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LAist Interview: James Cameron and The Cast of Sanctum

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Executive Producer James Cameron is the big name attached to the 3D underwater-thriller Sanctum, but watch Rhys Wakefield be the biggest thing to come out of it. The handsome Aussie plays Josh, a 17-year-old kid dragged along by his cave-exploring, inattentive father Frank (Richard Roxburgh) on a dangerous expedition that leaves them and the rest of their team trapped beneath the earth. Unfortunately, part of what makes Rhys stand out are the frustratingly annoying characters with whom he struggles to escape.

Ioan Gruffudd and Alice Parkinson play the mission financier Carl and his fellow adrenaline-junkie, girlfriend Victoria. They’re both fine actors, but his fake American accent makes each word he utters sound badly scripted and their characters make decisions that will have you wanting to shake them. The first 45 minutes of the movie are exposition heavy and laden with the kind of bold statements that will have you whispering to your theater companion, “That guy’s gonna die.” And you’ll likely be right.

But Sanctum isn’t all bad. Shot on location in Australia, there are some beautiful shots along the Gold Coast and amazing underwater footage. That they captured the story underwater on the same 3D cameras Cameron was using on Avatar at the time doesn’t make up for its weak script, but is still impressive to note. LAist sat down with Sanctum stars Richard Roxburgh, Alice Parkinson, Ioan Gruffudd and Rhys Wakefield as well as director Alister Grierson and producers James Cameron and Andrew Wight recently at a press day in Beverly Hills. We’ve compiled the highlights of what they had to say about making a movie that challenged them physically, mentally and technologically.

LAist: The film is based on true events but it didn’t happen exactly the way it did in real life. Was the appeal of a story about survival in an alien environment?

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James: Well, sure. We wanted to do a survival story. We were researching the psychology of survival before we crafted the story. We came up with the story. Nobody sent it to us. It was based on something that had happened to Andrew. It was part of his life, and he can explain that in a second, but we jumped off from there to tell a fictional story and we’re not making any bones that this isn’t a work of fiction. It’s based in true events, both the things that happened to Andrew and incidents that happened on other cave diving expeditions that we’re aware of through the cave diving community. Everything you see happened to somebody, somewhere, maybe not all on the same expedition, if you will. But, in crafting the story, we studied the psychology of survival. We read books on the subject, plus just our own accumulated knowledge and experience because we wanted to get into that thing that happens inside people where they have to adjust to a situation, which appears completely hopeless. Some people are able to make that adjustment, others aren’t. Some people become more heroic than they could have imagined was possible for themselves. Other people, who you think of as leaders, could become quite cowardly or could implode. Everyone reacts quite differently. I think the appeal of this kind of movie for audiences in general is to test themselves against the circumstances of the film and think, “Wow, what would I do if I was in that situation? Wow! I can barely breathe watching this, let alone actually doing it! Can I hold my breath that long?” Here’s a little more abstract example, “If I knew I was slowing down the group and that they would all die as a result of taking care of me, would I have the courage to sacrifice myself for the group?” People ask themselves these questions when they’re watching a movie like this in the safety of a movie theater, in a way because you never know when something bad could happen. God willing, we all don’t have to experience anything as extreme as what happens in Sanctum, but I think that’s the appeal. I think that’s why we have nightmares. Our brain is running simulations to put us in jeopardy to see what we’ll do or to acclimatize us to that idea that something bad could happen. It’s just how human beings are wired because the entire time we were evolving we had to jump quick or the leopard would get us, or whatever it was. It’s Darwinian.

Andrew: My personal experience was I was leading a cave diving expedition in Australia and the last day of the expedition a storm flooded the cave entrance. It collapsed, 15 of us were trapped below ground, and it took nearly two days to get everyone out, myself included. So it was in the course of those events and really staring death in the face and watching how everyone responded that inspired what came to be the Sanctum story. It’s really a story of people’s will and struggle to survive and the human dynamics of that. That’s what really struck me after the event. You get over the fact that I survived and I’m alive, and fortunately in our real story, we all got out alive. In the fictional story, we explore much more of the human drama and then we draw on a lot more experiences so we’ve got a very rich story that can take people on that journey.

LAist: When you’re doing a story of survival in an alien environment, how do you use technology in service of the story without overwhelming the storytelling?

Alister: I was very fortunate having been on the Avatar set and with all of Jim’s experience and all of Andrew’s experience working in 3D. I had a very strong philosophy about the style of 3D that I wanted to bring to the project and a working methodology as well. So basically I could take Jim’s ideas and working practices and neatly slip them in with what I was doing. Once that was set up, it really had its own life. It just looked after itself so it did kind of tick away in the background. We had a wonderful stereographer, Chuck Comisky, who had worked with Jim for many, many years and that was his department. He did that and I just got on with my job as normal.

James: If normal is, “Cue the waterfall! Dead bodies!”

