It was 4 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1988 when underwater explorer and film producer Andrew Wight had his first near-death experience.
While on the last day of a cave diving expedition in Pannikin Plain Cave in Western Australia, a freak storm occurred, which caused flood waters to rush into the cavern and collapsed the main entrance. Wight and his team of 15 divers were trapped in the cave for two days as they searched for a way out of the system.
Twenty three years later, Wight’s frightening tale of survival has become the inspiration for “Sanctum,” a 3-D adventure film produced by blockbuster director James Cameron (“Avatar”) and co-written by Wight himself, who had worked with Cameron before on the underwater documentaries “Ghosts of the Abyss” and “Aliens of the Deep.”
During an interview with me, Wight talked about the importance of moviegoers being emotionally involved in “Sanctum” and what it is about underwater cave exploration that is so exhilarating.
I read that when the cave collapsed, you were able to get out after a few hours. What happened then?
Yes, there were actually two teams in the cave, so when the entrance collapsed we were separated. I was able to get out after about four hours after the initial collapse with rope and climbing equipment we had. My role then turned into coordinating the rescue of the other divers. When the police came, the sergeant said I should stay in charge and he would make everything else happen. That turned out to be a defining moment in the rescue because the first people that showed up wanted to blow up the cave entrance, which probably would have killed everyone.
What did you learn about survival from your experience?
I learned that what’s in front of you is what you have to deal with. What could happen is not as important as what is happening. We had to make decisions based on that and take responsibility for those decisions. We couldn’t form a committee and talk it out. There was no way to prove the right answer or the wrong answer. Someone was going to die if we proved it wrong.
When did you realize this might make a good movie?
It was some years after the event when I started to really think about what happened on that day. The cave collapsing and people getting trapped was interesting, but I also thought about how all the people behaved. There was a human drama that started to unfold. I had worked with James Cameron before and one day he asked me, “Why don’t we make your cave story into a movie?” You didn’t have to ask me twice.
What was it like having to relive something as frightening as your experience through the making of this film? Did it bring back a lot of memories?
It’s cathartic to go through it in some ways, but I had already reconciled with it many years ago and have since done many more things that are much more dangerous and life threatening. What I was more concerned with was conveying the environment of the cave for people sitting in a cinema. I was very meticulous about the detail of everything on the set.
Along with the environment, is it important for you as a filmmaker that moviegoers actually feel a sense of confinement?
Absolutely. If you’re just an observer and you’re not engaged in the characters or what’s going on, then it won’t really work. You have to feel like you’re in the cave. People go on roller coasters because they want to have that adrenaline kick. They don’t necessarily want to go and do a base jump, but if they can watch someone do it and feel like they’re there, they can feel the same exhilaration in the safety of their theater seat. The 3-D adds a layer to that. I hope when people see the film they take away some of that experience in a real and emotional way.
What is it about underwater cave exploration that fascinates you so much?
If you were to ask Edmund Hillary why he scaled Mt. Everest, the very simple one-line answer would be, “Because it’s there.” It’s the nature of the experience. If you open Pandora’s Box and you see something no one else has seen or felt in the whole history of humanity, it becomes very addictive and seductive. You make your way around the first corner and wonder what’s around the next corner. Before you know it you’ve become inexplicably drawn in by your own curiosity. I think it’s genetically encoded into a lot of the human race. We would have never explored the oceans or gone to far off, distant lands without those people who are willing to challenge themselves and nature and experience new things.