The new Universal 3D action-thriller Sanctum, from Academy Award-winning executive producer James Cameron, follows a team of underwater cave divers who find themselves forced by a tropical storm to delve deep into the caverns while fighting raging water, deadly terrain and a rising panic, as they try to survive and search for an unknown escape route to the sea (watch the trailer here). Inspired by real life-changing events that writer/producer and renowned cave explorer Andrew Wight went through himself, the film is an intensely immersive experience that will heighten the sense of claustrophobia and fear of drowning that the filmmakers hope will leave audiences breathless, as they’re taken on this journey.
Even though the film does not open in theaters until February 4th, the Mobile Viewing Experience is now traveling across the country to get the word out to moviegoers and give them a taste of what they will get when they see the film in 3D. To launch the national tour, various members of the press, including Collider, were invited to the mobile theater outside of Universal Studios to watch the 3D trailer and select scenes from the film, and then talk to director Alister Grierson, Andrew Wight and James Cameron. The three men spoke about the use of the 3D technology in such a challenging setting, the fascination of 3D and where it’s headed in the future, and how they hope the drama of the story is what will have the biggest affect on audiences. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
JAMES CAMERON: It was basically exactly the same Fusion camera system that was used on Avatar. It was 2007 technology being used in 2009. We hadn’t had a chance to update it. It was literally the same cameras from Avatar.
ALISTER GRIERSON: The film was shot at Warner Bros. Studios in Queensland, Australia. We shot some second unit stuff in real caves in South Australia. It became very clear, very quickly that shooting a film like this in real locations is very, very tricky, so all our cave sets were built in studios and the big tank that they have at Warner Bros. The cameras themselves, for me, are business as usual. You turn up and ask people to stand in certain places and ask people to put the camera in certain places, and then you have a team behind you that manages the 3D. We had a philosophy on this picture to not let the 3D dictate terms to us, in terms of how we used the camera. The trickiest part for us was dealing with water, heat and cold. Any electronic camera is going to struggle in those environments. Most of the time, we had an A camera that was stuck on a techno-crane. We designed the sets so that we could move the crane to any part of the stage that we needed, at any time. And then, we had a mobile B camera that we could use either on steadi-cam or handheld. Essentially, it’s business as usual. The thing that slows you down is that there’s more people on your team, working with the 3D, but effectively, it’s the same as normal.
ANDREW WIGHT: We were just cognizant of what we needed to deal with, so when we were designing sets and designing the production of the film, we combined everything together. It wasn’t like we especially set out to do anything for 3D. We were making the best story and film that we could, and the camera just became part of it. It’s just a camera. You get to a point where it’s just part of the process.
CAMERON: The 3D should be transparent from the actors’ standpoint and, ideally, from the director’s standpoint. The camera team is working with a different set of tools than they might have been used to, if they’ve been used to shooting on film. To shoot 3D, you’ve got to make the transition to shooting digital or HD, or some higher format like 3K or 4K, because there are no film cameras that really can fit within a 3D rig, in any meaningful way. Some D.P.’s have an issue with that part of the learning curve, completely separate from the stereo portion of it, but Jules [O’Loughlin], our D.P., made both jumps quite expeditiously. Alister and Jules came down and watched us work on Avatar for almost a week, just to see what the problems were. They went into it with their eyes wide open, about what the problems might be, and they were very careful in designing the sets, so that they could have camera access. But, the handheld rig probably weighed 33 pounds, which is in the range of standard tools. The issue is that, because there are two cameras in it, they tend to be somewhat bulkier, so all of the claustrophobic stuff, where you’re pushing them into tight spaces, has to be well thought out.
WIGHT: You’d be horrified at what we did. Because we had water on all our sets, it wasn’t a matter of 3D cameras, it was just a camera being in close proximity to height and water. One day, they had a two-gallon plastic bucket underneath one of the cameras, to keep it out of the water, and it was a half a million dollar camera.
