The Abyss (1989) Poster



Fluid breathing is a reality. Five rats were used for five different takes, all of whom survived and were given antibiotic shots by a vet. The rat that actually appeared in the film died of natural causes a few weeks before the film opened. According to James Cameron, the scene with the rat had to be edited out of the UK movie version because "the Royal Veterinarian felt that it was painful for the rat". James Cameron repeatedly assures that the rats used for this take didn't suffer any harm.
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Ed Harris punched James Cameron in the face after he kept filming while he was nearly drowning.
During underwater filming, Ed Harris almost drowned. While filming a scene where he had to hold his own breath at the bottom of the submerged set, Harris ran out of air and gave the signal for oxygen. Harris' safety diver got hung up on a cable and could not get to him. Another crew member gave Harris a regulator, but it was upside down and caused him to suck in water. A camera man came over, ripped the upside down regulator, and gave him one in the correct orientation. Later that evening, Ed broke down and cried.
Ed Harris has publicly refused to speak about his experiences working on the film, saying "I'm not talking about The Abyss and I never will". The only register with Harris speaking about his experiences doing the movie is in the documentary Under Pressure: Making 'The Abyss' (1993). Similarly, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio said "The Abyss was a lot of things. Fun to make was not one of them."
Real oxygenated fluorocarbon fluid was used in the rat fluid breathing scene. Dr. Johannes Kylstra and Dr. Peter Bennett of Duke University pioneered this technique and consulted on the film. The only reason for cutting to the actors' faces was to avoid showing the rats defecating from momentary panic as they began breathing the fluid.
Cast members had to become certified divers before filming began.
During the rigorous and problematic shoot, the cast and crew began calling the film by various derogatory names such as "Son Of Abyss", "The Abuse" and "Life's Abyss And Then You Dive". Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio reportedly suffered a physical and emotional breakdown because she was pushed so hard on the set, and Ed Harris had to pull over his car at one time while driving home, because he burst into spontaneous crying.
Very few scenes involved stunt people. When Bud drags Lindsey back to the rig, that's really Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio holding her breath. When the rig is being flooded and characters are running from water, drowning behind closed doors, and dodging exploding parts of the rig, those are all actors, not stunt people.
The tank was filled to a depth of 40 feet, but there was still too much light from the surface, so a giant tarpaulin and billions of tiny black plastic beads were floated on the surface to block the light. During a violent storm the tarpaulin was destroyed, thus shifting production to night time.
Most of the underwater filming took place in a half-completed nuclear reactor facility in Gaffney, South Carolina, including the largest underwater set in the world at 7 million gallons.
James Cameron kept demanding retakes of the resuscitation scene. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was repeatedly getting her chest pounded on (gently, but still) while soaking wet and half naked. She stormed off the set yelling "We are not animals!" and wouldn't come back until Cameron agreed to wrap it already.
The water in the two tanks was chlorinated heavily, to prevent microbes growing in it. This caused many of the actor's hair to become green and even white. Due to this, the crew must apply Vaseline to their hair and skin for protection while filming for several hours underwater.
James Cameron declared this the worst production he was ever involved with, a sentiment shared by many of the cast members. The difficulties of filming around and under water put a great strain on both cast and crew, further complicated by Cameron's notorious perfectionism. Many of them have been quoted as saying that they would never do a sequel or movie like 'The Abyss' again. For Cameron, a director known to often collaborate with the same cast and crew members, this movie had suspiciously few people who worked with him again, including almost the entire cast (save for Michael Biehn), composer Alan Silvestri and director of photography Mikael Salomon.
The crew frequently spent enough time underwater to force them to undergo decompression before surfacing. James Cameron would often watch dailies through a glass window, while decompressing and hanging upside down to relieve the stress on his shoulders from the weight of the helmet.
James Cameron's brother, Mike Cameron, plays a dead crewman inside the sunken submarine. To accomplish this he had to hold his breath under 15 feet of water while also allowing a crab to crawl out of his mouth.
The scene with the water tentacle coming up through the moon pool was written so that it could be removed without interfering with the story, because no one knew how the effect would come out. The actors were interacting with a length of heater hose being held up by the crewmen. When the effects were completed, though, they exceeded everyone's expectations and wildest hopes, paving the way for increased use of computer-generated special effects in films.
The idea for the film came to James Cameron when he attended a science lecture about deep sea diving in high school. He wrote a short story about a group of scientists in a laboratory at the bottom of the ocean. But a film about a group of scientists didn't seem commercial to him so he changed it to a group of blue collar workers instead. Ironically Ghostbusters II (1989), a film about scientists was one of the most successful films of its year, while The Abyss (1989) was considered a box office flop.
