Hey FOOLS! We recently got the chance to have an exclusive sit down with director Alister Grierson and producer Andrew Wight so we sent our main man Dave Longo along to have a chat. They talk all things cave diving, James Cameron, 3D and the state of the Australian film industry. Sanctum is released this Thursday (3 February) in the Land Down Under and this Friday (4 February) in the Americas. Check it out.
DAVE: I don’t think a lot of people would know your backgrounds, so I guess I want to go back to the beginning and ask how you guys got involved with filmmaking to begin with?
ANDREW: Well, I guess we’ll kick off with Alister...
ALISTER: Well I just decided at some stage I was going to be a film director, as you do, I’m not sure how it kind of works, but besides that, I ended up making a lot of short films, and then, bizarrely ten years after that I went to film school, it’s normally the other way round isn’t it? So I went to film school and I met some great people there, then we ended up collaborating on and making a feature film: ‘Kokoda’. And we are very proud of that picture; which was like a $3 Million dollar film, which was released In 2006 I think. From there I sort of worked on developing projects, trying to get the next film up, then I met Andrew and he had seen ‘Kokoda’ and was putting together ‘Sanctum’, he felt there was something in ‘Kokoda’ that would work with what he wanted to do with ‘Sanctum’. So he showed it to Jim and Jim had a similar feeling and then I met Jim and went from there.
DAVE: James said that he took you diving and scared the crap out of you.
ALISTER: (Laughs) Yes!
DAVE: I’m really interested in knowing that story in particular?
ALISTER: Well, with Andrews feeling, and my feeling too was that if you are going to make a film about divers then you have to know what the experience is like, particularly in caves. So, I wasn’t a diver, so I had to learn. John Garvin; who is one of our screenwriters; is also very experienced cave diver, so he taught me to dive, and then I think on day three Andrew took me to Mt. Gambia and put me in a cave in a cow paddock; and I had that experience, which was a wonderful experience for everyone, it was very useful for what we were trying to do. You want to get that, what do you call it? "Mud under your fingernails".
DAVE: Mud under your fingernails?
ANDREW: Mud under your fingernails!
ALISTER: interestingly enough it was actually the dry caving that was more confronting than the diving. In that environment - it was very safe you know - It was a safe environment, as safe as it can be (laughs) but they didn’t put me through any unnecessary risks or squeezes or anything like that; or anything too terrifying.
ANDREW: It was really to have that firsthand, first time experience. I mean its something that I can never have again. When you become experienced you just take it like everyday. "okay were in a cave and were doing" whatever, but to actually have someone take you and go "look at this". The scenes that you see in the movie; like the big expansive underwater landscapes with this crystal clear water; you imagine if we said "okay were just going to take you and do that right now! Rather than watch it on the screen we’ll immerse you in the water. Thats what we did to Alister, his perspective on that; which now translates into the movie; is just like everyone in the movie - they are seeing it for the first time. And they are seeing it through Alister’s eyes; as the director. For me, I could never do that because I would focus on different stuff..
ALISTER: That actually ended up being served as a location, because where I ended up diving is actually in the film.
DAVE: At the beginning?
ALISTER: If you remember it’s a big wide shot with the two guys with the little DPV’s. That’s the cave that I went into. That gives you a sense of the scale of these things. It’s fascinating you know, because no-one would ever pick it, but you drive along this kind of rural cow paddock, you pull into a paddock somewhere; then you pull of a little sheet of corrugated iron and theres a tunnel going down through there through the Earth; and underneath that is this stadium sized space; full of water and its quite amazing.
DAVE: That is amazing, Andrew with all that you have experienced would be amazing as well. You must have hundreds of screenplays ready to go.
ANDREW: (Laughs) I don’t know If I have hundreds of them! It might be hard to finance them all! Certainly this one had a long gestation period, and I got into filmmaking for a very different reason.
DAVE: I’m also interested in knowing how you got into diving.