CAMERON: As an outsider looking in, because I wasn’t on the set every day – these are big boys who know how to make a movie – it seems to me that the physical exigencies of the production were actually much more their concern than the 3D. They had to move that much water around, do it safely, have actors who were always in climbing harnesses or who were safetied off, so that they could appear to climb without a harness even though they were cabled in, and work with actors on a rebreather dive gear, which I don’t think anybody else has ever done. We didn’t do it on The Abyss. We faked rebreathers, but you could see the bubbles. But, Andrew [Wight] being a hardcore cave explorer, he wanted to put the actors on the real equipment that he uses, and they all trained for it. So, it seems that there were 20 other things that were more difficult, before they even got to the 3D part of the movie.
WIGHT: The 3D was the least of our worries. If you talk to any of the actors, they really had to go through the mill. It was weeks and weeks of learning the diving craft, as well as climbing and all the other skills. Eight hours of standing on the waterfall set, with water just being thrown at you all day, wears you down as an actor. As I say, there’s no acting required.
CAMERON: You wanted them worn down.
CAMERON: They knew that, if they wanted to make this movie, it was going to have to be in 3D. That was a given. Once you got past that given, it was up to them to solve the problem of how to do it.
Mr. Cameron, why does 3D still fascinate you?
CAMERON: Truthfully, one of the things that attracted me to this particular production was the challenge of shooting high-quality, live 3D, not converted after the fact, on a relatively modestly budgeted film. Compared to Avatar, all movies are modestly budgeted, but this movie was made for 1/15 or 1/12 of what Avatar cost.
WIGHT: It was the craft service budget of Avatar.
CAMERON: No, we didn’t eat that much on Avatar. We were working too hard. It all went to the CG. The point was that we were using the same technology, same methodology and same aesthetic approach to stereo-space and how you manage it, so that you create a good viewer experience, but on a more modestly budgeted film that had a lot more technical challenges that Avatar didn’t. We didn’t shoot one scene that had water in it, or climbing, or any of that stuff.
Where do you see the future of 3D heading?
CAMERON: I believe that there are going to be certain thresholds to it. When the consumer electronics manufacturers bring to market sets that don’t require glasses, at that point, it’s going to explode like crazy. Right now, you’re seeing a steady incremental increase. The market is growing. The number of networks and terrestrial broadcast companies, cable companies and satellite companies that are investing, either tentatively or aggressively, in 3D is increasing all the time. What we know is that sports plays very well in 3D. Obviously, cinematic theatrical features play very, very well in 3D, but that’s not going to be enough to feed the whole market. It’s going to be live broadcast, and probably initially sports and maybe even things like comedy and one-hour episodic. All that stuff is right around the corner. The cameras are going to continue to get lighter, smaller, easier to use, more plug-and-play and there are going to continue to be more people doing it. Right now, we’re seeing an explosive, almost vertical curve in the number of people who are learning to do it and are working with it. I have a small company, partnered with Vince Pace, where we developed the Fusion cameras, and all of our rigs are out, all the time. We’re having to expand much more rapidly than we thought we were going to. We’ll literally be building hundreds of camera systems in the next year, to service the demand. The number of screens has doubled in America, and it’s more than doubled worldwide, since Avatar came out. Think what we could have made. There have been a lot of naysayers. People love to grumble and be negative about 3D. They love to say, “Conversion has hurt it. It’s just a flash in the pan. The market is retreating.” That’s all bull. There were some dips, but they were dips in the growth curve. It’s never stopped growing. It’s continued to grow. I’m excited about the possibilities of new technology, like higher frame rates in the theaters, better camera systems and higher resolution cameras, but I’m also concerned about the possibilities of bad 3D being done. People get into it who don’t know what they’re doing and they’re under the gun financially, and maybe they go with the wrong camera gear, or maybe they listen to the wrong advice, or they think, “We won’t pay those high-priced experts. We’ll just figure out how to do it ourselves.” So, there’s the possibility of seeing some bad movies come to market. And, I think that these fast conversions that are done during post-production are still a problem. Some studios are still going that route, although most people have started to veer toward native 3D production.
