[ What about the Waterworld script initially attracted you and struck you visually? ] ^ There had been a lot of post-apocalyptic films, but they have all had a nuclear scenario, What was different about this one was that it had to do with an ecological conflagration. That’s what interested me, the notion of this whole world covered in water because of human stupidity and greed.
There is a speech that the Deacon has about the number of atolls, that there ‘used to be one on every horizon’ and now they are so scarce.
That’s something I wanted to emphasize, that even in the face of this dire circumstance, there were still vestiges of this lunatic philosophy — just use everything up, there will always be more. The Deacon was the manifestation of that archaic way of thinking.
The draft I read could have been interpreted several ways in regards to scale. How did you determine what scale or scope this story would be told with?
I didn’t really say, ‘Okay, I want to try to achieve this scope or size.’ I was really more a matter of figuring out what felt right for the story and then executing it. It just became the size that it was.
[ So it wasn’t a matter of saying, ‘Let’s make the biggest movie ever’? ] ^ No, not hardly.
[ Could you discuss a bit your technique of pre-visualizing a scene or sequence? ] ^ Well, especially in a big action film, one of this size, you have to have the whole scene designed in your head before you shoot it — that’s the purpose of storyboarding. If you show up on the day of the shoot, especially if you’re on water, and say, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we did this instead,’ you’ll find after calling around that it will take another three hours to shoot. Well, you can’t really afford do that. The difficulties of shooting on water are so enormous. Say you ‘re shooting in one direction for a clean horizon without land. If you want to do a reverse, you have to turn the whole set around to maintain it. So everything had to be meticulously planned, especially in the big action sequences. So I sat down several months in advance with storyboard artists and worked exactly what I wanted, shot for shot. Of course, that’s just a guideline and the day of the shoot you have to alter that, but at least you have a plan to go from. You know what materials you need and what logistics are involved, so you can break it down and take an almost the approach of a military operation. That’s the only sane way to do something like this.
[ Do you consider technical aspects such as lenses, lighting and execution while doing this? ] ^ Yeah, I do. In drawing something out, you have to consider what the physical complications of the shot will be involved in achieving it. You think, ‘Well, to get this kind of spatial relationship, we’re going to need this sort of lens’, and so on. It you know you’re going to require some unusual lens or piece of equipment, you’re going to have to order well in advance. So you try to identify all the requirements well in advance
[ There are director who consider technical things and then there is James Cameron. How do you consider yourself? ] ^ Well, I’ve never been on one of Jim Cameron’s sets, but from what I hear, he is intimately involved in every aspect of it. I’m probably not as involved, but still very involved.
[ How does this film compare visually with your others? ] ^ I suppose there is a common method, which is how you evolve your style. People will watch your films and see a stylistic thread, but I’m probably not really aware of what that is. This is just the way I go about things. It just feels right to me. But so far as articulating what makes me different, I can’t really do that.
[ Were there certain visual clichés you wanted to avoid? ] ^ You always look for new ways to do things and avoid clichés where you can see a bit coming a million miles away. But ultimately, when you show up on the set and you’re trying to shoot something, first you try to do it in a very unique way. And if that fails, you fall back on what works. More often than not, even if you and other filmmaker know how obviously a device works, it will still work on an audience although they have seen it time and time again. Because if you have structured a sequence properly, they are so caught up in it that they won’t notice the technique.
[ How was cinematographer Dean Semler initially brought to your attention or was he someone you wanted to work with? Specifically, were any of his films key to that choice? How would you describe his way of approaching a film in comparison to yours? ] ^ I remember the first film of his I had seen blew me away — it blew everyone away — and that was “The Road Warrior”. Ever since I had followed his work so I had always wanted to talk to Dean about Waterworld, and because he had worked on pictures of this size before. And he has such a great personality and attitude — he’s a real trooper. A rock. Nothing keeps him down and on a film of this size, you need a person like that. He understands the pressures and difficulties involved in doing a giant studio action picture. And Dean had extensive experience on water with Dead Calm, which looked great.
[ What did you present to Semler while initially discussing the film? Production designs? I understand the film had already been storyboarded very extensively. ] ^ I used storyboards. We would sit and talk about certain sequences and as they would evolve I would have in mind and we would talk about that. Dean would have ideas too, suggesting, ‘Hey what if we did something like this.’ So it evolved like that, but it was never said that we were going for a particular look and that’s it. I think we both knew the difficulty of shooting on water, so we figured that if we concentrated on telling the story, the film was going to assume a look of its own because of that. But the language between us it was really a matter of breaking the sequences into shots, showing them to Dean and figuring out between us what we would need to do it.
