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Sanctum – Director Alister Grierson gets a little trippy

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Sanctum - The underwater crew
The underwater crew shoots the 3D action-thriller © 2010 Universal Studios

Never heard of director Alister Grierson? Perhaps that’s because he’s only helmed one motion picture until now called Kokoda. But that didn’t stop the innovative James Cameron and his longtime partner Andrew Wight, from employing him to direct their new movie, Sanctum.

The 3D film, written by Andrew Wight along with John Garvin, follows a team of underwater cave divers on a treacherous expedition to the largest, most beautiful and least accessible cave system on Earth.

What was your reaction when you were first approached about doing this project?

It was an immediate yes. The way the events unfolded for me were, I’d made a film in Australia called Kokoda in 2006. It was a low budget period war movie essentially about a bunch of men who are cut off from their supply lines in Papua, New Guinea, fighting the Japanese and they’ve got to make their way back to their home base. It’s a very tense film.

My suspicion was that when Jim and Andrew saw that picture they felt it had some qualities that matched what we were trying to do with Sanctum. The script was randomly placed on my desk, there were no names associated with it. I had no idea who the producers were in the background. I just loved it. So I immediately said I really wanted to do it, and then I met Andrew. He was like, ‘I’m Andrew. I’m the producer and by the way my partner is James Cameron. And we want to do it in 3D.’

It was a little trippy at the time, because it was pre-Avatar, even though there’d been quite a few 3D releases, no one was doing a lot of live action in 3D. It was an incredibly exciting idea just on a conceptual level. Then Jim invited me to Wellington, New Zealand, to meet him and go on the set of Avatar and have a look at what he was doing.

What was it about this story that fascinated you?

Sanctum - Allison Cratchley and Richard Roxburgh
Judes (Allison Cratchley) and Frank (Richard Roxburgh) © 2010 Universal Studios

I’m interested in stories of human beings under pressure and how they react to those circumstances. Kokoda had a lot of similar elements. Sanctum has a very strong father-son relationship in its story, which appealed to me. The 3D element is the icing on the cake, although I do think that when audiences see this film in 3D, it will open up a whole new world that they haven’t previously experienced.

What was it like shooting underwater?

Every day I’d go swimming with my cinematographer, his  support staff and our operator so that we could work out the day’s schedule from underneath the water, look at shots we were going to film, and then talk about them.

Back on dry land, we had a scale model of the cave system, so then we would stand around and brief the safety divers and the cast about the work we would do for the day.

It was a very enjoyable experience because it seemed to be very pure filmmaking in that it’s all very silent and you have to tell the story visually. It was very challenging to communicate with everyone underwater and to block the camera and get the lighting just so, but I did really enjoy it. The actors might tell you a different story though!

Did you work closely with Jim and Andrew?

Sanctum - John Garvin and director Alister Grierson
Writer/dive coordinator John Garvin and director Alister Grierson on the set © 2010 Universal Studios

From a director’s point-of-view, working with 3D isn’t much more complicated than it is normally working. That is, as long as you’ve got a team in place that can manage the technical elements of it. The great thing about working with Andrew, who spent so long working with 3D and developing the technology with Jim, is that he has a strong working methodology.

To Andrew’s immense credit, he’s assembled a great team of people with a lot of experience in 3D. Working in the pod as our stereographer, Chuck (Comisky) liaised with the back end of the camera – both in the engineering end with the intraocular pulling and focus pulling.

Did you ever feel overwhelmed by all of this?

It only ever became as issue in the feedback loop if we were setting up shots that didn’t feel like they would work as well for 3D. In that case, you might change the lens or change the camera position or make another choice. I tried to let go of the 3D.

Good 2D filmmaking should be kinetic, and it should use the space anyway. You want to have depth staging. For me, it was just about concentrating on telling the story as best I could with the resource package that we had, and letting the 3D be handled by the professionals.

What was it like working with Jim?

Sanctum - Alice Parkinson, Richard Roxburgh and direrctor Alister Grierson
ictoria (Alice Parkinson) and Frank (Richard Roxburgh) shoot a scene while Alister Grierson directs on the set © 2010

It wasn’t hard coming into the relationship, it was wonderful. It was a great experience. The first thing that Jim said to me when we met was, ‘Look, this is your picture. It’s your vision. It’s what you want to do with it. Just let me help you make the best picture you can.’

Jim was busy with Avatar at the same time, so once we were shooting it was really Andrew and I who were off doing our own thing and getting all the material.

I think Jim’s biggest influence on the picture was in post-production where I could bring versions of the film and screen it for him, and at the end of those screenings he’d give me a stream-of-consciousness feedback. It was a wonderful learning experience.