The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea

The underwater world is a cinematic wonderland, even if fraught with danger. It’s no wonder that, despite all the drawbacks, scuba-loving industryites have been trying to master the depths for decades

While shooting “After the Sunset” at Paradise Island in the Bahamas last year, longtime diver Salma Hayek took advantage of the region’s aquarium-clear water. But she got a bit too adventurous.

According to a source, one Saturday toward the end of the shoot, Hayek went diving before her noon calltime. Once on the set, she admitted she didn’t feel very well. “How deep did you go?” she was asked. “165 feet.” Sure enough, the hard-charging Hayek had come to work with the bends. They rushed her to a compression tank to recover and lost a day’s shooting.

Given the perils of the sport, it’s a wonder any filmmaker would venture below the surface. But they do. The next few months will see Sony-MGM’s adventure “Into the Blue,” Sony’s underwater thriller “The Cave” and Miramax’s documentary “Deep Blue.”

Many filmmakers are diving enthusiasts themselves but face an entirely different set of issues in fulfilling their visions in an environment fraught with uncontrollable conditions and, according to John Stockwell, director of “Into the Blue,” “creatures you can never truly wrangle and pay to do the things you want them to do.”

Stockwell had some experience in diving before he took on the project about a group of divers who come upon the illicit cargo of a sunken plane. But during pre-production, his skills didn’t limit his trepidation. Scouting locations outside Nassau, his crew pulled up to a dive site. Suddenly, reef sharks swarmed around their craft. Apparently, for animals accustomed to being fed from boats, the sound of a motor is like a dinner bell.

“Then you look, and (the dive instructors say), ‘OK, jump in,’ ” Stockwell recalls. “I am like, ‘That is insane. I am not going to dive into a mass of frenzied sharks.’ You just do, and they don’t bite you. They didn’t bite me. You gradually get comfortable being around them.”

Diving with a hood that made her look like a fish, star Jessica Alba constantly fended off sharks coming after her head.

“I had to learn to redirect the sharks,” she says. “I would just kind of knock (them). Every day I had my mom and my grandma praying to the saint that protects you from getting eaten by sharks. The wranglers said it was safe, but one guy had no elbow. Another guy had no calf. They’d all gotten chunks of their bodies taken out.”

According to Stockwell, another difficult part of the “Into the Blue” shoot was communicating with the actors underwater. He tried to use a slate, but “my writing is pretty much illegible,” he says. So he resorted to hand signals and gestures. His monitor was tied to the camera, but sharks would bite into the tether and he would lose the scene.

Similar headaches plagued the set of New Line’s “After the Sunset.” Director Brett Ratner shot much of the underwater footage in Hawaii, but in an attempt to control conditions after exteriors in the Bahamas, he filmed his actors in a tank in Los Angeles.

That’s not to say it was any easier.

“I might as well have been in my trailer,” Ratner says. “It’s the most difficult thing I have ever done. Jews and deep water don’t go together. But they figured out how to rig a speaker system that worked underwater, and there I was up at my monitor, yelling to the actors underwater through the mike. I like to do a lot of takes, and I don’t think Pierce (Brosnan) was too happy about it. I was omnipresent.”

Another big drawback in shooting underwater is that actors in wetsuits and masks are barely recognizable. So in creating “Into the Blue,” all efforts were made to deploy actors free diving, sans wetsuits and tanks.

“We’d go down 50 feet and take some air, and we couldn’t go to the surface,” Alba says. “We’d stay down and wait for a person to come back with more air. We were all holding our breath at the same time.”