[ What research did you do to prepare for shooting on water? ] ^ Well, my first introduction to it was the picture I had done previously, Rapa Nui, which we shot on Easter Island. We were there for six months and did some water work for a sequence in which contestants in this grueling competition have to swim from the main island for a mile and a half to an islet off shore. We spent quite a bit of time on the water for that, which was pretty treacherous. That’s when I really saw how tough it is to line up boats and cameras and people and keep them in one place and to fight choppy water versus smooth water. That’s when I realized that anything you do on water is going to take you twice as long as anything you do on dry land, so I realized the need for having superior marine coordination and thinking things through in much greater detail than you normally would. Again, things you take for granted on land you can’t do at all on water. I can’t emphasis that enough. A shot can look very simple; here’s the camera, here’s a boat and here’s someone behind it. If we are on land, you have the camera, the foreground element and the background element. But on water, you have all your personnel on a boat with the camera, you have your foreground, your background and they all float apart. So somehow you have to anchor them, you’ll have boats on your horizon that you have to spend an enormous amount of time getting rid of, and all the problems of an unstable surface. But the shot still looks simple when it’s finished, so it’s difficult for people to understand the process.
There were a number of times when we would have a boat or buoy or something in the shot and it was cheaper to CG it out rather than suspend production. We had a problem where some of the locals realized what we were doing and would try to blackmail us by going out and sitting on the horizon. They wanted money to get out of frame, but after a while we just said, “Shoot it, we’ll get rid of them later.’
I had committed to “Waterworld” before shooting Rapa Nui, so I knew it was right behind that project. And after doing that film, I had to rethink my approach. Things were going to take much longer that I originally envisioned, which meant they would have to be simplified because I knew we weren’t going to have 300 shooting days, which mathematically it would have come to. It was good that I had that prior experience and we put together a crew that had water experience — although some were complete novices. There were a few people, in the art department especially, who had worked on The Abyss.
We had even entertained the notion of shooting at that big nuclear reactor facility where they had shot The Abyss, to use it for our underwater tank. But we found it in such a state of disrepair that economically it just wasn’t feasible. We didn’t have as much underwater work as they did. Most of The Abyss is interiors and underwater and model work, our is mostly surface exterior. A lot more people are involved, in these huge battles and such, so they are very different films.
[ Aspect ratio. How did you decide against anamorphic? What did you think about the idea to go full Academy? ] ^ We shot Robin Hood in 1.66 and Rapa Nui in anamorphic, but the action sequences were so big in Waterworld, and I had worked in those other systems beforehand, so we went with 1.85. I didn’t want to do anamorphic because even though the look is great, you’re limited in terms of lenses. You depth is very different. Your minimum focus is different. The lenses are more cumbersome. And I realized that we were going to need as much flexibility as we could get under adverse conditions. I also found that anamorphic tends to kill vertical because it emphasizes the horizontal. But the boat we had, the trimaran, has this huge mast. So in order to frame it in its entirety, you would have to have these really awkward frames with the trimaran way over here and huge empty spaces. We talked about shooting full frame, but we had so many inherent problems with this production that this was just one more headache we didn’t need.
[ Insert shots are typically the domain of the and unit, but I understand you were trying to get the most energy out of every shot – could you talk a bit about the grappling hook on the plane sequence? ] ^ It’s a very subtle thing. You can break action into very simple movements. You can just have a hand reach in and attach a grappling hook onto a piece of undercarriage. And a lot of films do that, it’s much quicker and simpler, but to give a picture size and scope, you have to take that tiny action and set it against a big backdrop. If you can design a film like that, it’s much more exciting. It’s more time consuming and complicated, but bigger. Like having a shot of someone lighting a cigarette while miles of explosions are going off behind him. When you see that, you’re taken aback by the contradiction of the simplicity and the scale. It you could do a whole film like that is would be fabulous, but you usually have to settle for the moments you can get.
