The summer box office for 1989 happened to be a convergence of some astounding films which are widely considered to be some of the best ever made. For some strange reason these films were all released within a 3 month window 25 years ago, and these films still stand the test of time today. 25 years ago today, August 9th, saw the release of the science fiction-adventure film written and directed by James Cameron, starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn “The Abyss”.
During the height of the Cold War the USS Montana, a US nuclear ballistic submarine, sinks into an ocean abyss due to unknown circumstances. The US Navy scramble to the scene to rescue survivors and recover the nuclear missles on board before nearby Russian forces do. Their best hope are a team of divers attached to a submersible drilling platform not far from the crash site. During the operation freak weather conditions damage the platform and sever its communication with the surface. As World War III looms above and tensions rise between the divers and a deployed SEAL team the rescuers discover that there is something else besides the submarine in the Abyss.
H. G. Wells was the first to introduce the notion of a sea alien in his 1897 short story In the Abyss. The idea for The Abyss came to James Cameron when, at age 17 and in high school, he attended a science lecture about deep sea diving by a man who claimed to have been the first human to breathe fluid through his lungs. He subsequently wrote a short story that focused on a group of scientists in a laboratory at the bottom of the ocean. The basic idea did not change, but many of the details evolved over the years. Once Cameron arrived in Hollywood, he quickly realized that a group of scientists was not that commercial and changed it to a group of blue-collar workers. While making Aliens, Cameron saw a National Geographic film about remote operated vehicles operating deep in the North Atlantic Ocean. These images reminded him of his short story. He and producer Gale Anne Hurd decided that The Abyss would be their next film. Cameron wrote a treatment combined with elements of a shooting script, which generated a lot of interest in Hollywood. He then wrote the script, basing the character of Lindsey on Hurd and finished it by the end of 1987. Cameron and Hurd were married before The Abyss, separated during pre-production, and divorced in February 1989, two months after principal photography.
The cast and crew trained for underwater diving for one week in the Cayman Islands. This was necessary because 40% of all live-action principal photography took place underwater. Furthermore, Cameron’s production company had to design and build experimental equipment and develop a state-of-the-art communications system that allowed the director to talk underwater to the actors and dialogue to be recorded directly onto tape for the first time.
Cameron had originally planned to shoot on location in the Bahamas where the story was set but quickly realized that he needed to have a completely controlled environment because of the stunts and special visual effects involved. He considered shooting the film in Malta, which had the largest unfiltered tank of water, but it was not adequate for Cameron’s needs. The film was shot at the Cherokee Nuclear Power Plant outside Gaffney, South Carolina. It had been abandoned after a local power company spent $700 million in construction. The underwater sequences were filmed in two specially constructed tanks. The first one held 7.5 million US gallons (28,000 m3) of water, was 55 feet (18 m) deep and 209 feet (70 m) across. At the time, it was the largest fresh-water filtered tank in the world. Additional scenes were shot in the second tank, which held 2.5 million US gallons (9,500 m3) of water. As the production crew rushed to finish painting the main tank, millions of gallons of water poured in. It took five days to fill. The Deepcore rig was anchored to a 90-ton concrete column at the bottom of the large tank. It consisted of six partial and complete modules that took over half a year to plan and build from scratch.
Can-Dive Services Ltd., a Canadian commercial diving company that specialized in “saturation” diving systems and underwater technology, specially manufactured the two working craft (Flatbed and Cab One) for the film. Two million dollars was spent on set construction.
Filming was also done at the largest underground lake in the world — a mine in Bonne Terre, Missouri, which was the background for several underwater shots.
- Ed Harris as Virgil “Bud” Brigman, foreman of the Benthic Petroleum oil rig.
- Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Dr. Lindsey Brigman, designer of the rig and Bud’s estranged wife.
- Michael Biehn as US Navy SEAL Lieutenant Hiram Coffey, the commander of the Navy SEAL team.
- J.C. Quinn as Arliss “Sonny” Dawson
- Leo Burmester as Catfish De Vries, a worker on the rig and a Vietnam veteran Marine who is skeptical of the SEALs.
- Kimberly Scott as Lisa “One Night” Standing
- Todd Graff as Alan “Hippy” Carnes, a conspiracy theorist who believes that the NTIs have been covered up by the CIA. He carries a pet rat on his shoulder.
- John Bedford Lloyd as Jammer Willis
- Chris Elliott as Bendix
- Capt. Kidd Brewer Jr. as Lew Finler
- George Robert Klek as Wilhite, a US Navy SEAL
- Christopher Murphy as Schoenick, a US Navy SEAL
- Adam Nelson as Ensign Monk, a US Navy SEAL
- Richard Warlock as Dwight Perry
- Jimmie Ray Weeks as Leland McBride
- J. Kenneth Campbell as DeMarco
- William Wisher, Jr. as Bill Taylor, a reporter
- Ken Jenkins as Gerard Kirkhill
Did You Know?
‘Ed Harris’ has publicly refused to speak about his experiences working on the film, saying “I’m not talking about The Abyss and I never will”. The only register with Harris speaking about his experiences doing the movie is in the documentary Under Pressure: Making ‘The Abyss’ (1993). Similarly, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio said “The Abyss was a lot of things. Fun to make was not one of them.”
