‘The Abyss’: James Cameron’s Exploration of Humanity and Love in the Heart of the Ocean

Having made The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), two huge box office hits and pillars of modern Hollywood science fiction action films, James Cameron could have shot any kind of a film his heart desired. A new, fresh and highly profitable name in the American film machinery, Cameron remembered the idea he had while still in high school—a short story he developed during a biology lecture and which he, fascinated by the stories of deep ocean exploration and intrigued by the concept of liquid breathing, decided to call The Abyss. After discussing it with his then-wife, the producer of The Terminator and Aliens Gale Anne Hurd, Cameron decided to concentrate on expanding this old idea lying dormant somewhere in the corner of his mind and enrich his childhood passions with the preoccupations he developed and cultivated as a serious filmmaker. In the context of deep ocean sci-fi philosophical action, he was eager to do with The Abyss what Stanley Kubrick did with space exploration in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In order to adequately transfer his vision onto the silver screen, Cameron gathered his crew and embarked on the often excruciating task of shooting a film that, considering his inclination for reality and authenticity, must have seemed an almost impossible task in the mind of an objective spectator. In fact, it’s no wonder The Abyss is now considered one of the most difficult film productions ever planned and carried out. In order to create just the right setting for his story about a group of oil drillers accompanied by a Navy SEAL crew trying to salvage a sunken submarine carrying a dangerous and, in the context of the Cold War anxiety and political bargaining, invaluable thermonuclear warhead on board, Cameron constructed two gigantic, specially designed tanks filled with millions of gallons of water at a former nuclear facility in South Carolina. The tanks ruptured, causing not only considerable financial blows but also more delays, the black tarpaulin covering the huge tank tore during a lightning storm, leading the team to decide shooting at night as the repairs were deemed too expensive, the physical and mental strain caused by the slow production and frequent setbacks sometimes seemed too much for the actors and actresses, and at one point the director was possibly seconds away from death due to a lack of oxygen in his tank and an unfortunate failure in communication with his crew. After tough four months of shooting, the film went into post-production. When it hit the theaters in the summer of 1989, almost exactly one year since the start of principal photography, it managed to cover the expenses of its production, but there was none of the box office boom that was expected. Perhaps the blame for this lies in the fact that two other deep sea flicks came out that summer; maybe it’s the advertising team’s fault, as the audience seemed to have been expecting another horror film from Cameron. “What The Abyss is really about is a message that isn’t coming through loud and clear for a reason I don’t understand. I suppose everyone naturally assumes it’s in the same mode as my last two movies,” said Cameron shortly after its release. Whatever the reason, the history remembers The Abyss underperformed during its initial run, even though it made more money than The Terminator. The critics, moreover, offered highly polarizing assessments, with very rare mediocre reviews. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, for instance, called it “the greatest underwater adventure ever filmed,” but many disagreed, quoting the clumsy, feel-good, too optimistic ending as the main problem of Cameron’s story. “The sense of disappointment some people have when the aliens turn out to be nice says a lot about the audience for movies now,” commented the filmmaker, sticking firmly with the controversial finale he felt best suited the film’s overall theme and preoccupation.

The promotion of The Abyss was further plagued with media speculation regarding Cameron’s strained relationship with his cast and crew. The shooting was indeed hard, even the director doesn’t dispute it, but there were no confrontations or rebellions as the newspapers reported. Cameron said he knew the process was going to be hard, but that even he didn’t think it would be that difficult. Demanding as he always is, he pushed the crew to their limits, but much like the crew in the film, they were soldiers following their commander, as Cameron never asked them to do anything he wasn’t ready to do himself. First and foremost, it was he who paid the highest price, living and breathing The Abyss from the first to the last shot. Only an hour after he almost drowned, he was right back at the bottom of the tank, tirelessly working on the picture. So when we read about how the crew complained, how Ed Harris started sobbing due to extreme stress, how Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio yelled “they weren’t animals!”, or how the crew changed the name of the project on a blackboard from The Abyss to The Abuse, we can sympathize, we can laugh, but we can’t forget the fact Cameron acted as a leader much more than a dictator.