WIGHT: We’ve just demonstrated that you can do it on a modestly budgeted film, and do it well. There’s no compromise in the quality of the 3D. I think, if you look at cinema, there have been lots of incremental steps. You have silent movies, black and white, sound in mono and then in stereo, and then there was color. They’re all incremental steps. And then, you’ve got 3D. But, if you start peeling all those steps back, you start to understand how 3D is really going to make a difference. When you start to see things that are well-executed, side by side, as we did when we made the movie, you’ll watch a lot of stuff in 3D and see the same scene again in 2D and realize, “Oh, my god, it’s like you turned the color off or the sound off.” Once you get used to it, I think audiences and the public will want more of it. We’re in this transition phase of people learning how to do it and people producing the equipment so we can execute it, and delivering the stuff that entertains people. When we went from black and white TV to color, not everyone had color TV overnight. People had to learn how to produce stuff for this emerging media.
CAMERON: And, the change from standard def to HD took time. All of these transitions take time. I think we’ll be slower in the transition than it was to sound ‘cause that happened over a couple of years. It was relatively cheap and no high barrier to entry, other than the fact that you had to find all new stars, but that didn’t stop Hollywood. The audience said, “I want that.” With color, people wanted it, but the transition actually took 25 years or longer. It wasn’t until color TV came along and people realized that, if they wanted to have their movies played on network television and television was all going to color, they had to make them in color, even if they were relatively low-budget films. Everything had to be made in color, at that point, but that was 25 years into the game of color. There was always a two-tiered system, up until then. I think the window of 3D is going to collapse a lot because of sports and live broadcast. I think it’s all going to play out over the next two or three years.
WIGHT: If you look at all the animated movies, they’re all 3D. If you’re going to buy a TV in Australia, which has the fastest growth rate in 3D TVs, you’re going to buy a 3D one. You can’t play anything on it yet, but just wait. The people who have made 3D movies, their Blu-ray DVDs are at the front of the store. There’s a very small box of them, but they’re the ones that you’re going to buy for the kids for Christmas and for presents because people are getting that technology. When CD players came out, everyone had a vinyl collection and went, “You’re never going to replace vinyl because people have to buy the same records again.” But, guess what? They did. I think we’re going to see all that happen.
CAMERON: They knew that, if they wanted to make this movie, it was going to have to be in 3D. That was a given. Once you got past that given, it was up to them to solve the problem of how to do it.
What do you think this mobile experience tour will do, as far as bringing audiences to the movie?
GRIERSON: It’s great showmanship. It’s a great way to get the idea of the film out there. It’s a living billboard that’s going to travel the country and get the brand out there. I think people will come in and get a sense of the film. It’s just a brief sense, but it’s enough to talk about with their friends. It’s great. It’s really exciting.
Mr. Cameron, with Arnold Schwarzenegger having just retired from being the Governor of California, will you two be working together again, at some point?
CAMERON: Possibly. I think it’s probably more likely that we might work together on something non-film because we’re both really passionate advocates and activists for the environment, climate change, renewable energy and so on. The strides that he made while in office he sees not only as part of his legacy, but the foundation for some of the things he wants to do beyond that. The idea of making a movie together is always a fun concept. I’m tied up for the next five years, and Arnold tends to be rather impatient when he sets his sights on near-term goals. So, I don’t know how well that’s going to work out because I’ve signed on for two more Avatar films, which is a big chunk.
Andrew, can you talk about how what you experienced in real life inspired the events of this film?
WIGHT: I was leading a cave diving expedition in Western Australia, a few years ago now, and we were exploring an underwater cave system similar to what we’ve got in Sanctum. On the last day of the expedition, we were hauling all of our equipment out. Most of the people in the cave engaged in that activity, and I was on quite a small ledge, pulling tanks up. A freak storm hit the area and what started as a trickle of water into the cave turned into a torrent, which then started to collapse the entrance of the cave. Literally, boulders the size of an SUV were rolling down into the cave and you could hear scuba tanks banging off the walls. It initially trapped 15 of us below ground, myself included. I managed to escape through the torrent, after about five hours of just waiting with a near-death experience. The roof above my head, like an Indiana Jones movie, had cracks appearing and it was inching down on top of us. It got to the point where I thought, “Either we make a run for it and we get killed in the avalanche, or we stay here and get flattened like a pancake.” Obviously, the first option was the better one. And then, it took another two days to extract the rest of the crew, by exploring a new way out of the cave. That was really the inspiration for this movie. Then, I had to distill down the beats of that story and the real life drama of that and put it into a fictional story which plays out, and we can then explore how people react to that and what it’s like to be trapped. Even if you enjoy the activity of exploring caves, to be trapped and not know whether you’re going to get out alive is terrifying.
