Senior Editor
12.16.09 17 Comments

Over on Techland, they scored a passage from Rebecca Winters Keegan’s The Futurist, an upcoming biography of James Cameron.  Below is the passage concerning the time he almost died on the set of The Abyss.  Trust me, it’s long but worth it, like sex with me in opposite land.

Decompression was a concern, especially for the principals like Cameron and Giddings who were spending the most time under water. Their daily, long immersions [10 hours plus] at relatively shallow depths were unusual and not something covered by standard Navy dive tables. Dr. Peter Bennett, an expert on the physiology of diving, visited the set to advise the filmmakers on how much their bodies could take. At the end of the day, Cameron and Giddings often had to hang at 10 feet under the surface for an hour to adjust to the pressure difference. Never one to waste time, Cameron asked the crew to install a monitor in the control room so he could watch his dailies through the acrylic window while suspended on a line. When his neck was sore from his helmet, he hung upside down and had the crew invert the monitor. He asked Orloff to patch phone calls from the studio through to his helmet so he could to talk to Fox executives while he decompressed.

Cameron could go for about an hour and 15 minutes on a single fill of oxygen. Because he tended to get absorbed in his work, he asked his assistant director to warn him when it had been an hour since his last fill. A few weeks into the production, Cameron was talking Mastrantonio through a shot; the actress was about 20 feet away. Giddings [his director of photography], about 30 feet away, was lining up the shot, with his back to Cameron. All the other divers were at the surface or rigging lights off in the distance. As Cameron spoke to Mastrantonio, he took a breath, and got no air. Perplexed, he looked down at his pressure gauge, which read zero. The AD had forgotten to give Cameron the requested one-hour warning.

The director’s helmet was attached to his buoyancy vest. He knew if he removed it, it would lose its bubble of air and become a 40-lb. anchor—between the helmet and the waist and ankle weights he was wearing, Cameron would be 80 lbs. negative. With the extra weight and no fins, there was no way he could swim to the surface. Hmm. This didn’t look good.

But he still had the microphone in his helmet linked to the underwater PA system. And Giddings was down there with him. So Cameron called to him, “Al… Al… I’m in trouble.” The running joke on the set had been that all the other divers had to cover their ears all day long while Cameron yelled, “Al! Al! Pan left!,” because the DP had ruptured two eardrums in a diving bell accident 20 years earlier, and was all but deaf from the scar tissue. Funny, but not this time. Unable to rouse Giddings, Cameron looked around for the support divers. “Guys, I’m in trouble,” he said, using up the rest of the air in his lungs. He made the sign for being out of air, a cutthroat motion across the neck, and a fist to the chest. Nothing. At the bottom of a 7 million gallon tank, in the dark, 35 feet from the surface, Cameron really was in trouble. He knew he had to ditch his rig or die.

Up in the control room, Orloff had noticed the director wasn’t sounding like himself. Suddenly the sound mixer heard Cameron’s helmet being popped off and all the expensive electronics inside it flooding. Back in the tank, with his heavy helmet now off and fastened to his buoyancy vest by a braided steel hose, Cameron couldn’t see anything but a blur. By feel, he located the release of his buoyancy vest and shrugged out of it, dropping the helmet to the floor of A Tank. Then he began what divers call a “blow and go,” a free ascent. If a diver fails to breathe out during a free ascent, the compressed air in his lungs will expand as the pressure in the water around him decreases, and eventually his lungs will explode, a very painful way to die. Cameron was blowing out a stream of bubbles as he ascended, and kicking like crazy because of his ankle weights. Finally, a safety diver named George raced to the director’s aid. And that’s when things got bad.

Safety divers are trained to stop panicking divers from ascending, so they don’t blow their lungs. So George stopped Cameron about 15 feet from the surface, as he was schooled to do, and shoved his back-up regulator into Cameron’s mouth. And Cameron did what he was supposed to do, which is purge, then inhale. But the back-up regulator was broken, a useless piece of junk disguised as lifesaving equipment. So Cameron inhaled water. Thinking he had purged incorrectly, Cameron repeated the procedure, as George held him down, and got another blast of water in his lungs.

Now he was choking, about to black out, and he had a guy holding him from ascending. With no way of explaining that he wasn’t getting air, Cameron tried to pull away. Thinking the director was panicking, George held him even tighter, and tried to make him breathe on the regulator. “A classic clusterfuck,” recalls Cameron. It was then that Cameron’s rough SCUBA training in the Buffalo Y pool really came in handy—either that or having brothers. Because he punched George as hard as he could, right in the face. George let Cameron go and the director made it to the surface without blacking out. He swam weakly to the dive platform and dragged himself from the tank.

By the end of the day, he had fired George and his AD. And he ordered the divers at the surface to fish out his helmet and fix the microphone so he could get back down in A Tank.

Awesome story.  But now every time I see James Cameron, I’m going to imagine him walking through a tough neighborhood, eyeballing every thug and thinking, “Don’t mess with me, I trained SCUBA at the Buffalo Y, motherf-ckers!”

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