Four years upon the film’s premiere, Cameron released a special edition of The Abyss, with half an hour of additional material. This was not the classic case of a filmmaker trying to clear his name and repair the damage done by a skeptical studio: Cameron himself cut his film and released it in the form the cinemagoers got to see it in 1989. The dominant perception at the time was that a film simply couldn’t be much longer than two hours, for the audience isn’t capable of sitting it through. (A notion impressively dismantled by three-hours-long Dances with Wolves only a year later.) In the special edition, Cameron expanded the story to great effects, achieving two direct results in the process. First of all, by giving us more details on the characters—not huge revelations, but nuances and subtleties—he breathed in more life into them, further enhancing the feeling we had already gotten from the original version, that we’re seeing a family, a band of brothers (and sisters), watching each other’s backs in a life-threatening situation. Secondly, the new version of the film includes a heavier reference to the United States-Russia relations, expanding the concept of a group of people trying to save their lives to a grander theme of fighting to save all lives on Earth by evading a possible nuclear conflict.

Written by Cameron himself, the film was shot by Mikael Salomon, the Danish-born cinematographer and director who later worked on HBO’s Band of Brothers and Alias, while the renowned composer Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Predator, Contact) provided the score. The combination of these two, with Cameron’s standard passion for visual effects and perfection, provided us with one of the most unforgettable and impressive visual experiences in all of our years of film appreciation. Even after all this time, The Abyss looks marvelous and the effects, in large part, aged surprisingly well. Just think of the revolutionary sequence of the human interaction with the watery alien probe, a technological success Cameron would later further expand in The Terminator’s sequel. But it’s great to see that, with all of his dedication to special effects, set design and technology, Cameron didn’t forget what really pushes the right buttons in the audience: humanity, human relationships, intimacy, emotions. With all the nuclear predicaments, alien encounters and the obvious anti-war agenda many critics held against him on the count of an alleged lack of subtlety, what Cameron put in the very center of the film to serve as an anchor is the relationship between an estranged husband and wife. Feel free to judge the ending as naïve, straightforward, anti-climactic if you will, but the beauty of The Abyss comes from its simplicity, which is a huge paradox considering its troubling production and unbelievable technical complexity of the shooting. The aliens decide to help us because they are blown away by two people’s sacrifice and their never-ending pure love for one another. “We are using technology to push ourselves further into ever more hostile environments including outer space,” explained Cameron. “But the more we rely on technology, the more we have to rely on each other in our basic capacities as humans to bond together emotionally—in friendship or in love.” That’s the kind of a filmmaker James Cameron is. A visionary artist obsessed with technology, who uses his enthusiasm, discipline, work ethic and unwillingness to settle for anything less than perfect to push the entire film industry forward, forcing it to keep up with his ideas, but also a man with masterful insight into human nature and what makes our hearts tick. A combination of mind and heart: that’s probably the best and the shortest possible description of both Cameron and The Abyss.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read James Cameron’s screenplay for The Abyss [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
The following is an excerpt from Starburst Magazine, November 1989, written by Alan Jones, ‘James Cameron Takes the Plunge.’

“What I’ve found after making four movies is how hard it is to please everyone. And one shouldn’t even aspire to that. If you make a movie along given guidelines, you’re condemned for not being original. But when you attempt to throw off conventions and formulas, the same people say it doesn’t fit the accepted party line. Reviews for The Abyss were pretty evenly divided between the positive and negative. I preferred that to them all being mediocre. But there were enough people who got the gag, which I found very satisfying.” He added, “Working in such a high-budget range I do have a certain responsibility to the financiers. But my responsibility is to adhere to the script they deemed commercial enough to back in the first place. Once the decision is made, and they give me the resources, I don’t second guess if the scene I’m shooting will impede or advance the cause of future commerciality. I can’t do that even if other directors can. The technical and emotional problems on the set are bad enough without the additional worry whether the market place will be ready for your movie in a year’s time.” The original concept for The Abyss came from a short story Cameron wrote in high school. He continued, “It was even titled The Abyss at that early stage and it was based on the idea of fluid breathing which I had just found out about at a science seminar.”

