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

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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.”

go­ing dep

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.

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