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Sanctum - Andrew Wight interview

Sanctum

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ANDREW Wight, one of the producers of Sanctum and a world renowned diver, talks about the making of the film and some of the real life situations that inspired it.

Q. I gather Sanctum was inspired by a real-life near-death experience you were involved in? Can you talk a little about that?
Andrew Wight: Well, basically I’ve been a cave diver for many, many years but on the last day of one of my first diving expeditions at the Pannikin Plain Cave in Western Australia, we had a [freak] massive rain storm, which flooded the entrance and collapsed it. My team were trapped in there for nearly two days. It was a real ‘Oh my god’ moment and the sort of things that happened in that period of left an indelible impression on me. On that particular day, we were staring death in the face and not many people have experienced it and lived to tell the tale. So, even though Sanctum isn’t specifically about that experience, it does explore some of those emotions, including what the psychological torment was like.

Q. But what was it like to revisit those emotions when making the film though?
Andrew Wight: There were a couple of things that struck me. I mean, I continued to go cave diving after that experience and you kind of get hardened to it [the dangers]. But when came to making the film, I guess it did bring into sharp focus how bloody dangerous it is. I mean, Agnes Milowka, one of the stunt divers in the film who was a trained cave diver and who was really, really respected, passed away a few months ago in a cave diving accident in Australia doing precisely what we are doing in film, which was very sad.

But what we were trying to do with Sanctum is to give people an experience that they may or may not want to be a part of… to show them that there are people out there who want to push themselves and who risk paying the ultimate price for doing so. The film is about the psychology of that, as well as the beauty and the self sacrifice. So, I think that was more profound – realising that we had created an epitaph for someone, like Agnes, in real-life.

Q. What made you want to become a cave diver?
Andrew Wight: Initially, it was the awe and wonder of seeking out those places. I mean, I started by learning to scuba dive and seeing those crystal clear waters that so few people get to see. It hooks you in, it’s very seductive and it’s very compelling. As a young man growing up that was incredibly exciting. There are a lot of things in this world that you’ve got to have permission to do… whether it’s from parents, or getting a degree… but to be able to go somewhere without any restrictions, with just your equipment to rely on… that was a real charge.

Andrew Wight

Q. And how did you first become involved with James Cameron?
Andrew Wight: I was essentially sitting at home, minding my own business, when I got a phone call and a woman’s voice on the other end of the line said: “Are you Andrew White?” I said ‘yes’ and she said: “Mr James Cameron would like to talk to you.” I said: “The movie director? James Cameron who made Aliens, The Abyss and Titanic?” She said ‘yes’. So, I replied: “Sure, put him on!” I was half expecting it to be my university pals winding me up but sure enough it was him. And now, more than decade later on, we’ve made Sanctum together and remain friends.

Q. What was the reason behind the initial call? Was it for his documentary work?
Andrew Wight: Basically, he’d finished Titanic and wanted to focus his energy on deep sea exploration. But it had got to the point where it wasn’t quite working for him. He’d come off Titanic and his colleagues in Hollywood expected another massive movie. So, he had to say: “Look, I want to dive!” Then my name bubbled to the surface. I mean, I’ve been in the room when those calls have happened… when someone says: “Let’s get that guy…” But at the same time, I felt a certain amount of bemusement and amazement that this was actually happening to me – that someone was seeking me as the name to call. So, we started working together on his deep sea exploration and some of the documentaries that followed [Ghosts of The Abyss/Aliens of the Deep].

Q. How hands-on was James as producer on Sanctum?
Andrew Wight: He was basically our fairy godfather. He helped set it up, he helped get the money. He was basically a very compelling presence, especially when – with everything in place – he said: “Look, don’t f**k it up [laughs]!” I mean, what more encouragement do you need? And whenever I was in a spot where we needed advice, he was there to ask. Besides that, he pretty much left us to our own devices. But he had confidence in us because he knew the people involved. He knew we knew what we were doing because of the expertise involved. And he’s not going to put his name to something otherwise. But he was into it.

He loves this genre, he loves exploration and that sort of stuff. This was a low budget film by his standards and we bit off an awful lot in trying to make something which, I think, is visually spectacular and compelling in 3D. We were always asking ourselves: “Can we do a good job [on such a small budget]?” My greatest critic is Jim and he was pretty happy with the end result, which is very flattering.

Andrew Wight

Q. It’s been said that you were meticulous in your attention to detail while making the film. So, what are the things you’re most proud of in the finished version?
Andrew Wight: I think in terms of the minutia of it, we’ve got things right. I’ve had comments back from experienced cave divers, as well as a group of friends who would be the first to criticise me, that we’ve got the story right. Perhaps the most gratifying thing, though, is that I knew Wes Skiles, one of the great cave divers who unfortunately passed away last year, but was fortunate enough to be able to display the film to his family and friends and some of the best cave divers in world in Florida last year [before its release] and they were all thrilled with it. They felt that it really got to the heart of why we do what we do. I know there will be some normal people out there who don’t get it as much. But to see that this group of family and friends, who were grieving for the loss of someone so dear, felt that way was very gratifying. It meant a lot.

Q. So, finally, what is your own favourite memory of a cave dive? Which is the one that sticks with you the most?
Andrew Wight: Boy, I guess it would have to be the 1988 one in the Pannikin Plain Cave. I mean, we had dived to the very far reaches of the cave and we got through a boulder collapse. We were as far away from humanity at that point as you can possibly imagine… probably even further than outer space! At least in outer space, there’s a voice on the other end of the intercom. But down there, there’s no one to listen to you scream; out there it’s you and the person you are diving with. And in that moment, your life becomes very real and very tangible. You do feel that you are the sole master of your own destiny and I will never forget that moment. So, I guess I would have to say that one!

Sanctum is released on DVD & Blu-ray on Monday, June 13, 2011.