It was never Cameron’s intention to make The Abyss a horror film. He made it solely to explore the benign alien avenue as he stated, “My idea for NTI—Non Terrestrial Intelligence—contact was conceived right after Aliens. Why should I want to make Aliens again underwater? I’d done it once, I was very happy with it, so why repeat it? I wanted to make the definitive monster movie with Aliens and I think I succeeded. I certainly didn’t want to challenge my own area. The Abyss was always conceived as being exactly what it is.” But, he added, “In a way, what’s bothersome, and I guess it’s my own limitations as a filmmaker, it’s structurally inherent the creatures have to be benevolent. They have to be an idealization of a peaceful society or else the story makes no sense. “Is it my fault audiences don’t grasp the fact that these creatures have to be protected from our violently human negative influences? Coffey, Michael Biehn, is the monster of the piece—but people still manage to get to the last fifteen minutes and be amazed it has an uplifting ending. I find this truly incredible because all the manifestations of the aliens are benign.

 
Cameron said the shooting of The Abyss was hard work underwater but never boring. He added, “It was different for the actors. For them it was like being in World War I. They were in the trenches for three weeks, so to speak, and then they had about two hours of dangerous excitement after we had got the lighting right. I’d get to the set in the morning—actually the evening because we were forced to shoot nights for the last half of the entire underwater schedule as our tarp ripped open and let sunlight in—and try to figure out what we could shoot as there was always a problem with what was scheduled. If we needed to shoot a wide master of the set, there was bound to be a failure in the pumping system, and the tank would be clouded to the point we only had ten feet of visibility. “So we’d sit and huddle and work out what actors weren’t in New York and what we could do instead… Every single day there was a glitch usually due to the tank system. We planned the shot, readied the equipment, then worked solidly underwater for ten hours. The actors were never submerged for longer than two hours per day. The crew put in all the hours instead and we had to decompress at the end of each day. My version of the daily grind was always being busy and driving ourselves beyond fatigue. The actors’ version of that reality would be they sat around with nothing to do for days on end.”

He added, “The Abyss is a more personal film than The Terminator or Aliens. The latter was always tainted as a creative entity on my part anyway by being a sequel. But although I had the desire to make a film about the ocean, it’s not as personal as some have tried to suggest, with respect to the two leads mirroring my situation with producer Gale Anne Hurd.” “Our divorce was coincidental and our separation postdated the script writing. Life imitated art—but it didn’t affect our working relationship. We started on The Terminator as two professionals. During Aliens we went through a period of being more than that. And now we’ve reverted back to how we started when we first met. The situation has never been difficult for us, but it seemed to get people wondering if it would affect the movie.” Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot would be the nearest the cinema has got to the claustrophobia expertly conjured up by Cameron in The Abyss. Was he influenced by it at all? He said, “Only to the extent that I admired the film and its ability to create a sense of confinement. I saw it after completing The Terminator and what I responded to were things I already liked—the idea of wide lens photography putting you subjectively into an environment. I saw how effectively it could be applied and I used the approach in Aliens after dabbling with it in The Terminator. Water slushing around a set always gives a heightened sense of realism and that was the lesson to be learned from Das Boot. I created the same gritty reality with The Abyss. Everything was covered in grease, the metal was cold and water constantly dripped out of necessity to make the fantasy more believable.”

 

THE MAKING OF ‘THE ABYSS’

Cameron’s underwater epic was a shoot so torturous it not only almost sunk the director’s career but turned some of the crew’s hair white—literally. Take a deep breath… The torturous shoot of J-Cam’s H20 saga by Matt Mueller.

