By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood August 8, 2014 at 2:00PM
For John Bruno, it was surreal directing James Cameron's record-breaking solo voyage into the deepest part of the ocean in the Mariana Trench for the "Deepsea Challenge 3D" doc. That's because the journey into the abyss this time was real after first working with Cameron as VFX supervisor on "The Abyss" 26 years ago.
But when Bruno got the SOS call from Cameron at 2:00 am to direct "Deepsea Challenge," tragedy had already struck, taking the lives of producer-director Andrew Wight and cameraman Mike deGruy when their helicopter crashed trying to take aerial footage of the sub in Sydney, Australia. Bruno, who had already been on undersea expeditions with Cameron and Wight to the Titanic, didn't hesitate and said, "I'm packed."
But Bruno had no idea what he was in for until he saw the spectacular Deepsea Challenger sub for himself (designed by Cameron and built with a special vertical design for swiftness by two teams of engineers in Sydney and Silicon Valley, measuring 24-feet-tall and weighing 11.5 tons). Although he had a script to read with a triumphant outcome, Bruno was well aware that there was no guarantee of success, yet he had complete confidence in his filmmaking buddy.
Indeed, there were false starts and stormy waters, and various mechanical setbacks, but the fearless and meticulous Cameron calculated every possible contingency as if he were planning one of his epic adventures. And sure enough, during the final launch 36,000 feet on March 26, 2012, Cameron was forced to go at night and was only able to stay under for three hours when his thrusters failed. However, he managed to film a gorgeous octopus and collect samples from the ocean floor that has resulted in identifying 100 new species (including one that produces a compound that is being used in clinical trials to combat Alzheimer's).
In watching "Deepsea Challenge," we witness a more serene side to Cameron when he's all alone in his cramped sub. We realize that he's first and foremost an explorer and that making movies is an outgrowth of his real vocation. And that became Bruno's key storytelling hook: "We would receive these comments about what was going on and somebody questioned whether it was a stunt. That made me angry and it changed my questioning...and we went back to Jim's childhood.
"I asked, 'What was the inciting incident that got you interested in this?' And he goes, 'That's easy, the Trieste dive in 1960 when I was a little kid. I saw it on TV and I had my 'Life Magazine' cover.' And we had Don Walsh on board who also consulted on 'The Abyss' [and who, along with Jacques Piccard, made the first decent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench more than 50 years ago]. It's interesting how this was all intertwined like spaghetti."
Bruno's other major decision was interviewing Cameron's wife, actress Suzy Amis Cameron, to further humanize the doc. "She kept saying that she wasn't worried. Jim is a smart guy and he's explained to me how all the safety and safety backup systems work. Nothing's going to happen -- I'm not worried. She was a tough nut to crack, so what I decided to do was on the final launch I took one of the cameras and I told one of our cinematographers that I was changing his job. I want you to follow Suzy wherever she goes. I didn't know what would happen but that was the best decision I made. She didn't say anything but we can see what's happening [in her anxiety]."
But Bruno's favorite moment was a happy accident when shooting an encounter between Cameron and a resident of Rabaul, whose house was buried in volcanic ash but who continues to visit the remnants of his property every day. " And Jim, in an interesting way, turned [their conversation] into science about the subduction zones, the deep sea trenches and where they impact each other causes volcanoes, and the place we dived, this is where the volcanoes were, so that helped us turn the story with this happenstance meeting."
In looking back, Bruno says Cameron's historic dive has provided a new threshold of danger and adventure. "Nothing will be so difficult or so exciting an achievement as this. It was the experience of a lifetime for the sub crew, the camera crew, and for me. What I take away from all of this is that you can’t move forward in life with fear. You can’t make a film and be afraid."
As for Cameron, who will now go off and make his trio of "Avatar" sequels for 2016, 2017, and 2018, exploring the oceanic depths of Pandora while Weta Digital innovates undersea performance capture, Bruno has observed a change in him.
"I can’t speak for him, but my impression of Jim when he returned at 8:30 am on march 26th was that things were now different. He seemed relaxed and extremely proud. Beaming with confidence. There was nothing now that he couldn’t do. Jim did it. We all did it."