February 3, 1999
James Cameron bought a popcorn and a coke and then sat down to watch THE ABYSS [Special Edition] at the opening program of COSMIC FURY: The Spectacular Cinema of James Cameron, the retrospective film series that kicked off the full time programming of the American Cinematheque in its new home at the historic Egyptian Theatre. Following the screening of this 174 minute cut, Cameron took the stage with Programming Director Dennis Bartok for an audience discussion. Video of this discussion is available on itv.net.
When asked what it was like to watch THE ABYSS ten years later he replied, "I see a lot of flaws and I see some melodramatic stuff I would do differently now. To get applause on this movie ten years later -- that's really cool."
Bartok asked Cameron how he worked with the actors on the dramatic heart of the film in the midst of all the high tech goings on. Cameron replied, "Actors cling to stuff like that like a life jacket. That's the part they recognize and feel comfortable with. Actors go right to the universal human truth." Cameron agreed with Bartok that the scene where the Lindsay character has a near drowning experience only to be willed back to life by her estranged husband, had always been at the heart of the film.
Cameron explained that many of the ideas and images that appear in his films brew for a long time. He recalled that pivotal elements of THE ABYSS grew out of an article he read while in high school, about a saline solution that allows underwater breathing. He wrote a science fiction story about an incredible underwater dive using this solution. One of the final sequences in THE ABYSS revolves around Ed Harris' character making a record-breaking dive utilizing "breathing liquid." A pet rat in the movie is also immersed in "breathing liquid." Cameron recalled, "We used five rats for the five takes and all of them were fine. I even kept one as a pet for a few years afterwards."
According to Cameron, "liquid ventilation" experimentation at Duke University has progressed and the technology is now more accepted within the medical community than it was ten years ago when THE ABYSS was made. Although he had never heard of it being used in the world of professional diving (although it could be used) he cited its use in keeping pre-mature babies breathing and experimentation on adults with diseases such as cystic fibrosis that effect the ability to breathe normally.
When asked about the "lived in look" of the setting of THE ABYSS, Cameron replied that "the fun of moviemaking is creating the environment." Bartok commented that he paid great attention to detail. Cameron agreed and said that although a "submersible oil rig does not actually exist, it could in theory." He and his art director went out and looked at a lot of real rigs and submarines to get ideas for what the sets in THE ABYSS should look like.
Acknowledging that Cameron had often been on the cutting-edge of technology in his films, Bartok asked if he thought about a next project in terms of how he could next push the envelope of technology. Cameron said that if a director's only goal was to push the envelope of technology then that was "aesthetically unhealthy." "Its nice to be able to show something that hasn't been shown before," he said, but that can be first and foremost in the story."
Speaking of his own creative process he views technology as a means of bringing to life the ideas in his head. When conceptualizing the Non-Terrestrial Intelligences in THE ABYSS, Cameron commented that he wanted them to be something "beautiful and elegant a pure light, angelic quality but creatures of the ocean" in contrast to the more stereotypical depiction of grotesque or ugly alien beings. "I could do them a whole lot better with CG now," Cameron lamented. "I could get a lot closer to what I imagined with technology just ten years later." He also commented that the idea for a liquid silver metal character had come to him originally in 1980, but there was no way then to do that effect so it didn't appear until Terminator 2.
Bartok commented that the sound design in THE ABYSS is quite elaborate. Cameron recalled that on ALIENS 2 he truly became aware of what was possible in this area when he worked for months on the sound in England. On THE ABYSS, Cameron said, "I was fortunate to be working with two young passionate folks who really got into it. We were all just kind of figuring it out. Blake would put a condom on a microphone and stick it under water and record things " The breathing inside the helmet becomes a familiar noise after awhile. Cameron described it as "starting in the back of the theatre and coming to the front so its almost like the whole theatre is breathing with the guy in the helmet."
An audience member asked Cameron what he took away from the experience of making THE ABYSS and he replied emphatically, "Don't ever do that again!" Laughter from the audience acknowledged the fact that he did "do that again" when he went back in the water less than ten years later to shoot the epic TITANIC. "Okay," he joked. "Its like childbirth. You have amnesia, but when you do it again you're smarter!" Cameron also remarked that THE ABYSS was physically more exhausting. At the end of the shooting day he "would fall asleep with his fork in his mouth at the dinner table." They worked under water all day, six days a week. However, TITANIC was more emotionally draining. Especially during post-production when they were under such severe media scrutiny. He said that from his experience on THE ABYSS he was able to make an informed decision about sticking to his own schedule on TITANIC so as not to have another movie "released in a compromised form just to make a summer movie deadline."
Another audience member asked Cameron, "how do you keep a human pulse in your films." To this Cameron replied, "Its tough. The actors really understood their characters. I write the stuff, so the characters are close to me from the beginning. At a certain point I turn them over to the actors and let them make them their own." Some of the obstacles included actors who had never been in diving gear playing out their toughest emotional scenes submerged wearing full diving masks and suits. He said that Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had never been in a diving suit before. "She had to create that [emotion] in really adverse conditions."
Cameron went on to explain that he likes to rehearse the actors on the set on a daily basis. "I tell the crew, 'thanks for setting up the pre-light, now go to craft services and let me work with my actors." One of Cameron's other working methods revealed to the audience is writing to music ("I think I wrote all of TITANIC to Enya, I wanted to find something that had the emotion I needed."). And will Cameron go further back in history than 1912? Well, he professed a fascination with ancient history and Greek and Roman mythology, but commented that as a director "you get pulled in so many directions and you know you can only make a few films on a large scale so the problem is convincing others that the antiquities are something people want to see." For the time being Cameron is working on a TV project about Mars which he believes will be the next real-world space exploration since mankind has not explored more than about 200 miles from earth since 1972. However, the "perceptual barriers of the audience" do intrigue him and he says, "if you can make people interested in something they don't think they are interested in, then that's cool." He got the masses to come out in droves for a period romance set in the early 20th century so maybe Cameron is just the man to revitalize our interest in the Trojan wars? The fall of the Roman Empire or perhaps most appropriately a look at the lost city of Atlantis.
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