Fox Plunges Into ‘The Abyss’ : Far behind schedule and millions over budget, the film arrives-but is it too late to cash in?

<i> Martin Kasindorf is Los Angeles correspondent for Newsday</i>

Like a drowning guest ignored at a raucous pool-side party, Fox Film Corp. has been helplessly glubbing and thrashing through what has been a record-breaking summer for others.

While Warner Bros. has been raking it in from “Batman” and “Lethal Weapon 2,” Paramount from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Columbia from “Ghostbusters II” and Disney from “Turner & Hooch,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Dead Poets Society,” Fox has been waiting with mounting exasperation for its big action-adventure, science-fiction love story, “The Abyss,” to be finished.

Its release date was supposed to be July 5. The wait finally ends, after three agonizing reschedulings and much hand-wringing over studio money plummeting into a bottomless abyss, when the movie goes into wide national release Wednesday.


Virtually sidelined in a frenzied marketplace juggernauting toward a season’s take of $2 billion, Fox until now has contributed nothing but “Weekend at Bernie’s,” an unimpressively performing beach comedy. Tom Sherak, president of Fox marketing and distribution, acknowledged: “It’s very frustrating to see all these dollars coming in for those other pictures, and to know you have a major film, and to be champing at the bit to get it out.”

Fox was hoping for a longer, hotter summer. At this stage a year ago, the studio was a major player with “Big” and “Die Hard.” On a comeback roll after a period of eclipse, Fox thought itself reasonably well-positioned for 1989 with “The Abyss,” not least because of the track record of its makers. The project’s director and writer was James Cameron, 34, and its producer was Gale Anne Hurd, 33. Recently divorced after a five-year marriage, the couple was celebrated for two earlier, hugely lucrative science-fiction collaborations, “The Terminator” in 1984 and Fox’s $180-million world-grossing “Aliens” in 1986.

Mildly futuristic, technically ambitious and shot during a change of studio regime, “The Abyss” turned out to have problems beyond just its title, which, Fox market research disclosed, most Americans were abysmally unable to pronounce or understand. (Abyss: A deep fissure or chasm.) Originally budgeted at $33 million but dependent on newfangled hardware and visual magic, “The Abyss” met unending problems that drove its final cost to nearly $43 million. Even for the delayed opening, Fox will barely manage to rush damp color prints into 1,500 theaters this week.

By the conventional wisdom of blockbusterhood, Fox, its investment in an already risky project now at $50 million including initial marketing outlays, will be hard-pressed for time to promote “The Abyss” into the $100-million-plus success it must become to break even from domestic theatrical rentals. Just 27 days will be left for “The Abyss” in the year’s prime, school’s-out playing time ending Labor Day. Further, the movie came in on the long side, at 2 hours and 20 minutes, allowing fewer daily theater showings.

Barry Diller, chairman of parent Fox Inc., contended that the loss of five key summer weeks is anything but fatal; the conventional wisdom has eroded with the autumn opening success of “Fatal Attraction” and “Beverly Hills Cop,” said Diller.

“There hasn’t been a big record laid down, but especially in the last several years movies are able to open opportunistically, any time. So, I don’t consider it a large issue.

“Even if the gamble on ‘The Abyss’ is a failure, it would not be crucial to Fox,” Diller said. In terms of such issues as earnings, “it does not have any kind of material effect for either ’88 or ’89. The whole is larger than even a very expensive movie, which this is.” However, Diller implied the company might be reluctant to try such high rolling in the future. “I am not an inherent believer in highly budgeted films, and never have been, " he said. “I’m always uncomfortable with it.”

Cameron and Hurd, no-frills workaholics whose GJP Inc. was granted substantial creative control, are not being criticized on a personal level by Fox executives. “The problems that we had were not personality problems,” said Roger Birnbaum, who came in as Fox production chief as the cameras were starting to roll. “They were technical problems because we were trying an underwater movie of a kind nobody had ever tried before.”

In fact, Fox nervously withheld a final commitment until Cameron put the special-effects work out for lower re-bidding. But Leonard Goldberg, who left the Fox film presidency last April, concedes that studio planners should have made more allowance for the unexpected. “We really didn’t do a good enough job of analyzing what was really involved here in terms of production,” he said. “But how do you budget something that’s never been tried?”

Cameron has not escaped appreciable wetting in the deluge of trouble. Some actors--nobody in the medium-name cast was paid as much as $1 million--were so alienated by Cameron’s hurry-up-and-wait handling that only now are they showing sufficient forgiveness to help Fox with publicity interviews. Exhausted, Cameron is quietly angry over contractually forfeiting much of his salary to cover special-effects overruns, “meaning I worked for half price.” Still, he said, “You can’t absolve yourself 100%, because the director is responsible for the scope of the concept.”

At best, “The Abyss,” a story set at Caribbean depths of 2,000 to 20,000 feet, was never going to be an effortless opening-weekend draw. It has not had 50 years of Abyssman Comics to pre-sell it, and it’s not a sequel. The stars are Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michael Biehn, names that Fox ad-writers clearly consider less promotable than those of Cameron and Hurd. Two earlier 1989 underwater movies, “Leviathan” and “Deepstar Six,” did poor business. Sherak’s marketers can’t crunch the plot of “The Abyss” into a grabby single line, or easily dissuade wary filmgoers from thinking it is a horror film like the two previous bottom-dwelling flounders.

