Diving Into Danger
The movie is 'Open Water,' the Sundance hit that finally arrives in theaters Friday.
The lead actress was bitten by a barracuda. The lead actor swam with the sharks and had a great time but blew out his knee playing volleyball, delaying production by 11 months. The husband-and-wife filmmaking team spent $120,000 of their own money, draining their bank accounts so they could make the movie they wanted to make without anyone telling them what to do.
The movie is "Open Water," the Sundance hit that finally arrives in theaters Friday. Made on a shoestring budget and shot piecemeal on weekends and vacation time, the film made headlines for using actual sharks in telling the story of a couple stranded in the middle of the ocean after their dive boat left them high and dry.
But the real newsmakers are the filmmaking couple - Chris Kentis and Laura Lau - who spent their savings and devoted two years of their lives to write, direct, edit and digitally shoot a movie that they believed would serve as their calling card for future projects.
"We put more money into this movie personally than I felt comfortable with," Kentis says. "It was a gamble. But we wanted to experiment. We didn't want to be beholden to anyone, even our family. So we did it ourselves."
It paid off. Lions Gate bought "Open Water" at Sundance for $2 million, the culmination of a bidding war that shocked Kentis and Lau. Lions Gate has spent the past several months positioning "Open Water" as a "Blair Witch Project"-meets-"Jaws" high-seas thriller, although audiences might be disappointed by the realistic approach and relative absence of blood and mayhem.
But it does have the stamp of approval from the Discovery Channel, if that counts in your book.
"We didn't want to demonize sharks," Kentis says. "Usually in movies, somebody dips a big toe in the water and - boom! - they're torn to pieces. And that's just not the way it works."
Adds Daniel Travis, who plays the male half of the film's unfortunate couple: "Mammals aren't usually on the menu for these guys."
The predicament faced by the couple in "Open Water" is based on the case of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, American tourists who went diving off the coast of the Great Barrier Reef on Jan. 25, 1998, and were never heard from again. On the third dive of the day, their scuba boat, the Queensland-based Outer Edge, left without them, having conducted a head count that mistakenly accounted for all the ship's 26 passengers.
Two days later, the ship's captain, Geoffrey Nairn, discovered the Lonergans' possessions on the boat. A five-day search found no trace of the couple. Several weeks later, inflatable dive jackets marked with Tom and Eileen's names were found washed ashore, 75 miles from the dive site. Then, after six months, fishermen came across a dive slate - a device divers use to communicate underwater. On it, Tom Lonergan had written: "Please help us or we will die, January 26, 8:00 a.m."
Nobody knows precisely what happened to the Lonergans. During the manslaughter trial of boat captain Nairn, several contrarian theories were floated, including scenarios that had the couple committing suicide or staging their deaths in order to disappear. More than likely, they became dehydrated, delirious and drowned. Nairn was acquitted, but the case gave the Queensland dive industry a black eye, casting a harsh spotlight on its safety precautions.
The lure of 'Jaws'
While "Open Water" isn't specifically about the Lonergans, the story of the fictional couple's relationship was considered just as important as the sharks circling them in the water - or, at least, it was for Lau. She wanted to explore the ways dual-career couples take each other for granted.
Kentis is one of those guys who came of age watching "Jaws" over and over again and doesn't shy away from talking about how Spielberg's shark movie changed his life. He fantasizes about one day making a movie about the ill-fated World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, leaving its crew of 900 sailors battling the elements and sharks for nine days. (It's the story Robert Shaw's Capt. Quint tells so chillingly in "Jaws.")
Kentis and Lau have gone on diving trips among sharks many times off the Bahamas, so they knew where to look when it came time for filming their movie's predatory scenes. Travis and co-star Blanchard Ryan spent two days in the water with grey reef sharks and bull sharks, "friendly" sharks that have become accustomed to the presence of humans.
Still, Ryan, who Kentis describes as "one tough chick," had what Travis calls a "moment" when first asked to swim among the sharks. Once Ryan did dive in, a barracuda bit one of her fingers, not exactly spiking her confidence level.
"She was terrified out there," Kentis says. "But you know what? After she was bit, there was blood in the water, and the only thing she asks me is, 'Did you get it on camera?' "
"Actors do crazy things all the time in movies," Ryan says. "This was just a little more unusual. And I tell you, it wasn't so much the sharks we 'hired.' It was the other 30 days when we were shooting in the water and the 'non-union' sharks would come nosing around. That's when your heart goes up in your throat."
Few on board
During those 30 days off the coast of the Bahamas, Ryan and Travis dodged jellyfish and more barracuda, lost their equilibrium from spending entire days in the water, got their faces burned and their hair bleached and their bodies numb from the cold water. Lau suffered worst of all - she's prone to seasickness.
The only people accompanying the foursome during the vast majority of the shoot were the boat's captain and Lau's sister, Estelle.
"The point was to push ourselves," Kentis says. "We were consumed."
And now they're thrilled. But some in the diving community aren't, perhaps because while incidents like what happened to the Lonergans are highly unusual, they aren't isolated.
"It's happened more than a handful of times," Ryan says. "It happened while we were shooting. Some guy got left behind in the Florida Keys. He swam to a buoy, pulled himself up, and a fishing boat picked him up the next morning. He walked back to the dive boat operators and said, 'You know, I think I want my money back.' "
Says Travis: "I'm hooked on diving. It's an amazing sport, but you've got to make sure people are reputable. For the most part, they are.
"Still . . . you want my advice? Take a 50 dollar bill with you, tear it in half, give a crew member one half now and say, 'Remember this face. You'll get the other half when I get back on the boat.' I guarantee they won't leave without you."
By Glenn Whip, Los Angeles Daily News