How James Cameron worked his actors really hard.
Life’s Abyss and then you dive… Cal um Waddell recall s the troubled tal e of James Cameron’s sub- aquatic epic
James Cameron was not yet “the king of the world” when he embarked on the underwater odyssey of The Abyss, but – having helmed both The Terminator ( 1984) and Aliens ( 1986) – he was fast becoming an A- list filmmaker. Indeed, The Abyss, which reportedly cost between $ 60 and $ 70 million to produce ( a significant increase on Aliens which cost less than $ 20 million), heralded Cameron’s arrival into certified blockbuster- dom. If The
Terminator was a B- movie with multiplex ambitions, and Aliens helped to solidify sci- fi as summer “event” fodder, then The Abyss was Cameron’s attempt to craft an ambitious, pricey, special effects- laden epic.
It was also where Cameron began to earn his reputation as a slave- driving director, with cast and crew expected to work for 70 hours every week, confined and sometimes submerged more than 30 feet underwater in an empty nuclear reactor in South Carolina.
Leading lady Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio ( then a star- to- watch following her turn in Scorsese’s The Color of Money) had a breakdown. Stories surfaced about actor Ed Harris storming off the set after a near drowning. And the filmmaker’s own brother was asked to hold his breath and allow a large crab to crawl out of his mouth. All in the name of art, of course.
Cameron himself also claimed to have come close to death when, calling the shots from underneath the waves, the director’s oxygen tank ran out of air and he struggled to swim to the surface. It was a scenario that encouraged team members to wear t- shirts with the logo “Life’s Abyss and then you dive”. The inevitable question is, then, was The
Abyss fun for anyone? “I actually had a good time on The Abyss,” shares star Michael Biehn – a Cameron veteran having also appeared in The
Terminator and Aliens. “I know not everyone enjoyed themselves but I thought it was a lot of fun. I actually enjoyed being under the water for long periods of time and dealing with that sort of intensity. But I had worked with Jim before. That was my third time and I had a shorthand with him. We were able to bullshit with each other. We had developed a pretty good relationship and he even let me tweak some of my dialogue a little bit. All I needed to say was, ‘ Hey Jim – can I change this? I really think it would benefit my character’ and he would be open about that – which is what you want from a director. So I didn’t have too many problems on The Abyss. I knew that Jim demanded a lot and that was cool. He also had his wife with him on that movie – Gale Anne Hurd, who was the producer. And listen, man, she was tough too. But as long as you were not messing around
she was fine. No one who came onto the film thought it was going to be an easy ride.”
In The Abyss, Biehn plays Lt. Coffey, a Navy SEALS leader who fronts an expedition to recover a missing nuclear submarine. In a race against time ( the Cold War- era script has the Russians also moving in) Coffey bases his team on a deep sea platform used for extracting oil and run by the less- than- welcoming Bud Brigman ( Ed Harris). Adding to the intrigue is Bud’s wife Lindsey ( Mastrantonio) – the two have separated but are bound together when natural disaster and flooding beset their workplace. In addition, Biehn’s character turns increasingly more malevolent as the pressure of dwelling in a deep sea environment alters his personality and sparks a sadistic streak of paranoia. Throw in a subplot about America and Russia in an Armageddon-instigating showdown, and friendly aliens acting as some of cinema’s most bizarre peacekeeping agents, and it quickly becomes clear that The Abyss was far and away Cameron’s most oddball career decision.
“I don’t know man, I just thought it was a really cool movie to be a part of and Jim was a brave guy for trying to make it in those conditions,” says Biehn. “I told Jim after we did Aliens that I like playing villains more than good guys. I think I said to him, ‘ Being the hero is better for my bank balance, so I get it,
“No one thought it wa s going to be an easy ride”
but I really want to do something where I get to go a little crazy’ [ laughs]. That might be why I got The Abyss. Either that or he knows that it is just me and Bill Paxton who keep coming back for more [ laughs]. But I like to justify the reasoning of somebody who is losing his mind. I enjoy trying to understand why people are the way they are, you know? If you are a good guy you are just a good guy – like I was in Aliens – but if you are a bad guy you get to pick at the reasons for why that might be. With the character of Coffey in The Abyss, at first you don’t know if he is going to be the hero or the villain. There is a real ambivalence to him and I embraced that. It really gave me something to chew on.”