On the other hand, core Cameron fans probably expect a scarier experience than “The Abyss” offers, Hurd thinks. “Though the title sounds like a dark horror film, this is certainly much more of an adventure-love story. It’s quite dramatic and more emotional--and that is a harder film to sell than a monster movie.”

Emotion is supplied by the stormy relationship between Harris’ blue-collar character, Bud Brigman, the “chief tool-pusher” on an experimental submersible oil-drilling habitat called Deepcore, and his estranged wife, Lindsey Brigman, Deepcore’s outspoken design engineer. They are thrown together when the Navy commandeers Deepcore to support a Seal commando mission aimed at rescuing a submarine disabled nearby.

Reversing “Aliens,” the military are the bad guys and some non-humans are the good guys. The Brigmans battle Lt. Coffey (Biehn, a Cameron rep player), who has been rendered viciously paranoid by a high-pressure nervous disorder. Coffey, armed with a nuke from the sub, must be stopped from destroying a civilization of beautiful, mysterious “NTIs” (non-terrestrial intelligences) apparently living miles deep in the Cayman Trench.

At the fadeout, Lindsey’s close encounter with the NTIs is such an epiphany that the confessed “cast-iron bitch” dissolves into a post-feminist pussycat content to be called “Mrs. Brigman.”

A momentary tic is trip-wired in the petite Hurd’s left cheek when she is asked about any resemblances between the careerist Lindsey and herself in her ex-husband’s writing. “It’s hard to say,” she says, coolly keeping control. “Hard to be objective. But since Jim originally wrote the story when in high school, he was awfully prescient. I’m tough, but it’s not my choice. It’s what’s necessary at times.” Cameron maintains, “It’s coincidental. The script predated my personal situation by about a year.”

Fox’s tough mission in selling the story would be helped, certainly, if “The Abyss,” rated an accessible PG-13, got a good press. Sherak is buoyed by an early look at the only review he’s seen, in Rolling Stone. “Stupendously exciting and emotionally engulfing,” the panegyric runs. “This is monumental, mold-breaking entertainment.”

Monumental, at any rate, were the costly glitches that plagued the production at every phase. “This was the ne plus ultra of crisis management,” the lean and blond-bearded Cameron said, yawning uncontrollably, the morning after a 4:30 a.m. bedtime. Fox officials concede that crises were inevitable, given the untried locales and techniques Cameron employed--with Fox’s consent--to film 33% of his screenplay underwater for an unprecedented, universally debilitating eight weeks.

Filming on open water has had a bad name in Hollywood since well before “Jaws” went doubly over its $4-million budget. Cameron thought he would avoid ocean uncertainties by building freshwater sound stages, shooting at maximum 55-foot depth in two huge inland tanks converted from enclosures at a never-opened Gaffney, S.C., nuclear power plant. The primary set was Deepcore. Designed with the funky factory realism of the “Aliens” spacecraft, it was surrounded by 7.5 million gallons of filtered, propane-heated water in the concrete “A” tank.

Among the many never-done-befores: Full-face dive helmets allowing quick identification of the actors, an underwater air-refilling station, live recording of underwater dialogue, underwater video systems. Expecting all these exciting film-making goodies to be trouble-free, said Hurd, “was like trying to climb Mt. Everest without oxygen.”

Cameron, who grew up in Niaga ra Falls, Ont., coped with a Niagara-sized leak on the first day of photography. Later, unpredictably murky water defied the chemistry of a Walt Disney World expert. “Every day,” said Al Giddings, the experienced underwater photographer, “we had to walk through this mechanical mine field trying to get to our real tasks, making images.”

Time on their hands drove some cast members, notably Harris, to rage about “insensitive” treatment in uncomfortable and always dangerous underwater conditions. The safety record was perfect, but Harris and a burly supporting actor, Leo Burmester, had a terrifying moment during a helmetless “free swim” when they ran short of breath with the usual rescue divers nowhere in their sight.

The specially dive-trained actors were required to idle away long hours in their helmets on the tank bottom while technicians sorted things out. One perception was that Cameron, swimming about with a messianic light in his eyes, gave priority to the whirring hardware. “If there was a toy and a human being in a scene,” Mastrantonio once joked to cast member Todd Graff, “the toy would get the close-up.”

The director, pressured by frequent Fox trouble-shooting trips, would allow some interpretive freedom but could be intimidating. “His bedside manner’s not the best,” said Graff. “If he didn’t like a suggestion, he’d say, ‘I hate that! Goddammit, I hate that!’ ”

Isolated near a Southern town of 13,000 best known for a tall municipal water tank shaped like a peach, the actors called the five-month location a “minimum-security prison,” Cameron noted. Even when not scheduled to work, stars got little time off because unstable “tank weather” could dictate an instant switch to the other tank or a cover set for alternative scenes.

