Interview with Sanctum director Alister Grierson & writer/producer Andrew Wight
That is the question which has haunted cave-diver turned film producer Andrew Wight since 1989, when he and his crew barely survived an expedition into the Pannikin Plain Cave found in the Nullarbor desert, Western Australia. Although that experience was captured in the award-winning documentary Nullarbor Dreaming, the idea of “what could have been” prompted Wight to channel his darkest thoughts into a movie.
That movie is Sanctum, a 3D action thriller which stars Richard Roxburgh as Frank, a tough as nails cave-diver who leads a crew into one of the most beautiful and least accessible caving systems in the world. When a flash flood cuts off their exit, Frank must lead his team, which includes his son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) and billionaire financier Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) to safety before they all perish.
“Like all good stories, Sanctum is all about people and how they inter-relate”, said Wight. “That day in the Nullarbor when the cave collapsed, and my surviving it and my brush with death, it was amazing how it all played out in terms of who turned out to be heroes, and who sort of flunked into the background and became meek and accepted whatever their fate was. So when you start to think about that there is great material for a film.”
With a script in hand (co-written by John Garvin) and good mate James Cameron on board as producer, Wight went about trying to find an Australian director who could take a minimal budget and make an immersive epic adventure, and do so with the latest in 3D technology.
Enter Kokoda director Alister Grierson, who took to the Sanctum challenge with aplomb.
“I knew it was going to be a huge challenge, but the screenplay itself was so exciting, because it was written by cave-divers”, said Grierson. “The language of the screenplay was really evocative. I was only saying the other day that I don’t think I read as many different descriptions for the sound of bubbles!”
“The writing ensues a real feeling of a real world, so when I read the screenplay I was initially excited and thought, ‘This is great!’”, continued Grierson. “At that time I read it without being involved with the project. I had no idea who was going to be in it, I had no idea about Andrew’s background, I didn’t know about the James Cameron connection, but I thought this was something I want to get involved with.”
Although both Wight and Grierson are experienced filmmakers, Sanctum was a first of sorts for both men. Wight had mostly produced documentaries such as the James Cameron directed Ghosts of the Abyss, and had never written a screenplay before. Grierson on the other hand had the lone feature film in Kokoda under his belt, yet that was released five years ago.
Considering the unique challenges that Sanctum posed, did such inexperience prove to be costly? Not at all, according to Grierson.
“We were very, very lucky with this picture, because Andrew has spent so much time underwater, and spent 15 years living on boats making nature documentaries and adventure films” said Grierson. “Because of that experience and Andrew’s experience with 3D as well, it was all about preparation, putting a crack team of people together, with fantastic resources up in Warner Bros. studios where they had this wonderful outdoor tank, which is 40 metres x 30 metres, and 7 metres deep.”
“It was really about our approach to it,” continued Grierson. “Our people were really, really prepared. They were a great team of people. You can imagine the logistics of it. Quite complicated. For every diver who is in front of the camera, there were probably three divers behind the cameras making sure they are not drowning. And when you have a camera operator you have a safety grid operator. You have the electrics, so you need safety for the electrics…but it all went very well.”
For Wight, he found many parallels between leading an expedition and filmmaking.
“On a real expedition, life and death decisions are common place, and you have to acknowledge the fact that things are dangerous, and things can go wrong”, said Wight. “So you have systems in place, you have protocols, you have the appropriate people and training.
“When you make a movie a lot of people think, ‘Well, it’s make believe, therefore we can relax in a studio and not pay any attention’”, continued Wight. “We didn’t treat it that way, so from our approach to the filmmaking itself, it was very precise and methodical about how we were treating health and safety.”
But perhaps the biggest hurdle for Sanctum was the 3D aspect, that already over used format which has left a poor impression in the minds (and wallets) of many film-goers. Yet Sanctum holds a powerful weapon in its vast arsenal: James Cameron, and his state of the art 3D technology as seen in the 3D blockbuster Avatar.
“James had a very soft philosophy that he developed in making Avatar, and working with Andrew before that time in 3D”, said Grierson. “We even in the end had a kind of bible of what we all agree to be good 3D, and that really drove what we were doing. In simple terms, the philosophy is just like good filmmaking, and don’t draw to it. Just let the audience experience it as part of the world, how they see the world, and how they experience the story.”
Sanctum will be released on February 3rd through Universal Pictures