Shooting The Abyss Nearly Killed James Cameron

James Cameron is a blockbuster director known for massive hits, like "The Terminator," "Aliens," "Titanic," and "Avatar." His films are always visually appealing, and often require technical innovations to pull off. However, Cameron's films have also been criticized for focusing on spectacle while neglecting character and story development. While that just might be true in some cases, everyone still loves a good optical feast. It's the reason you turn on a movie instead of opening a book, and Cameron is great at keeping our eyes fed.

When Camera made "Titanic," he had a massive replica of the famous ship built. For "Avatar," he created technology that allowed actors to see themselves as their otherworldly characters while using motion capture tools. And on "The Abyss," his crew innovated computer animation in visual effects to create the shapeshifting aquatic species deep in the ocean. It seems like nothing is too big for Cameron to tackle and he openly admits that he likes taking on the hard stuff:

"Certainly there is an aspect of me that loves big challenges, whether it's big physical construction or visual effects or whatever. I think that's what I do best."

However, beyond the launch of computer animated digital effects in "The Abyss," Cameron faces another massive challenge during production. In the book, James Cameron: Interviews (via Syfy), the director revealed that he almost lost his life.

Creating an abyss

"The Abyss" centers on a group of deepwater oil drillers hired to assist Navy Seals in recovering lost nuclear warheads under 2,000 feet of water. During their search, they encounter an alien species.

When discussing why he wanted to make this film, Cameron explained, "I wanted to make "The Abyss" because I was interested in a cold, dark, threatening, and very sterile environment." So, of course, that meant Cameron had to create such an environment.

As reported by Syfy, Cameron originally thought he could film in The Bahamas, but that wouldn't work because he couldn't control the water. So the filmmaker decided that he needed a tank to shoot in. The largest one available at the time wasn't big enough, so he turned his attention to an abandoned nuclear power plant in South Carolina.

Cameron's crew built sets in a containment vessel at The Cherokee Nuclear Power Station in Gaffney, South Carolina, then flooded it with seven million gallons of water, creating that dark, and very threatening environment Cameron had been searching for. Next, the cast went through diver training in order to learn how to navigate such an environment, because nearly half of the filming would take place underwater.

In the end, all the training in the world had not properly prepared the cast or Cameron for the dangers they would face on set.

Aquatic guinea pigs

Filming "The Abyss" was a difficult experience for the cast, who worked 70 hours a week for six months, most of it spent underwater. Ed Harris told Entertainment Weekly that he recalls the cast feeling like "guinea pigs" and claims he almost drowned during filming. He also recalled an incident that resulted in his co-star, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, walking off the set:

"I was slapping her across the face, and I see that they've run out of film in the camera — there's a light on the camera — and nobody had said anything. And Mary Elizabeth stood up and said, 'We are not animals!' and walked off the set. They were going to let me just keep slapping here around! ... It was very difficult."

The cast wouldn't be the only ones to experience scary moments during filming. Cameron would also suffer in the abyss he created. At one point during filming, Cameron was at the bottom of the massive tank, when the person keeping track of his oxygen levels left the set. When he began running out of oxygen, the director took off his diving gear and attempted to swim to the surface quickly. A safety diver tried to help but only made a bad situation worse with faulty equipment. Cameron ended up taking in a bunch of water instead of air. The safety diver thought Cameron was panicking from almost drowning, and wouldn't release him. Cameron had to punch the guy in the face to break free and rise to the surface.

All these incidents might have gone down a little easier for the cast, and Cameron, if the film had been a massive hit, but that wasn't the case.

A modest success

"The Abyss" had a budget of $45 million and earned $90 million at the box office. That's respectable, for sure, but those aren't box office crushing numbers Cameron has a habit of producing. There may be a few reasons for this. 

First, it's at least an hour before anything interesting happens in "The Abyss." Secondly, the side character with the pet rat is downright irritating. And finally, some of the dialogue is pretty cheesy. Even so, the movie was quite an undertaking at the time. Even if the movie isn't one of Cameron's best, you have to respect his ambition. Building sets in an abandoned nuclear plant, flooding them with water, and having your actors work in such an uncomfortable environment sounds nuts, but visually, it paid off.  

While the movie has its issues, the underwater environment, cool special effects, and spectacular action sequences aren't among them. The film offers a visual smorgasbord for viewers, which is exactly what is expected from a Cameron film. Because of this, the movie is still worth a watch, especially when you consider people risked their lives to make it.