How 'Underwater' Filmmaker William Eubank Channeled Kristen Stewart's Hatred of Water
[The story contains mild spoilers for Underwater and The Signal.]
From the moment he met Kristen Stewart, Underwater director William Eubank was impressed with her willingness to take on a challenge that involved something she hated and feared — water. Months later, Stewart would find herself underwater, inside a 200-pound suit, while encouraging Eubank to roll the camera as soon as possible in order to capture “real fear.”
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“When we sat down, she said, ‘I hate underwater.’ She didn’t mean the movie, she just really doesn’t like water,” Eubank tells The Hollywood Reporter. “She said, ‘I love this movie. I love Norah’s character, but I’m gonna be frank: I hate water. So, I wanna do this.’ It was almost like a challenge to her.”
Since wrapping principal photography in the spring of 2017, Underwater has been sitting on a shelf for the past year as Eubank awaited word on how the Disney-Fox merger would affect the release of his 20th Century Fox film. There even came a point where Eubank feared it would never see the light of day.
“To be totally honest, I had to be quiet about it. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and the people above me didn’t seem to totally know — or couldn’t speak of it — for a while,” Eubank explains. “You start to wonder, ‘Did we make a movie that won’t get seen?’ I was getting pretty nervous, for sure, but … in the end, it all worked out. We weren’t sure what Disney was going to say, but eventually, they said, ‘We love it, and we’re going to release it.’”
Even though the film was met with mixed reviews and a quiet opening weekend amid a crowded box office, Eubank remains positive about the film’s long-term outlook.
“I’m so grateful to have partners like [producers] Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping while making this movie,” Eunbank says. “You always want the movie to perform for the folks who dive in the trenches with you, but I really do think the movie will have a long life ahead of it.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Eubank also discusses working with his first substantial budget of $50 million, his experience meeting Ridley Scott and how It director Andy Muschietti became Underwater’s unsung hero.
All three of your films explore confinement to varying degrees. Have you figured out what attracts you to this theme?
I don’t really know, but I will say this … When I was making my first movie, Love, that was a really strange time. I started trying to make that movie, and it really was not working. Basically, I had to move back home, and when I started building the sets to make the movie, I was just doing it by myself and trying to keep the rain off me. There were so many things that were going on in my own personal life, and after moving back home with my parents, I really was confined and on my own at that time. You don’t really think of making a real movie because you’re just in your own backyard, but I think a lot happened during that time, personally, where I was able to channel that loneliness to a certain degree. It was easy to write that kind of stuff and figure out how to get into characters’ heads when I was by myself at that time. It was an easy thing to channel, I guess.
On Love, you made the most of a tiny budget. The Signal also looked more expensive than it was. Since you had a more substantial budget on Underwater, was there a feeling of relief, or was it a whole different type of anxiety?
Obviously, Underwater is my first big, big movie where you’re just like, “Oh my gosh, the armies of Mordor are building this.” At the same time, you’re also like, “I worked pretty hard to get here.” So, you feel pretty certain of what you’re doing at that point — and grateful. I’m really grateful to get to be a big kid and make this kind of stuff. As a kid, I would always try and sneak into R-rated movies, and back then, I just wanted to make movies. To finally get to that place where you have all these assets and unbelievably talented people working with you, there’s not a day that goes by where I’m not grateful to be here.
When filmmakers are limited or constrained in some fashion, they’re often more creative and resourceful, something you proved on your first two films. Even though you had a bigger budget, did you still find ways to be resourceful so you could allocate the money where you needed it most?
Oh my gosh, yeah. Even though this is a pretty big-budget movie, it’s in a weird place because it’s not a $100 million-dollar movie. With the tax credit, our budget was about $50 million in Louisiana. We knew right away that we had to do a lot of this “dry-for-wet.” So, that was going to eat up $30 million, right then and there, for visual effects. A lot of the stages were dark, and we used a faint haze. We would then measure the volumetric lighting — from the actors’ flashlights and such — and use that information to start the water simulations.
So, it was kind of like a big-small movie. I learned this on Love, but you’re working with puzzle pieces. It’s absolutely no different, no matter how big the movie gets. There’s a lot of the exact same problems — just with bigger toys — and that’s part of the fun of it.
While the Disney-Fox merger likely played a role, how did this film sit on a shelf for this long?
