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After years of struggling to get inside the doors of movers and shakers, the makers and stars of Open Water are finding doors open: director Chris Kentis found himself sitting with Harvey Weinstein and star Blanchard Ryan now goes straight into the director’s auditions, without going through the motions with the assistant casting director, the casting director and the assistant director. Andrew L. Urban talks to the filmmakers during their Sydney visit to promote the film.

“It’s been such a wild ride,” says Chris Kenton in his booming voice. “A year ago at this time, my wife (Laura Lau, producer) and I were sitting in our tiny little office in our Brooklyn apartment working on the computer on the film and a couple of weeks after Sundance I’m sitting there across from Harvey Weinstein … that’s quite a leap. And ever since then we’ve been taking meetings with the studios.”

"real life incident"

Kenton and Ryan are in Sydney to promote the film, (Australian release October 14, 2004), and our interview takes place at the 32nd floor terrace bar of the Intercontinental Hotel, overlooking Sydney Harbour. You can almost see up to the Great Barrier Reef from there, the place where a real life incident inspired Kenton to make Open Water. Two SCUBA divers are accidentally left behind on a vacation reef dive boat trip; the film is a hypothetical reconstruction of an accident off Cairns. But the characters are purely fictional, and the setting is deliberately fuzzy. The filmmakers didn’t want to create problems for anyone’s tourist business.

Young professional married couple Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan) set off on a hurriedly rescheduled holiday amidst the stresses of their working lives. They arrive at the tropical location looking forward to R&R, including their favourite sport – SCUBA dividing. They drift apart from the main group and the dive boat leaves, after a faulty headcount confirms all divers have returned. Daniel and Susan are now alone in open water, with only the local sharks for company as their harrowing ordeal begins.

Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis are excellent as the young couple, especially considering the film was shot over a two year period at weekends and at one stage there was an 11 month gap while Travis recovered from an unrelated accident. Their performances are so natural and the film is so effective, their careers have benefited. “The film has really changed everything in quite a dramatic way,” says Ryan. “You’re on the radar … you’re on that list. It’s unbelievable and Daniel and I joke about it; we’re the same actors we were six months ago that you had no interest in…I haven’t become more talented, but all of a sudden you’re a genius and they just love you! It’s very funny and I’m not complaining, but there’s a degree of cynicism here…”

Ryan says “it used to take me half a dozen auditions to just get into the room with the director, now I just go into the room. I’d go through the assistant casting director, the casting director, the assistant director and maybe a couple of associate producers before I got into the room.”

"started as an experiment"

The irony of it all is that Kenton and his producer wife Lau never expected the film to see the light of day. It was a project that started as an experiment using digital video techniques. Kenton, himself a SCUBA diver (he made a point of visiting the Great Barrier Reef for a dive near the location of the original incident), read the news story of two people being inadvertently left behind, and seized on it as an ideal subject for a film made within the paramteres of digital filmmaking. “More documentary-like than 35 mm storytelling…”

They’d hire a lobster boat in the islands of the Bahamas and spend entire days shooting, and then come back another weekend. Or later. There was no trailer and there were no lunch breaks. Kenton’s parents would sometimes pop down and cook meals. 

They worked with local shark experts who took them to an area where sharks were plentiful and had lots of contact with people. The sharks – between 45 and 50 in all - knew they’d be fed; they’d be thrown bits of bloody tuna, to entice them into the vicinity of the actors – and so into shot. “Working with real sharks was key,” says Kentis. “Today everything is done with CGI and personally I don’t get the same sense of danger that I did with movies from the 70s and 80s when you saw stunt men doing these amazing things.”

For Ryan, the role represented a collection of all the basic fears: “We confronted every fear we had…being in the water and staying strong and healthy despite sunburn and dehydration and fatigue; swimming with the sharks which is a huge primal fear of mine; nudity, which was a whole other level of intimidation and carrying the film on our shoulders. Two unknown actors who nobody cares about…but being in the ocean and the circumstances really fed me. The other challenge was to get back to where we were in the shoot every time we had time away during the many breaks.”

Despite the episodic shoot, Ryan felt it was a fantastic experience. “We stayed in character all day…so in some ways it was actually easier than usual, when you shoot for a few minutes and go back and sit there waiting for hours till the next shot.”

"fresh talent"

She and Travis were cast because they were unknowns: that was then, of course. “I was inspired by the notions of Dogma 95 filmmaking,” he says. “We were interested in a close knit, collaborative, family-type environment, and we wanted a real, doco like look. So we used fresh talent.”

Published October 21, 2004

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Chris Kentis and Blanchard Ryan


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