There are a couple ways you can approach film. You can simply set up a camera and record action or you can force the eye. I like having my eye forced when I see a film. I like seeing something from a completely different perspective, where things are flattened out by an extremely long lens or distorted by a really wide lens. Consequently, I like to force the eye. It’s a hyper-reality, which I think is why people go to watch films.
But on this film I was really very limited in what I could do. Obviously, on the water where you have a lot of movement, you can’t use a 600mm lens to shoot a close-up. You can’t keep anything in frame. It’s impossible. You’re limited in your camera movement because you only have 100 degrees of clear horizon before you hit land. So that was frustrating.
[ Despite the number of production days, was shooting time limited by the circumstances? ] ^ That’s exactly right. We had to get the day’s work done because our shooting days were so enormously expensive — we simply just had to get the scenes shot. The sequence we discussed about the grappling hook, that was more rare than commonplace. It was a luxury to do a shot like that, but we were shooting in Los Angeles on dry land by that point.
A lot of the film was shot on the fly. You’d have a notion of how you would want to stage something, but you would get out there on the given day, depending on the conditions, and find out what would actually work. So we would have to re-conceive the shot or scene and then figure out where we could get the camera and then capture it. But I think that raw or dirty look lends itself to the picture.
[ What percentage of success did you have getting what you planned? ] ^ That’s hard to say, because again the script and the storyboard are really just a plan for the attack. But in the course of battle, things change. There is an ebb and a flow and you have to react to it. You have to adapt and then take what you have and cut it the best you can to make the sequence work. But I would say half turned out the way I planned and wanted, cut for cut. Which I think is a pretty high percentage for a film of this complexity. There is always compromise.
[ Could you discuss shooting in the trimaran? ] ^ It was tough. Dean and the grips designed a phenomenal system of platforms we could mount on the boat depending on where we wanted to shoot. The problem with it was that you could only put the platforms on or take them off at dock. So in the morning we would have to meticulously plan so we could shoot as much coverage as we could from any given mounting configuration before making a change. We even had two different trimarans, one for sailing and the other was a transforming trimaran which went from a trolling to a sailing mode. So depending on the shots, we were doing, we would sometimes be rigging two boats simultaneously.
[ I understand you did tests with platforms on the trimaran. Did the videos of those tests and set-ups make you rethink your shooting strategy at all? ] ^ What it really showed us was how limited we were going to be on the boat. It taught us in terms of time how long it would take to mount a platform, shoot and get reverse coverage — or the inability to do that. One of the things we wanted to do early on was use a position way up on the mast looking down with a hot-head. We were only really able to get a few shots from up there because it was so complicated putting a camera up there, which took half a day to rig which meant the boat was out of commission for that time. In addition, if any cast members were up there, you would have to run safety lines which would have to be hidden. Then, if you did a tilt to see the boat, you’re taking in an entire horizon, which meant you had to hide your operator somewhere inside the boat and put the rest of the crew in chase boats. So one shot could take an entire day.
[ Was there a time when the film’s consistent look, which was very expensive to achieve, was going to be compromised to save time or budget? ] ^ Well, you try to. But you inevitably have the conflict between art and commerce, where you do have to make compromises — especially on something of this scale, but we got away with it. The script went through several permutations, but we managed to keep most of it. There was one spectacular battle sequence we ultimately had to lose due to the expense, but we didn’t have to lose as much as we did on Rapa Nui, where we just ran out of time and money.