How does 3D enhance this storytelling, with a much smaller and more contained story than Avatar was?
CAMERON: Avatar had so many broad vistas that the difference between watching the movie in 2D and in 3D is not that great because the more expansive the image, the less you feel in close contact with objects and characters. It’s the intimate scenes in Avatar, where just a couple people are talking or going through the jungle with close pass-bys of plants and things like that, that were really the most effective in 3D, and not the big, wide flying shots or the broad canvas stuff or the big battle scenes. We knew that going in. The difference between experiencing Sanctum in 2D and 3D is actually much greater because the 3D will constantly be informing you, in the experience of watching the movie, with the sense of claustrophobia. 3D works best in small spaces. For instance, anything more than 20 or 30 feet away has very little 3D impact up on a movie screen, or in real life. We knew that the claustrophobia of the film and the medium in which we were working would work together really well to constantly give the audience that feeling. We’ve done test screenings and we’ve seen that there’s a palpable, white-knuckle sense of anxiety in watching the movie, which is exactly what we wanted to create. Usually, when you go to a movie, your consciousness floats above the film. 3D sucks you in and makes it a visceral experience. I think 3D and this type of film go perfectly well together. The other thing about a survival story is that you want the audience to project themselves into the characters and really feel physically present, and then you just ratchet up the tension. They had to jump through some real hoops to keep the cameras dry and keep the splashes from affecting the shots. If you splash one lens and not the other, it creates problems in the 3D. So, they had to go to school on a steep learning curve to learn how to work in water, below water and above water. I think the above water, just above the interface, when you’ve got a lot of water splashing and being thrown out you by hoses and dunk tanks is actually harder than working underwater, which is much more controlled. It’s slow, but it’s very controlled.
GRIERSON: It’s an Australian film, so we have an Australian cast. We knew we were going to make the film in Australia and part of the structure of the financing was that most of the team had to be an Australian team. We had to look at the actors that we really liked and, in the end, we settled on Richard Roxburgh, who is our main lead actor. He’s probably Australia’s best known actor, and is probably known as Australia’s best actor from a quality standpoint. We’re very, very lucky that we got him in our picture because he brings a real gravitas to the role. In lesser hands, it might have started to feel a bit plastic. He’s wonderful. In terms of a process, Andrew and I cast through Australia. Jim, at that time, was involved in a small picture in New Zealand, so we would just try to send Jim our ideas and say, “Have a look at this guy’s test. We like him. We think he’s good for this role.” He saw Rhys Wakefield’s test.
CAMERON: My response to Rhys was pretty instantaneous.
GRIERSON: He was great. Ironically, he was actually in L.A., at the time, and put a test down for us in L.A. and sent it to Australia. In terms of the Josh role, we looked at pretty much every actor in Australia and almost everyone else. We looked at everyone, around the world.
WIGHT: It was a tough one to cast because we wanted someone who had that youthful appearance, that could transform into his journey of becoming a man in the film, but be old enough and have enough acting experience to give us the performance. You end up with a guy who’s in his 20’s, but who you want to look 17 or 18, and they’re hard to find.
GRIERSON: He ultimately has to get to a spot where you believe his transition to a maturer man and see him take on the attributions of his father. It was a tricky thing to find. It’s a fascinating thing when you’re casting, and you turn it on and the guy’s there and you’re just like, “That’s the guy.” He was one of those guys.
