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 Open Water

I’m at the bar, by the pool, a few yards from a turquoise sea, sipping a Goombay Smash. I’m writing this long hand, on the back of a paper place mat with a blue Bic® pen I just borrowed from the bartender. It’s just the three of us: myself, the bartender, and a welder repairing something behind the bar. It’s 3:30pm. A very strong breeze blows off the ocean; if it weren’t for my drink anchoring down a corner of this mat it would be gone. When I lift the plastic cup it leaves a wet ring on the paper. As the ring grows, the ink of these very words begin to bleed. Laura (my partner in life and filmmaking) and I and our six-year-old daughter Sabrina arrived from New York about two hours ago. Tomorrow morning I will go in the shark cage.

I’m not nervous, not in the least, as I’ve been in the water with sharks many times, these very same sharks, and without a cage. One of the amazing things about making a movie is that you never know where you may find yourself next—on a New Jersey drag strip, or at a factory assembly line, shooting a nude scene with two people you had only just met a few weeks before, floating alone on the surface of the ocean surrounded by a swarm of frenzied sharks, being at the Sundance Film Festival, or on a studio lot, or in some posh Los Angeles conference room… surrounded by a swarm of frenzied sharks. Two years ago the closest I ever got to a shark was my TV set watching the Discovery Channel. Now it’s just another day on the film. Life is not boring.

When I was first asked to write this piece, I was sent examples by FLM as a guideline to what it was they were looking for. Lots of eloquent meditations by some amazingly accomplished artists, and my first thought was: wow, our publicist is good. My second thought was: I hope at least one of those high school teachers of mine that said I’d never amount to anything will see this. My third thought: what in the world am I going to write about? Unfortunately, I could not reflect on my Cinema Paradiso-like childhood in the French countryside or expound upon a long and rewarding career in cinema.... I’m from suburban New Jersey and have just completed my second feature, and so of course, obviously, it’s that second feature Open Water, opening August 6th at a theater near you—bring a friend, bring your whole family—that I’m writing about.

It was in the late ’90s that I first heard the true story that inspired our film. It was through a dive newsletter that came in the mail. It told about a vacationing couple that boarded a crowded scuba diving boat, and due to some confusion and a botched head count, the boat accidentally left the dive site with the couple still under the water. When they surfaced, they found themselves alone, miles from land in the middle of the ocean. As a diver, I found the story particularly terrifying, but it never occurred to me to make a film about the incident until many years later.

It was the advent of affordable digital video and non-linear editing systems that really roused the project. The new technology made it possible to make a feature film without having to pitch Hollywood and spend years grubbing for money and approval. The unobtrusive lightweight equipment was perfect for working on location, especially in crowded urban areas where you can shoot under the radar without permits, as well as in harsh, rugged environments like the open ocean. And best of all, we could now afford to self-finance our own feature and thus maintain total creative control. It was a chance to challenge ourselves creatively and technically, as we would be working without a crew. But it was imperative that we found a story that didn’t just work on video but truly benefited from the format.

Then I remembered the story about the divers.

The key was to tell the story in the most realistic way possible. That meant shooting in a documentary style, working on locations using real people, not actors, (except for the two leads who, if it was going to feel real, had to be unknown actors) working twenty miles out in the middle of the ocean, and finally, working with real sharks. I wanted to capture those feelings of terror I first felt when I read about the story.

Today pretty much all special and not so special effects are computer generated. For me, in general, these effects distance me from the film, I feel like I’m suddenly watching a cartoon or a video game; there is no sense of danger. When I see a picture that was made in the 1970s or ’80s, where there is, say, a car chase, or a car wreck, or someone falling from a cliff...what’s on the screen is in fact real, a stunt man was behind the wheel, or took the fall. When viewing these moments, regardless of whether the film is good or bad, I always feel a certain sense of awe and exhilaration that somebody actually did that. One of our hopes in the way we wish to tell this story, is to bring that type of experience to the audience, an audience that may never have seen anything in a movie theater that hasn’t been computer generated. Of course none of it means a hill of beans without interesting characters and a well-structured story. Regardless of the technology, the true challenges of filmmaking remain the same.

I’m on my third place mat now, lots of crossed-out paragraphs you will thankfully never see, my handwriting now a fraction of the size of the words at the top of this paper, a few arrows point around corners where I can find room to finish these last thoughts. I’ve long since succumbed to the wind and retreated to my room. Laura will clean this up. Sabrina’s anxious to play, and so am I.

 

Based on true events, this thriller stars Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan as an American couple who embark on an island holiday. Certified "open water" scuba divers, they board a local dive boat for an underwater tour of the reef. Due to a series of miscommunications and a distracted crew, the couple is—after only forty minutes underwater—accidentally left behind. So begins their ordeal: cold, alone and miles from land, the couple find themselves adrift in shark-infested waters. Written and directed by Chris Kentis (Grind).