Michael Biehn claimed that he was in South Carolina for five months and only acted for three to four weeks. He remembered one day being ten meters underwater and "suddenly the lights went out. It was so black I couldn't see my hand. I couldn't surface. I realized I might not get out of there."
One of the first films to make proper use of CGI technology, which were done by George Lucas's special effects company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). The animated water effects would be put to use in James Cameron's next film Terminator 2 (1991), to create the liquid Terminator, the T-1000.
Ed Harris had such a traumatic experience making the film that he refused to talk about it for years.
The sequence in which Catfish fires a submachine gun into the moon pool at a departing Lt. Coffey was filmed using live ammunition. The underwater camera was locked down and unmanned, and extreme safety precautions were in effect.
During the segment where the mini-subs are exploring the sunken nuclear sub the actors can be seen inside the model mini-subs. This was achieved by putting a tiny screen and projector inside the models, projecting movies of the actors.
The American Humane Association rated this film "unacceptable" because of the rat that was submerged in oxygenated liquid in one scene. It wasn't an effect. The rat really was "subjected to the anxiety of being submerged in this liquid, where it panics and struggles and is then pulled out by its tail as it expels the liquid from its lungs."
James Cameron nearly drowned during production when his diving suit malfunctioned while he was weighed down at the bottom of the giant water tank during filming.
The first feature film to have used an early version of Adobe Photoshop.
Director James Cameron contacted Orson Scott Card before filming began with the possibility of producing a book based on the film. Card initially told his agent that he doesn't do "novelizations", but when she told him that the director was James Cameron, he agreed to consider it. The script arrived, and Card signed on after receiving assurances from Cameron that he would be free to develop his "novel" the way he wanted to. After a meeting with Cameron, Card immediately wrote the first three chapters, which dealt with events concerning Bud and Lindsay Brigman that occurred before the events in the film. Cameron gave these chapters to Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who used it to develop their characters.
The mini-subs in the wide shots were actually models suspended on wires in a smoky environment and filmed in slow motion.
Forty percent of all live-action principal photography was actually shot underwater.
The masks were specially designed to show the actors' faces, and had microphones fitted so that dialogue spoken at the time by the actors could be used in the film. Because they were designed to cleanly capture dialogue underwater, noises created by the diving equipment were either isolated or filtered out. James Cameron felt the (superior) quality of the sound seemed artificial, and the noises made by the regulators in the helmets were added during sound post-production.
The striped wire scene (blue with white stripe and black with yellow stripe) was filmed with two black and white wires to ensure that they looked identical under the colored lighting.
The extended scenes with the aliens were cut from the theatrical release because it would have made the film almost three hours long. Back in 1989, a running time that long was considered a big commercial risk, especially for a film with lots of action scenes and special effects, increasing the likelihood the film wouldn't turn a profit. The scenes were eventually restored in 1993 for the Special Edition. Contrary to what may be thought, the decision to shorten the climax was made by James Cameron himself and was not demanded by the studio (Cameron even stated that studio officials were horrified by the decision, but he had final cut).
Since the "Benthic Explorer" model ship was so large and filmed on open seas, the production company was required to register it with the Coast Guard.
According to James Cameron, he almost cast Jamie Lee Curtis as Lindsey Brigman, but Kathryn Bigelow (his future wife) had already cast her in Blue Steel (1989). Cameron would cast Curtis in True Lies (1994) a few years later.
The studio pushed hard for an Academy Award nomination for Michael Biehn as best supporting actor, but was unsuccessful.
Captain Kidd Brewer Jr. was already a professional diver prior to filming, and had also appeared in Cameron's Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981). He committed suicide the following year of the movie's release (some sources incorrectly inform that he died on a diving accident). The Special Edition is dedicated to his memory.
Steven Spielberg studied the effects sequences in this film, as well as Terminator 2 (1991) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) to prepare for Jurassic Park (1993). The effects for all four productions were done by George Lucas's effects company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).
Filmed on a $70 million budget, making it one of the most expensive films made at the time.
To heat the water in the unfinished nuclear power plant, James Cameron brought in several tanker trucks of natural gas, and attached them directly to burners.
The first movie released under the THX Laserdisc Program.
During filming Ed Harris demanded cabbage as a snack/meal as he was on a strict diet. This however became almost unbearable for him and indeed the rest of the crew as he was constantly farting and giving himself and the other crew members the dry boak. In one underwater scene where Harris was in his diver suit, he farted and the smell was so intoxicating that he actually vomited inside the suit. The scene was obviously cut and it took hours for Harris to resurface, clean the suit, submerge and re-shoot the scene. James Cameron was reportedly furious with Harris for this and took action by placing air fresheners in all the actors and crew members suits to help ensure that there was no repeat of the incident. Harris also got pink eye during filming and had to wear contact lenses for a week.