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Alister: Yes, indeed. Obviously there were huge technical challenges with making the picture, all relating to the water really and light. I mean, Andrew just wanted to make it really, really hard for me. So one of the gags is we’re running out of light throughout the picture but you need to get an exposure in the camera so then we had to manage and deal with that. We had to manage and deal with the water, which obviously just wants to slow you down. It’s dangerous. There are safety issues for the cast in particular. Training the cast to dive was a huge element of what we were doing. It was very important to me that the cast learned all those skills and was able to execute their own stunts because I think for me it feels like it keeps the audience in the moment. It feels much more real and believable. What I’m hoping with the 3D, and my feeling is that so far it’s working, is the 3D is that much more immersive in this environment, that it makes the experience much more like it is, and the audience has a sense of participation. They’re with the characters as they’re going on this journey. I think that really enhances the experience of the film.

Richard: There were a lot of specific talents that we had to acquire in a really short space of time, not only to get a general sense of them, but to look like we were masters at them. It was being thrown into the deep end literally to achieve some of this with spectacular speed. Some of it was more difficult. Some things were just plain hellish, like learning to acquaint yourself with the re-breather when you’d only just learned about scuba.

Rhys: Yes, it was funny. We started on scuba diving and all learnt to scuba dive which was really pleasant and that was quite enjoyable, and I thought, “Oh, this will be a breeze. This is going to be so enjoyable.” And then we had to learn on these re-breathers, which is really advanced technology, and something we had to pretend. That was really acting at its finest, pretending that we knew what we were doing.

Richard: There was quite a bit of that on this film - a sense of the acting department kind of safeguarding itself because a lot of it was so technologically driven and driven just by the specifics of the environments we were in, whether it was white water or underwater or climbing rock faces. There was always stuff being thrown at you and sometimes you feel like some of the key ingredients of whatever the storytelling is could have been swept away with it. And so, there was quite a strong sense of us looking after that.

Rhys: Yes, shooting the underwater stuff could have gone one of two ways. You have to have a sense of trust and control and it can become somewhat meditative and therapeutic. There was a moment I remember myself, where I’m in the part of the film where I have no breathing apparatus, and it’s really a lot of breath holds and my ears started to have this chronic ache and for some reason I couldn’t pressurize. I remember just panicking because I’m trying to find where my regulator is and who can hand me my air and then there’s canopies of rocks under me and your natural reaction is to want to head up to the surface. So that was a scary moment. I was treading water for a little bit just breathing and trying to chill out and that was my moment.

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Richard: There were quite a few moments like that. Quite a lot of the film was spent having to supervise your own mind. For instance, we shot all of the underwater stuff at night, which in itself is a surreal enough thing. You get to set, you’re dropped down into a tank in pitch dark in Queensland, then they turn all the lights off, and then the only lighting you have is the lighting that you provide yourself. My last two nights, I had a head cold. I couldn’t equalize going down and I was playing in a tight restriction with bleeding from the nose because of the pressure in my head and that was fascinating. That was interesting because also there were these seemingly insurmountable number of obstacles to performance. For example, in that instance, none of us could communicate. When we were doing all the underwater stuff, they didn’t have coms so they couldn’t hear us, but we could hear them on loudspeaker under water. So again, if you had any problem, how do you communicate? It was almost as if, if you have a problem, make it go away yourself quietly. So yeah, there was a lot of mind control.

Alice: For me, it was about concentrating on your breathing. When you’re underwater, the actual sound or the lack thereof that you’re experiencing underwater can be quite relaxing. It’s a bit of a Zen state sometimes. So what you’re hearing mainly is your own heartbeat and your own breath and instead of being frightened by that, I kind of got into a zone where I would use that to calm me down if I ever felt like I was getting a bit too out of my comfort zone. So it was kind of like a meditation, relaxation method where you’re really concentrating on your breathing. You’re reminding yourself that at the end of the day we were never in any real danger. We knew that if anything did go wrong, there were plenty of people very close by who would be able to help us out. We also actually did some extraordinary training where we knew exactly how long we could hold our breath underwater so that if all hell broke loose and all the safety divers went to have a cup of tea and then you were really on your own, you could rip off your gear and swim to the top and you’d be okay. That’s some serious kind of dedicated training and thank God we all did it.

LAist: Ioan, you’re no stranger to gigantic, James Cameron water bound productions. I was wondering whether or not your association with this film came before you knew what type of film it was going to be? And if not, and you knew it was going to be another James Cameron associated water pic, are you a glutton for punishment?

Ioan: Well, I survived the Titanic. You’re absolutely right. In fact, the character that I played in the Titanic was a survivor. He was a real character that survived that horrible ordeal that evening, a Welshman from North Wales. So it goes to show how thorough Cameron is in his casting. He wanted a guy that came from Wales because this character came from Wales. In this circumstance, the movie was directed by Alister Grierson. We musn’t forget that. Cameron, obviously an adventurer in his own right, and one of his best buddies, Andrew Wight, another adventurer and cave diver. So, this is how the movie was conceived, by these two fantastic guys. And to have Cameron there, overseeing us as a presence throughout, obviously gives a lot of confidence moving forward. But let’s not forget Alister Grierson is the visionary behind this story that brought this to life and Cameron is very proud to run with it, I think.