Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey
Poisonous Seaweed, Meddling Weinsteins and the Stench of Broccoli: Johannes Roberts on 47 Meters Down
If you happened to find yourself browsing through Walmart’s aisles in August of 2016, you may have come across a DVD titled In the Deep. Unless you particularly fancy Mandy Moore or Matthew Modine, there’s no reason you would’ve paid the movie’s shark-laden cover any particular attention – not with the glut of sharknados and sharktopuses gliding through the B-movie waters. Yet one year later that very same film – rechristened with its original title 47 Meters Down – debuted in American theaters on its way to a $40-plus million box office run. How did a movie seemingly resigned to the abyss of the Walmart DVD bargain bin become one of the year’s biggest independently produced hits? British writer/director Johannes Roberts (Storage 24, The Other Side of the Door) tells Filmmaker the tale of the unlikely reclamation of 47Meters Down.
Filmmaker: As a young horror fan growing up in the States, my education in the genre began at the video store. Did you have a similar experience as a kid in the UK?
Roberts: Absolutely. I was a big video store nerd.
Filmmaker: I’ve always been interested in the “Video Nasties” era in Britain – this period in the early 1980s where censors banned a long list of horror films from video store shelves.
Roberts: It was a very strange time. It got very puritanical. Basically there were movies put on a list that you couldn’t watch. A lot of other movies that would come out would just be hacked to pieces. The [censors] used to butcher those movies.
Filmmaker: Was there a Holy Grail movie for you on that list?
Roberts: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. When I was about 16 I got a bootleg copy. There were always bootleg copies knocking around. There were all these myths built up around that movie. I remember being told that it had real killings, that the director had gotten a bunch of drunks and bums and had just killed them. Then when I watched the movie I was like, “What the fuck? Why has this been banned?” As a kid I just wanted to see gore and Texas Chain Saw Massacre had almost none. Some of those banned movies seem kind of quaint now.
Filmmaker: The elevator pitch for 47 Meters Down is that two sisters (Claire Holt, Mandy Moore) are trapped on the bottom of the ocean floor in an observation cage, surrounded by sharks and running out of air. I read that for you the impetus for the script was really more about the diving than the sharks. What’s the most frightening experience you’ve had while diving?
Roberts: My writing partner and I are actually working on the sequel 48 Meters Down—the very cleverly titled sequel (laughs)—and it’s all about cave diving. When I was shooting 47 Meters Down we went–myself, one of the stunt doubles, and the line producer–and got our cave diving qualification and that is terrifying. Going down to wrecks is also actually pretty scary. I did one in Malta that was 40 meters down and one in Croatia that was over 40. You go through this dark, blue water and then suddenly, looming out of the darkness, there’s the wreckage sitting silently at the bottom of the ocean. It’s pretty fucking creepy.
Filmmaker: You can use that for 49 Meters Down.
Roberts: Right. 49 will be all about wrecks. And then 50 Meters Down will be in space. (laughs)
Filmmaker: There’s something about the title 47 Meters Down that has a ring to it. Definitely sounds better than 150 Feet Down. How did you land on that title?
Roberts: I’d been working on a treatment for another movie about Captain Scott, who was a British polar explorer, and I called it 11 Miles Out, which is where he died, 11 miles from safety. That treatment never went anywhere, but I think the [rhythm] of that title was something I quite liked. Then I thought, “Okay, what depth?” I wanted something that was vaguely believable. It had to feel deep, but not like some sort of abyss.
Filmmaker: The movie unfolds in real time and, once the sisters plummet to the ocean floor, the camera stays underwater with them rather than crosscutting with the rescue effort. I know that some early drafts of the script had more characters in the cage, but were there ever drafts with more scenes back up on the surface?
