see something nobody has ever seen before. And we did that. We actually imaged some creatures. When we came back and showed it to the marine biologists, they said “We don’t know what that is. Sure wish you would have caught it.” I said “It was 7 feet in diameter. How were we going to catch it? It was bigger than our sub.”
Q: You’ve done documentaries on the Bismarck and the Titanic. Are there any other shipwrecks that you’re interested in exploring such as the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Lusitania or the Andrea Doria?
Cameron: We love shipwrecks. There are plenty of good ones still out there as well. Actually the Ed Fitz is one that I’ve wanted to explore because we have the technology, the robotics, to go inside and map the interior and so on and we’ve already done that with the Titanic and Bismarck. It would be great to go look for the Indianapolis. I’d love to dive the Yorktown and the other Midway wrecks. The thing for me is I kind of had an epiphany over the last year that I could do that kind of exploration which is really archaeology/history if you think about it for the rest of my life and have great fun doing it. But, the aftermath of Avatar was that there was this really tremendous feedback from the environmental community and from the indigenous rights community that I had an opportunity to help them put a spotlight on issues that weren’t getting enough media attention. So I thought wow, there’s a whole mission in this. I need to focus on that and quit exploring shipwrecks for awhile quite frankly. And I also feel like, as a civilization, we’re really heading toward a cliff with issues of energy and climate change. These are things that have concerned me really for most of my adult life. So I thought alright, fine, if I’m going to do documentaries, if I’m going to put that kind of time and energy into a documentary film – because I know it’s very hard work to make these films, much more so than I thought it would be – it should be on those subjects. It should be something that’s actually doing some tangible good in areas that I’m deeply concerned about. So the shipwrecks are going to wait. That’s the long, roundabout way of explaining it.
Q: What are you working on now?
Cameron: Right now I’m working on the scripts for Avatar 2 and 3 and Andrew and I are in the early stages of planning some documentary ocean projects as well.
Sanctum opens in theaters on February 4th.