James Cameron and nearly killing actors by drowning or some other water-related death, name a more iconic duo. Over thirty years before he would revolutionize underwater filming with Avatar: The Way of Water James Cameron went all in for The Abyss in 1989, making one of the most hellish productions in history.
Diving to The Abyss
Cameron is always ambitious with his films, even dating back to the eighties. Constantly looking to push boundaries and a known perfectionist, James Cameron raised the bar with The Abyss by being one of the first major releases to film underwater, even creating new technology to accomplish some of the filming. In his pursuit of perfection though, Cameron drove his cast to the brink of insanity, with the two most traumatized being stars Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
The two have said they will never work with James Cameron again, even going so far as to refuse to talk about the production in interviews. Ed Harris likens talking about the movie to a soldier talking about Vietnam if that says anything about the kind of torture Cameron inflicts. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, meanwhile, has said it was one of the most nightmarish and traumatizing sets she’s ever worked on.
The actors were kept in the massive water tank for filming throughout the majority of the days, with the submerged sets making sure everyone was cold and soaked at almost all times. The water was also overly chlorinated to prevent algae and bacteria from growing in it, causing actors to suffer chemical burns and lose hair during the filming.
Hell Under Water
The actors were miserable, and the movie took almost four months to shoot due to Cameron requiring multiple takes to get the perfect shot. During the scene where Mastrantonio’s character drowns and Ed Harris has to perform CPR before finally breaking down and slapping her was performed over and over again under Cameron’s demand. The actors mention at one point after Harris had slapped her dozens of times already in the dark and cold, they realized there was no film in any of the cameras, nothing even being filmed as they were going through the torturous process.
That was the last straw for Mastrantonio, leading to a complete emotional breakdown during filming, storming off set and screaming about Cameron treating the cast like guinea pigs for his art. It’s a wonder they managed to finish the film at all, much less reshoot the ending after negative test screenings.
The Results Speak
The Abyss worked though, even getting a special edition in 1993 that finished Cameron’s original vision with the original ending he had planned. He was printing money for studios and had learned better practices for not killing actors in a water tank by the time Titanic came around in 1997, giving him the ability to say “F*ck you, I’m James Cameron” when any studio refuses to fund him. Now we’re waiting on Avatar 3 so he’s done pretty well for himself, all things considered.
Mastrantonio went on to have a full and fulfilling career as well, with her last role being in the show Blindspot in 2020. She’s shown up in other shows like Limitless and Grimm, as well as award-winning movies like The Perfect Storm. While she seems to have taken a rest since 2020, she hasn’t ruled out still acting. Hey, maybe she’ll pop up in Avatar 5 and she and Cameron can bury the hatchet. Anything is possible on Pandora.