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Sanctum: The True Story Behind the Epic 3-D Adventure

Photograph courtesy Universal Pictures

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When Australian producer and renowned caver Andrew Wight (Ghosts of the Abyss, Aliens of the Deep) led a cave diving expedition beneath Australia’s Nullarbor Plain in 1988, he had a near-death experience that truly changed his life. Not only did it inspire the new 3-D adventure film Sanctum, it sparked a successful filmmaking career which led to a highly productive friendship with fellow 3-D pioneer James Cameron, the executive producer of the new film. Here Wight describes the lure of this dangerous sport, how extreme situations effect human dynamics, diving the Titanic, and how was able to turn his hobby into a life of adventure.

 —By Mary Anne Potts

ADVENTURE: You’ve been cave diving all over the world, from Alaska to the Dominican Republic, for the last 30 years. Where’s your favorite spot?
Andrew Wight:
I’d say the most spectacular place I have dived was the Yucatán. The caves there were once dry caves that flooded after the last Ice Age. They are full of stalagtites, stalagmites, and other decorations that would only normally be found in a dry cave. 

What is the lure of cave diving when it is obviously so dangerous?
The main thing that draws people in is the beauty of it. The water is incredibly clear. It feels like floating through air or being in outer space. It’s a great sensation of flight and freedom. Cave diving takes you places places few, if anyone, has ever been before. That becomes a very seductive, powerful part of exploring caves. The danger is seductive, too. On one hand, when you are doing it and nothing happens, it’s not dangerous, is it? But the consequences of not following the rules or not being properly prepared are very dangerous. As we like to say, there are no accidents in cave diving, just fatalities.

Yikes. This idea of how extreme circumstances can make seemingly simple decisions a matter of life or death is prominent in Sanctum.
Absolutely. We’ve lost touch of he concept that if I do something the consequences could be really grave. In a primitive society, if a hunter and gather broke his leg, he’d die. Most people are not really prepared to take responsibility for their own actions. And now we have a generation of kids that only plays video games. They just press reset, and it’s all back to normal again.

This movie is based on an experience you had. Tell us about it?
The expedition I was leading back in 1988. We were exploring a cave system on the Nullarbor Plain in Australia. At that time, they were some of the longest underground, water-filled caves in the world. On the last day, we were hauling the equipment out of the cave. We’d been out there for over a month. A freak storm hit and flooded the cave entrance. The middle section of the cave collapsed, trapping 15 of us underground. Two of us got out, probably four to five hours after the initial collapse.

How did you get out?
We were kind of in the middle section on a small ledge. We were trapped because there was no way down and no way out because of the water and the boulders were rolling around in the water. It was a question of do we stay on this little ledge and probably get sandwiched between the roof and the cave, which was collapsing? Or do we make a run for it and get killed that way?

Well, obviously we didn’t die. We got out and climbed up the rope that was lowered down for us. Everyone else was stuck much deeper in the cave in a larger chamber. But now the boulders had choked the passageway that we had used. So it was a process over the next two days of exploring a new way out of the cave. We’d go down from the surface and find a clear passage. And then our trapped companions would do the same from below. We’d meet in the middle and lay a guide line which allowed us to get everyone out, one at a time, safely.

You make it sound so easy…
If you had about another two hours, I could tell you an embellished version would be terrifying.

What did you learn about survival from that experience?
The inspiration for the movie came from how the people responded after the collapse, how they worked together to survive. It was like in the Chilean mine disaster. If the community of people there started to break apart, irrespective of drilling holes in the earth and plucking them out to safety, they would have never survived. 

And the same way, the people in the Nullarbor basically worked together to get through the issues of the group. Someone’s got to take control. Someone’s got to make a plan. Someone’s gotta figure out what to do next. And that’s what I found fascinating. And some of the people who you think would be the leaders at the forefront hunker down and become very quiet and accepting of their fate. It’s fascinating how human dynamics work under extreme pressure.

You’ve managed to make your life and livelihood be about adventure. How did you pull that off?
My background is actually in agricultural science. I worked in that capacity for nearly ten years. The cave diving was really just a hobby. The filmmaking actually started with the expedition when the cave collapsed. We needed to get some equipment at the time, and we couldn’t afford it. So I said, “Why don’t we make a film? And that will pay for it?” The film was to be a means to an end, it wasn’t a career move. So that was my first film. And had it not been for the cave collapse, it would have been pretty ordinary.

So near-death launched your film career?
It’s the human dynamics that people want to understand. Not this story: So we went to the cave, everyone got on really well, we dove until the end, and nothing happened. Boring! But for us, the cave collapsed! So the film that resulted from that was like, wow, really exciting. Then people asked, what’s your next one going to be? That’s when I realized that I can make films and have a life of adventure and someone else will pay for it. But I also realized that I knew nothing about making films, so I better learn as much as I can.

When did the 3-D interest enter the picture?
That was when I met Jim, which was ten years ago now. Really he had just started embarking on this crusade to learn how to build cameras to film the world in 3-D. So I jumped on board and have been doing it ever since.

You and your pal James Cameron have done a lot with 3-D documentaries—Ghosts of the Abyss, Aliens of the Deep. Now an action adventure movie?
It’s really the evolution of cinema. We’ve gone from black and white to sound to stereo to color to wide screen. We humans see the world in color through two eyes, in stereo. We are trying to create a reality on the screen. So 3-D, when it’s done well, is an enhancement to the storytelling. The cave environment lends itself to that beautifully. We wanted to create a visual feast that people can feel like they are part of…

Tell us about diving the Titanic with James Cameron?
Jim’s real obsession with the Titanic, apart from the story of it, is just going and diving the ship—and the really interesting stuff is inside the ship. But to get in the ship, you can’t scuba dive, you have to be in a submersible. So the only way in is with a small ROV. Most of those vehicles have a cable connected to them which powers them, controls what it’s doing, and operates the thrusters. Well that’s kinda clumsy, and if you go in one way, you have to go back the same way to bring your cable back. 

The problem was: How do we go and explore a complicated environment were we might not be able to come back the same way we went in? So then we developed an ROV that had a fiberoptic tether. So like a spider spinning a web, it could lay out this very fine fiberoptic cable. And then we could go into complicated environments without worrying about the cable because it was like a very thin hair. We could drive the ROV back to the submersible, cut the cable, and leave the fiber behind.

Do you realize how many people just wish they could dive the Titantic?
It’s so iconic, that’s the mystic about it. Jim obviously made a very successful film about it, and people have a real awareness of it. Being in the presence of a manmade object 12,000 feet below the ocean is pretty humbling. But the reason why it’s there is man trying to defy the laws of Mother Nature. 

And not winning.
And not winning in a spectacular way.

In all your expeditions, how many deaths have there been?
Just one. We pride ourselves on running many complicated expeditions without many injuries even.

Why do you have such a good track record?
Lots of training, lots of preparation. And then utilizing experience to refine the decision-making process when you’re out there in the field. The hardest thing about working in those kinds of environments is that you often have difficult decisions to make and lots of competing agendas—we are making a film, someone is financing it, a hurricane is coming, they want you to finish on time and on budget, but we have a hurricane coming. Should we stay and try to finish filming? Or will we put everyone’s lives at risk if we move away?

So in that decision-making process, if we decide to move away, people are going to say you are being weak or scared. You’ve got to resist that because there’s no way to prove a decision was right unless you prove that it was wrong. A wrong decision means someone’s going to get hurt or someone’s going to die, versus the decision to do something different and nothing happens. Sometimes I think people deliberately make decisions where something is going to happen because they want to mix it up a bit. It’s a difficult thing to manage.