Roberts: The script started as more of a teen horror film and there were four or five people in the cage and we were intercutting back and forth. We did a version like that and it just felt dull to be honest. We were struggling to make the concept work. Then by chance we happened to watch Touching the Void, the mountain climbing documentary, and it was like, “Oh, this is what 47 Meters Down needs to be. It’s not a shark movie. It’s a survival movie.” And that really changed the direction of the film. We cut it down to two [people trapped in the cage] and made it a survival movie at its core. Then obviously we went to town with the sharks after. (laughs)
Filmmaker: I read that during prep you watched pretty much all the shark movies you could find.
Roberts: To a point. We would watch any theatrical shark movie, but once you got into things like 2-Headed Shark Attack, we left it at that. I’m not a huge shark movie fan, oddly. I love sharks. I’m absolutely crazy about sharks, but I don’t actually think there are very many good shark movies. To me it was more about the underwater setting, so we also looked at things like The Abyss and Leviathan.
Filmmaker: Let’s get into your movie’s insane release story. When did the Weinsteins come aboard as producers? Did they pick up the film after it was finished?
Roberts: No, they came on early. We shot a one-minute teaser with a terrible CGI shark in it and based on that teaser we pre-sold the movie around the world — enough to greenlight the movie even without a script. Then we wrote the script and Bob Weinstein read it and he bought it. We shot the film and I delivered the original cut and the Weinsteins liked it but they wanted more shark stuff. So they gave us more money and I wrote three or four new sequences and we went back and shot some additional shark scenes.
We tested a rough cut of the movie and it tested okay. When you test, the audience rates the movie on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being amazing and 1 being shit. [The producers and the studio] only care about how many people rate the movie with a 4 or 5. If there’s a large number—over 70 [percent] ideally—then that’s a home run and they don’t care about any other notes. Then the other thing that they do look at is recruitment. When they go out and ask people, “Do you want to see this movie for free?” they look at how easy it is to fill the cinema. And it was really hard to fill it for our screening. I remember that they actually delayed the start of the screening to make sure more people came in. That really makes [the studio] very nervous, because they’ve got to put in $20-$30 million to properly release a movie theatrically in America. And if you’ve got a movie where it’s going to be a struggle to get people into the cinema, no matter how good the movie is, that’s very nerve wracking.
So it tested okay–not great–and the Weinsteins basically dumped it. It went from where I was talking to them all the time to them just not speaking to me anymore. The next thing I knew the movie was scheduled to come out on DVD. I think I found out because I read it on a website. They didn’t even bother telling me.
Filmmaker: How did Entertainment Studios end up buying the movie?
Roberts: [Entertainment Studios founder] Byron Allen saw it and said, “I love this movie. I want to start my own theatrical distribution label and I want this to be my first movie.” So he offered to buy it off Bob. But then the deal looked like it was going to fall apart at the 11th hour. Bob had already made all the DVDs, so they loaded them up on trucks and sent them off to Amazon and Walmart and Target and off they went. I actually burst into tears when I heard that because it had been such a fucking hard road. The Shallows had already come out—and we’d started way before The Shallows. So Byron then came back with more money and Bob ended up doing the deal. But Target and Walmart had already put the DVDs out [on the shelves]. So it was out in shops and you could buy it off of Amazon. It took maybe two or three weeks for them to get all the DVDs back. But because there were copies that were sold, it went right up onto [the torrent site] The Pirate Bay. So I just thought we were finished. But this guy Byron, he’s crazy as a box of frogs. I wouldn’t have taken that risk, but he just believed in it so much.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk a little bit about the shoot. All the stuff above the water was shot in the Dominican Republic and then after the cage drops it’s mostly footage shot in a water tank. Was it a proper tank?
Roberts: We couldn’t afford Pinewood, which is the main underwater tank, so we used a tank just outside of London in a town called Basildon. It was basically a large swimming pool with a tent-like covering. It was as rough as you can get, but we had the run of the place and the guys there were great.
