Alone, 11,000m under the sea

Alone, 11,000m under the sea
James Cameron (above) emerging from the submersible Deepsea Challenger after his solo dive into the desert-like bottom of the Marianas.

Director James Cameron's on-set tantrums have become the stuff of Hollywood legend. Kate Winslet famously said she almost drowned while working on his 1997 movie Titanic and has vowed to never work with him again. During the making of Avatar (2009), if a crew member's telephone rang during shooting, Cameron would nail it to a wall.

Speaking to the press in New York last month to mark the release of the film documenting his solo dive to the deepest point on the planet, Cameron talked about what fuels him, giving glimmers of the high standards he expects of those who work with him.

"I am really interested in the technology and the challenge of testing myself. I would have loved to be an astronaut, but that choice is not available," says the 60-year-old director.

On March 26, 2012, he locked himself in the submersible Deepsea Challenger and plunged nearly 11,000m into the ocean off Papua New Guinea, in the deepest solo dive ever taken. The dive was a partnership between Cameron, National Geographic and Rolex.

To mark the release of the documentary, Deepsea Challenge 3D, Rolex unveiled a new version of the Rolex Deepsea watch, one it bills as the "ultimate diver's watch", waterproof to 3,900m.

Three specially scaled-up Rolex Deepsea watches were strapped to the outside of the vessel, where they withstood pressures of seven tonnes per square inch, equal to, as Cameron says, "several train cars resting on the watch face".

While at the desert-like bottom of the trench, he stayed for several hours, shooting images in high- definition 3D and collecting biological samples. This is much longer than in 1960, when Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in the bathyscape Trieste reached that depth for the first time and stayed for 20 minutes. Walsh was an adviser to Cameron's attempt.

Cameron's record-breaking feat and other exploratory ventures, including his expeditions to the wrecks of the Titanic (in 2001) and the warship Bismarck (in 2002), reveal the side of him that would rather go explore the edges of the world than make movies.

He says he does not prefer one activity over the other. "I still love making movies. But I don't like the glitz and the glamour and being on the red carpet, or the Hollywood power trips or being on the phone with agents. But I like the work," he adds.

In fact, the seven-year preparation for his dive into the Marianas Trench overlaps with the making of Avatar.

"During lunch breaks and after hours, I would video-conference with the team," he says.

The submersible was built in Sydney, Australia, by research and design company Acheron.

As it is safer and less expensive to make a small command sphere than a larger one, he had to fold his 1.87m body into the cramped space.

It was anything but luxurious, he says, and he has told a crowd of inquisitive schoolchildren that he relieved himself into a bottle during the hours-long dive.

While movie-making might be less physically taxing than ocean exploration, there are similiarities between the two activities, he points out.

"I like working with a small team to solve problems that nobody's solved before. It's taken me a while to realise that the expeditions and the movies are the same, if you boil them down," he says.

There is no word yet on whether Deepsea Challenge 3D will be released in Singapore.

In his later years, he has said in interviews, he has mellowed.

But, as he says in New York, that might have been the result of becoming sharper about choosing whom he brings along with him, to make the point that a driven leader needs to be surrounded by driven followers.

He mentions the early 20th-century Antarctic expeditions of Ernest Shackleton and how he picked the right people.

Shackleton is the British explorer famous for leading an expedition to the Antarctic in 1914. His ship Endurance sank, and he and his crew drifted on the ice for months before they were all rescued.

Says Cameron: "The most obscure art in leading a team is selecting people. When Shackleton picked people for the ill-fated expedition that made him famous, he used a newspaper ad that said 'Some glory, death a possibility, hardship certain'."

"He made it sound terrible. And the people who answered the ad were the right people."

johnlui@sph.com.sg

The writer's trip to New York to attend the release of the documentary National Geographic's Deepsea Challenge 3D was sponsored by Rolex.


This article was first published on September 18, 2014.
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