It wasn’t quite as difficult as some other situations Alba has found herself in. She learned to dive at age 13 while shooting a revival of the TV show “Flipper.”
“My first open-water dive was in Australia,” says the actress. “It was a current dive. Everyone had left me, and I was wasting air struggling to stay in place instead of going with the current. My air went out, I was down 60 feet. I lost all my air and saw a humongous shark. It was a hammerhead and he was friendly, but I didn’t know that. I was literally choking on water. My air was zero, zero, zero. I panicked and jumped to the surface. You’re not supposed to do that. I almost died.”
But such a forbidding medium has advantages, too, says Stockwell, especially on studio projects. “In many ways there was something blissful about shooting underwater. You didn’t have anyone in your ear telling you what should be done and what shouldn’t be done. Only a certain number of people could get out there. It kept the peanut gallery to a minimum.”
After Jacques Cousteau helped invent the Aqua-Lung in the 1940s, a whole new niche of underwater filmmaking was created. In turn, the entertainment industry helped convert early enthusiasts. So instrumental was Lloyd Bridges’ 1950s series “Sea Hunt” in promoting scuba that he earned a place in the International Diving Hall of Fame, even if his character often committed the ultimate no-no of diving alone.
By the ’60s and ’70s, underwater sequences were more than a mere novelty. It seemed that every new James Bond film had to deploy them. And by 1975, with the release of “Jaws,” the industry set out to produce entire films that drew almost exclusively on the drama of the deep. In fact, one was called, quite simply, “The Deep.” It made $47 million at the domestic box office in 1977.
“The Deep” “was without question the most ambitious underwater undertaking ever,” says underwater cinematographer/director Al Giddings, who shot the sequences for the $15-million film about vacationers who get mixed up with treasure hunters seeking riches from an undersea wreck. (He also shot underwater scenes for “The Abyss” and “Titanic,” among others.) Much of “The Deep” was filmed on the wreck of the RMS Rhone off the British Virgin Islands and in a lavish underwater set constructed in a tank in Bermuda, but the most memorable moments may have been shots of a treacherous eel — and star Jacqueline Bisset’s wet T-shirt.
Bisset was a scuba novice when she took the role. What she thought would be limited underwater work turned into three months below the surface as the crew quickly discovered that scenes wouldn’t work using a double.
What nearly sent her into a panic was a scene in which her mouthpiece is knocked out as she fights with an eel. “I got into real trouble there,” she says. “I wanted to get it back, and I couldn’t see anything. Nick (Nolte) was below me and his bubbles were completely obscuring me from seeing anything. It was awful. I was taking in water. I thought I was gone.”
“I haven’t put my head underwater since,” she quips.
James Cameron, whose diving exploits are numerous enough to fill a book, went a step further with “The Abyss” in 1989. Shot in massive tanks constructed out of a never-completed nuclear-power station in North Carolina, it was an underwater sci-fi spectacle so ambitious (a budget of more than $40 million, taking in $110 million worldwide at the box office) that the crew created a specialized set of functioning diving equipment for the cast. (“The Abyss” also inspired Wes Anderson when he made “The Life Aquatic”: He has said that he listened to Cameron’s DVD commentary for all of his filmmaking tricks).