It was a very, very hard shoot. It was an incredibly hot summer and it was not like this was some beautiful air conditioned place—we were basically inside a big black tent, which made it like a greenhouse underneath. To make the water look like it had sediment in it, we filled it with bits of broccoli. When you’re down in the tank, nobody gets out to go to the loo. Everyone just goes in the tank. So eventually it became this stench of rotting broccoli and urine. It was horrendous. I wrote the movie because I thought it would be an excuse to go diving in some beautiful locations. (laughs)
Filmmaker: How long could the actors be underwater?
Roberts: You couldn’t keep them under for more than four hours. After that we’d get the girls out and send them home and we’d put their doubles in and shoot wider stuff. It was a very hard movie to block and rehearse. We’d just have to keep running the scene [underwater] again and again and again until it came to life. You’d have to basically block and rehearse live while you rolled. I had two cameras and I’d roll and basically never call cut. It was very tricky for my editor Martin Brinkler because he was getting tons and tons of footage.
Filmmaker: Did you have any other unforeseen issues in the tanks? I imagine the diving masks presented some fogging and reflection problems.
Roberts: There were loads of things. The DP, Mark Silk, made a very brave decision to not light the masks from the inside. If you look at movies with masks, they almost always light the inside of the masks to light the face. But it’s actually nonsensical, because if you have a light inside your mask the only thing it’s doing is blinding you. So we decided that we weren’t going to do that, but it made our lives very hard. There were just small things that we didn’t realize. Mandy had a white mask with translucent material and it gave her this beautiful soft glow around her face. But Claire had a blue mask and it didn’t let any light in.
Then when we were in the Dominican Republic the big thing was the seaweed. I think the movie looks beautiful, but the moment we called cut all these trucks would come in and sweep out this really poisonous seaweed. I actually had to go to the hospital because I got caught swimming in it.
Filmmaker: At what point did you see some of the finished CGI sharks? If the sharks don’t work, you’re screwed and you’re airing on Syfy in a double feature alongside 2-Headed Shark Attack.
Roberts: That was obviously a huge worry. I saw a test of one of the opening shots where a shark is swimming around the cage and Outpost VFX had gotten it close [to the final look] and I just remember thinking “Thank Christ.”
Filmmaker: My favorite shot in the movie is a bit where the camera bobs in and out of the water and every time it dips below the surface we see a shark getting closer to the sisters. Where did that shot come from?
Roberts: Do you know what, I can’t remember. I’d like to say that was quite planned, but I couldn’t 100 percent tell you. It could well be that we got into the edit room and then said “Fucking hell, this would be great.” It’s definitely a movie that was made in the edit. It was a very tough edit and a very long edit. We had mountains of material and we would just work it and work it.
Filmmaker: I don’t want to give away too much of the twist ending, but is there anything that isn’t spoiler-y that you can tell me?
Roberts: To be honest with you, the way I wanted to end the movie was to leave Mandy down there. That was my initial cut—the camera just leaves Mandy sitting at the bottom of the ocean. Bob hated it. He kept talking about Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws—“You wouldn’t kill Richard Dreyfuss, would you?” He just kept saying it over and over. And he kept talking about a movie he did called Pulse and how disastrous that was and that had a down ending. So I lost that battle. When we went back in and shot the extra shark attack stuff I shot [the twist ending you now see in the film]. Some people absolutely love that twist and some people absolutely hate it. I do wonder if we didn’t have that twist, what would’ve happened to the movie? Would it have done better or would it have done worse?
Filmmaker: Is 48 Meters Down next up for you or are you still working on that Stephen King adaptation from Hearts in Atlantis?
Roberts: There are a few things going on. There’s 48 Meters Down. There’s something called Thirteen O’Clock. Then there’s Hearts and a few other bits and bobs. I’ll probably make a decision on the next project within the next month and then get cracking.
Filmmaker: Do you have a favorite Stephen King story that hasn’t been filmed yet?
Roberts: I quite like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. I always thought that would be a cool little story. But Hearts is my favorite thing he’s every written. I’m desperate to make that.
47 Meters Down is now available on VOD and Blu-ray/DVD – for real this time.