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James Cameron has achieved legendary status in Hollywood. He is willing to test the limits of special effects by incorporating them into more traditional filmmaking techniques. The director’s fourth film, The Abyss, came out 33 years ago. Even though The Abyss isn’t as well-known as his other works like Titanic, Aliens, or the first two Terminator movies, its innovative use of CGI guarantees it a permanent place in film history. But that’s not even the best thing about this surprisingly good undersea thriller.

‘The Abyss’ comes from a story James Cameron wrote in high school

james cameron the abyss
Director James Cameron attends Red Carpet Green Dress at the Private Residence of Jonas Tahlin, CEO of Absolut Elyx on February 06, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. | Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images for Absolut Elyx

In The Abyss, Ed Harris plays Bud, the leader of the crew of Deep Core, an experimental underwater oil rig. When a submarine goes missing, the Navy SEALs ask Bud, his co-worker and ex-wife Lindsey, and their team to look into it. Tensions are high on Deep Core as Lt. Coffey, played by Michael Biehn, recovers nukes from the submarine wreck and strange aliens appear.

“I had written a little story in high school called The Abyss,” Cameron told GQ in 2022.

According to IMDb, Cameron got the idea for The Abyss from a high school science lecture on scuba diving and liquid breathing. He imagined a group of researchers working in a facility on the ocean floor near the edge of the Cayman trench, and penned a short story about it. 

The scientists in Cameron’s short story all jump into the trench at once when they spot indications of life—never to be seen or heard from again. And when the lone surviving scientist pursues them to learn what occurred, his descent into the depths causes him to go insane. 

When Cameron got to Hollywood, he found that a group of scientists wasn’t very marketable, so he switched to a crew of blue-collar workers and altered the plot accordingly.

Filming ‘The Abyss’ was so stressful that cast members would break down and cry

The cast of Abyss put in 70-hour weeks, often working through the night, to avoid delaying the film’s release while they patched the hole in the black tarp that covered their tank for the film’s underwater scenes. Syfy Wire reports that Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had a physical and emotional breakdown due to the stress she experienced on set. Meanwhile, Ed Harris had to pull over his car because he started crying while driving home.

Harris has openly refused to discuss his experiences working on the picture, stating, “I’m not talking about The Abyss, and I never will.” Harris only opens up about his time on the set of The Abyss in the documentary Under Pressure: Making The Abyss. Likewise, Mastrantonio stated:  “The Abyss was a lot of things. Fun to make was not one of them.”

Thankfully, Cameron is said to have become nicer on film sets

James Cameron almost lost his life while filming ‘The Abyss’


‘The Abyss’: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio Never Worked With James Cameron Again After Filming a Torturous Scene

And as if the disgruntled cast wasn’t enough, James Cameron nearly drowned when filming The Abyss. Apparently, the assistant director keeping an eye on his oxygen levels on the underwater set unexpectedly went off the clock.

According to the publication, Cameron had to swiftly remove his gear and make his way to safety. He was fully unprotected from the water because he had taken off his helmet. An aid diver tried to help by giving Cameron the backup breathing regulator. But it was broken, and he sucked in a lot of water. 

Even as the filmmaker fought to break free, the safety diver mistook his frantic movements for signs of panic and held on until Cameron hit him in the face. Fortunately, the Avatar director was lucky to escape the near-tragic incident unscathed.

Although Cameron’s near-death experience should have made him avoid the deep, it didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for actual ocean exploration. According to National Geographic, the risk-taking director dove to a record-low depth in the Mariana Trench in 2012.