Given the number of films he’s made with underwater scenes — such as the dramas The Abyss and Titanic, as well as underwater documentaries — it’s clear that James Cameron has an affinity for the dangers of water and the claustrophobic pressures of the deep, even after a near drowning on the set of The Abyss.
Like Titanic, the underwater adventure Sanctum is based on an actual event. In 1988, film producer and caver Andrew Wight led an expedition into a remote cave in Australia. An intense storm caused the cave entrance to collapse, leaving 15 people trapped underground. A dramatic rescue effort got all of them out safely. The event understandably left an impression on Wight, who worked with Cameron to develop a film based on the event. The drama comes from the place itself and the peril the cavers face, but also from the relationship between explorer Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), who leads the expedition ,and his teenage son Josh (Rhys Wakefield).
Wight and Cameron needed actors who were in great physical condition, willing to learn scuba diving with a rebreather and brave enough to dive in pitch-black darkness. Roxburgh, the first cast, says of the training, “[The rebreather] is a form of torture that enables you to recycle your own carbon dioxide so you can stay underwater for a long time. Great in theory, but in practice, it’s a bit of a nightmare. The rebreather doesn’t like you to take a big breath. It will eventually give you one, but then it won’t let you breathe that breath out. … It’s something that takes awhile to get used to.”
Though Roxburgh was up to the intense physicality of the role, there were times that were terrifying. “On some days, I would think, ‘If I slip here, I’m going to fall and die,’” he says.
On the other hand, Wakefield took to the filming with a young man’s passion. “All the skills I learned training for the role were just amazing,” he says. “It is my first experience of having to learn skills for a role and I loved it.”
The caves were built on a soundstage, but were no less real. The tanks contained 7 million liters of water, and the rushing waterfall that brings down the opening of the cave was moving at 20,000 liters of water per minute. It might not be an actual cave, but it felt like the real thing.
“Sanctum” is now showing on Video On Demand. Check your cable system for availability.
© 2011 Universal Studios. Credit: Jasin Boland/Universal Pictures