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.”

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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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Up in the control room, Orloff had noticed the director wasn’t sounding like himself. Suddenly the sound mixer heard Cameron’s helmet being popped off and all the expensive electronics inside it flooding. Back in the tank, with his heavy helmet now off and fastened to his buoyancy vest by a braided steel hose, Cameron couldn’t see anything but a blur. By feel, he located the release of his buoyancy vest and shrugged out of it, dropping the helmet to the floor of A Tank. Then he began what divers call a “blow and go,” a free ascent. If a diver fails to breathe out during a free ascent, the compressed air in his lungs will expand as the pressure in the water around him decreases, and eventually his lungs will explode, a very painful way to die. Cameron was blowing out a stream of bubbles as he ascended, and kicking like crazy because of his ankle weights. Finally, a safety diver named George raced to the director’s aid. And that’s when things got bad.

Safety divers are trained to stop panicking divers from ascending, so they don’t blow their lungs. So George stopped Cameron about 15 feet from the surface, as he was schooled to do, and shoved his back-up regulator into Cameron’s mouth. And Cameron did what he was supposed to do, which is purge, then inhale. But the back-up regulator was broken, a useless piece of junk disguised as lifesaving equipment. So Cameron inhaled water. Thinking he had purged incorrectly, Cameron repeated the procedure, as George held him down, and got another blast of water in his lungs.

Now he was choking, about to black out, and he had a guy holding him from ascending. With no way of explaining that he wasn’t getting air, Cameron tried to pull away. Thinking the director was panicking, George held him even tighter, and tried to make him breathe on the regulator. “A classic clusterfuck,” recalls Cameron. It was then that Cameron’s rough SCUBA training in the Buffalo Y pool really came in handy—either that or having brothers. Because he punched George as hard as he could, right in the face. George let Cameron go and the director made it to the surface without blacking out. He swam weakly to the dive platform and dragged himself from the tank.

By the end of the day, he had fired George and his AD. And he ordered the divers at the surface to fish out his helmet and fix the microphone so he could get back down in A Tank.

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