James Cameron

We don’t see a lot of documentaries hit the big screen and it’s even rarer to see one in 3D!  I spoke with director Ray Quint and “star” James Cameron about Deepsea Challenge…

Matt:  It’s a point you guys make early on in the film but we spend so much money on space exploration as opposed to ocean exploration.  Why is that you think?  That we seem to take such a lesser interest in something that is so close to home?

James:  There are economic reasons for it because we are having to compete with the money the government puts into the big aerospace industry, defence contractors and so on.  The reality is that we need to spend a lot more on the ocean than we do.  The oceans are our life support system right here on spaceship Earth.  They’re critical to our survival and they’re critical to our understanding of climate change.  For example, where is all this heat going, where is all this carbon going?  We need to understanding the interface between our ocean and our atmosphere for our climate modelling.  We also need to understand the web of life that exists in the ocean… hopefully before we destroy it. 

Ray:  Part of what we hope the film will do is push for support for deep ocean exploration.

Matt:  James, something that people always seem to strive for is a work life balance.  And has we see in the film, you’re a married guy with pretty much two careers – filmmaker and explorer.  How do you balance that all up?  Do you worry sometimes that you’ve taken too much on?

James:  It is a time management issue.  Fortunately, I have a great, supportive wife and I’ve got a wonderful family and I think I’ve managed to balance them all.  I really love my time with my kids and so you have to make time.  This is why I’m not that prolific as a filmmaker.  I’ve only directed 8 movies and made 5 documentaries.  But I’ve also done 8 deep ocean expeditions which probably accounts for the low productivity on the feature film directing side.

Matt:  This film has been cut down into a pretty tight 90 minute documentary.  Ray, how many hours of footage did you have to work with?  Was there a lot you wanted to include but couldn’t find the room?

Ray:  I think our first assembly of the film was something like 3 hours long.  We realised we had to get it down to a more palatable length for the distributors.  When I came onto the movie, there was something like 1,200 hours of footage that had been shot in the making of the submersibles and the expeditions.  My first job was to assemble that footage into a coherent narrative that told the story of the expedition and the dives.

Then we asked ourselves what else do we need to bring to this story for an audience, what historical recreations did we want to do, and what archival footage did we need?  It was a matter of compiling all of that into a cohesive story.

Matt:  The film certain builds the suspense – we’re told that if there is a crack in the craft, you’re going to be crushed instantaneously due to the pressure.  I realise there is so much work that goes into the safety of the craft but what is it like where you’re descending for so long – do you actually get nervous?  Or is it something that you can control?

James:  It’s out of my control at that moment but it hasn’t been out of my control during the 7 previous years that we built the sub.  I was intimately involved with the design of the sub with my co-designer Ron Allum so I knew how ever control system worked and I knew every step that we had gone through in our computer modelling and our testing.  Everything had been tested over and over.  I felt very confident in the vehicle.

That said, it’s a prototype vehicle.  As I was progressively diving deeper and deeper, it was essentially a set of sea trials and we were finding flaws and glitches and so eliminating them as we went along.  I did have a couple of “character building” moments on a couple of the dives but again, panic doesn’t do you any damn good.  You just have to sit there are process it.  My brain was racing – thinking of all the ramifications and the things that might be happening in the computer or outside the sub… but that’s in the nature of the work.  Essentially, I was a test pilot.

Ray:  I was looking through hours and hours of footage to find those moments where Jim might have been panicked or worried and the reality is that he wasn’t.  He was very calm under fire.  It may have made it more dramatically compelling to see him stress in those moments but in fact, what we’re seeing in the film is actually the truth of those moments.

Matt:  Ray, as the director, are you responsible for working out where the cameras are positioned inside and outside the craft trying to get the best angle of all the footage?

Ray:  I came onto the film post expedition so the design of those cameras was up to Jim and his team prior my involvement.  Those cameras were the result of a multi-year camera development program to create cameras that were light enough and small enough to bring back 3D images from the ocean depths.  Also, they had to fit into the sphere of the submersible. 

James:  We should probably point out that there were 3 directors sequentially on this film – they weren’t working simultaneously.  I was none of those.  The first was Andrew Wight who conceived the project and started out at the same time that Ron Allum and I started designing the sub.  He was the famous Australian oceanographic filmmaker and had made many of his own documentaries and had worked with me since 2000.  Andrew was the original producer and director on the film but sadly he was killed in a helicopter crash on the eve of the expedition.  It was a great tragedy and we all had to pull ourselves up by our boot straps after that and go on.

I then made 2am phone call to John Bruno who was a friend of mine who had been on a number of expeditions prior and he knew how 3D photography worked.  He jumped in to shoot the expedition proper.  He then rotated off and Ray came for post-production, to shoot the re-enactments, and to find the story.  We really wanted to maintain the through-line and theme of the film being an Australian project as much as possible and John Bruno was not Australian – he was a friend of mine from the U.S.  We wanted the film to have an Australian identity as the film crew is Australian, the build team for the sub was Australian, and Ron Allum and Andrew Wight are Australian.

Ray:  While I was very aware of having to pay tribute to Andrew and was very pleased that we were able to do that in the movie, I couldn’t actually make Andrew’s film.  I realised this after some time and I couldn’t make John’s film either.  I had to take a step back and then step in to make the film that I wanted about Jim and his experiences.

Matt:  One of the biggest news stories this year has been the loss of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 which is suspected to have disappeared in the Indian Ocean.  And it’s been surprising that it’s now been 5 months and not a single shred of debris has been found.  As someone who knows the oceans as well as you guys, does that come as a surprise to you? 

James:  It’s not surprising to me at all.  The ocean is vast and we’re very underfunded for vehicles and instrumentation to explore it.  I don’t think they’ll ever find that plane based on the sketchy knowledge they have of its area.  They can’t narrow the search box enough without further clues.  I think it was a shock for people to suddenly come up short in the 21st century where we think we’ve explored this planet and yet there are vast reaches of it that we can’t have ready access to.  I think that should be a lesson to everybody.  It certainly comes back to my theme that we’re not spending enough on ocean research and technology.  It’s certainly not enough to have the ocean sufficiently instrumented so that we can get good predictive modelling for climate change.

Matt:  James, as we see in the film, you consider yourself as much an explorer as you do a filmmaker.  Now that you’ve been to the deepest part of the ocean, what’s next?  Is there a new challenge you’d like to set yourself?

James:  I think it’s a mistake to go “well now I’ve climbed the highest mountain” and leave it at that.  The reason that we went to the deepest place was to say to the marine science community that we now have a platform that allows us to go to any point in the depths of the ocean.  I saw this as the start of a much larger investigation.  I could spend the rest of my life diving the deep ocean trenches and making new discoveries.  I will continue my life as a Hollywood filmmaker with Avatar sequels that I’m currently working on so for me, it’s a continuum.