Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Under Pressure - Making The Abyss

It seems we're still a while away from seeing James Cameron's 1989 film The Abyss surface on Blu-Ray. Rumour has it that the film will get a HD release in December 2011. Until then Fox's DVD should suffice, if only for the inclusion of Under Pressure - Making the Abyss, a superb hour long chronicle of the making of Cameron's epic sci-fi.

When it comes to special effects films I normally shy away from "making of" features - I prefer that the magician's secrets remain just that, but Under Pressure makes for fascinating, compelling viewing, detailing the enormous engineering challenges the film makers had to overcome to realise Cameron's vision, as well as the considerable demands the film placed on the actors. The set was an abandoned nuclear power plant in South Carolina which housed a reactor containment vessel big enough to create the 7 million gallon underwater world of The Abyss.

For years Cameron has had a reputation for being some sort of latter day Otto Preminger, a film maker whose temper is often let loose on his cast and crew. The film largely avoids such drama, but there are some candid moments where Cameron's patience is tested when faced with cast and crew griping. Cameron makes for excellent, intelligent company and is honest enough to admit that at times the production was out of it's depth, as it faced unforeseen bad weather (which led to the production switching to night shoots), and more seriously, huge plumbing problems with the tank.

Interestingly Cameron mentions the scene in the film where a rat is made to breathe "liquid oxygen" and points out that the scene was cut in the UK over concerns of animal cruelty. Actually, the British Board of Film Classification had the scene re-framed (and awkwardly so), with the rat appearing mostly out of shot. It still remains one of the Board's more controversial decisions. This modification still exists today on the UK DVD.

Unseen on British Home Video, the sequence of the rat breathing fluid

Admittedly Cameron soft pedals some of the tougher moments the actors were subjected to, but thankfully the cast who still seem bruised by the film's difficult shoot, rarely hold back. Ed Harris painfully reveals at one point that he had a brush with death as he found himself at the bottom of the tank with no oxygen, while Michael Biehn remembers an occasion where the submerged cast were plunged into total darkness when the lights in the tank lost power.
Yet another story from the shoot involves Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio storming off the set during the filming of her scene where she is resuscitated after drowning - a particularly intense take had to be abandoned when the camera ran out of film, which enraged the actress and caused her leave that day's filming. Tellingly Mastrantonio is the only cast member who didn't participate in the documentary. Perhaps some memories are too painful to share...
An intense Ed Harris reflects on a hard day's work

Under Pressure - Making The Abyss is available on the 2-disc DVD edition of The Abyss, and can also be viewed in 6 parts on youtube...
On a personal note, The Abyss has a special place in my heart as it was my first taste of a phenomenon known as the "Director's Cut", when Fox released the long 3 hour version of the film in the early 90's on VHS. Not only that, it was my first time seeing a "Widescreen" film, a concept that left people utterly bewildered back in the day...


  1. Hola,
    finally something for scuba divers ;-). Great movie and great review. Good job dude.

  2. Yo! - I dragged this doc around to a mate's house so he could watch it too, it's great. An awesome movie experience.

  3. I watched this documentary somewhere - and before there was anything called DVD - I wonder if it was aired as a promotional TV special around the theatrical release? Or maybe that was a different documentary.

    A couple of notes - that reactor facility and tank were owned by North Carolina filmmaker Earl Owensby - one of several canny business decisions the man has made - Fox paid him a lot of money to use the tank - and other films have shot there as well.

    I have never worked for James Cameron (had he made his Spider-Man movie here - in the same abandoned cement plant where Little Monsters and Super Mario Bros were made - I might have) but I did work for Michael Haynie, who served as Cameron's first assistant director (AD) on a couple of shows. Michael was a tough guy to work for - as he had the same semi-tyrannical thing going on - which is probably why some of the shenanigans cooked up by he and Cameron are legendary on film sets. On True Lies, for example, there was a microphone stand always near the director's chair. Hanging on the stand was a large animal bone on a rope. If you made an error in your job that cost the production money or time - you were forced to wear the bone around your neck for the rest of that shooting day (or until someone else made a mistake) because you had "boned" the show with your error.

  4. Craig, what can I say but a big thank-you for weighing in with another fantastic comment - your perpective on the idiosyncrasies of studio film making is, as always invaluable. Incredible antics on the True Lies set !