Shakefire sat down with Andrew Wight, writer and producer on the cave diving thriller Sanctum. In the past, he has worked closely with James Cameron on various underwater documentaries such as Titanic Adventure and Aliens of the Deep. As a cave diver himself, Wight talks to us about his personal experiences that led to the creation of Sanctum and gives his opinions on the future of 3D technology.
SHAKEFIRE: The film is based on your personal experiences, right? Can you tell us about that?
ANDREW WIGHT: I was leading a cave diving expedition out to the Nullarbor, which is the part of Australia where there’s a lot of big underground cave systems, mostly waterfall. It was the last day of our expedition and we had this freak rainstorm that kinda came across the area and flooded the cave entrance and trapped 15 of us below ground for two days. I was able to get out after about four or five hours after the initial collapse because I was in a different section of the cave. It was that kind of whole caving and disaster that inspired writing the screenplay and subsequently making the movie.
SF: Was anyone else from the crew involved?
AW: Not directly. There was one other fellow, Ron Allum, who’s been working with Jim and I for the last 10 years as well on all sorts of other projects. The other person is Wes Skiles, who’s from High Springs in Florida, who sadly passed away last year. He was the camera man who was on the Nullarbor expedition and then subsequent to that he made a career of shooting underwater and doing stuff for National Geographic and TV networks all around the world. Wes was just a great and dear friend. In fact, I dedicated the film to Wes.
SF: How were you able to transfer those personal experiences to a script?
AW: Well, initially the instinct was to write a story about that event. We kinda started off that way and really the purpose of making a movie is to give people an experience, a taste, of what it would really be like. So you really got to heighten the senses of an audience because they’re not expert cave divers, they don’t know anything about this world. The telling of that story was not going to have the right response. So what we did was take the whole construct; the cave collapse, being trapped, having to explore to get a new way out, and that was kind of the starting point. Then we needed to create characters which people could identify with, and then create a drama that would tell that story. It’s sort of evolved from there. All the things that happened in the movie have happened to someone before in cave exploration. There’s not one scary moment that’s like, “Oh we’ll just make that shit up.”
SF: So it’s all grounded in reality?
AW: Absolutely. The problem when you make a true life story and all the people are still alive is you kind of get really tangled up with being able to tell that story. Some people want to be involved; some people don’t want to be involved. It becomes somewhat of a nightmare to do. It’s a lot easier to take the real story, take it somewhere else, and tell it in a way which protects all the guilty parties, haha.
SF: What was the filming process like? Did you shoot in real caves or was most of it done on sets?
AW: Initially I wanted to film it all in real caves. Because I have a documentary background, it all made sense to me. These places exist so we might as well go and use them. So we went and scouted caves all over the world and when I came back from that trip I realized it’s probably not the smartest thing to do. Would have been a lot of fun and I got to do a really neat trip exploring caves but I thought, “Well I know what these places are supposed to look like. I know what the texture of the rock is supposed to be. Let’s build it so we can then control the water, which was the key element here.” So we built all these sets and we filmed in some real caves, underwater. Pretty much the wide shots underwater are real caves and everything else is in the set but you’d have to be pretty good in a lot of circumstances to figure it out, even for the actors. Cause it’s all made out of concrete and sculpted by hand. You could walk right up to it and have it be two inches off the end of your nose and go, “I swear this is real,” even though you know it’s chicken wire in concrete.
SF: How did you go about selecting the actors?
AW: Same old process. It was who is right for the part. It wasn’t like oh you can dive therefore you can be in the movie. That wasn’t a consideration. It was helpful if they knew how to dive but pretty much there was only one actor who had previous dive experience. All the rest of the whole cast we had to teach them how to dive, how to rock climb, how to do all the stuff so it was a pretty intensive boot camp for all of them.
SF: Caves are very cramped spaces filled with narrow passages. What was the filming process like?
AW: Filming was tough because the 3D camera rig – like most movie camera rigs – is not small; it’s not like a handycam so you have to build things in consideration about how to move the camera around and move the people around the set. And we had a lot of flowing water. An immense amount of engineering went into all the set pieces. For instance, we had a 30 foot high waterfall, which is a real waterfall. We had 4,000 gallons a minute coming out over the top of it. It all had to be structurally engineered to withstand the loads. It had to take people working on it, all the camera equipment. It’s not just fictionalizing in your own mind what this could look like and make it out of paper mache. It all had to be structurally engineered.
SF: What kind of difficulties did you run into?
AW: There’s the ones you’d like to hear and the real ones. The real difficulties are getting the money. You never have enough money or enough time and the insurance company wants to bend you over backwards. You say, “Oh, we’re going to have all this water on the set,” and they go, “Gee, that’s a pity. That’s going to be expensive.”
