James Cameron Almost Died Making The Abyss

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A few weeks ago I was sent an advance copy of Rebecca Winters Keegan’s The Futurist, which is an authorized bio of James Cameron. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Obviously I like his stuff, and he’s technically amazing. But I’m not exactly a Cameron fanatic. I’m an Alien guy, not an Aliens guy.

So I kicked it around my office for three weeks. Then, randomly, I picked it up. Then I read every word of it. This is a guy who went from driving trucks to making Piranha 2 to making Terminator to forcing the entire movie industry to upgrade its hardware, repeatedly, just to keep up with him. It’s pretty interesting. I’ve seen Cameron speak, and it wasn’t exactly riveting — he never talked about all the stuff I wanted to hear. And I always wondered, where the hell is all that stuff? It’s in this book.

After I finished The Futurist I e-mailed Keegan and begged her for an excerpt. This excerpt. It’s about the brutality of life on the set of The Abyss, and how Cameron almost drowned. It tells you a lot about him. The Futurist goes on sale December 15. Just in time for a little movie called Avatar. Fancy that. (More on Techland: Avatar, the Morning After – Why Pandora is the Future of Movies)

Shoot days on The Abyss averaged 15 to 18 hours. When filming underwater, the crew were typically at about 30 feet deep or 2 atmospheres. An underwater filling station was built to enable Cameron and the cast—with their unusual and cumbersome dive helmets—to fuel up on oxygen underwater, saving time and hassle and enabling them to stay down for up to five hours at a time. It took a while to get the PH levels in the tanks right—initially there was too much chlorine, and crew members’ hair started falling out and changing colors and their skin burning.

During breaks, the cast and crew emerged from the tanks shaky and unstable, like moonmen readjusting to Earth’s gravity. Immediately they climbed into plastic hot tubs that were set up topside to warm them back up. After that many hours in the water, even in wet suits, they were chilled and clammy. Twentieth Century Fox considered the hot tubs an indulgence, and gave Hurd a hard time about purchasing them, but as production moved into fall and winter, the jacuzzis became the only place at the desolate industrial site that was warm enough for the crew to eat lunch or hold meetings. People grew exhausted and irritable, and started coming down with ear and sinus infections. Someone erased the words “The Abyss” from a blackboard on set and rewrote “The Abuse.”

More on Techland: The Top 10 Sci-Fi Films of the Decade

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