The Badass Interview: Alister Grierson, Director Of SANCTUM

Devin talks to the director of SANCTUM and finds out what’s scarier - cave diving or working with James Cameron.

I was able to get on the phone with Alister Grierson, the director of this weekend’s big 3D release, Sanctum. Produced by James Cameron, and using the 3D technology he pioneered on Avatar, Sanctum is a movie about an underwater caving expedition gone very, very wrong. It’s a big step for Grierson, whose previous directorial experience included the Aussie film Kokoda.

The film is inspired by a true story, a cave collapsed that actually happened to co-writer and producer Andrew Wight. And of course since it’s an underwater movie from James Cameron you know that there’s going to be some realism on display. But how much realism can you have before it gets in the way of the excitement? And how much does James Cameron ride a director to get that realism? And why the hell do they drop so many F-bombs in what could have otherwise been a PG-13 film?

The answers to these questions - and more! - follow.

You used the cameras that Cameron pioneered for Avatar, but he was using them on a soundstage in great conditions. You guys were really putting them through the wringer.

Very much so, and Jim was very proud of that. We took his technology and put it through some very trying circumstances, including waterfalls, underwater and on location in the jungle. With Jim he had a lot of objectives with this film, and one of them was that you can make a good 3D movie for a modest budget - you don’t need to do it for 300 million dollars. Secondly he wanted to show that the 3D and the technology can handle those conditions.

What is it like working with Cameron? As a director he is known to be very particular - how is he as a producer?

Terrific. It was a wonderful experience. He’s obviously known for being very driven when he’s making his own films, and he’s very driven when he’s producing films as well. But it’s an inspirational passion that he has. I was so thrilled. When I met him for the first time, the very first thing he said to me was, “Look, Alister, this is your picture. This is your story. Do what you want to do, tell it how you want to tell it, I just want to help you do the best job you can.” Which was really wonderful because any director being produced by another director worries there’s going to be second guessing, but there was nothing like that.

He was also very busy making Avatar at the time. Avatar was released when we were about halfway through shooting our film. So in that sense by necessity he had to be hands off when we got going. But in the early stages, during pre-production, I kept him in the loop with what I was doing, where I was going and my decision making. I got feedback when he felt like it was required in terms of alternates and technical ideas to help us use our cameras. And then once we were shooting I didn’t talk to Jim at all. He came to set on the second or third to last day that we were shooting in the underwater set at Warner Bros.

But Jim’s input for me was at the end of the process when we were editing the film. I had him come see my version, a first cut version of the film. We watched the film together - which is fairly terrifying for me! - and afterwards [I got] Jim’s stream of consciousness immediate, gut response to what he had just seen. I just chiseled away and incorporated his ideas or explored some of his ideas. The way that Jim works is that he never tells you what to do - never “You must do this.” It’s always a question - “Have you thought about this?” or “I responded emotionally this way; is that what we want to achieve?” Often we’d go back and experiment and reshape scenes and in the process of doing that we learned things none of us had thought about. But we were always exploring and the movie was always organically moving forward, getting leaner and tighter.

Speaking of making the movie lean and tight, when you have a film like this, which is a pressure cooker thriller, how do you find the correct pacing to not exhaust the audience?

That’s a really good question and it was one of the big challenges we had. One of the very early cuts, the assembly - which is all the pieces from the shoot put back to back - I remember watching that version, which is 40 minutes longer than the final version and it was so exhausting. Part of me was my head in my hands, “Oh dear, it’s a disaster.” Part of that was how is the audience going to come to terms with how exhausting it is.

But you chisel away, and especially working with Jim probably the biggest thing he brought was exactly that question. How do you give the audience a chance to breathe? The audience has to rest just as the characters have to rest. We came up with strategies to visually open up the film so that structurally you go through an arduous moment, take a break and stop. I think it’s fascinating how it works, how the visual stimuli really has that physiological effect, especially in 3D. I think it really motors up the physiological response. If you’re going to put people in those claustrophobic environments they’re going to be dead by the time the picture ends if you don’t give them time to breathe.

It was a bit of discovery. It’s like all filmmaking - you discover what the film is as you’re making it.