For financial reasons, the "Deepcore" set was never dismantled. It stood in the abandoned (and drained) South Carolina nuclear power plant, where the film was shot. 20th Century Fox had posted signs around the set informing potential photographers that Fox still owned the set (and the designs) and that any photographs or video shooting of the set was prohibited by copyright law. Their official copyright information was on the Deepcore rig itself. A favorite destination for "urban explorers", the sets and facility were eventually demolished in 2007 during a reconstruction project.
According to the studio, the rumor that a real rat drowned during the making of the film is false. Five rats were used to film the drowning sequence and they all lived. James Cameron even kept one as a pet.
The scene with the water tentacle was one of the first to be filmed. This was done so as to give the effects team the maximum amount of time available to develop the CGI over the course of filming the rest of the movie.
When Cat punches Coffey in the face, a single solid white frame is spliced in at the moment of impact. This film trick accurately conveys the flash a person sees when they get hit in the head. It was also used in True Lies (1994) when Helen punches Harry in the face, and in Terminator 2 (1991) when Sarah clocks Douglas in the face with the mop handle.
Ed Harris and Michael Biehn also appear together in The Rock (1996). Biehn also played a Navy SEAL in that film, but their parts are reversed, with Harris playing the antagonist, and Biehn being one of the 'good guys'.
There are no opening credits save the title of the film.
Orson Scott Card described working with James Cameron as "Hell on wheels".
James Cameron's two choices for Bud Brigman were Ed Harris and Jeff Bridges.
The company mentioned in the film is named Benthic Petroleum. In oceanographic terms, the word "benthic" means on or in the ocean bottom.
A Facebook page exists for "Benthic Petroleum", the fictional company which owns and operates the drilling rig, and features an image of a promo for the company. The blurb on the poster footer reads "At Benthic Petroleum we drill deeper into the unknown than anyone else in the business. Why? That's where our future lies waiting, at the bottom of the deepest trenches. In the abyss."
The close-up shot near the end of the movie where Bud ignites a flare under water was actually filmed after principal photography. It was shot in Gale Anne Hurd's pool.
The original theatrical version was forced to cut the pre-credits quote "...when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you" by Friedrich Nietzsche because Criminal Law (1988) used it, and they didn't want to seem like imitators. The quote was restored in the director's cut.
During the TV news report of the US and Russian ships colliding, the accompanying pictures are actually those taken of ships from the British Task Force hit during the Falkland Islands campaign.
The film is reversed in Coffey's first close-up after the pseudopod scene. This makes his expressions creepier in a subliminal way.
When Lt. Coffey retrieves the keys from the captain's corpse, the name Kretschmer is visible on the name tag on the front of his overalls. This is a reference to the real-world Otto Kretschmer, the highest-scoring submarine ace of World War II.
The idea for the film came to James Cameron when, at age 17 and in high school, he attended a science lecture about deep sea diving by a man, Francis J. Falejczyk, who was the first human to breathe fluid through his lungs in experiments conducted by Dr. Johannes A. Kylstra. He subsequently wrote a short story that focused on a group of scientists in a laboratory at the bottom of the ocean. The basic idea did not change, but many of the details evolved over the years. Once Cameron arrived in Hollywood, he quickly realized that a group of scientists was not that commercial and changed it to a group of blue-collar workers. While making Aliens (1986), Cameron saw a National Geographic film about remote operated vehicles operating deep in the North Atlantic Ocean. These images reminded him of his short story. In real life, Cameron is an explorer in residence with the National Geographic Society as a deep sea diver (this film and Titanic resulted in producing documentaries for National Geographic).
In the original storyline, when Lindsey is talking to Bud during his descent, she explains why she is always so hard on people. Lindsey grew up in a family with five older brothers, and she had to fight for everything, even to be noticed.
On the first day of filming, the main water tank sprang a leak, requiring dam-repair experts to fix it.
To create the alien water tentacle, James Cameron initially considered cel animation or a tentacle sculpted in clay and then animated via stop-motion techniques with water reflections projected onto it. Phil Tippett suggested Cameron contact Industrial Light & Magic.
James Cameron's first film to be rated PG-13 in America
A single white flashframe was edited into "the Hammer" punch delivered by Catfish. Cameron used the same trick to enhance the pipe bomb explosions in The Terminator (1984).
