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The Deep

1977       Jacqueline Bisset

Within the production of "The Deep," the phrase, "location filming" takes on a new dimension. The Columbia Pictures/ EMI Presentation, which opened in 1977, is based on Peter Benchicy's best-selling novel (adapted for the screen by Benchley and Tracy Keenan Wynn) about two romantic young scuba divers who discover treasure and terror in the wrecks of two sunken ships. In keeping with the tale, some 40% of the movie was filmed underwater. The stars - Robert Shaw as Treece, Jacqueline Bisset as Gail, Nick Nolte as David, Louis Gossett as Cloche - had to learn to dive and then to act at depths of 60 to 100 feet. (The fifth star, Eli Wallach as Coffin, played all of his scenes above the waterline.) Director Peter Yates, producer Peter Guber and the director of photography, Christopher Challis, also became expert divers. In all, the cast and crew logged a total of 9,995 dives, involving 10,780 man hours beneath the ocean's surface, during which 1,054,000 cubic feet of compressed air were consumed. Filming of "The Deep"

began on July 5, 1976 between Salt Island and Peter Island of the British Virgin Islands. The "set" was an actual shipwreck - the Royal Mail Ship "Rhone," which sank in a hurricane in 1867 with 125 of her crew of 135 lost. Although it is split into sections and angled from 30 to 90 feet, it is a perfect example of a coral-encrusted iron wreck and offered the film company its first opportunity for vivid realism. Shaw, Bisset, Nolte and Gossett began their diving lessons at home, then received special instruction, supervised by veteran underwater filmmaker, Al Giddings, at the site. Meanwhile, Giddings was also testing the remarkable camera equipment which he designed and built for "The Deep." The script, Giddings pointed out, demanded the mobility and sophistication of the best cameras used on the surface. But the art of aquatic movie-making had not progressed to that point. To achieve a genuinely three-dimensional effect, he equipped his 35mm Panavision cameras with specially designed housings, fitted with glass portholes. In contrast, even Jacques Cousteau's pioneering underwater work had been achieved with 16mm cameras and flat portholes. The size and heft of the cameras also were adapted to the unique requirements of filming "The Deep." Once immersed in water, each of Giddings' cameras weighed less than one of the strange glass ampules, which Nolte and Jackie Bisset first discover in one of the wrecks, to the rolls and groans of the ships, each scene became an audible challenge. Gregory learned to dive and had acquired sophisticated new equipment from Dutch laboratories to record the sound, live and in stereo, beneath the surface. Later, Fred Brown (who edited the sound for "The Exorcist") used these recordings to fashion the film's remarkable sound track. Even routine aspects of motion picture production took on a strange new quality during "The Deep." For example, a young lady named Geri Murphy became the industry's first underwater script girl - complete with an underwater writing tablet fastened to her wet suit. As production began, the cameras functioned perfectly, without problems...or leaks. But the depths of the dives limited the number of hours of underwater filming. Thus, before each dive, Yates and his crew outlined the action on a blackboard, choreographing the movements of all concerned. Safety precautions were equally vital. Veteran divers ringed the scenes, ready to come to the aid of actors and technicians. The dive boat itself was equipped with a decompression chamber, and there was a doctor aboard at all times. Still, there were close calls. Once, Nolte was 90 feet deep and far into one of the wrecks, wearing a Descomask attached to 200 feet of air hose that led to the surface boat's compressor. Suddenly, the word was transmitted by the underwater speaker that the on-ship compressor had broken down. Everyone was ordered to the surface. Underwater experts, stationed at key points throughout the wreck, moved quickly to Nick's assistance. But, as one of them said later, it was his composure and control in the face of danger that averted what might have been a tragedy.

In Bermuda, the company filmed on land, on the water, beneath the ocean's surface, and in the world's largest underwater set. Hollywood tradition called for the use of a "tank," constructed on a sound stage, perhaps as much as ten feet deep, thirty or so feet wide, filled with fresh water, usually muddied by the inclusion of milk or chicken parts, to make it more nearly resemble the sea. This simplification would not do for "The Deep." Instead, production designerTony Masters(an Academy Award nominee for "2001: A Space Odyssey"), together with Kym Murphy of Sea World, designed the construction of the world's largest underwater set, 30 feet deep, 120 feet across, holding one million gallons of fresh Atlantic sea water. The 17-chambered set, complete with the remnants of a Spanish galleon, took five months to construct. Murphy and John Hart, full-time marine biologist, were on hand to watch over the ecology of the system, which included over 1,000 fish of local variety, captured off the coast of Bermuda - itself a monumental chore. At one time or another, the set interior included moray eels, sharks, jellyfish, groupers, jacks, blowfish, triggerfish, and other species. Some 200,000 gallons of fresh sea water each day were pumped in and out to maintain the ecological purity of the system. The reality of "The Deep" led to the filming of one sequence that required travel to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. There, the underwater team filmed a feeding frenzy by a group of gray sharks, a scene that could not be duplicated anywhere else in the world. After spending 1,080 hours underwater, they got the footage they came to shoot. This sequence then was edited into scenes of Shaw, Nolte and Bisset in the British Virgin Islands, in the ocean off Bermuda, and in the underwater set. The result is that within just fifty-five seconds of film, audiences will see underwater action which occurred in oceans thousands of miles apart.

Gail Berke (JACQUELINE BISSET) and David Sanders (NICK NOLTE) are enjoying a romantic vacation together in Bermuda when suddenly they find their lives changed drastically and in deadly peril. It all begins when, diving among the coral reefs of the crystal-clear waters, they come upon the sunken wreck of a World War II freighter. Near it, they find two surprisingly contrasting "souvenirs" - one a strange little ampule, the other an old Spanish medallion, both keys to priceless but mysterious treasures. While dining that evening, they are approached by Cloche (LOUIS GOSSETT), a native Haitian and local underworld figure. Posing as a bottle collector, he offers to buy the ampule, but leaves when David, distrusting him, denies still having it. Seeking an answer to the mysteries of their finds on the wreck, Gail and David meet Romer Treece (ROBERT SHAW), a rugged ocean-wise recluse, treasure hunter and keeper of St. David's lighthouse. Intrigued by their discoveries and harboring a simmering vendetta against Cloche, Treece becomes their ally. He leads them to an old seadog, Adam Coffin (ELI WALLACH), who as a young man had survived the wreck of the freighter. He recognizes the ampule as authentic, one of 98,000 ampules of morphine that had been included in medical supplies on the ship. Now, they know Cloche's interest - the morphine, converted to heroin, would be worth millions on New York streets. Diving together onto the wreck, Treece devises a dangerous plan to keep the ampules from Cloche, while Gail and David continue to search for an answer to the mystery of the medallion, known to pre-date the freighter wreck by more than two centuries. Spurred by their own individual motivations - not all of them mutually compatible - Treece, David and Gail dive into the unpredictable reef-ravaged depths, racing against the ticking time bomb of Cloche's vicious and relentless encroachment, in an effort to recover the historically elusive trove of Spanish treasure and to prevent the drugs from falling into Cloche's hands. The dramatic currents culminate in a final explosive conclusion beneath the "The Deep." Click here for more

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The Deep

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