It's impossible to look at the new film Sanctum and not think of James Cameron, and not just because it was executive produced by him, or because it is in 3D. Not only does it exercise the filmmaker's current technological preoccupation, but it explores many of the themes, and even concepts, which Cameron previously dove into in films like Titanic and The Abyss.
Boxoffice sat down with director Alister Grierson, Cameron, and producer Andrew Wight last week for an exclusive interview at the Los Angeles press day for Sanctum. In addition to discussing that thin line between individual inspiration and their executive producer's influence, they talked about the various challenges of capturing the film's story in 3D, and offered some observations about what other kinds of stories might be best-suited for the emerging technology.
How much shape did James give to the story? As I was watching, I noticed a number of things that evoked things in Titanic and The Abyss.
Alister Grierson: You've all said stuff that I have done. Andrew and Jim worked together in the early, early stages with John Garvin, the other screenwriter, to sort of shape the idea, based mainly on Andrew's stories; they would sit down and have a beer and Andrew would tell them war stories of dives that he'd been on, expeditions that he'd been on, and other stories he's heard from caving colleagues and so forth. So they kind of ended up with a whole bunch of stuff that we could stick into the film, so then it was a question of shaping it on one hand to get a narrative structure, but then try to bring something else to it—and Jim's big thing was that he wanted to do a father-son story because he hadn't explored that before. So that was the other thing that he brought. In terms of any kind of references, the one thing that Jim said was that aside from when we were cutting the picture, and we had to put in temp music to screen for Jim, he said, "look, use any music from any other film that you like, but nothing from anything I've done. So that was kind of his attitude as well—there's baggage because Cameron is associated with the picture, it's in the water, and people are going to be looking for those things. Because his films are so popular, they're going to go, "hang on, that diver looks a little bit like the guy from The Abyss."
Is there a character with whom either of you most strongly identify with? Although Frank is an overbearing father, he at least has the advantage of being right most of the time, but of course, his son is incredulous that he could make those decisions at all.
Grierson: Well, what we tried to do was kind of have a sense of ambiguity about those decisions - are they necessarily the right decisions? I don't know. Frank says, "we're going this way," and another character says, "are you sure?" He says, "no!" There's sort of a randomness to it, that that's kind of an illusion. And the real question I think you have to ask is, when you're down in that situation, who's the guy you're going to most rely on, and Frank is the guy that you want to trust because he understands the cave and he understands his place in the broader scheme of things. You can't beat a cave. Carl at the beginning of the movie says, "this cave's not going to beat me," but that's madness. The cave has been there since before time, and you're transient—you're just passing through—and Frank understands that. I related to the Josh character the most, to be honest, because we're both beautiful young men (laughs). In the sense of Josh's skepticism of the desire to go into these places - for me, even though I had the experiences and I did it, I don't think I'm going to become a hardcore confirmed cave diver, or for that matter, if Jim invites me to explore the bottom of the ocean, I'm going to pass on that one.
What logistically is added to the filmmaking process when you're shooting in 3D? It seems like it's no longer just about the framing of the shot, because you have to consider the stereography.
Andrew Wight: To give you an idea, we really only had two people that came to the movie with any prior 3D experience, and everyone was very keen to learn about it. My philosophy was, don't bother. Just make the movie. Do your job, Alister is doing his directing job, you're the d.o.p. so just light the thing, and after the first week and people forgot about it, the photography got better. Everything got better, because we were concentrating on making a movie.
Grierson: Absolutely right. The real discussion that happens is the creative discussion at the start of the shoot about the aesthetic, to kind of answer the second question. You make an agreement about the style of the 3D, how you want it to work, how it's going to look, how it's going to feel, and we work together to say, okay, this is the philosophy of the film. Once that's decided, the stereographer is responsible for maintaining a consistency of that from shot to shot.
Wight: I think the only time you were aware of it would be when someone would call out, "oh, we have to do that again." "Why?" "Because we had a stereo problem." That would be the only time; otherwise it was business as usual.
James Cameron: In the old days you used to check the gate and if there was a hair in the gate, you had to reshoot the scene. Now, there might be some flaw with the signal from the left eye or something; if you've just gone, as Alister and his cinematographer did, from shooting on film in 2D to shooting 3D, you've actually made two steps. One is that you're now shooting digitally, so you're lighting for digital cameras and working with electronics systems which are a little more prone to damage from the elements, hot and cold and water, on this film in particular. And you're shooting in 3D. So there are additional technical complexities, but theoretically, the camera crew should be the ones dealing with that, not the director.