“They were insensitive to actors of Ed and Mary’s class,” said Biehn, in most respects a Cameron booster. “They didn’t need to hurry them into makeup for a 7:30 a.m. call, tell them at 8 a.m. that the shot would go at 9:30, have them wait until 1:30, then 6:30, end with not shooting the scene, and do the same thing next day. Windows were kicked in, cars were kicked in, people were howling at the moon.”

Two successive first assistant directors, the middlemen between Cameron and the stars, lost their jobs. Harris publicly vowed never to mention “The Abyss,” finally relenting to surface with the similarly long-silent Mastrantonio at a Fox media junket last weekend. There, Harris, when asked to describe his treatment, said that’s ". . . like asking a soldier how he was treated in Vietnam.” He did allow though that “there were days when you felt you were being taken for granted or something, but the camaraderie, especially among the actors, was always strong. So, we got through it.”

Unlike the actors, however, Cameron himself spent so many hours underwater that he often had to spend two hours decompressing to avoid the bends before surfacing. Having watched crew members, wearing T-shirts saying “Life’s Abyss and Then You Dive,” work with fewer gripes, Cameron still has little patience toward the unhappy stars.

“You know, life’s a bitch,” he said acidly. “I gotta tell you, I shed not one single tear for them, because all the hours they’re waiting, the crew is busting their backs. So they had to put up with a little Greyhound bus station waiting. Poor babies. Actors are pampered in this country more than (in) any other country in the world.”

Photography went five weeks over schedule, but the worst hang-ups were during post-production. There were repeated special-effects troubles in optically getting the actors on the same frame of celluloid with the friendly NTIs in line with Cameron’s painstaking standards. “Even when it’s my own money,” said Cameron, “I still have to do the best possible. I have this terror of something looking fake.”

Just as the unexplored Cayman Trench tests the character of the story’s roughnecks and commandos, the wait for “The Abyss” has measured forbearance at Fox. By now, executives must be reflecting on the irony of including a phrase from Nietzsche in the press kit: “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

From all accounts, a lot of panicked finger pointing took place within the executive office building behind the 20-year-old “Hello, Dolly!” facade. Yelling began even before the cameras turned; there was a six-week delay in the start date when contractors lagged in converting the nuclear-plant site for the new landlord, independent studio owner and producer Earl Owensby. (He later sued GJP for $2.1 million, alleging appropriation of construction materials without compensation, and settled out of court.)

“Everybody started fighting with each other over whose fault it was,” said Craig Baumgarten, who left Fox production ranks eight weeks into the filming. Baumgarten, attributing the poisonous atmosphere to “the volatile management situation,” was reminded of the community buzz during the troubles of “Jaws” that “if the movie didn’t work out, Steven Spielberg would never work again.” Gene Levy, chief of physical production at Fox, also resigned during the shoot. Baumgarten and several Fox officials denied any direct connection between the two departures and “The Abyss.” Levy did not respond to a request for comment.

Birnbaum made six transcontinental visits, and Goldberg, too, just happened to stop by the rural set. Goldberg seemed irritated by Cameron’s request for a longer post-production period. “I told him,” said Goldberg, “ ‘You can either finish the movie some way, or you can personally go to 1,200 theaters and describe the movie for the audience, four shows a day.’ And, you know, he paused .”

After evidencing what Hurd called “a head in the sand attitude” toward abandoning July 5, Fox eventually announced a July 28 opening, then moved back to an Aug. 2 “platforming” in major cities before “going wide” Aug. 9. The platforming had to be scrapped too.

Sherak’s high-stakes job now is to position the movie as what the trade calls “an event.” Ploys include a special Radio City Music Hall advance screening in New York on Tuesday night and a shotgun array of advertising lines. (One thunders, “There’s everything you’ve ever known about adventure, and then there’s ‘The Abyss.’ ”)

There is optimism, despite everything, at Fox. Birnbaum claims unconcern with the dismal fate of recent underwater pictures. “This is the studio that made ‘Big’ after three other stories with similar plot devices,” he boasted. Fox finds virtue in the relatively clear path “The Abyss” will have in the marketplace, free of the stronger competition it would have had from the big guns of June and July. “This is a summer when to go with a film like this at the beginning would have been problematic,” said chairman Diller.

Fox executives say they would happily work with Cameron again. By contract, he and Hurd can make another Fox film, but whether they will work together anymore in light of their personal strains depends on who’s predicting. Hurd sounds convinced that they will choose one of a number of action-adventures to do. Cameron is noncommittal.

The day “The Abyss” opens, Hurd will be flying to Kenya for a long-planned camera safari; she was too frugal to sacrifice her no-refund air ticket. Cameron will be decompressing, figuratively for a change, from a marathon pace he doesn’t mean to repeat.

“I look at ‘The Abyss’ as a once-in-a-lifetime project,” he said. “I don’t think I would ever invest as much of my soul and my energy in a film, going in. I probably didn’t know the specific details, but I knew its potential was going to be awesome to grind up human beings. As Ingmar Bergman said, making a film is like laying tracks in front of an express train.”