The merger was obviously a big thing, and to be totally honest, I had to be quiet about it. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and the people above me didn’t seem to totally know — or couldn’t speak of it — for a while. You start to wonder, “Did we make a movie that won’t get seen?” I was getting pretty nervous, for sure, but you just have to trust that you made something with your heart and somehow people will see it. In the end, it all worked out. We weren’t sure what Disney was going to say, but eventually, they said, “We love it, and we’re going to release it.” When you work for so long on something, that was a tough time. People were like, “After a five-year hiatus, Will Eubank is back,” and I would respond, “I wasn’t on hiatus; I’ve been working on one film!” (Laughs.)
Did you tweak the film off and on the entire time?
Our post was unbelievably long. We were in post for over a year, and we finished the movie a year ago. I remember we shut the doors a year before last December. So, there was a long time where I was just at home reading books and things. So, no tweaking during that time period.
Kristen hasn’t done too many major studio films since Twilight ended. Since she’s mostly been focused on independent film, was she a tough sell at first, or was she more receptive than people might expect?
When we sat down, it was my first time meeting her, and she read the script. She then said, “I hate underwater.” She didn’t mean the movie, she just really doesn’t like water. She doesn’t like swimming in the open ocean; she has a desperate fear of water. Kristen does what her heart tells her, and she does what she wants to do. She said, “I love this movie. I love Norah’s character, but I’m gonna be frank: I hate water. So, I wanna do this.” It really blew my mind how direct she was about what she loved, what she wanted to do and putting her fears out there on the table. It was almost like a challenge to her. At that point, I was like, “We’re going to be really safe about any actual underwater stuff,” and she was like, “Great, thanks. I hate it.”
We did some scuba training, and there are some actual underwater scenes. The suits that they wore were about 100 lbs., but when they actually went underwater, the suits were over 200 lbs. They needed to have that weight to go underwater. Once you get sealed in that, it’s like being in a coffin; you can’t get yourself out. They had to go through diving training on all that stuff, and Kristen was just like, “What are we doing?” (Laughs.) She also said, “As soon as I get in this thing, turn the camera on because it’s going to be real fear.” So, those shots where you see her going underwater for the first time, that’s her working extremely hard to overcome something that would make most of us look terrified.
Many critics have commented on the film’s homage to Ridley Scott’s Alien, but I’ve noticed several other influences, too. What was on your mind as you were making this?
Honestly, I almost took more influence from video games I love such as Dead Space, BioShock and Soma. Although, I’m sure all of those took a lot from Alien. But even when you look at Alien, Ridley hired all the artists from Jodorowsky’s Dune [H. R. Giger, Chris Foss, Jean Giraud] and a lot of his visual choices were taken from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can’t build the future without building on top of the past.
Obviously, I love Alien, though, and Ridley has always been one of my favorites. While I was scouting in China, I got to meet him at the top of the Grand Hyatt in Beijing. He was doing press for The Martian at the time. He said he watched The Signal, and he told me he thought my attention to detail was spot-on, which made me so happy. His company almost produced another movie I wrote called World Breaker, but I took Underwater instead.
When filmmakers show an early cut to friends and family, they'll often receive some feedback that unlocks something important in the movie. So, is there an unsung hero who looked at your movie and noted something that made a big difference?
100 percent. I don’t know if you saw last night’s Q&A [Jan. 7], but Andy Muschietti, the director of It, hosted it. He’s a close friend of mine. In fact, I met him at a screening of The Signal, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m such a huge fan of yours.” At the very start of that movie, when Nic wakes up Jonah and goes, “Hey, Nomad’s back,” that’s an homage to Andy’s movie, Mama. Anyway, he visited many times during the cut, and he’s such a mastermind of horror, suspense and true characterization. He’s so thoughtful about character choices and the spiritual aspects of horror. There were a lot of times that he gave me great advice, even simple things. He would come over late at night, after whatever he was working on, and we’d sit in the editing room as he’d sketch up these pictures of the creature coming out of the shadows … It was really fun having a friend and confidant to look at some of these things and give me his opinion. So, he helped me a lot with the things I was doing with the creatures, and I owe him a huge thanks.
I've talked to several DPs turned directors, and some of them have admitted that they drive their DPs a little crazy. Were you able to take your DP hat off for the most part?