ANDREW: Oh, that goes way back! Like as a kid watching early TV, you know, ‘Lloyd Bridges’, ‘Jaques Cousteau’ - that kind of adventure stuff. Everything was like; dare I say: ‘Flipper’ - I was just enamored. As a kid I just went "wow" thats something I would love to do. I was brought up in the country and lived on a farm and went to school which was a long way from the ocean and it wasn’t until I went to university and got involved with all the adventure activities and someone just said "hey lets go and learn scuba diving". I said "are you kidding!?" What I was studying at the time was agriculture, to be a scientist; but the thing that really turned my life around was learning to scuba dive. For all the years I spent studying I probably should have just given that away and enrolled into film-school; because what ended up happening was, many years later; and I had been working for a long time as an agricultural scientist in the industry; was that I had the fortune of going out to the Nullabor, attending an expedition.
DAVE: Was this the experience that inspired the film?
ANDREW: yes that was the one - in the Pelican Plains. At that time it was really me trying to get money to pay for the equipment; we had this expensive gear we wanted to buy.. and then we eventually went: "lets just make a film!". It was sort of a throwaway line. "Then we’ll get sponsors, and if we get sponsors there will have to be some sort of quid pro quo for them..." We had no idea how to go about making any film, but you know, you sort of ask around and ‘Hey! Do you know anything about filmmaking?’ And then soon enough we had a small group of people together with the right skill set and (on that expedition) we had no idea the cave was going to collapse; it was a completely unplanned event. It made made the film, what was probably destined to be a bunch of adventurers going out and doing there thing; justified it by making a fairly a loosely put together film about it. Turning it into real drama! We were fortunate enough that there were a enough skilled, experienced people that said ‘hey, we might die, but lets film our way out of this! When they uncover our broken bodies at least there will be some film about it!’. That really changed the course of events because at the time we were all lucky to get out of the cave and, that in of itself, was the experience. But then when we put the film together; we all said "wow this is great", people are probably thinking we set that drama up, but it was nothing further from the truth. I then got the idea; well maybe you could make films, you could make a living out of it; do this as a full time thing. So I quit my job and foolishly starting and creating adventure films.
DAVE: I know you’ve worked with James Cameron for quite a long time; how did that relationship start?
ANDREW: Well, that was just one of those happy coincidences; a little like winning the lottery. I just spent fifteen years or there abouts making adventure films for; essentially cable networks in the United States. I was all but given up; I had gone home to my farm and said ‘thats it, I’m taking a break from all this craziness.’ I got a phone call out of the blue: "This is James Cameron’s office he would like to talk to you", "THE MOVIE DIRECTOR!? I went yeah, yeah, yeah, come on. What James Cameron? The guy who made ‘Titanic’ and ‘Terminator’.
DAVE: Oh, so he had made ‘Titanic’ at this point?
ANDREW: oh yes...and when I got that call I kind of went ‘yeah yeah yeah’ and they said ‘Well do you want to talk to him or not?’, and I was still absolutely convinced that this was just one of my friends who was winding me up; so I’m not listening to a word that this guy is saying; I’m trying to figure out who it is. It’s not Jill its not Jack. Who is it? Eventually it was...well, when you meet Jim he’s very engaging and compelling; so you kind of just give up to the fact that this guy is talking to you; so I asked him questions and went with the ebb and flow of the conversation and at the end of it he says ‘you sound like an interesting guy, you should get on a plane and get on over here’. And I go ‘I still don’t know who it is!’ (Laughs), so he puts the phone across to his assistant and she organizes my flight to Los Angeles for virtually the next day. I’ve been working with him ever since.
DAVE: I really want to ask about ‘Ghosts Of The Abyss’. Was that the first thing you did that was in 3D?