For nearly five months on The Abyss, Ed Harris had endured being towed 30 feet underwater in a dive suit, up to four, five times a day. But on that particular occasion, his helmet was filled with liquid, which rushed up his nose and swelled his eyes. It was his character’s ultimate dive, when oil rig foreman Bud is wearing an experimental suit filled with “breathing fluid.” Unlike Bud, Harris couldn’t breathe, he had to hold his breath, relying on the safety divers shadowing him in the murky depths to stick an oxygen regulator in his mouth when James Cameron had what he wanted—or Harris couldn’t hold it any longer. In one frightening spell, his safety diver got hung up on a cable before he could reach the gasping actor. When another diver hurried to his side, he put the regulator in upside down and Harris inhaled a mixture of air and water. “For a brief second,” admits the actor, “I thought, ‘This is it.’”

DIVE BAR

Between hell and high water lies The Abyss… Most film shoots pass into the mists of time without comment; but some are so gruelling that they enter celluloid’s hall of infamy, never to leave. Torpedoed by unrealistic release-date pressures, dangerous technical glitches and James Cameron at his confrontational worst, The Abyss was an aquatic nightmare. On the back of The Terminator and Aliens, Cameron was a sci-fi superstar when he pitched The Abyss to 20th Century Fox. His obsession with marine environments is now legend—he wanted to be a marine biologist until he found out how little they were paid—and The Abyss is loosely based on a short story he wrote in high school, following a science lecture where he learned animals could breathe a liquid oxygenated saline solution. The script he would eventually write contained far more than liquid lung-breathing: it was packed with a submersible oil rig, an incapacitated nuclear sub on the brink of an abyssal Caribbean trough, a hurricane, a crumbling marriage (based on his own union with producer Gale Anne Hurd) and a blue-collar, ocean-floor crew fighting off rogue SEALs with a nuclear warhead and possibly hostile underwater aliens.

“Survival, pure survival—life imitates art in this film,” Cameron described the shoot to one journalist visiting the set, an abandoned nuclear power plant in Gaffney, South Carolina that had been given a studio makeover by its enterprising owner. The plant was never operational so the only thing radioactive in the Gaffney vicinity was Cameron’s temper—which reared its head with ugly frequency thanks to the challenges thrown up by the two containment tanks where half the shoot took place. A filmmaker who always sets the bar so high he’s not even sure he’ll be able to make it over himself, his perfectionism (rude belligerence some would call it) ended up pushing many to, oh yes, the abyss.

The larger tank was 210-ft wide, 55-ft deep and held 7.5m gallons of water. On the first day of shooting, it sprang a leak and 150,000 gallons of water came pouring out. “It sounded like Niagara Falls,” shudders Hurd. “We called in dam-repair experts who sealed it without us having to drain the tank.” But the aquatic torment was relentless. Leaks were rampant, pipes would blow, lightning storms inflicted interminable delays, one ripping a 200-foot hole in the black tarpaulin covering the man-made lagoon (used for the night scenes). Making himself more unpopular, Cameron decided it was too time-consuming to fix and switched to night shoots. When one tank was overchlorinated, the hair of his divers turned white or burned off altogether.

 
But for the actors, the worse part was frustrating boredom. Michael Biehn claims they could spend whole days doing nothing. “Sometimes we’d sit in a submersible for eight hours before the cameras rolled. Jim was impassioned, almost in a trance sometimes,” says the actor, whose Lt. Coffey ends up suffering underwater delusions. “We never started and finished any one scene in any one day,” fumes Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, whose character continued Cameron’s penchant for strong, resourceful women but also seemed to be an outlet for his collapsing marriage to Hurd—he made Lindsay a shrew willing to sacrifice her marriage to the noble Bud for her career.

Hurd blamed the water for the actor’s torment. Pumped in from a nearby lake, its capricious visibility required them to be poised to shoot at any moment. Sometimes it was too murky, others so clear it was invisible on camera (ground walnut shells and milk were added to mist it up). Once they were in the tank, the actors had weights attached to their ankles and waists—there was no swimming to safety if anything went wrong. During occasional blackouts, they would be struck by panic. “It was pitch black and you have no sense of direction whatsoever,” recalls Biehn of one power outage. “I knew my air was good for 10, 15 minutes but everyone had a different level of air and who knew how long we’d be down there?” Suffering from either fright or boredom, Cameron’s actors came to wish he’d never attended that bloody science lecture.