Andrew Wight, who cowrote the film and produced it, this is based on an experience he had. He’s a guy with a ton of diving experience. When you’re working with someone like Andrew, where is the line between making it realistic and making it exciting and interesting for the audience.

I think he intuitively got what we had to do in a fiction film. His background is that he’s done 30 years of documentaries before this. This is his first fiction film; I think he learned a lot in terms of the narrative storytelling versus the documentary storytelling. The process is different in how you get your material in narrative versus documentary, but storytelling is the same and filmmaking is the same.

That kind of realism was a big mantra for us. All the technology on screen is real equipment anyone can go buy off the shelf. In fact a lot of the equipment in the movie is actually Andrew’s personal equipment that he keeps stored in a shed on his farm. Andrew had his eye on a number of things, including production design when we were building these caves. Screenwriter John Garvin, who was with us the whole time, is also a mad cave diver. Between the two of them working with the actors getting the techniques down, getting comfortable with the equipment, and making sure the builds of the caves are based on real spaces these guys have been to, we tried to make it as real as possible.

At the end of the day you can’t become a slave to that - you still have to make an exciting story. With Andrew’s story he was caught with 15 or 30 other people in a cavern that collapsed in Western Australia. It was a life changing experience because he thought that he was going to perish, and it was a terrifying moment and a reflective moment. But he had the will to survive and he managed to get himself out, and led the expedition to get the others out. What they had to do to find a way out was to find a new passageway out of the cave that had been created by the collapse.

And then there was a whole grab bag of real incidents that had either occured on his expeditions or that he heard about from other divers or that we found from research. For instance hair getting caught in a climbing rack, or having to share face masks at that great depth. All of those events are real, but the whole throughline is fictional.

Did you do any cave diving?

Yeah, the bastards. It was part of the cruelty of doing the picture. I thought it was really important to me to get into a cave, so they took me dry caving - which oddly enough I found more confronting than cave diving. But I had never been scuba diving, so John Garvin took me on a two day open water training period, and then on day three they put me in my first cave. It’s a hard feeling to describe. I was pretty scared going in, but mainly because I was a novice diver. More than anything I was more concerned about just breathing, let alone the fact that you’re in a closed environment in the pitch black. I was fortunate that the cave they put me in was a good cave to learn how to cave dive because most areas of the cave had a ceiling that, in a worst case scenario I could trace along the ceiling up to an airbell and be relatively safe. But I was surrounded by very, very experienced divers.

But I thought it was an important thing to do, and it allowed me to try to replicate that visual world in the film. The other thing that was intriguing was that there’s no sound down there and your breathing becomes your only companion. It can be meditative - it’s not for me, because I was terrifying!

This almost made me feel like a studio executive so I apologize in advance, but you guys drop a lot of F-bombs in this movie. I feel like you could have maybe gotten a PG-13 if you didn’t say fuck so much; what was the thought behind that?

From the very first Jim wanted a film that was grounded in reality with very earthy figures. We got a little pressure to think about the rating, but not too much. The guys who had bought into the film - Universal and Relativity and Film Nation - knew what it was and what we were trying to achieve. It’s a very slippery slope, I think, when you go down that path. We deal with some controversial concepts in the film, and to do it PG you’d have to think about softening the blow of those as well. And all of a sudden your story is on shaky ground. The whole thematic throughline is about personal responsibility, and we have a whole series of events that throw that into a very dramatic relief. As soon as you begin to soften the language, soften the tone of those events, you start to wonder why you’re doing it.

It’s interesting because you do tackle questions of survival - and the extremes of survival - that aren’t tackled in a standard Hollywood way.

Right, that’s what we’re trying to do. Forgive my vanity but I’m hoping that what we made is a thinking person’s adventure film. We want people to ask themselves a whole series of questions when they come out of the theater. Mainly I want them to value being alive! But secondarily I want them to think about what they would do in those situations, and the way to do that is to set up an impossibly morally digressive sort of scenario where there’s no real answer to the question. I don’t have a position, but the characters have truthful positions for themselves. And if people start asking themselves those same questions it’s more interesting.