WIGHT: It’s a very physical film. There’s a lot of climbing and underwater, and he had never scuba dived or rock climbed or anything. He learned to do all that with our stunt department and dive department. There are scenes in the movie where you would think it would normally be a stunt guy, but it’s all Rhys. I was underwater one night and we were filming and the stunt guy did the scene and I went, “Well, that’s pretty average.” And then, Rhys did the scene and I said, “Just burn the stunt guy.” He got to a point where he was so much better than the trained people that he did everything himself.
GRIERSON: We also needed actors who we knew would be hungry enough to do a really hard job because this was really tough. They had to do all the underwater training. The gags that Richard [Roxburgh] and Allison [Cratchley] do when they share the face mask is something that, even for professionals to do, is very, very dangerous. You’re seven meters underwater, in an enclosed environment and you’re sharing a face mask that you have to clear to breathe. I don’t think we ever quite told them how dangerous it was.
CAMERON: You have to shoot that scene on the last day. The problem was that half your schedule was stuff that you should have shot on the last day.
GRIERSON: But, they did it and they mostly enjoyed it.
WIGHT: They grumbled a little bit.
CAMERON: If they’re not grumbling, you’re not doing it right.
What do you think will leave audiences gasping most with this film?
GRIERSON: At the end of the day, I hope it’s actually the drama and the engagement of the characters through the story. Ultimately, at the end of the film, there’s a sense of this transference of knowledge and love between the father and the son, and I hope they’re moved by it. It’s quite an emotional story, ultimately. In a way, the action elements are just the excuse to actually tell the story of the son’s rite of passage. On the one hand, you want the white knuckle elements ‘cause that’s great to entertain people with and have them enjoy the experience of the movie. On the other hand, for me, it’s very much about hoping that they connect with the characters.
CAMERON: Action is a way of externalizing an emotional state. You might be in a situation where you’re absolutely petrified and your heart is pounding, and you might be seconds away from death, but not a lot might be happening. You might not be running, leaping, climbing and doing all that. But, the way you create that emotional state in a movie is by having the characters have physical jeopardy that they have to work against, whether it’s climbing a rope and having the water fall, or all of the other things that they have to do in this movie. Once they start down that path of having to either explore forward into the unknown or die, which is really the whole back half of the film, then you, as the audience, want to be very constantly with them and experiencing these new things. It’s not action like in an Indiana Jones movie, or even in a thriller where you have fight scenes and gun play. It’s really an externalization of the inner struggle and the willpower to survive, and how people either fall apart under pressure and don’t step up, or even the ones that do step up and do well, but don’t make it anyway, and what the others do about that, and the sacrifices that people make. The leader, played by Richard Roxburgh, has to make some very hard choices. Part of the journey for the audience is learning to like him, and really understand him and care about him. He’s a real prick when you first meet him, and then you find out why. He is in and of that environment. They’re outsiders, and when they get to the point where their survival depends on him and the decisions that he makes, they question him at first, but then after awhile, they realize that, when he makes three right calls in a row and they’re still alive because of it, maybe they want to listen to this guy. It’s that sort of story. It’s really about the psychology of survival, and of people stretched right to the edge of what they can stand, and then beyond. I love that kind of story, personally. It doesn’t need all the bells and whistles to be powerful. That’s what we’re finding, when we screen it.
WIGHT: People are breathless when they watch the film. The last time we screened it, it was for an audience that knew nothing about the film and it was stunned silence. They really went on this journey and were emotionally moved. It was interesting. They really felt connected to the emotional, powerful nature of the story. Even though it superficially looks like an action adventure boys movie, it actually works on a much deeper level than that. There’s a lot going on in the movie and it’s very visceral because the 3D draws you into the action and it’s an environment that most people have never seen and probably, after watching the film, never want to see, but you feel like you’ve been to place and you’ve been emotionally moved. Those two things are really powerful. If at the end of a movie, people continue to talk about it, for me, that’s a good day at the cinema. I think we’re going to achieve that with this film.
CAMERON: It’s really the anti-Avatar, in a way. There’s some CG in the film, but it’s hidden away in places that you wouldn’t expect. It doesn’t look like an effects movie. It has that feeling of being completely real.