James Cameron, Alister Grierson, and Andrew Wight Interview SANCTUM

     January 31, 2011

Like a lot of films bearing James Cameron’s name, Sanctum is very experimental in that it uses new technology in a unique way and delivers a cinematic experience that Cameron describes as beyond any other. The three-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker’s new 3D epic underwater adventure stars Richard Roxburgh, Rhys Wakefield, Ioan Gruffudd, Alice Parkinson and Dan Wyllie. The film follows a team of underwater cave divers who are in the middle of a treacherous expedition in one of the largest, most beautiful and least accessible cave system in the world. When their exit is cut off in a flash flood, the team is forced to radically alter plans in order to survive.

Over the weekend, we participated in an interview with director Alister Grierson and producers James Cameron and his longtime collaborator Andrew Wight to talk about their exciting new film. They described their collaborative process, why a story about survival in an alien environment is so appealing, and how they kept the technology from overwhelming the storytelling. Cameron also talked about his desire to see 3D technology made accessible to all filmmakers, both new and established, and to use what they learn on each new film to improve the next generation of cameras.

Finally, before reading the interview, you can watch 5 clips from Sanctum 3D here.

Was it easy to enter into a collaborative relationship with James Cameron and Andrew Wight?

ALISTER GRIERSON: It wasn’t hard coming into the relationship or difficult at all for me. It was wonderful. It was a great experience. The first thing that Jim said to me when we met was “Look, this is your picture. It’s your vision. It’s what you want to do with it. Just let me help you make the best picture you can.” It was really about Jim handing all creative control to me. I was then fortunate enough that as I worked through the pre-production process and preparation for that and working with designers and pre-viz artists, I sent my material to Jim. He’d run his eye over it and if he had some feedback, he’d give me feedback. But he was very busy with Avatar at the same time, so once we were shooting, it was really Andrew and I who were off doing our own thing and getting all the material. I think Jim’s biggest influence on the picture was in post production where I could bring versions of the film and screen it for Jim, and at the end of those screenings he’d give me sort of a stream-of-consciousness feedback. I’d go back to Australia and work very closely with my editor trying to milk as much out of the film as we could. It was great and it was a wonderful learning experience. I learned a lot about making this style of picture.

For Mr. Cameron and Mr. Wight, are there any other shipwrecks since you’ve done documentaries on the Bimarck and the Titanic that hold your interest in exploring such as the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Lusitania or the Andrea Doria?

JAMES CAMERON: We love shipwrecks. There’s 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.

Mr. Grierson, when you were first approached about the project, what was your reaction? Was it an immediate “yes” or were you a little leery? And for Mr. Cameron and Mr. Wight, what did you see in him? He did a great job considering all the difficult elements he had to deal with and this being only his second feature film.

CAMERON: And it’s the first one in the English language. (to Grierson) Your first film was in Australian.

GRIERSON: That’s right! Yes, it was an immediate yes. The way the events unfolded for me were, I’d made a film in Australia called Kokoda in 2006. It was a low budget period war movie essentially about a bunch of men who are cut off from their supply lines in Papua, New Guinea fighting the Japanese and they’ve got to make their way back to their home base. It’s a very tense film. It was very well received in Australia, not so well known here. My suspicion was that when Jim and Andrew saw that picture, they felt it had some qualities that matched what we were trying to do with Sanctum, some of the thematic ideas. At a technical level, what I was able to do with Kokoda was make it feel like it was a much bigger picture than it actually was which I think again was something that these guys wanted to bring to Sanctum. When I actually read the script for Sanctum, it was just randomly placed on my desk. There were no names associated with it. I read it, I thought it was a 2D film, I had no idea who the producers were in the background, and I just loved it. I just really dug it. The reason why I think is because what was clear to me from reading it was the guys who write this, the guys who want to make this, they’re very good cave divers, they do this, because the language of the screenplay was so rich and convincing and real from that world. So I immediately said I really want to do this. I think it matches my ideas for filmmaking. And then I met Andrew. Andrew was keeping it a little bit secret. He was like, “I’m Andrew. I’m the producer and by the way my partner is James Cameron. And I was like “Oh, okay.” Things suddenly started to change a little. “And by the way, we want to do it in 3D.” It was a little trippy at the time because it was pre-Avatar even though there’d been quite a few 3D releases and no one was doing a lot of live action in 3D. It was an incredibly exciting idea just on a conceptual level. And then Jim saw Kokoda and invited me to Wellington, New Zealand to meet him and go on the set of Avatar and have a look at what those guys were doing. It was my Entourage moment. You get the call from Mr. Cameron.