On the aesthetic side, it can be as little or as much as you want it to be, in terms of how different you make it. My feeling on making Avatar and any film I would probably make in the immediate future is it's probably going to be released in both 3D and 2D, and even if for example, by the time Avatar 2 comes out, we have enough 3D screens around the world, and we probably will, to say, okay, it's only a 3D release, what about DVD? The majority of DVD and streaming viewings and so on are going to be in 2D. So you're really serving two masters, in the same way that when you make a movie, you're making it for the widescreen and you're making it for the small screen. You're making it for the Cinemascope aspect ratio and you're making it for the TV aspect ratio. You're always serving dual masters, so to me that was nothing new.
When I made Avatar, I said, this has got to be a good 2D movie and a good 3D movie, so I'm not going to do anything radically different to serve 3D, because it will screw up the 2D experience of the film. So I'm still shooting the same way and composing the same way more or less; the only difference is that you may be a little more mindful of the fact that if you have some object right in the foreground that kind of works in 2D as an out of focus foreground thing, like curtains, that might be a whole different experience in 3D than you want it to be. Instead of some out of focus framing thing, it might become the shot, so you have to manage the stereo space to get the effect that you want to achieve. So there are times when there's a little extra thought that has to go into a shot, and that's maybe one shot in ten. And the same thing with editing: maybe one cut in 20 gets moved because it plays better in 3D. I mean, I remember it as one cut in a hundred. The only way it affected my cutting was that in dailies, I might remember that a particular moment was good in 3D, and when I was cutting the scene, I might preserve that moment uncut as opposed to if I was cutting in 2D, I might cut it differently. See what I mean? But having cut the scene, I can't remember ever changing the cut.
During discussions of Avatar, I read that you said that the 3D was not optimal because the spaces were so vast that it was difficult to maximize the effect.
Cameron: The 3D was optimal—we optimized the 3D in every single shot. The point is that certain subjects benefit more from 3D than others. I think that might be a nuance, but it's not semantics, it's a specific nuance to the idea. People sort of naturally assume that big, epic things are better in 3D. Let me give you an example: a big star cruiser comes over a planet. If that thing's a thousand feet long and you're seeing all of it, you're a minimum of a thousand feet away - even if it's a made-up subject, the rules of physics still apply. But anything over 50 feet away is not in 3D. I mean, look across the room - can you see the difference between that door frame and the planter beyond it? Not really. It's a 2D image. So my point was that in that shot of that star cruiser, one of two things is going to happen: either it's going to be presented properly, meaning that there is no 3D and it looks big, but it's not a great 3D shot, or people are going to say "we're making a 3D movie, goddammit, we've got to make that in 3D." So then all of a sudden you can see depth planes in between that enormous star cruiser and that enormous planet and between that enormous planet and the stars beyond. Now all of a sudden, all of those things just became the size of Matchbox toys. People would laugh off the screen an effects shot in which there was very shallow depth of field that would make it look like it was a tabletop model, but they're not sophisticated enough yet to laugh off the screen that same miniaturizing effect of too much stereo.
I saw a test where they started to convert King Kong—the new King Kong, Jackson's—into 3D, and they made him look like he was two feet tall because they insisted in making the Empire State Building in 3D relative to the rest of Manhattan, instead of saying, this is a thousand-foot-tall building, so it's not going to be in 3D! I'm probably going on too much about this but you've got to be mindful of these things. Now, take that same shot of that planet and that star cruiser and put a pair of fuzzy dice in space floating in the foreground, and you've got a great 3D shot. I don't know why you would do that—it's a little surreal.
Are there subjects or is there a criteria that makes a movie better-suited to be in 3D?
Cameron: Here's what's counterintuitive: everybody assumes that the bigger and more epic something is, the better it is in 3D, but I would submit that it's the opposite. Not only have we proved with Sanctum that the smaller, more intimate dramatic space of the people and the cave is suited to 3D, I would say that let's say that we wanted to make a movie about this interview. Like My Dinner With Andre, should we ever say anything interesting enough for anybody to like it. This little tableaux right here would be great in 3D, because everything is the right space and the right distance from the camera. So an intimate drama that takes place in offices and kitchens or sitting next to a piano or walking on a beach, that's going to be more uplifted by the 3D experience than the bigger, more epic thing. It's counterintuitive, and people haven't figured that out yet. But in the same way that when widescreen first came in it was used for all of the big sword and sandal epics, cut to a few years later and the small, experimental filmmakers were using widescreen because they loved the way it composed out two people sitting and talking. Counterintuitive, but that's when it got widely accepted, and now it's a standard cinematic format for all films big and small.