But large-scale, water-based production nearly came to a sobering halt with the fabled Universal film “Waterworld” in 1995. The film, about a futuristic world in which the earth is covered in water and humans survive on barge-like craft, magnified the perils of shooting on open water. With days, even weeks, lost to inclement weather, not to mention the dangers (one crew member got the bends), the budget spiraled out of control, grabbed media headlines and nearly derailed star Kevin Costner’s career and that of director Kevin Reynolds. The $175-million movie — then the most expensive film ever made — bombed domestically, but ended up coming close to breaking even when it collected $264 million worldwide.
In the years that followed, the most ambitious ocean filming was left to underwater documentaries. (Cameron undertook “Titanic,” but save for actual footage of the wreck of the ship itself, the film was shot largely above water in a man-made tank in Rosarito, Baja.)
Then last year’s “Open Water” turned the entire concept of scuba shooting on its head.
Over a span of two-and-a-half years, Chris Kentis and his wife, Laura Lau, shot the tale of a couple whose dive boat leaves them behind in the open ocean, accompanied only by a school of hungry sharks. It was inspired by a true story about the disappeared couple Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were mistakenly left out on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998.
Using unknown actors and a barebones crew (essentially, just themselves), Kentis and Lau produced the movie for just $100,000, about the cost of one day’s shooting of “Into the Blue.” On weekends, they would fly from their New York home to the Caribbean locations.
“We had just the boat captain and the actors and my sister,” Lau says. “We were very flexible and adaptable to our situation. If we didn’t like the way the water looked, we could just hop on the boat and go.”
“We could move on a dime,” says Kentis, a trained video editor. “If we had had to move underwater rigs and booms, it could have turned into a nightmare.”
Avid divers themselves, Kentis and Lau say they had taken so much home-video footage of their trips that they were comfortable enough to go a step further and shoot a narrative in the water. Unlike “Jaws,” the idea was to shoot the movie from the point of view of the doomed couple, to “exploit the notion of what you can’t see,” Kentis says.
“For instance, even when they surface in the beginning, it was important in our minds that they don’t panic, because I have surfaced and not had the boat there,” he says. “The last thing on your mind is to panic because you are in such a state of denial because you are on vacation. ‘Nothing can happen. This is my vacation.’ ”
“I have been lucky enough to dive with sharks a couple of times,” he adds. “You are following them around, and they are just so majestic and beautiful. But there was a time I came up after a shark dive and there was this sudden explosion of water. All of a sudden this tail is flapping, and it is really disconcerting. So the whole thing was to try to work with them on the surface, rather than work with them underwater as we have seen in many films before.”
Their real innovation may have been the use of a hi-def camera, as opposed to celluloid.
With the advent of ever-more sophisticated and more flexible digital cameras, Giddings believes that scuba shooting will become more inviting and easier in years to come. He even suggested that Stockwell use it for “Into the Blue,” but Stockwell opted for film. “It’s a whole new world,” Giddings says. “Instantly after the dive you can share what went down with all of the creative forces, including the talent. That approach will produce the next (blockbusters).”
The perils will still be there, of course, but the temptation to shoot undersea will prove irresistible. As Stockwell says, “There is an inherent tension in it. When our characters go down, especially in the free-diving sequences, you notice that the audience is sort of holding their collective breath. It’s not our natural environment.” Ted Johnson contributed to this story.