James Cameron nearly died while filming ‘The Abyss’

Dec. 20, 2009 | 1:34 a.m.

Patrick Goldstein, one of the most respected journalists covering Hollywood, writes the Big Picture, the blog and namesake newspaper column for the Los Angeles Times. It’s always a great read, in case you don’t already have it bookmarked. His latest post is about a near-death experience that James Cameron had, which is now detailed in “The Futurist,” a new biography that we’ve also written about here on the Hero Complex.

James Cameron

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…”


— Patrick Goldstein



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One Response to James Cameron nearly died while filming ‘The Abyss’

  1. Steve_Real says:

    Avatar is a classic scenario you've seen in Hollywood epics from Dances With Wolves, Dune, District 9 and The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.
    If we think of Avatar and its ilk as white fantasies about race, what kinds of patterns do we see emerging in these fantasies?
    A white man who was one of the oppressors switches sides at the last minute, assimilating into the alien culture and becoming its savior.
    These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations.
    The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed.
    This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

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