If you’ve seen the commercials for the undersea thriller Underwater, out this Friday, you might not be aware of director William Eubank’s journey as a cinematographer to making well-received indie thrillers like Love and The Signal before taking on a studio picture with a big name star like Kristen Stewart.
In Underwater, Stewart plays Norah Price, an electrical engineer in the Kepler drilling station resting along the Mariana Trench, 7 miles under the sea. When an earthquake hits the station, Norah and some of her surviving colleagues need to fight their way across the ocean floor to a nearby station. But they’re not alone down there.
Although it’s taken some time to get Underwater released, including a huge amount of VFX work and a new studio i.e. Disney taking over the movie in the middle of post, it’s actually a pretty decent thriller if you’re into movies like Leviathan, The Abyss and others. (Put it this way. It’s a better movie than Sphere, although that might not be saying much.)
The Beat got on the phone with Eubank earlier this week for the following interview:
THE BEAT: I know you write a lot of your own material, so was this something that Chernin or Fox have been developing for a while before you came on board?
William Eubank: I don’t know how long they’d been developing, but they got the script from Brian Duffield, kind of under the radar. I don’t think it really went out to market. I think they snatched it up right away. Around that time, I was talking to Universal about trying to get my hat in the arena to do Fast and Furious – I don’t remember which one – but my agent sent me this and they’re like, “Hey, Will, you might enjoy this.” I remember it was one of those scripts where I just sat down – I didn’t really know anyone at Chernin at the time – and I read that script and it was right from the get-go, I was like, “Whoa! This movie just turns on.” It was just such a fun read and such an interesting place. I didn’t know how we would do it, but I was like “Oh, this is cool.” So rarely do you just power through a script because you want to get to the end to learn what’s going to happen, and this was one of those scripts.
THE BEAT: I personally love under sea sci-fi thrillers and space thrillers as well. Were you a fan of the genre yourself?
Eubank: You know what’s funny? I’m going to be totally honest here. I hadn’t seen Leviathan or DeepStar Six. I’m a fan, but I guess I haven’t done all my research and I just say that because everyone keeps saying like, “This is just like Deep Star Six” or “This is just like Leviathan,” and I’m thinking, “Oh man, I’ve never seen those movies.” Now I hear them all the time because people keep mentioning them. Some people say that we can’t make more underwater movies or something. Just because there’s A Fistful of Dollars, it’s not like you can’t make more Westerns, so I just feel like there’s not enough underwater movies, so let’s get some more out there, right?
THE BEAT: I actually was thinking more of The Abyss
Eubank: Oh my God. I’m a huge fan of The Abyss, and obviously I’ve seen that “Making Of,” and it’s mythological what Cameron accomplished there. He’s just not human.
THE BEAT: A movie like this, you have to build a lot of stuff, either on set or in a computer, and then you have all that water, so how do you start preparing a movie like that?
Eubank: Well, you just start eating it one bite at a time. A lot of things that we had to technically figure out because we had some “dry for wet,” and then we had some tanks. We’re not a $100 million movie, we’re $60 after the tax credit in New Orleans. It was really trying to figure out how do we accomplish this, basically knowing we had this much allotted for visual effects and this much for practical effects. It was just like a giant puzzle trying to figure out what order to shoot this in, and how to get the actors in and out of suits and when to put them into actual suits that went underwater… so you’re constantly just juggling everything you can imagine.
THE BEAT: I imagine the creature design was done fairly early on, as they’re certainly very unique-looking creatures.
Eubank: Oh, thanks. To be totally frank, we started with a different creature. Obviously, you start with these creatures, you’re designing them while you’re pitching the movie to get a green light. As we started shooting the movie, they evolved. I started with something that was much more, almost realistic, and as you go down the rabbit hole of really imagining what could be down there, the deeper and deeper you get, there really could be anything. We started to get more and more mythological and without giving any spoilers away, I knew at the end of the day, to have something where what if tomorrow, they get some footage and it seems like there’s something living down there. I just thought it was so creepy. What if you see footprints down there tomorrow off of one of the things? That’s going to freak everybody out. Do you see what I’m saying? If suddenly we got from the submarine little footprints or something, it would just change the way we even think about the ocean — everything. Just going down that rabbit hole of… We know so little, so therefore, there could be anything.
THE BEAT: So few people have actually been down there, too. I think James Cameron might be one of the few people, oddly enough.
Eubank: Yeah, then again, I’m telling you … the guy’s like an alien, and we just don’t know it.
THE BEAT: What about Kristen Stewart? Was she involved very early on as well?
Eubank: Yeah, she was. In fact, she was our first pick and when we got her, it was obviously just so exciting to get her opinion on things. The truth is that she hates water. She said flat out, “I can’t stand water. I don’t want to swim in the ocean. I don’t like going underwater. I don’t like it, so I want to do this.” It sounds cheesy, but this was really a challenge that she really wanted to go for. Right away, we were doing some dive-training stuff, and she was just like, “Look, don’t put me down there that much. Just when you do, turn the camera on and what you will see is real fear.” Obviously, we had the ones that were for “dry for wet,” which were about 80 to a 100 pounds, and then the ones that actually went underwater, there were these huge chest pieces and they weighed over 200 pounds, and you had to be lowered with a cable actually underwater. Once you’re in, it’s like a coffin. You cannot get out. And when it is time to get out, it takes you like 30 minutes to get out of it. So I mean she’s… the whole cast are gladiators for putting themselves in this position. And I have to be honest, I never actually went under water in one of these suits, but from what I thought it looked horrifying. So, they all are champions.
THE BEAT: Yeah, those suits look amazing. They’re bulky and they look heavy and very real when underwater. I’m not sure if that was done with FX or other movie magic, but I doubt people will be able to tell.
