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A Summer Blockbuster on a Blair Witch Budget

A Summer Blockbuster on a Blair Witch Budget

Articles - Digital

Chris Kentis and Laura Lay

Writer-director Chris Kentis and producer Laura Lay film their digital feature, Open Water.Photo: Lions Gate Films

Happens every year—as soon as the weather heats up a slew of high-budgeted, bloated Hollywood “blockbusters” begins competing for your hard-earned cash. The industry typically releases these movies close to one another and closely watches which will sink and which will swim in cash; an interesting phenomenon is that the makers of smaller, better summer movies have learned how to dart in and snatch the leftovers from those $200 million-budgeted wounded whales.

No matter the budget, a unique movie with something to say will consistently have audiences falling in love with it and stealing the thunder from the overly-hyped film. This summer, it’s no different. At the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Lions Gate snatched up the low-budget DV thriller, Open Water, written and directed by Chris Kentis and produced by his wife, Laura Lau—a movie claimed to have been based on true events that has the makings of “summer blockbuster” written all over it.

The story involves an attractive recreational couple on a much-needed vacation who are accidentally left stranded miles from shore in the Caribbean Islands. And where there’s water, and summer, and movies, there are sharks! The moviemakers, whose first film, The Grind (1997), helped bring Billy Crudup and Amanda Peet into the spotlight, were ready. Film critic Owen Gleiberman predicts audiences will rush out to see Open Water, much like they did with The Blair Witch Project five years ago, except “this time, most everyone with a heartbeat will be teased, haunted, jolted and scared to the marrow.”

It was a “physically very demanding shoot for everybody,” says Lau, but she adds that the cast and crew “all had a great time making this movie.” Armed with a Sony NTSC VX2000, a Sony PD-150, and Final Cut Pro and aiming for a 35mm blow-up, the moviemaking couple headed south of their New York base to the Caribbean Islands. But between actors with knee injuries, dealing with real (that’s right, real) sharks, and fighting the elements 20 miles from shore, things could’ve gotten out of control quickly. As Kentis and Lau tell MM, however, luck was on their side.

Heath McKnight (MM): How did the idea for Open Water originally come about?

Chris Kentis (CK): Laura and I have been diving for about 10 or 15 years now. We’re not that different from the couple in the movie. We get scuba diving vacation newsletters, and I read in the late ’90s about this story that happened. And it’s really shocking that this happened; it’s terrifying. We were looking for a story that we could make [on digital video], work in the elements, cast unknowns, work in a documentary-like fashion and, because of our diving experience, work with real sharks.

MM: Tell me about working with the sharks. That sounds incredibly dangerous!

CK: The grey reef sharks are the real things. They’re man-eaters, they’re up there on the list.

Laura Lau (LL): We never for a moment felt that anyone was in danger. The actors had on protective anti-shark chain mail under their wet suits. They were instructed not to splash around, put their arms out. We only shot three days with the sharks, including work with the cage. You have to have a healthy respect for them.

CK: I don’t see this as “a shark film.” It’s much more about isolation and people being out of their element. Sharks are certainly a part of it, but it’s important to portray the sharks very differently. Every movie I’ve ever seen before, they portray sharks in the same way. Whether the movie’s great, like Jaws, or in lesser films, it’s the case that someone falls in the water and—boom—a shark is on them and rips them apart. As a diver, that’s not really the way it is. With the research I’ve done on sharks, we wanted to portray them as animals, not as monsters. We wanted to shoot them in a way that we have not seen before.

MM: Well, certainly no one was eaten, so that’s a plus! Was it hard to find financing, or did you just do it yourselves?

LL: We knew that this was a project that we were going to do completely on our own. We wanted to control it completely, and do everything ourselves. That’s the reason why we self-financed. We actually could’ve gotten financing from other people, but we didn’t need to that, and we didn’t want to.

CK: The whole point was to have fun.

MM: Why did you want to shoot it on digital?

LL: First and foremost it, aesthetically, was the best-suited format for our story, and it was also the approach we wanted to take. We were going for documentary-type realism, and digital video has a raw sense of immediacy that film does not. The equipment is lightweight and unobtrusive, so we were able to shoot the film ourselves, in the real world, using all non-actors (with the exception of the two leads and one actor on the dive boat). Also, it’s way cheaper. You don’t need a crew, so we were able to finance the picture ourselves and maintain total creative control.

MM: How was the shoot done?

LL: The shoot was broken up into smaller shoots for several reasons. The first being that Chris has a day job and nobody there was aware that we were making a feature film. We shot on weekends and vacation time.

MM: What was the worst thing to happen on the film?

LL: Unfortunately, our lead actor, Daniel Travis, blew out his knee playing volleyball about three days before we were supposed to do the bulk of the shoot. That set us back a year.

MM: What festivals did it play at before Sundance?

LL: We actually went to the Hamptons even though the film wasn’t finished. They were so excited about our movie, so we decided to go there, under the radar. But not as under the radar as we thought we were.

MM: I can only imagine the thrill of the bidding war that erupted at Sundance!

CK: It was really interesting, watching from the sidelines. It was quite an eye-opener for me and Laura to hear millions of dollars being shouted here and there, and people yelling on the phone. It was an experience!

MM: Overall, what did you learn from the production of Open Water?

LL: We learned pretty much everything we know through the making of Open Water, as we knew absolutely nothing about shooting digital prior to filming. We did a ton of Internet research and many equipment tests before deciding it would work for the film. The experience of making the film was so fantastic that we would gladly shoot our next film the same way if we could come up with a story that would benefit from the medium. The good news is the technology is evolving so quickly that the possibilities are endless.

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