James Cameron Almost Died Making The Abyss

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Decompression was a concern, especially for the principals like Cameron and Giddings who were spending the most time under water. Their daily, long immersions at relatively shallow depths were unusual and not something covered by standard Navy dive tables. Dr. Peter Bennett, an expert on the physiology of diving, visited the set to advise the filmmakers on how much their bodies could take. At the end of the day, Cameron and Giddings often had to hang at 10 feet under the surface for an hour to adjust to the pressure difference. Never one to waste time, Cameron asked the crew to install a monitor in the control room so he could watch his dailies through the acrylic window while suspended on a line. When his neck was sore from his helmet, he hung upside down and had the crew invert the monitor. He asked Orloff to patch phone calls from the studio through to his helmet so he could to talk to Fox executives while he decompressed.

After a draining 18-hour day, the few lingering cast and crew heading home would stop and take one last look in the viewing room window at their director, clinging to the line like a bat on a branch, and still at work. “I was stunned by Jim’s allegiance to the project and the extent of his physical abilities,” says Giddings, who had worked in the water all his life and was about 60 pounds heavier than Cameron. “I’m a big guy, strong and capable and this was my world. Jim was there for every minute of it. It was beyond belief his commitment to what we were doing.” Bennett recommended the crew who were spending the longest hours underwater breathe pure oxygen through a mask for a half an hour every night when they got home. So Cameron would sprawl on the bed at the house he had rented in Gaffney, eating his dinner and breathing pure O2. Often he’d wake up the next morning fully dressed, in exactly the same position, with his dinner plate on his chest and the mask on his face. (More on Techland: The Post-Screening Avatar Roundtable)

“A Classic Clusterfuck”

The space age helmets the actors wore were unwieldy—they weighed up to 40 pounds and required a dive tech assistant to remove them at the surface. When underwater, each actor had a dedicated safety diver watching his or her every move. The safety divers, or “angels” as they were known on the set, wore long fins and could swim in from off camera in a second or two to provide air if something went wrong. There was only one diver working in a helmet with no angel—Cameron. The director was also weighted with an extra 40 lbs at his waist and ankles so that he could walk around the bottom of the tank with the camera.

Cameron could go for about an hour and 15 minutes on a single fill of oxygen. Because he tended to get absorbed in his work, he asked his assistant director to warn him when it had been an hour since his last fill. A few weeks into the production, Cameron was talking Mastrantonio through a shot; the actress was about 20 feet away. Giddings, about 30 feet away, was lining up the shot, with his back to Cameron. All the other divers were at the surface or rigging lights off in the distance. As Cameron spoke to Mastrantonio, he took a breath, and got no air. Perplexed, he looked down at his pressure gauge, which read zero. The AD had forgotten to give Cameron the requested one-hour warning.

The director’s helmet was attached to his buoyancy vest. He knew if he removed it, it would lose its bubble of air and become a 40-lb. anchor—between the helmet and the waist and ankle weights he was wearing, Cameron would be 80 lbs. negative. With the extra weight and no fins, there was no way he could swim to the surface. Hmm. This didn’t look good.

But he still had the microphone in his helmet linked to the underwater PA system. And Giddings was down there with him. So Cameron called to him, “Al… Al… I’m in trouble.” The running joke on the set had been that all the other divers had to cover their ears all day long while Cameron yelled, “Al! Al! Pan left!,” because the DP had ruptured two eardrums in a diving bell accident 20 years earlier, and was all but deaf from the scar tissue. Funny, but not this time. Unable to rouse Giddings, Cameron looked around for the support divers. “Guys, I’m in trouble,” he said, using up the rest of the air in his lungs. He made the sign for being out of air, a cutthroat motion across the neck, and a fist to the chest. Nothing. At the bottom of a 7 million gallon tank, in the dark, 35 feet from the surface, Cameron really was in trouble. He knew he had to ditch his rig or die.

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