ANDREW: It wasn’t the first thing I had done in 3D, it was the first thing I did with Jim in 3D. Essentially the reason I did get called up and went to Los Angeles was that he was embarking on a series of adventures; boat based expedition style; and we were developing this 3D reality camera system; we wanted to film everything on the planet that moved. Whales that jumped, crocodiles that slithered, you know, under the water, above the water; and it was all to be filmed in 3D. What happened was that they just needed a guy who knew about boats, who knew about expeditions, that had a good documentary background; who could basically run all this stuff. My name rose to the top and thats how I got that call. So I’ve been over there; and it was kind of a bit of a nightmare because here is the guy who just made the most expensive movie of all time; and the highest grossing movie of all time; and all the people that surrounded him to run what was to be a fun and cheerful film in comparison to ‘Titanic’, were all the wrong people! Not all of them, but many of them were just Hollywood people that were out of place. So it really needed to be restructured. The upshot was that we did go out and we did the ‘Titanic’ film (Ghosts) which was actually to be about the Titanic and The Bismarck; but a little thing called 9-11 happened. Jim was actually on a dive, above the deck of the Titanic and we had to actually radio down and say hey, this terrible thing has just happened. It was unfathomable; because we are at sea in the North Atlantic, and watching crunchy video via the internet off a satellite connection; thinking...When I first saw it I thought it was a hoax. It couldn’t be real. It was just so surreal. Anyway, they eventually called the dive off and came to the surface, and you know; all the information was flooding it at that point. We had to go "were cutting the expedition short’ and we went back to port. We went back into St. Johns in Newfoundland and of course they had shut down all the airspace in the United States and all the planes that were trying to get to the U.S didn’t have enough fuel to get back to where to came from; or they were landing in St.Johns at the airport. It was unbelievable. There were literally a hundred jumbo jets with people that had nowhere to go; they were walking the streets; sleeping in shopping malls; it was just a crazy time. That was really my auspicious start to filmmaking with Jim!
DAVE: Clouded by that.
DAVE: And with the 3D as well, I’m also interested in asking you about it as well Alister; because you haven’t really worked with 3D before, and I want to ask both you what its like working with it, and get your perspective what it was like working with it back then, as opposed to now?
ALISTER: People do obsess a little about this 3D, and really they kind of shouldn’t. Even when you are making the film you shouldn’t. It’s not about the 3D, it’s just kind of equipment that you turn up and use.
DAVE: A lot of it in the film was very subtle.
ALISTER: Well this is kind of the philosophy, we don’t want to draw to the 3D. Its not about the 3D; it should just help you become more immersed in the story. That’s all we were trying to do. So from my point of view; I basically just have to work and not worry about the 3D. It was just business as usual.
DAVE: So it didn’t really influence how you...
ALISTER: Not at all. I had the luxury of being able to do that, because Andrew had put together this really great team of people who did worry about the 3D; thats the difference; you need to have dedicated people, and when I say dedicated people I mean task specific. People who know what there jobs are and what to do with the 3D. Collecting the data, and the quality control and so forth. As long as you have those systems in place; the thing about 3D is the only thing you are really worried about is actually the post production part. It’s your main concern; that you aren’t going to sit there in the theater one day and go ‘Aww no we fucked this one up!’ It’ll take a lot of money to fix it, or its unusable. As long as you’ve got those quality control mechanisms in place; built into the workflow when you are shooting then you can just forget about them.
ANDREW: When I started in the early days of the development of the camera systems; and learning how to shoot 3D and post producing 3D with Jim; which was the system developed for ‘Avatar’, and then the exact same camera we used for ‘Sanctum’, but going back to the reason why Jim got into 3D and why I kind of got wrapped up in it as well; was that you know; we see the world in 3D. We hear it in stereo, we see it in color and we see it in 3D. So the 3D is the thing that is missing in cinema at the moment. Its the thing we are trying to layer back in. Films started in black and white with no sound. Black and White with sound. Black and White then transitioned into color. All incremental steps towards our understanding of how we perceive the world. There has been some recent studies at Harvard University of people watching 2D movies and 3D movies and the interesting thing is that more of your brain is stimulated when you watch 3D. It’s not a matter of ‘more or less 3D’ because that’s and oxymoron; its either 3D or its not, but the fact is that we are representing the world to you in a way which feels real; because thats the way that you perceive the world; and so 3D filmmaking is just another step in telling stories. So we don’t dwell on 3D that much like ‘oh this shot would look really good in 3D’ - its a bit like saying to someone now ‘gee, that would look good in color’. I mean, its a nonsense now when you say it out loud; but back in the day when they made black and white movies there was a real; large chunk of the filmmaking community that said ‘real filmmaking is black and white, thats the medium which we express ourselves in’. Well, the audience beg to differ; I’ll go walk down the street to see color, and I’m sure in the not to distant future; when people learn how to make 3D films really well; people will walk down the street and watch 3D instead of 2D. You know, its already been proven at the box office; more people actively saw ‘Avatar’ in 3D...there weren’t as many 3D theaters as there was for ‘Avatar’ then there are now for ‘Sanctum’. People will walk down the street to see film in 3D.