Most reporters seen on television in the extended edition of the movie are or have become James Cameron regulars. The man called Bill Tyler seen reporting from one of the ships is William Wisher, Cameron's long-time friend and co-screenwriter who made several cameo appearances in his movies. Anchorman Joe Farago also appeared as anchorman in The Terminator (1984). The reporter seen in the finale of the Special Edition (Tom Isbell) also appears in the finale of True Lies (1994).
Mel Gibson was considered for the role of Virgil 'Bud' Brigman.
Chris Elliott originally auditioned for the role of Alan 'Hippy' Carnes, but didn't get the part. He was eventually cast as Bendix instead.
Bud and Lindsey's rocky relationship may have been an unconscious mirror of the divorce James Cameron was going through at the time with producer Gale Anne Hurd.
The pseudopod scene originally ended with a brief shot of Hippy (Todd Graff) coming out of the toilet, the irony being that the firmest believer in an extra-terrestrial presence was the only one not to witness the first encounter with one. However, the shot was edited out the movie.
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Although ballistic missile submarines have been named after states since the USS OHIO, there never was a ballistic missile submarine USS MONTANA.
The role of Commodore DeMarco was originally meant for Lance Henriksen, but he couldn't appear due to a scheduling conflict.
James Cameron described his creative process as "what I'm good at is working with actors to create scenes and then editing their performances to get the absolute best vibrating version of that scene and then share that with the audience. It's an amazing process to go through. Sometimes you think it's not going to work when you get started and then the characters come to life."
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The first and only time Alan Silvestri has composed the musical score for a James Cameron film.
This was James Camerons first experience with filming in the Super 35 format. He would later use this format for Terminator 2 (1991), True Lies (1994), and Titanic (1997).
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The sub called "Flatbed" in the movie was built around a real submarine called "Deep Rover" which was designed by the Canadian company Nuytco Research.
In-movie monitor time stamps show at one point January 1987. It's an unintentional hint to a date because a device needed a restart and began with 01/01/87.
A scene at the beginning showing the crew rounding up at the moon pool had to be re-shot because the Flatbed submersible was parked in the pool. Flatbed was supposed to be out in the water pulling the rig during that particular scene.
Aside from Michael Biehn, there are none of the usual regulars who work with James Cameron in The Abyss (1989). E.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, etc. Henriksen was briefly considered for a part but was unavailable.
One of only two James Cameron films not to be scored by James Horner or Brad Fiedel. (Alan Silvestri did the score for this film.)
Bud states that a crescent wrench would fix the leak in the sub, and in an obvious irony, this very same tool is prominently shown just moments earlier, sitting inside the wire-mesh equipment-bin on Coffey's escaping sub as Bud is removing the rope from the bin; a clever "you actually did have a perfect wrench within easy reach just a few minutes ago, Bud --- too bad you didn't grab that, too, when you had it right by your hand" visual quip.
The logo for Benthic Petroleum is nearly identical to that of Berkey Photo, which (at the time) manufactured lighting equipment commonly used in films and theater.
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Michael Biehn also played a Navy Seal in the movie Navy Seals (1990).
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Virgil is not a common first name, yet Ed Harris portrays Virgil "Bud" Brigman in this movie and 'Virgil Cole (character)' in Appaloosa (2008).
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The opening of 'The Abyss' has a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche which goes "....when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you". There are variations on the actual quote, one such variation being:
  • He who fights monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Another such variation being:
  • Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
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The special edition of the film was theatrically released on February 26, 1993, the same day as the World Trade Center truck bombing.
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Director Trademark 

James Cameron: [nukes] the movie plays at the height of the cold war, the nuclear threat is a theme running throughout the movie. There are also actual nuclear weapons seen in the movie.
James Cameron: [feet] when the soldiers arrive at the supply ship and jump out of the helicopters. See also Aliens (1986).
James Cameron: [title fade] at the beginning of the movie, the blue "Y" from the opening credits extends and then fades to the underwater scenery with the submarine.
James Cameron: [Biehn's hand] Michael Biehn's character gets bitten on the arm by another character - see The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986).


The trivia items below may give away important plot points.

In the end shot where the alien ship surfaces, it's supposed to be spring or summer. However, the film was being shot towards the beginning of winter, so the actors put ice cubes in their mouths so they wouldn't breathe out mist.
The final shot of the movie is of Bud and Lindsey embracing each other, but they aren't played by Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. The shot was filmed with two extras after principal photography was completed.
Despite being the films antagonist, Michael Biehn's character gets killed with just under an hour of the movie still to go (relates to special edition version)
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The press kit sent out was a beautiful box made of sturdy material with the title on the the cover, inside it contains the stills of the the entire cast plus the deleted scenes of the wall of water hovering over the worlds great cities, if the beings weren't regarded they would have destroyed mankind as if the great flood occurred.
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