Open Water: 2004

Swimming with Sharks

“I never thought anyone would see it. I wouldn’t have taken my clothes off if I ever thought it was going to be distributed,” jokes the actor Blanchard Ryan, about Open Water, the film she agreed to co-star in that is now one of the most talked- about movies in America.

Financed and crewed entirely by the husband-and-wife film-makers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, the ultra-low-budget movie maroons a scuba-diving yuppie couple (Ryan and Daniel Travis) in shark-infested waters, following a tour guide’s incorrect head count, then stays with them as they slide steadily down the food chain. And yes, those really are the actors bobbing up and down in the ocean, 20 miles from land. And yes, Steven Spielberg, those are real sharks circling around them.

Open Water is a sort of Jaws for the Fear Factor generation; except that, unlike the game show, it has characters you actually care about. In fact, the film is so effective at making you identify with its imperilled protagonists, you actually begin to feel wet, cold and threatened yourself. It is a disturbing experience, to say the least, and the dread evoked by the film lingers way beyond its refreshingly downbeat climax. Adding to the horror is the knowledge that Open Water was based on (although inspired by is more accurate) a holidaying couple’s actual disappearance off the Great Barrier Reef in 1998. When Kentis and Lau, who are recreational divers, decided to make a digital film, over which they would have absolute creative control, this story seemed like an ideal fit.

“We live in New York and a lot of digital features are shot here,” explains Lau. “So we were thinking, ‘What could we do that would push the format into an area it hadn’t been before?’ Once we decided this story would be well suited to this medium, Chris wrote a script. We knew we were going to work with unknown actors and that we were going to have to work with live sharks.”

The film-makers left the actors auditioning for the fictional roles of Susan and Daniel under no illusion as to what this would mean for them, recalls Ryan. “I was told we would be swimming in the water with a shark, or several sharks — I didn’t know then that there would be 50 of them and we were going to be in a gigantic feeding frenzy — and that there would be nudity for sure. So, going back for a second audition, you were pretty much tacitly saying you’re okay with everything, and we never really discussed it again.”

Despite a nagging feeling that she should turn down the role, Ryan says the script, her faith in the film-makers and the chance to work with her friend Daniel Travis convinced her it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Her mother, a “kind of Waspy and conservative” Bostonian, was worried about the nudity, while her father was “furious” about the sharks. “Still is,” says Ryan. “I said, ‘Dad, we had the best people and we were safe,’ and he’s like, ‘Who asked the sharks? Did they say they wouldn’t bite you?’ He’s grouchy about the whole thing. At the end of the day, you just have to take your own counsel on these things.”

Ryan was apprehensive, nonetheless. “I’m not a very physically courageous person,” she reveals. “I don’t like to fly, I don’t like trains and buses, and I don’t trust other people driving.” She has a genuine fear of sharks, moreover, and never swims in the surf, where most attacks happen, or without a mask and tank. “Part of the attraction of this was that I would be able to say I had done it.” She also fantasised about Open Water being the “coolest thing anyone has ever seen. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’d be willing to risk my life if I could come out of it looking really supercool’”. She laughs, “Instead, we ended up just looking really stupid.”

Before filming could start, Ryan had to be recertified for open-water diving. She spent six weeks with a trainer to prepare herself for the physical strain of working in the water for up to 14 hours at a stretch and familiarised herself with the characteristics of the reef sharks they would be swimming with over two days in the Bahamas. Perhaps unwisely, given her personality, Ryan also researched the testimonies of people who had survived being lost at sea: “It wasn’t good. You read all these stories and it scares the hell out of you. It’s never as if anyone goes, ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad. It worked out fine.’ It’s all just horrifying.”

However, let’s not get too carried away here. Although Open Water blurs the line between reality and artifice, it is just a movie at the end of the day. Ryan and Travis were not drifting aimlessly in the sea, but tethered to a boat by fishing line. Moreover, at the end of a day’s shooting, they would return to a nice resort, where Lau’s mother and Kentis’s father were looking after the film-makers’ six-year-old daughter, and would either eat a home-cooked meal or go out to a restaurant.

Furthermore, Kentis had a day job as a cinema-trailers editor, so they were only shooting on extended weekends or on his vacation time. “This was not one gruelling thing where they were marinading in the sea for a month and a half,” he says. Nor, contrary to reports, was the production considered so dicey that no insurance company would touch it. “I know where that story came from,” he groans. “Before we went to the Sundance film festival, Newsweek asked me something about insurance and I made a joke about how nobody would insure us. When I read it, I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s saying we didn’t have insurance. He didn’t realise I was joking.’ So we’re still hearing about it because of my idiotic sense of humour.”

Whatever the level of actual risk involved, Ryan still feared she might not get in the water with the sharks when the big day arrived. It did not help that one of her hands had been bitten down to the bone by a barracuda earlier in the shoot. “They always say you shouldn’t have an open wound in the water, so that made me a little nervous. But I thought, ‘Oh, come on, either your number’s up or it isn’t.’” If Ryan had backed down at that point the consequences would have been awful. “Chris and Laura were spending their own money, I think about half the budget of the movie was spent on these two shark days, and if I hadn’t done it, I would have ruined their entire life. I just hoped that somewhere inside me I could find it in me to get in the water and do what I promised I could do. But I was really scared, and I had many freak-outs.”

The team was working under the guidance of a shark expert, Stuart Cove. Tuna was tossed into the water to attract the sharks and then, when the moment was right, Ryan, Travis and Kentis, who acted as cameraman as well as director, got in the water with them. “You had to jump in on top of them,” recalls Ryan. “It was like a blanket of grey. And the minute you got in, they were all over you. So what we would do is swim and film as much as we could; then, when the sharks became really aggressive, they would haul us out and wait for some of the tuna to dissipate and some of the sharks to swim away. That was our little routine.”

While the people in the water were protected by chain-mail suits under their wet gear (their head and hands were exposed, however), Lau was hanging off the boat filming, wearing just a bikini. “She was right in an area where there was a big bucket of the bait and the tuna blood was seeping out of the bottom and creating a puddle in the water,” says Kentis. “Skin colour looks like fish belly to a shark, and the sharks pretty much assumed anything that was being thrown in the water was something they were allowed to bite. So had she fallen in, she would have been in more danger than us.”

Ryan still insists she was not expecting Open Water to play outside the art-house and festival circuits. “It was like a vacation video to us, almost,” she says. To everyone’s surprise, though, the film was snapped up for $2.5m following a bidding frenzy at Sundance, turning it into one of the most discussed movies of the year. “I am grateful I stuck to my guns and ignored the people who were telling me this was a project I should turn down,” she says. “I have learnt that the most risky thing you can do is take a job you don’t really want, because you’re almost destined to fail at something like that.” Laughing, Ryan adds: “I don’t know what my next film will be. But if there were only one word to describe it, it would be: indoors.”

Originally published in The Times, 2004

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