CAMERON: He answered our questions so we’re done.

ANDREW WIGHT: We’re done.

Mr. Cameron and Mr. Wight, you guys are experienced in going down into caves and that type of thing. Can you explain decompression sickness and how that affected the Crazy George character?

CAMERON: Do you want to do DCS?

WIGHT: Basically, with decompression sickness in a movie you don’t have 15 minutes to explain it in order. It’s like being in outer space. You skip through some of that. But, very quickly, what it is, is that the air we’re breathing is comprised of about 20 per cent oxygen and about 80 per cent nitrogen. The nitrogen we breathe in and out. It’s inert. It doesn’t really do anything.

CAMERON: This is going to take too long. I can tell right now. This is like teaching a class.

WIGHT: Okay, you do it.

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.

WIGHT: That’s why he’s the storyteller.

CAMERON: 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.

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.

But what about the pressure on the Earth being that far down?

CAMERON: It’s really not the Earth pressure. It’s the pressure while they’re in the water that does it.

While diving that far down, have you encountered any unusual life forms that have never been seen before?

CAMERON: There’s not a lot in caves.

WIGHT: When you lose sunlight, by and large you don’t get creatures, but in the deep ocean you do. There are troglobitic creatures that live in caves but usually they’re not far from the entrance normally. There’s little stuff.

CAMERON: And 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.”

The film is based on true events but it didn’t happen exactly the way it did in real life. Was the appeal of the story about survival in an alien environment?

CAMERON: Well sure. 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. It was part of his life, and he can explain that in a second, 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.

WIGHT: My personal experience was I was leading a cave diving expedition in Australia and the last day of the expedition a storm flooded the cave entrance, it collapsed, 15 of us were trapped below ground, and it took nearly 2 days to get everyone out and myself included. So it was in the course of those events and really staring death in the face and watching how everyone responded that inspired what came to be the Sanctum story. It’s really a story of people’s will and struggle to survive and the human dynamics of that. That’s what really struck me after the event. You get over the fact that I survived and I’m alive, and fortunately in our real story, we all got out alive. In the fictional story, we explore much more of the human drama and then we draw on a lot more experiences so we’ve got a very rich story that can take people on that journey.

When you’re doing a story of survival in an alien environment, how do you use technology in service of the story without overwhelming the storytelling?

GRIERSON: That’s a good question and it’s interesting the last couple of days a lot of people like to focus on the technology with this film for obvious reasons, but in a way it’s a distraction because the truth is we’re just trying to tell a story as best we can and the 3D is just a medium to deliver that. From my point of view, making the picture was very much business as usual. And it is if you have an infrastructure and a working system in place that can manage itself which we did. I was very fortunate having been on the Avatar set and with all of Jim’s experience and all of Andrew’s experience working in 3D. I had a very strong philosophy about the style of 3D that I wanted to bring to the project and a working methodology as well. So basically I could take Jim’s ideas and working practices and neatly slip them in with what I was doing. Once that was set up, it really had its own life. It just looked after itself so it did kind of tick away in the background. We had a wonderful stereographer, Chuck Comisky, who had worked with Jim for many, many years and that was his department. He did that and I just got on with my job as normal.

CAMERON: If normal is “Cue the waterfall! Dead bodies!”