During underwater filming, Ed Harris almost drowned. While filming a scene where he had to hold his own breath at the bottom of the submerged set, Harris ran out of air and gave the signal for oxygen. Harris’ safety diver got hung up on a cable and could not get to him. Another crew member gave Harris a regulator, but it was upside down and caused him to suck in water. A camera man came over, ripped the upside down regulator, and gave him one in the correct orientation. Later that evening, Ed broke down and cried.
Very few scenes involved stunt people. When Bud drags Lindsey back to the rig, that’s really Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio holding her breath. When the rig is being flooded and characters are running from water, drowning behind closed doors, and dodging exploding parts of the rig, those are all actors, not stunt people.
During the resuscitation scene, Ed Harris wasn’t acting to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in many of the shots. He was yelling at thin air. During the scenes she did appear in, Mastrantonio stormed off the set when she was informed that the camera broke in the middle of the scene and she refused to perform such difficult sequence one more time.
The scene with the water tentacle coming up through the moon pool was written so that it could be removed without interfering with the story, because no one knew how the effect would come out. The actors were interacting with a length of heater hose being held up by the crewmen. When the effects were completed, though, they exceeded everyone’s expectations and wildest hopes.
Fluid breathing is a reality. Five rats were used for five different takes, all of whom survived and were given antibiotic shots by a vet. The rat that actually appeared in the film died of natural causes a few weeks before the film opened. According to James Cameron, the scene with the rat had to be edited out of the UK movie version because “the Royal Veterinarian felt that it was painful for the rat”. James Cameron repeatedly assures that the rats used for this take didn’t suffer any harm.
James Cameron’s brother, Mike Cameron, plays a dead crewman inside the sunken submarine. To accomplish this he had to hold his breath under 15 feet of water while also allowing a crab to crawl out of his mouth.
The crew frequently spent enough time underwater to force them to undergo decompression before surfacing. James Cameron would often watch dailies through a glass window, while decompressing and hanging upside down to relieve the stress on his shoulders from the weight of the helmet.
The water in the two tanks was chlorinated heavily, to prevent microbes growing in it. This caused many of the actor’s hair to become green and even white.
The tank was filled to a depth of 40 feet, but there was still too much light from the surface, so a giant tarpaulin and billions of tiny black plastic beads were floated on the surface to block the light. During a violent storm the tarpaulin was destroyed, thus shifting production to night time.
The first feature film to have used an early version of Adobe Photoshop.
One of the first films to make proper use of CGI technology. The animated water effects would be put to use in James Cameron’s next film Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), to create the liquid Terminator, the T-1000.
The mini-subs in the wide shots were actually models suspended on wires in a smoky environment and filmed in slow motion.
The sequence in which Catfish fires a submachine gun into the moon pool at a departing Lt. Coffey was filmed using live ammunition. The underwater camera was locked down and unmanned, and extreme safety precautions were in effect.
To heat the water in the unfinished nuclear power plant, James Cameron brought in several tanker trucks of natural gas, and attached them directly to burners.
The extended scenes with the aliens were cut from the theatrical release because it would have made the film almost three hours long. And back in 1989, a running time that long was considered a big commercial risk. Especially for a film with lots of action scenes and special effects. It increases the likelihood the film won’t turn a profit. The scenes were eventually restored in 1993 for the Special Edition.
The studio pushed hard for an Academy Award nomination for Michael Biehn as best supporting actor.
Steven Spielberg studied the effects sequences in this film, as well as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) to prepare for Jurassic Park (1993).
Since the “Benthic Explorer” model ship was so large and filmed on open seas, the production company was required to register it with the Coast Guard.
Director James Cameron contacted Orson Scott Card before filming began with the possibility of producing a book based on the film. Card initially told his agent that he doesn’t do “novelizations”, but when she told him that the director was James Cameron, he agreed to consider it. The script arrived, and Card signed on after receiving assurances from Cameron that he would be free to develop his “novel” the way he wanted to. After a meeting with Cameron, Card immediately wrote the first three chapters, which dealt with events concerning Bud and Lindsay Brigman that occurred before the events in the film. Cameron gave these chapters to Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who used it to develop their characters.
For financial reasons, the “Deepcore” set was never dismantled. It stood in the abandoned (and drained) South Carolina nuclear power plant, where the film was shot. 20th Century Fox had posted signs around the set informing potential photographers that Fox still owned the set (and the designs) and that any photographs or video shooting of the set was prohibited by copyright law. Their official copyright information was on the Deepcore rig itself. A favorite destination for “urban explorers”, the sets and facility were eventually demolished in 2007 during a reconstruction project.
When Lt. Coffey retries the keys from the captain’s corpse, the name Kretschmer is visible on the name tag on the front of his overalls. This is a reference to the real-world Otto Kretschmer, the highest-scoring submarine ace of World War II.
James Cameron’s two choices for Bud Brigman were Ed Harris and Jeff Bridges.
A single white flashframe was edited into “the Hammer” punch delivered by Catfish. Cameron used the same trick to enhance the pipe bomb explosions in The Terminator (1984).
One of only two James Cameron films not to be scored by James Horner or Brad Fiedel. (Alan Silvestri did the score for this film.)