[ There was one shot in particular, as the Smokers are attacking and Mariner is backing the trimaran across the atoll lagoon when there is this tremendous explosion created by a gun boat. Dean Semler remembers the shot as particularly difficult because of the fading light. How much trust do you have to have to go forward in that situation? ] ^ There had to be at least four or five occasions where we were shooting at twilight for a sequence we had already established in broad daylight. But I would always trust Dean. I would turn to him and ask, ‘Do we have enough light?’ And I would be looking at this twilight thinking that it was never going to work, but Dean would say, ‘Yeah, let’s shoot.’ And that was one occasion where we were totally in shadow and so dark that I never thought it would match. But I saw it in dailies and somehow with his magic Dean had made it work. Always pushed it to the limit and got an amazing consistency, which is what makes him a great cinematographer. But Dean is such a consummate professional that it’s not an issue of trust. When he would say, ‘It’s too dark, we’re not going to get it,’ it was time to go home. The director is always willing to push if there is a chance to shoot, but Dean, unlike any other cinematographers I’ve known, will take even more chances. Sometimes you’re forced to shoot, you have to get something, but you also know that the shot is going to only be on screen for three seconds and hope that once it’s timed and balanced that the audience won’t notice the sky is overcast when the reverse was brilliant blue. Nine times out of ten it works. But that was a problem. Skies don’t match, water is like glass in one angle and choppy in the reverse, or you get a kick off the water and it looks white in one shot and then it looks lime green or deep blue. But again, if the audience is listening to the characters and watching the action, they won’t really notice it. There is one shot where the Mariner and Helen surface after being attacked by the Smokers and they are swimming to the wreckage of his boat, this burning hulk. We shot the close-up with them surfacing in the foreground and the sea was heavy chop. We shot that in open water. Then we went to a high, overhead crane shot, which we did in the harbor because the weather was so terrible on the day we had to shoot it, to the water is like glass. So they swim over to the remains of the trimaran and I notice the difference every time I see it, but I’m hoping the audience is watching is this once beautiful boat burning to a crisp. I’ll be very curious to see if that works.
[ Did the approach to shooting change at all after the production relocated to the Deez ship sets built down in the city of Commerce? ] ^ It was such a relief to be back on dry land where you have more flexibility, but we had a totally new set of complications with this gigantic 600′ ship deck, It was actually designed for forced perspective to make it look 1000′ long, but we realized after it was constructed that if you were down at the stern bridge portion it looked fine, but if you went to the bow, the big shipping containers that lined the deck, which looked like boxcars from the bridge, were actually about five feet tall. Is was really designed to be seen only from one direction. But there is one sequence where a plane is attempting a take-off from the deck and the Mariner snags it with a grappling hook and it crashes. It was really problematic because the plane, which was swallowed up that the wide bridge end of the ship, was way out of scale by the time it got to the bow. The wings almost hung over the edges. So we used a lot of trickery to maintain the illusion of size while it taxied down the deck, which was only 600′ long to begin with. The deck, even at a 1000′ feet, was a short take-off. So from shot to shot, we were trying to establish this distance but could only really use about ten plane lengths of the set to do it with before the scale difference was too apparent. That meant a lot of recycling and trying not to see the end of the ship, which would give you away, but you have to cheat the backgrounds so they don’t all look the same. That was very complicated.
[ Semler told me “There were times when I said to Kevin Reynolds, “Hey, what if we just went off with the three actors in the trimaran and just went to sea with a Bolex? Not see anyone or land for 3 months? Just go out there and film what happens.’ Like you might in a European picture. Like Werner Herzog might.” Would you have wanted to at some point? ] ^ (Laughs) Yeah, we often dreamed of that, but the only problem was that we would have gone completely mad staying on that boat for so long. It was hard enough staying on it for 12 hours a day, much less around the clock. I think everyone was grateful for the end of the day when you could set foot on dry land again. Early in production, we thought we could get these sweeping 360 degree shots of open horizon, so we’ll have to take the boat, sets and crew over the horizon so we don’t see any land. Well, very quickly we realized how completely ludicrous that was. Just to take everything and everyone outside the harbor each day took 30 minutes. But every day we tried to simplify everything, just so it wasn’t such a monumental headache.
[ Would you do another water-set film? ] ^ When I first considered doing this picture a couple years ago, I called up Steven Spielberg and asked him if I wanted to do a film set entirely on water. He said, ‘You might, but I’ll never do it again; “Jaws” was the worst filmmaking experience of my life.’ And I know what he means. I’ll never do another water picture, once in a lifetime is enough. It’s just too hard.
[ Did you have any attraction to the science-fiction genre? ] ^ No, I really don’t. This is pretty unique. You have this world and the notion that it was the result of a man-made catastrophe. I’m very concerned with ecological things and issues, because I think that’s the overwhelming problem that the world faces right now — our own self-destruction. And that’s really what appealed to me. But the genre does allow you to create a time and place where people see themselves in other characters. They can say, ‘That’s us’ or ‘That’s me’ and hopefully will subtly learn a lesson from it. I don’t like pictures that bash people in the head with a message. It’s just more entertaining if you can subtly slip a message in for people to discover themselves, like Planet of the Apes, which had a very similar theme of self-destruction. Ultimately, that’s what “Waterworld” is about, looking at what we’re doing to ourselves.
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