James Cameron appeared Wednesday at Los Angeles genre festival Beyond Fest for a Q&A about “The Abyss” after a screening of the film’s seldom-seen two-hour and 51-minute Special Edition.
Unbeknownst to attendees (but later confirmed by festival programmers), the DCP presentation turned out to be the 4K transfer Cameron announced last year, physical and streaming versions of which he said were “out of his hands” but all work has long been completed. “All of the mastering is done and I think it drops pretty soon — a couple of months or something like that,” Cameron said in response to an audience question. “There’s a lot of added material that they’re sticking in there, and it will be available on streaming simultaneously. But I didn’t just want to look at the old HD transfer. I wanted to do it right.”
Back in 1989, the film marked one of the filmmaker’s few projects that did not immediately meet with commercial success, earning just short of $90 million worldwide on a reported budget of about half that much. Speaking to moderator Jim Hemphill, Cameron acknowledged that its tapestry of romance, alien encounters and Cold War politics came together from a broad spectrum of influences. “I think anybody that was a movie fan at that time — we’re talking 34 years ago — could see the DNA from other movies, from ‘Close Encounters’ to the Cold War movies, so obviously I was being pulled in different directions,” he said.
“But the one that stands above the others is ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still,’ which is a philosophical sci-fi film that asked the question ‘are we worthy if we were to be judged by a higher intelligence?’ That had a big impact on me as a kid and I wanted to do my own version of that but set it underwater because I was fascinated by the underwater world.” He didn’t have a better answer for why it was necessary to kitchen-sink its plot instead of focusing on just one or two of these ideas. “It all made sense to me at the time, that’s all I can say,” Cameron shrugged.
The entire film was shot in an abandoned nuclear power plant in Gaffney, S.C., requiring the actors to actually be trained and perform their characters’ activities underwater. While describing the process by which his team would supervise the actors to ensure their safety, Cameron casually mentioned that he almost died during production. “We had the ‘angels,’ which were the safety divers that were right there, and each one was assigned to one or two of the actors and just kept them in sight the whole time. [But] they weren’t watching me.”
Hemphill drilled down into the story, prompting Cameron to explain how he literally had to fight his way to survival while shooting. “We were working 30 feet down. For me to be able to move the camera around on the bottom I wore heavy weights around my feet, no fins, a heavy weight belt around my waist.” Experienced as he was as a diver, the equipment he was using failed him — and more than once.
“When the tank gets low, you get a warning that you’re about to run out of air,” he said. “Well, this thing had a piston servo regulator in it, so it was one breath… and then nothing. Everybody’s setting lights and nobody’s watching me. I’m trying to get [underwater director of photography] Al Giddings attention on the p.a. but Al had been involved in a diving accident and he blew out both eardrums so he was deaf as a post, and I’m wasting my last breath of air on an underwater p.a. system going ‘Al… Al…’ and he’s working away with his back to me.”
Cameron said that he was able to remove his gear, but he soon encountered another obstacle: the “angels,” first thinking that they were helping, and then trying to save him from himself. “The safety diver gets to be about ten feet from the surface and he sticks a regulator in my mouth that he didn’t check. It had been banging around the bottom of the tank for three weeks and had a rip through the diaphragm — so I purged carefully and took a deep breath… of water. And then I purged it again, and I took another deep breath… of water.”
“At that point it was almost check out point and the safety divers are taught to hold you down so you don’t embolize and let your lungs overexpand going up. But I knew what I was doing. And he wouldn’t let me go, and I had no way to tell him the regulator wasn’t working. So I punched him in the face and swam to the surface and therefore survived.”
Ahead of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Titanic” and the “Avatar” films, “The Abyss” was just the first of his projects that truly pushed the envelope of what it was possible to depict on screen — and not just by filling a power plant and then engineering the technology for his actors to survive, and act, underwater. In particular, the film’s use of CGI on a “soft” character — in this case, an undulating tentacle made out of water that could interact with his actors — would pave the way for a coming revolution in visual effects technology. “The pseudopod scene is the moment that certainly caught people’s attention at the time,” he remembered. “That scene made an impact and showed people what was possible and I think it kicked in the door to the start of the CG explosion.”
As for why he repeatedly has felt compelled to test those boundaries? Cameron proved unexpectedly self-deprecating given the seemingly boundless scope of his ambitions throughout his career. “I think I write myself into a corner so I have to write something cool,” he said. “It probably comes from an insecurity as a writer, as an actor’s director, that I have to do some big hat trick.”
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