GRIERSON: Yes, indeed. Obviously there were huge technical challenges with making the picture, all relating to the water really and light. I mean, Andrew just wanted to make it really, really hard for me. So one of the gags is we’re running out of light throughout the picture but you need to get an exposure in the camera so then we had to manage and deal with that. We had to manage and deal with the water which obviously just wants to slow you down. It’s dangerous. There are safety issues for the cast in particular. Training the cast to dive was a huge element of what we were doing. It was very important to me that the cast learned all those skills and was able to execute their own stunts because I think for me it feels like it keeps the audience in the moment. It feels much more real and believable. What I’m hoping with the 3D, and my feeling is that so far it’s working, is the 3D is that much more immersive in this environment, that it makes the experience much more like it is, and the audience has a sense of participation. They’re with the characters as they’re going on this journey. I think that really enhances the experience of the film.

In the course of making the film, were there any discoveries that you guys can share either in terms of technique or technology or storytelling or any moments of “Oh, we can do this now”?

WIGHT: I can offer one. 3D wasn’t an impediment to telling the story. I think that’s a revelation in and of itself. We just treated the filmmaking process as business as usual. And the result, I think, is a film that does more than it could have done if it had of been filmed in a different way.

GRIERSON: I think what we wanted to do was take Jim’s technology which worked incredible in space and these guys worked so long in developing that technology. We literally took his cameras from Avatar, the same cameras that he used, but we took them into environments that they’d never been in before. I mean shooting in a waterfall with the camera on the end of a 50-foot crane has huge challenges and huge implications. But that was really exciting. We didn’t tell Jim we were doing any of this.

CAMERON: The insurance company would have been interested in what you were up to. I can see the dailies. Wait a minute! That camera just went under the waterfall!

GRIERSON: That was kind of the breakthrough, I think for me anyway, was using that equipment handheld in extreme temperatures, in extreme heat, on location out in jungles, on cranes. Anything that you could do in 2D, we could do in 3D even better.

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.

There is one other thing I’d like to say about that which is what did we learn. 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.

WIGHT: It wasn’t like we had a huge crew of experienced people that came over to do it. It was literally adding two or three people that had any previous 3D experience and within a week everyone was doing it just as business as usual. So I think we proved the point that the film can still look really good and you don’t have to go back to school to learn how to do it. You just have to have the right gear and a few people to put you in motion with a good aesthetic and the film will take care of itself.

Water makes things look 25 per cent bigger. Is there any difference with filming a 3D film underwater as opposed to above water?

CAMERON: (to Grierson) What did you find on that?

sanctum_movie_image_01GRIERSON: Shooting underwater is tough I think whether you’re doing it 2D or 3D because it’s a big machine involved to do it. It’s a lot of people and a lot of moving parts. 3D itself is again kind of an irrelevant process — put that aside and it will look after itself. We had a great working methodology working underwater. Again, I was fortunate because of Andrew’s experience. He’s spent 20 years working and making films underwater. So he could bring in a very strong idea of the process and all that shooting underwater. Again, we made it tough on ourselves. We turned all the lights off. So how do you light the scene? It gets tricky and my cinematographer really stepped up and came up with some really unique solutions to dealing with some of these problems. We built a huge cave basically in a huge tank at Warner Bros. studio and we flooded it, cleaned it, heated it and trained the actors. You need very sophisticated diving teams. Very sophisticated and experienced cave divers came onboard and helped us as doubles and stand-ins. And so, there’s a lot of moving parts and every time you see an actor in the water on screen, you’ve got to imagine there’s at least 5 people in the water as support staff for that person. When we do a 4-shot, there’s about 30 people in the water. It’s us getting busy and we’re all crammed into this cave that we’ve built hanging off walls and so on. But I tell you, it was a hoot. I loved shooting on the water. It was great and none of the actors could talk back.

Mr. Cameron, what do you have coming up next?

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.

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