James Cameron And The Cast and Crew Of ‘Sanctum’ Talk About Tackling Cave Diving

HollywoodNews.com: Despite the wealth (no pun intended) of filmmakers interested in investing in a future blockbuster, James Cameron is one of the few folks in Hollywood who puts his money where his mouth is: After investing some $300 million in 3D technology developing his own camera system in order to shoot “Avatar,” he’s further funding the use of 3D by executive producing “Sanctum,” director Alister Grierson’s story of a group of cave divers who get trapped miles underground. Combining state-of-the-art camera technology with firecracker storytelling, Cameron hopes to further expand 3D’s presence in the movie marketplace – both commercially and artistically.

Hollywood News sat down with Cameron, Grierson, producer Andrew Wight, and stars Richard Roxburgh and Rhys Wakefield at the recent Los Angeles press day for “Sanctum,” where the cast and crew talked at length about the many physical and technical challenges they faced while trying to bring this story to life.

Hollywood News: Can you talk about the physical demands of the role and how you prepared for that? What was it like to act while contending with the extraordinary physicality of your characters?

Richard Roxburgh: There were a lot of specific talents that we had to acquire in a really short space of time. I suppose not only to get a general sense of them but kind of look like we were masters at them. So, it was being thrown into the deep end literally to achieve some of this with spectacular speed. Some of it was more difficult. Some things were just plain hellish like learning to acquaint yourself with the rebreather when you’d only just learned about scuba. That was hellishly difficult because that’s a really specialized instrument that I suppose relies on a great degree of confidence with the whole environment of being underwater, with being really steady with that and everything that goes with it. And then there were some things that were specifically geared toward certain stunts that we knew we were going to have to do, and so both Rhys and I had a variety with some of them more complicated than others. None of them pleasant.

Rhys Wakefield: Yes, it was funny. We started on scuba diving and all learnt to scuba dive which was really pleasant and that was quite enjoyable and I thought oh, this will be a breeze. This is going to be so enjoyable. And then we had to learn on these rebreathers which is just this really advanced technology and something we had to pretend that was really acting at its finest, pretending that we knew what we were doing.

Hollywood News: How did you guys define the relationship between you two because in the pantheon of overbearing father figures, this guy at least has the advantage of mostly, like 98% of the time, being right? How did you figure out the dynamic of that relationship?

Roxburgh: Frank is very characteristic, by the way, of the people who do this type of stuff. There is a real I suppose kind of military quality that these guys have. There’s a kind of steely discipline and also to do the particular thing that these people do which is certainly anathema to me, I think it requires a kind of odd Zen self-discipline and also an ability I suppose to do what you see Frank doing which is to let practical reality be the thing that dictates the terms always so you’re not allowed…you cannot spend time grieving. If somebody is going to weigh you down, then they need to go. It’s as brutal as that. Having said that, there’s a chart that we had to find with the character through the terrible things that happened that was about him sort of softening and accepting that his son not only was a human being but that his son also had skills that he perhaps didn’t have and I suppose a sort of flowering of his pride in his son which is an appealing thing for me in the story.

Hollywood News: One of your characters loves seeing things that no other human has seen before and the other, the son, is like who cares, this is crazy, you’re going to kill yourself. What did you learn about yourself in terms of the bravery that goes along with having to train and learn what these real people do?

Wakefield: Meeting one of the co-writers, John Garvin, who wrote one of the key handbooks on rebreathers so he’s a massive dive enthusiast, rebreather enthusiast, and he said to me that he had to give up cave diving because it was just a matter of time before he would end up… I mean, the statistics are just in play that it was just a matter of time before he would never be returning home. There’s just this sense of adventure and this seriousness that is instilled in these people and I think they’re just constantly looking for that adrenaline rush and that exploration and yet you see their eyes light up, especially talking to Andrew Wight who the story is inspired by. I can’t imagine going down to a dark space and having no idea where I’m going and not being able to breathe. That doesn’t sound overly appealing to me. So yeah, it definitely takes a certain individual to really feel that they’re discovering the final frontier that we can on earth. So it was interesting speaking with them. I still can’t understand it.

Hollywood News: On the set, did you ever have a moment where you said “Give me some time. Cut.”? Were there any panic attacks?

Wakefield: Yes, shooting the underwater stuff could have gone one of two ways. You have to have a sense of trust and control or it can become somewhat meditative and therapeutic. There was a moment, I remember myself where I’m in the part of the film where I have no breathing apparatus and it’s really a lot of breath holds and my ears started to have this chronic ache for some reason I couldn’t pressurize. So I remember just panicking. I’m panicking because I’m trying to find where my regulator is and who can hand me my air and then there’s canopies of rocks under me and you’re natural reaction is to want to head up to the surface. So that was a scary moment. So I was just wading water for a little bit just breathing and trying to chill out. And that was my moment.

Roxburgh: There were quite a few moments like that. It was quite a lot of the film spent having to supervise your own mind. For instance, we shot all of the underwater stuff at night which in itself is a kind of surreal enough thing. So you get to set, you’re dropped down into a tank in pitch dark in Queensland, and then they turn all the lights off. And then the only lighting you have is the lighting that you provide yourself or what have you. My last two nights I had a head cold. I couldn’t equalize going down and I was playing in a tight restriction with bleeding from the nose because of the pressure in my head and that was fascinating. That was interesting because also there were these seemingly insurmountable number of obstacles to performance. For example, in that instance, none of us could communicate. When we were doing all the underwater stuff, they didn’t have coms so they couldn’t hear us but we could hear them on loud speaker under water. So again, if you had any problem, how do you communicate? It was almost as if, if you have a problem, make it go away yourself quietly. So yeah, there was a lot of mind control.

Hollywood News: Alister, was it easy to come into the 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 and 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 actually shooting, it was really Andrew and I were off doing our own thing getting all the material. But I think Jim’s biggest influence on the picture was in post production where I could actually 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 get as much, 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.

Hollywood News: 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?

James Cameron: Well yeah, 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.

Andrew 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 and 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.

Hollywood News: 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 a just a medium to deliver that. From my point of view, making the picture, it 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 just sort of 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.

Hollywood News: Like a lot of films with Mr. Cameron’s name associated with them, Sanctum is very experimental in that it uses new technology in a unique way and experiments often lead to revelations. 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 or from directors of photography. We need this, we need that. 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.

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