But having convinced them of that, I think we were so well planned and we had lots of really expert people who’ve done this kind of stuff before in the real world as opposed to a bunch of Hollywood people coming and trying to figure it out. They were the least of our problems. When you boil it down, most of the problems become “hey, behave with the other humans.” Actors, crew; that’s where the drama is.
SF: Fear plays a big role in the film, doesn't it.
AW: Oh absolutely. I think that’s one of the great things about the movie. The sort of natural tendency of people who don’t know any better is they want to put a monster in the cave because what else could possibly frighten you? Really the scariest parts about anything in life are the other people and the environment. And the environment is far more interesting to deal with in terms of what’s scary and what’s not because it’s real. If you take them on a journey which feels real than their emotions are going to be much more heightened than if it’s just a man in a rubber suit. What we’re trying to do is really place you, the audience, in that exact same spot and that flying water that’s falling down on top of your head, apart from not getting wet, you really feel like you’re being there.
SF: Let’s talk about the 3D for a moment.
AW: The 3D is really a natural evolution of cinema. When you think about it, someone said let’s capture a picture, let’s make it a moving picture, it’s in black and white, let’s put sound with it. Why not color because that’s how we see the world. All these little incremental steps are part of capturing how we see the world. We see it with two eyes so we see it in stereo, we see it in 3D already, we see it in color, and we hear it in stereo. Why not make movies that way? I think we’re learning how to do that and what we’ve found is if you do it well and you make it easy to watch, people get a much better experience and a more intense feeling of the drama that’s being portrayed than if it’s 2D. Now we’re in that transition phase because people are still kinda figuring how to do it. A bit like colorizing black and white films, some people are trying to convert them into 3D and bottom line that doesn’t work; it sucks.
SF: A lot of people still think 3D is a gimmick. How would you respond to them?
AW: The people like the film critics and the film practitioners who say, “Oh, it’s a gimmick,” they probably would have said that color film was a gimmick. Color film took 25 years to really cement its place in cinema. The people who really drove them weren’t the film critics or the naysayers or the people who were making films, it’s the public. The public will walk down the street to go see Avatar in 3D by a ratio of 80% to 20%. There were less 3D theaters around to watch Avatar on than there were 2D theaters but people went and saw the 3D version. Why? Because they like the experience better.
So I don’t care what the critics say because the critics aren’t always right. If you think about it logically, the advances in the way we entertain ourselves visually, there’ll be holographic projection, there will be some other form of media that we haven’t thought of today. But if you don’t have it in stereo, shot with the left and right eye, the way we see the world, and in color with stereo sound, you might as well read a book or listen to radio. I think you’ll find it won’t be that long with proliferation of 3D TVs, the technology will get better and the critics are just going to have to move with the times and go with what the audiences prefer and not keep to their hard line prejudice of what they think is good cinema.
SF: You're using the same 3D camera system that was used on Avatar. Has the system changed at all since then?
AW: Not that it has changed, what is happening now is the camera themselves are getting better and the rigs that control the cameras are getting better, but more importantly our understanding of how to compose 3D, how to create a 3D picture, is better. The difficulty is is that they way humans see the world is with the left and right eye and the brain composes the image in your head so you see a single picture. But there are issues with that optically which are difficult when you capture it on camera. That is to say we’ve got a brain but a camera doesn’t. So the things you see in the corner of your left eye verses the corner of your right eye don’t confuse you when you’re walking around the street because your brain says, “Don’t worry about that stuff. Just concentrate on what’s in the middle.” But if I take a picture of it and then project it to you and get you to look at it, then you have time to go, “Hang on a minute, there’s something different,” because it’s not processing.
So what we’ve got to do is be mindful of that and then take pictures and present them in such a way that you don’t find the image confusing to look at but yet you still get the enjoyment. The whole object of making a movie is to get the audience to look at what we think is important so we can tell a story. If you’re looking around the frame of the image and looking at the stuff that you want to look at as opposed to what we intended you to look at then we’re not telling the story effectively so what’s the point?
Films that don’t work in 3D are usually for two reasons; poorly told story or poorly executed and bad 3D. So it’s not a question of whether 3D is good or bad, it’s how it’s used.
SF: How important is 3D to a film like Sanctum?
AW: The 3D is less important to the film than the terms of is it a good story or not. If people like the story, the 3D will make it better. It’s an enabling tool. Think of it this way. If you slightly turn off all the incremental steps; turn off the 3D, turn off the color, and turn off the sound; now you’re back to a black and white picture without the sound, you go, “Oh, I get it.” Now turn them all back on again. Okay, well now you can have the sound back. “Can I have the color back, please?” “Actually even though I didn’t notice the 3D it actually looks better in 3D.” See what I’m saying? It’s when you take it away you notice it. People who say, “I didn’t notice the 3D that much.” Sure, you’re not supposed to. Do you walk around the world and go, “Gee, you’re in 3D!” If you’re noticing that you’re not noticing the story.