Eubank: Oh, thank you.
THE BEAT: Going back to Kristen, she’s been making a lot of interesting choices, and this movie really seems to be out of her wheelhouse in some ways.
Eubank: Yeah, Kristen is such a champion. She literally is so singular and not just her voice and whatnot, but just in her decisions. She was just like, “Look, I don’t normally do movies like this, but this terrifies me and I’m drawn to the character. I’m willing to put my truthful fear out there and try to do this.” When Kristen Stewart says that to you, you’re like, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s figure out how to make this happen.” Then it’s my job to try to put her underwater as little as possible. That was the hard part. Sometimes, even in the dry suits when we were doing some “dry for wet,” the suits were so heavy and cumbersome, that to even do another take sometimes it was painful, because you know that they’re in pain. John [Gallagher] was telling me last night when I saw him, that a lot of the days he had itches on his face that he couldn’t even touch his face because the arms don’t get to your face. That’s something that astronauts and people have to go through a lot. I never even thought about that, to not be able to touch your face in these suits would be so awful.
THE BEAT: You do a lot of research into stuff like that during pre-production?
Eubank: Actually, our water safety guy, Jim Pearson, he actually trained me how to dive. I went to him long time ago because I knew he was one of the authorities on diving in the movies, and he’s been diving his whole life. He was in Vietnam diving, and he’s a really awesome legend of a man. Early on, I would go to him and I learned to dive from him; we’d dive off Catalina. I was like, “Yes, I want to do this movie Underwater.” He probably used to think, ”Will is never actually going to do this movie.” One day, I finally called and said, “Yeah, I’m doing that movie.” I used to ask him about these pressure suits and deep, deep water diving and he’s such an authority. So when I called him, I was like, “Come on board, we’ve got to do this.” He ended up working with Legacy who does all of the big effects for Marvel and then built our suits. They worked together to actually build the version of the suit that would really go underwater. It was just so cool to get to work with such a legend like Jim Pearson and actually make something that he said they’ve never really been made like this before with a breathing apparati and all this other stuff.
My research was basically that I used to pester him like all the time: “What kind of suit would work like this? Can you make this kind of helmet?” It was cool to see it come to fruition and really get to use Jim to actually do the movie.
THE BEAT: I think you shot this movie a while ago, so was there a lot of post-production involved? Or has the movie been done for a while, and the studio had just been looking for a spot to release it?
Eubank: Yeah. Because we had some “dry for wet,” which we did in such a unique manner. We would shoot using a technique I think they pioneered on The Martian. You would shoot on dark stages and use a very thin ball of smoke and use volumetric lighting to then measure the lighting and then fill that in with water in post. Lots of scenes are done like that, and we were in post for a year. I would tell people I was really directing bubbles in the end, just trying to make the bubbles look real. We had all these techniques and tricks at times. It’s always like a slight of the hand, so sometimes you’d be like, “Gosh, this water doesn’t feel real or it doesn’t feel right.” So you would come up with, “Well, maybe we can make this happen over here” and playing with these bubbles. You’re almost tricking the eye sometimes, but yeah, that took forever obviously. And then, of course, Fox was bought by Disney, so then we had to sort of wait for that to finalize before we would get our release date and all that jazz.
THE BEAT: Have you been writing other projects during that time as well? I see you have a project with Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Is that something that you might tackle next?
Eubank: Oh yeah. Tautona, that’s a great one. not sure if that’s next, but it’s a really cool script I wrote with my brother, the same guys who I wrote The Signalwith. So we’ll see. I also sold another one, sort of quietly, to Fox right when I finished this called War Bots. That is a huge passion project for me. We’ll have to see what’s next. I’m not totally certain, but I’m always writing, so yeah, hopefully maybe one of these goes next.
THE BEAT: War Bots is a great title.
Eubank: Oh, thank you. It’s so good, man. It’s sort of my homage to things like The Iron Giant and movies that I loved growing up, so we’ll see what happens with that.
THE BEAT: It’s great talking to you again now that you’ve transitioned into making studio movies, and I really liked the movie. And I’m not just saying that either.
Eubank: I really appreciate that.
THE BEAT: I’m not sure other critics will be as fair to it as I am because its January and critics generally hate on all movies in January…
Eubank: We’re doing okay so far. We’re like at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. I know that’s going to change probably up or down, but I’m really happy. 50% to me means one person likes it, one person doesn’t.
THE BEAT: That’s actually pretty good.
Eubank: Who knew? So we’ll see what happens. With these movies, you’re just making stories for fun. And so at the end of the day, you just want it to reach the audience. So we’ll see.
THE BEAT: I actually liked the tension and thought it was pretty frightening, and I don’t scare easily. I think Kristen brings a lot to that, but you also just don’t know what’s going to happen next, which I liked.
Eubank: Oh, thank you. We put the camera inside the helmet a lot and I just think that would be the most terrifying thing. So it was really funny getting the rating. We were trying to get the PG-13 rating, and they just kept coming back saying like, “We don’t know what to tell you to change, but it’s just so scary.” We were like, “Okay, how do we get this PG-13 rating, but get this down without lessening the intensity?” There weren’t things that they couldn’t specifically say to change, which normally they do, like “Remove this F bomb” or “do this.” But it was just… I think it’s that claustrophobia and that tenseness was overwhelming. We actually got it to this place where it was like “This is overwhelming, just enough.”
THE BEAT: I’m not sure anyone will ever understand the MPAA system, and it’s going to be something that’s haunting filmmakers and cinema for the rest of our lives.
Eubank: We got to turn James Cameron. That’s his next feat… to figure that out.
THE BEAT: That would be awesome. If I ever talk to him, I will suggest it.
Underwater is now playing nationwide.