ALISTER: And the subject matter of the film is obviously, as said before, is you know ‘the space’, you know of being in a cave...
ANDREW: It enhances the drama. It’s almost counter intuitive that in huge hollywood blockbusters all they show you is action in 3D. I mean you don’t see vistas in 3D; also intimate stuff; like us sitting around here talking; that is perceived in 3D. So really a drama, you know Baz Luhrman; he’s coping a bit of stick right now for wanting to make ‘The Great Gatsby’ in 3D. That would work better in 3D than perhaps a big action blockbuster; which the 3D doesn’t actually add a lot to how you perceive that. It does add an awful lot to a scene with just a couple of people.
DAVE: Right. And just before we wrap up I just want to ask you guys do you have any dream projects you want to work on? Whats coming up?
ALISTER: Hopefully a $200 million dollar movie. (Laughs). I haven’t even thought about the future to be honest with you. I don’t have a specific thing but I think for me; what I am discovering about myself as a filmmaker; is that I’m obviously drawn to a certain type of story and a certain style of film-making; like the idea of doing more action, adventure type stories sort of appeals to me.
DAVE: More genre based?
ALISTER: Yeah I think more genre based. And some Drama. Drama, Genre. That sort of thing; you know I’d love to do the whole thing! I’d love to do Sci-Fi. I’d love to do comedy. That would be interesting, all of my short films were comedy films, and then I found myself making a war movie. Go figure.
DAVE: So you’re just sort of riding off of how you feel at the time?
ALISTER: Yes, its just sort of evolved, you know. If you had talked to me three years ago and said ‘you’re going to make a cave diving picture with James Cameron’ I would have laughed and said ‘are you mad...
ANDREW: It’s all organic. With filmmaking you got to be passionate and its got to be a story you feel committed to and want to tell; and it grows organically from there. I think the stories that you gravitate towards; there is an emotional connection and the rest kind of works itself out. I think if you try to hard to contrive something then it will suck.
DAVE: I guess I got time time for one more. I have to ask about the Australian film industry, and where you guys think its at; and where it should go?
ALISTER: Well, I’m hoping our film represents, you know, part of a new movement towards...that have a strong voice and that also...the Australian tradition is sort of this Urban, suburban sort of melodramas; and the only reason for that is simply that its a budget thing. It’s a constraint, but thats still an excuse too, there is, you know, we’ve demonstrated that you can actually make a blockbuster for an ‘indie’ budget. That was kind of part of the mission, I think it was, do you Andrew?
ANDREW: Well yeah, I think there is this sort of fringe culture. Australians tend to gravitate towards these stories that might be interesting to an audience, but even then they are not; because Australians don’t go and see their own films. I think we got to ask ‘what is an Australian film?’. Its just made by Australians! It’s not ‘Skippy the Kangaroo’ running across the Opera House steps; we don’t have to have iconic things about Australian in there. That’s not the relevant thing here. It’s using our arts and our craft, and our smarts to tell stories. Which other people; not just Australians find interesting; because if we are too myopic about it and if we are too colloquial about it; it all just focuses down to things we think Australians might like. We are not playing to the broader audience; because Australians go out in droves to watch movies; we had over a billion dollars at the box office last year; but it was all from stuff that was produced overseas. You have to go and ask the question to the people in the street: ‘what do you want to see?’ and make films that entertain them.
DAVE: Great, good answer. Thanks guys.
ALISTER: Thanks so much.