Shooting ‘The Abyss’: The day James Cameron nearly died


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As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been reading ‘The Futurist,’ Rebecca Keegan’s new book, which offers an in-depth look at the trials and troubles and tantrums that have marked James Cameron’s 25-plus years in the movie business.

With ‘Avatar’ already poised to have a huge opening weekend, Cameron should be feeling as if he’s on top of the world again, the opposite of where he was during the making of ‘The Abyss,’ a troubled production that ended up being his biggest flop.


During the ‘Abyss’ shoot, Cameron spent much of his time filming underwater in a giant concrete bowl in South Carolina that held 7.5 million gallons of water. (The tank was so big it took the crew five days just to fill it with water from a nearby lake.) While doing underwater filming, all of the actors had safety divers (known on the set as ‘angels’) who would hover nearby, wearing long fins, able to swim over and provide air if anything went wrong. But Cameron had no angel. He was also weighted with an extra 40 pounds of equipment so he could walk around the bottom of what was known as ‘A Tank’ with his camera. The filmmaker could go for roughly 75 minutes on a single tank of oxygen. Since he tended to get absorbed in his work, he told his assistant director to alert him when he’d gone an hour without a new fill.

One day, a few weeks into production, Cameron was talking Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio through a shot when he took a breath and got no air. Startled, he checked his pressure gauge, which read zero. He was out of oxygen. The AD had forgotten to give him a warning alert. With all of his extra weight, and no fins, there was no way for Cameron to swim to the surface. His helmet microphone was still linked to the underwater PA system, so Cameron called out to underwater cinematographer Al Giddings, who was filming nearby. ‘Al...Al...I’m in trouble.’

Giddings, who was nearly deaf from a diving-bell accident 20 years earlier, didn’t hear him. Cameron tried to rouse his support divers, using up the rest of the air in his lungs, saying, ‘Guys, I’m in trouble.’ As Keegan writes: ‘Cameron made the sign for being out of air, a cutthroat motion across the neck and a fist to the chest. Nothing. At the bottom of a 7.5 million gallon tank, in the dark, thirty-five feet from the surface, Cameron really was in trouble. He knew he had to ditch his rig or die.’

Up in the control room, the sound effects mixer realized something was amiss when he heard the sound of Cameron’s helmet being popped off and all the expensive electronics inside flooding with water. By feel, Cameron located the release of his buoyancy vest and slipped out of it, beginning what divers call a ‘blow and go,’ a free ascent to the surface. Cameron blew out a stream of bubbles on his way up, kicking like mad because of his ankle weights.

Finally, a safety diver named George came to Cameron’s rescue, stopping him about 15 feet from the surface, as he was trained to do, shoving his backup regulator into Cameron’s mouth. Cameron purged, then inhaled, but the backup regulator was broken, so Cameron simply inhaled more water. Figuring he’d done something wrong, he tried again, inhaling more water. Choking, about to black out, he tried to pull away, but George, assuming the director was panicking, held him even tighter, trying to make him breathe on the regulator.

Finally, Cameron did what any great action director would do -- he punched George as hard as he could, right in the chops. Stunned, George let Cameron go, allowing him to quickly swim to the surface without blacking out. He managed to reach the dive platform and drag himself out of the tank. The result? As Keegan writes: ‘By the end of the day, [Cameron] had fired George and his AD. And he ordered the divers at the surface to fish out his helmet and fix the microphone so he could get back down in A Tank.’


In Hollywood, the show must go on.