Thursday, February 10, 2011

Feature: Sanctum (Richard Roxburgh, Rhys Wakefield, Alister Grierson, Andrew Wight)

James Cameron’s name may be stamped all over the poster for Sanctum, but this film is really an Australian affair. Based on the harrowing experience of producer Andrew Wight – a renowned cave diver who, 22 years ago, was stranded underground by a freak storm in the Nullarbor – his story has been fictionalised into a father and son action drama brought to life by the legendary Richard Roxburgh (Rake, Moulin Rouge!) and up-and-comer Rhys Wakefield (The Black Balloon). Kokoda director Alister Grierson is at the helm, but we do have to thank James Cameron for the 3D cameras (and, as executive producer, the cash!), which were shipped straight from the set of Avatar. Indeed, as Wight describes his ten-year partnership with Cameron making a series of underwater 3D documentaries (Ghosts Of The Abyss, Aliens Of The Deep), it becomes evident that Avatar and Sanctum are essentially two sides of the same coin.

“With Avatar, Jim was able to take all the experience and the people and the technology [from our previous documentaries] to make that movie and then the idea was that I would make Sanctum as another kind of proof of concept. People were obviously going to say, ‘Sure you can make 3D on 200+ million dollars, but is this ever going to work for everyone else?’ And that’s what Sanctum is,” Wight says.

“We’re kind of polar opposites: Avatar was a lot of motion capture, advanced visual effects and CGI, and live action, [whereas] Sanctum is virtually a fully live action film with a small budget, small group of people, but it delivers a big, big picture. We’ve used exactly the same cameras, and we’ve made what I think is one of the first live action 3D originated films that has been done to date with this technology, and it looks great.”

Inheriting James Cameron’s equipment was a pretty tall order for director Alister Grierson, who admits to being a little spun out by the whole experience.

“It felt like such a fantasy, that it could never possibly happen; very kind of ‘Entourage’. It was a difficult film to make, with big underwater scenes and in caves and you’re dealing with the 3D technology and the cameras, so we’re learning about that 3D as we go, and all sorts of physical, technical difficulties about filming it and delivering it on time,” he says. “And so I never really thought about Jim and the pressure of working for Jim, it was more about just doing it and doing the best job that we could.”

Calling Sanctum ‘difficult to make’ is actually a pretty hefty understatement when you consider what the actors put themselves through. Describing long night shoots and harrowing breath holds, Roxburgh and Wakefield are both fairly sanguine about the arduous shoot, but they’re also happy to share some hairy stories.

“I loved the whole underwater stuff with no breathing apparatus,” Wakefield enthuses. “When it’s just me with no mask and no reg. I’m down there at, like, 3am, just swimming, barely able to see because of the low lighting and no goggles, and then them calling, ‘cut’, and me holding my hand out and just trusting that my safety diver would just had have a regulator in my mouth within a second so that I can breathe. That was crazy. And you can’t go to the surface because there’s a whole set of rocks all around you.”

For Roxburgh, “‘Doozy’ doesn’t even begin to describe the kind of madness it was like at times, shooting.

“It was interesting on paper,” he says wryly with a chuckle, but the reality – having to complete an underwater shoot with a head cold – proved much more confronting. “I ended up shooting with blood coming out of my nose.”

Roxburgh also undertook one of Sanctum’s more dangerous stunts and most terrifying scenes: buddy breathing with a full facemask.

“That was the kind of landmark event. You have to unclip eight clips, take your breath and then hand it over and stay calm. Then when you get it back, to clear a full facemask takes about 10 seconds, in which time you have to stay calm and take what I think is a funny term, they call them ‘wet breaths’. It’s a real piece of underwater nastiness where you’re basically breathing a little bit of water and hoping to not start spluttering down at 12 meters. So yeah, that was another nightmare.”

Roxburgh’s efforts certainly didn’t go unnoticed, as Grierson is quick to sing his praises. “Richard I think is just wonderful, he’s such a surprise. Watching Rake now is just so different from what he did with us. He’s the hardest working man in show business, there’s no doubt about it.”

But vying for that title is James Cameron, for whose guidance Grierson is abundantly grateful. “He’s been a wonderful mentor for me. I had a great master class with him after we screened that earlier version of the film. He’s the busiest man in the world, probably literally, so just to get a couple of hours of with him was a real luxury and a great joy.”

In more ways than one Sanctum is the remarkable result of courage under pressure. As a true story, as a filmed feat – one that had to get a stamp of approval from Jim Cameron – as well as an exponential learning curve of local 3D filmmaking. But for Wight, a true believer in 3D, the technology is there to amplify what he sees as Sanctum’s universal themes: “People don’t often go out and challenge themselves, so what is it like to go out and be really frightened on the edge of your experience? What is it like to make a life and death decision?”

Published by Street Press Australia (page 46)
Sanctum is currently screening in cinemas

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