Sanctum - Director Alister Grierson, James Cameron and Andrew Wight
Director Alister Grierson, executive producer James Cameron and writer/producer Andrew Wight on the set © 2011 Universal

Once again using his phenomenal 3D technology, which dazzled audiences in Avatar, James Cameron executive produces Sanctum, an action-thriller set in the treacherous underwater Esa’ala Caves in the South Pacific.

He and his partner, Andrew Wight, who also wrote the screenplay with John Garvin, choose unknown director Alister Grierson to helm the movie.

Cameron spoke of the movie, what fascinated him about the project and his decision to use an unfamiliar director at the press day for the film.

How did the Sanctum project come about?

Sanctum - Richard Roxburgh
Frank (Richard Roxburgh) © 2010 Universal Studios

Five years ago, Andrew Wight, my longtime collaborator, brought me the idea for Sanctum, and I loved it. Andrew and I had previously been on some great adventures together.

We dove deep into the ocean to uncharted depths to explore and discover never-before-seen parts of the ocean floor and marine life for Aliens of the Deep. We dove the Titanic (for Ghost of the Abyss) and the Bismarck.

Didn’t you develop your new photographic system to operate in these extreme environments?

It’s a system I was thrilled to use on Avatar and which Andrew utilized on Sanctum: the Cameron/Pace Fusion 3D Camera System – a stereo-scopic HD camera system that delivers such incredible results that we can deliver flawless IMAX projection in 3D.

But as mind-blowing as all this new technology is, filmmaking is not about the equipment. It’s about ideas, images and imagination. It’s about storytelling, and I believe in story.

How did you find Alister Grierson to direct this?

Sanctum - The cast and crew
The cast and crew during filming the 3D action-thriller © 2010 Universal Studios

We wanted someone who had already made their first mistakes and someone who could show us something. We wanted someone with a vision who knew how to accomplish it. And Alister did that with Kokoda. It was a very strong first film, and he presented himself as a director with a real opinion.

Andrew took Alister cave diving and scared the crap out of him, but he kept it together and came out with a real respect and understanding for caving. At that point, he was 100 percent ready to make the film.

What was the most challenging aspect for him?

The most challenging part for him was to learn how to work with 3D. It’s not like he came to us and said, ‘I want to make a 3D film.’ We said, ‘We want you to direct this film, and it’s going to be in 3D.’ So he and his director of photography, Jules O’Loughlin, had to convert from shooting film to HD.

They had to learn to light for the digital cameras, how to use the stereo space and how to use this whole new camera system. To do all that for only their second feature was all pretty daunting, but they stepped up and mastered it. They didn’t let us down.

Was the appeal of this story for you about survival in an alien environment?

Sanctum - Rhys Wakefield and Richard Roxburgh
Josh (Rhys Wakefield) and his father, Frank (Richard Roxburgh) © 2010 Universal Studios

Sure, we wanted to do a survival story. We came up with the story, nobody sent it to us. It was based on something that really happened to Andrew. It was part of his life, so we jumped off from there to tell a fictional story.

It’s based in true events, both the things that happened to Andrew and incidents that happened on other cave diving expeditions that we were aware of through the cave diving community. Everything you see happened to somebody, somewhere, maybe not all on the same expedition.

Some people become more heroic than they could have imagined was possible for themselves, others who you think of as leaders could become quite cowardly. Everyone reacts differently.

I think the appeal of this kind of movie for audiences in general is to test themselves against the circumstances of the film and think, ‘Wow, what would I do if I was in that situation? I can barely breathe watching this, let alone doing it!’

Do you feel the 3D contributes to that feeling?

When you’re watching a narrative film you feel more drawn into the story, more drawn into the plight of the characters, and it doesn’t have to be a big science-fiction movie to benefit from that.

3D works really well when you’ve got a claustrophobic setting because you feel that wall right here, that ceiling right there. We knew instinctively that the cave environment and 3D would fit together.

There are strange creatures living underwater, why did you choose not to feature any in this?

Sanctum - Richard Roxburgh and Rhys Wakefield
Frank (Richard Roxburgh) and his son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield) © 2010 Universal Studios

We didn’t want it to be about animals and we didn’t want people to think we were leading [them] toward a monster story. We wanted to stay away from the supernatural, other than a couple of shots just to give it a little bit of an aura. We weren’t saying that there were demons or monsters in the caves in any way.

We wanted to keep clear of that and make sure that people understood that this was a human drama of people trying to survive in a hopeless situation.

When you dive in the really deep ocean like we did on some of our expeditions, you may see something nobody has ever seen before. And we did that. We actually imaged some creatures.

When we came back and showed it to the marine biologists, they said, ‘We don’t know what that is, sure wish you had caught it.’ I said, ‘It was 7 feet in diameter. How were we going to catch it?’

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.