Whilst Biehn describes The Abyss favourably, there is little denying that the longstanding acceptance of the film as one of the most arduous shoots in Hollywood
history remains. Prodded to give some details about this, the actor is a little cagey – but he’s also clearly defensive when it comes to Cameron.
“With The Abyss the stuff that went on during the shoot has sort of become legendary,” he laughs. “I was there and, yeah, some of the actors on the film had a hard time with Jim. I accept that maybe it was little easier for me. If Jim started yelling at me I would tell him to fuck off – we knew each other well enough to have that relationship. But Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had a few battles with him. I am not sure how much of that came from the circumstances on the set. I know not everyone was thrilled to be submerged underwater for hours and hours. However, when you work with an ensemble cast there is always the potential for tension to break out. People get upset if they don’t think their character is getting as much attention – or if they think they are not getting such good lines. It can be anything. Honestly, though, I didn’t get involved – I was just trying to get on with making the movie.”
At least one thing that was certain about
The Abyss was its lofty aspirations in the field of special effects. Breaking new boundaries with its digital effects trickery, something that Cameron would build upon with his later Terminator 2: Judgment Day ( 1991), The Abyss would deservedly win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
“What Jim was doing with the special effects was another reason I signed on for The
Abyss,” admits Biehn. “I mean, I loved the concept of the movie. You know – this team of people being stuck in a very difficult situation – and I also knew that it was going to be a challenging but rewarding experience. However, the way that The Abyss was breaking down visual frontiers drew me right in. The stuff with the aliens emerging from the water – that was groundbreaking. It was totally fresh. I was very excited about being a part of that.”
Despite Cameron’s impressive box office record, The Abyss experienced a tumultuous journey to cinemas. The movie’s running time was cut down by half an hour ( debuting at a still bum- numbing 140 minutes) and rumours surfaced that Ed Harris would not promote the picture ( he eventually did, while forthrightly maintaining the hardships he went through during the production). Slotted in for a competitive summer opening in August 1989 ( where it failed to hold its own against the juggernaut that was the Steve Martin comedy Parenthood), the oddball story of underwater extraterrestrial life paddled its way to a worldwide gross of $ 90 million. Ultimately, The Abyss was no Terminator or
Aliens and critics were generally perplexed by the genre- hopping madness that Cameron’s script served- up. The theatrical poster may promise a straightforward underwater adventure but The Abyss eventually veers into sci- fi territory by way of James Bondespionage theatrics, a touch of fantastical whimsy and even a dose of psycho- horror ( courtesy of a grimacing Biehn).
“I never really paid attention to how it was being received,” maintains Biehn. “I didn’t think of myself as a big movie star and I still don’t. When I did The Abyss I had done Aliens so, yeah, some people knew who I was, but I made sure I didn’t get caught up in premieres and critical reviews. I don’t think I walked up the red carpet for The Abyss or anything [ laughs]. I never even had a PR person to tell me if it was doing well. All I knew is that I was proud of the movie and I was glad that I did it. And now people seem to like it, right? Sometimes it just takes a little time.”
At least part of the reason The Abyss is now considered something of a contemporary classic is down to Cameron’s insistence on getting his initial ‘ director’s cut’ out to the masses. Unleashed to impressive feedback in 1993, the full 170- minute version of the esoteric sea- faring opus unveils a grander scope and even more alien- action – although it fails to alter the fact that The Abyss is still a very, very odd ride beneath the ocean.
“It is a film that defies your expectations,” Biehn tells SFX. “Of all the movies I have done, I think people want stories about The Abyss almost as much as they want stories about
Aliens or The Terminator...”
“No alarms and no surprises.”
Did the stars know that this little scene would go on to change cinema forever?
ILM’s pioneering CGI work lasted 75 seconds, but set the stage for Terminator 2. Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio get very intimate. Wouldn’t it have been easier to put the water in there afterwards?
Gun usually trumps hard object.