James Cameron told a crowd at Beyond Fest that he almost drowned while filming The Abyss. The 1989 sci-fi film starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn follows a research team working at the bottom of the ocean who encounter something otherworldly.
Variety reports that after a screening of The Abyss at Beyond Fest in Los Angeles, Cameron stayed for a Q&A about the film, which recently underwent a 4K restoration for an upcoming 4K UHD release. Cameron and company shot The Abyss at an abandoned nuclear power plant in South Carolina and required both the director and actors to work underwater. Cameron, an experienced diver, said:
“We were working 30 feet down. For me to be able to move the camera around on the bottom I wore heavy weights around my feet, no fins, a heavy weight belt around my waist. When the tank gets low, you get a warning that you’re about to run out of air. Well, this thing had a piston servo regulator in it, so it was one breath… and then nothing. Everybody’s setting lights and nobody’s watching me. I’m trying to get [underwater director of photography] Al Giddings attention on the PA but Al had been involved in a diving accident and he blew out both eardrums so he was deaf as a post, and I’m wasting my last breath of air on an underwater PA system going ‘Al… Al…’ and he’s working away with his back to me.
“The safety diver gets to be about 10 feet from the surface and he sticks a regulator in my mouth that he didn’t check. It had been banging around the bottom of the tank for three weeks and had a rip through the diaphragm — so I purged carefully and took a deep breath… of water. And then I purged it again, and I took another deep breath… of water.
“At that point it was almost check-out point and the safety divers are taught to hold you down so you don’t embolize and let your lungs overexpand going up. But I knew what I was doing. And he wouldn’t let me go, and I had no way to tell him the regulator wasn’t working. So I punched him in the face and swam to the surface and therefore survived.”
Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio Also Were Traumatized While Filming The Abyss
Cameron isn't the only one who risked life and limb for art in The Abyss. In a 2016 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Harris talked about his experience on the set. Says Harris, “We were guinea pigs, in a way, Jim wasn't quite sure how this was all gonna go down… [in the drowning scene I was] screaming at [Mastrantonio] to come back and wake up, and I was slapping her across the face and I see that they've run out of film in the camera—there's a light on the camera—and nobody had said anything. And Mary Elizabeth stood up and said, ‘We are not animals!' and walked off the set. They were going to let me just keep slapping her around!… It was very difficult, but it was worth it, I met some great people. The Abyss is a really great movie up until the last 10 minutes, which was the big disappointment.”
Despite the difficult shoot, Harris has no ill feelings toward Cameron. “I like Jim,” says Harris. “He's an incredibly talented, intelligent guy. In subsequent years after filming, it was always good to see him.”
Mastrantonio, who reportedly had an emotional and physical breakdown on the set, never worked with or saw Cameron again.
Robert DeSalvo is a professional writer and editor with over 25 years of experience at print and online publications such as Movieline, Playboy, PCH, Fandango, and The A.V. Club. He currently lives in Los Angeles, the setting of his favorite movie, Blade Runner. Robert has interviewed dozens of actors, directors, authors, musicians, and other celebrities during his journalism career, including Brian De Palma, Nicolas Cage, Dustin Hoffman, John Waters, Sigourney Weaver, Julianne Moore, Bryan Cranston, Anne Rice, and many more. Horror movies, sci-fi, cult films as well as gothic, postpunk, and synthwave music are what Robert geeks over.