THE DEEP END

“It was a bitch. It was hairy,” says Harris, underselling his grisly experience as The Abyss’ blue-collar hero. At first, he refused to promote the film, fuming at Cameron’s autocratic direction and the physical torment of the shoot. He eventually relented, unlike Mastrantonio, who went on a long, incommunicado European “vacation” during the movie’s publicity tour.

Cameron defended his despotism as a reaction to the dangerous conditions, but gave short shrift to his actor’s misery. “For every hour they spent trying to figure out what magazine to read, we spent an hour at the bottom of the tank breathing compressed air,” he grimaced. The filmmaker spent 12 hours a day, six days a week, three months underwater, directing his crew and actors via complex communications equipment and even giving notes while he was decompressing, upside down. The crew, who had to endure up to two hours breathing pure oxygen before they could get out of the water to avoid the bends, had t-shirts printed up that said, “Life’s Abyss…. And then you dive.”

The studio suffered its own version of the bends—feeling sick at the costly shoot, they sent emissaries to stem the budgetary tide. But having relinquished creative control to Cameron, they were at his mercy—and he knew it. When one exec turned up, the director screamed, “I want you off this fucking set now!” When the hapless Fox-man obliged, he calmly turned to his crew and said, “Sometimes you have to make a statement.”

 
But Cameron’s reputation took a battering when he was late delivering the finished print, forcing Fox to miss their original release date by a month. When The Abyss finally came out in August 1989, its $54m US take was deeply disappointing, with audiences and critics failing to nibble at its combined bait of stunning underwater realism and metaphysical love story. David Ansen of Newsweek dismissed the payoff as “pretty damn silly,” while Caryn James of The New York Times wrote that at the end she felt like she was “getting off a demon rollercoaster that has kept racing several laps after you were ready to get off.”

A few Fox execs lost their jobs but it’s Cameron who shoulders the blame—for all the technical bravura, thrilling undersea bedlam and superb acting, The Abyss lacked propulsion. The notion of sweet aquatic extraterrestrials who do nothing apart from look gorgeously translucent was simply too underpowered to propel a disaster movie. In Cameron’s original cut, the aliens threatened to unleash mile-high walls of water on Earth’s coasts if humanity didn’t quit the arms race. In 1993, he restored the alien threat for a three-hour director’s cut—but its no-nukes preachiness only made it clear why he cut it in the first place.

Cameron has always declared himself proud of The Abyss, but even he couldn’t look back at the five-month shoot as anything other than a harrowing ordeal, referring to it as the only one of his films where he simply couldn’t catch a break. “Whenever there was luck, it seemed to go against us,” he muses. “We just never got a tail wind on The Abyss.”

 
The Abyss—Fantasy Zone #2 Nov 1989—James Cameron In Depth.

 
The AbyssBoxed Press KitBeyond State of the Art.

UNDER PRESSURE: MAKING ‘THE ABYSS’

Cameron opens the documentary by talking about something he feels is cold, dark and made up of unrelenting pressure: the movie business. The doc really gives the viewer a good idea of how The Abyss was a challenge on many different levels. Not just on a technical level. Under Pressure: Making The Abyss also shows how it was a challenge, both emotionally and physically, for all the cast and crew involved in the project. It would soon be considered by many to be one of the toughest shoots in film history.

Director James Cameron takes a dive to terrorize a deep sea colony with filmmaking innovations, Starlog Magazine issue 146.

No longer fearing the bends, James Cameron recalls his descent into The Abyss, Starlog Magazine issue 150.

BACK INTO THE ABYSS

Go behind the scenes of the James Cameron film, The Abyss, and learn how alien creatures were made before CGI took over.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of James Cameron’s The Abyss. Photographed by Richard Foreman Jr. © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., Pacific Western, Lightstorm Entertainment. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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  • THX11384EB

    My favourite Cameron film. Fingers crossed we finally get a Blu-ray release this year.