For sure. I’m happy to take that DP hat off … I would hope that it’s more like I’m supporting the DP in the sense that I’m trying to give them great things to shoot. I just try to fill the frame up, and when you get somebody as talented as Bojan Bazelli, he’s like a big kid but so talented. I’m in awe of the stuff that he does. As long as I gave him great things to put on camera, he did all the work. Sometimes, you think you’re better at stuff than other people, but there was never a second that I thought I was better at this than Bojan. I was constantly blown away … Anything he and Roberto De Angelis, the cameraman, would do with the camera was magical. Some people you work with are just the real deal. Any of my DPism was completely gone.
I also tend to ask directors about composing cool shots, and most of them insist that their shot composition is always in service of the story. Very few have admitted that they’ll compose a shot for the sake of being cool. Since you know how to compose a unique shot, where do you stand on this subject?
Near the end of the movie, I went into the camera guys’ room at one point, and there was this massive list of movies that they’d been writing on the wall. I was like, “What is this?” and they were like, “That’s you! All you talk about is these movies and getting a shot for the trailer!” Sometimes, I just feel like it’s easy to distill what you’re working on if you’re actually thinking about how you’re going to get people to see it in the first place. I know that sounds silly, cheesy and cheap, but I just love thinking like that. When you think about the movie from the trailer and what a trailer shot would be, it distills your movie in your head of what’s important and what’s not. All these choices cost so much money, and you can only do certain ones. So, I’m not afraid to admit that I’m often just going for the cool shot. (Laughs.)
Can you talk a bit about casting Jessica Henwick?
She’s amazing. She read for us, and she floored me immediately with the scope of what she could do. You’re always trying to see someone’s range, and she delivered these moments with accuracy and pinpoint precision. She seemed so thorough with her characterization of Emily in the film. You know right away when you see it. When you’re watching tapes, you’re like, “Oh, that could be good,” and suddenly you’ll see one where you’re like, “Oh, wow! That’s the level.” She’s just one of those people. We were watching something happen.
Did you use a Phantom camera for the slow-motion sequences?
Yeah, that’s all Phantom. Ironically, I had a Phantom on The Signal for the whole movie. They just sort of gave it to us. On this movie, we could only get the Phantom one day here or one day there. So, I was always trying to milk as much as I could out of it. Kristen actually got on a wire and got shot back for one of those shots. It was pretty crazy to watch.
Did you ever shoot a moment where Smith (John Gallagher Jr.) finally gives Emily (Jessica Henwick) Paul’s Moon Pie once they washed ashore?
We did, yeah. There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t quite make it out of the back end. Unfortunately, a lot of these things had to be cut because we had such a limited budget in terms of what we could finalize with visual effects and certain things. Maybe someday there will be a director’s cut, but the problem is even with a director’s cut, they’d have to go and make more water, extend hallways … Because it’s so perspective-driven, mainly Norah’s, there are some rare scenes where you cut away from that, and one of them was that Moon Pie scene with T.J. and John.
Relative to the sci-fi horror genre, I thought the character dynamics were rather interesting since we rarely see two women saving each other while dragging an unconscious man along with them.
(Laughs.) Yeah! Honestly, I know it sounds stupid, but I didn’t even think about that while reading the script. While shooting it, we were just like, “These girls are saving the day.” When you look back, you thought that maybe Smith would save the day since he said, “I’ll be there with you every step of the way.” He ended up being there — but as dead weight. (Laughs.) I love John so much. We had our little event last night, and he and I were in some bar afterwards just drinking. It was his first time seeing the movie, and he goes, “I know they were just dragging me, man, but I loved it.”
When the Captain (Vincent Cassel) said his daughter was 14 years old and Kristen’s character disputed that by saying that she should be the same age as her, I immediately thought you were setting up a reveal that Kristen was his daughter, and that they’ve all gone crazy down there. Obviously, that didn’t end up being the case, but did anyone else bring this theory up to you?
Oh, wow. No, I’ve never heard that, but I can see how that can be thought of that way. There’s some really cool secret things in the movie that I don’t want to say until way down the road when the movie has been out for a while. There’s some fun stuff with Alice in Wonderland and some other things. Running down the hallway at the start of the movie, that’s Gunner Wright from my first movie, Love. I think I gave him the same name, Lee Miller. He’s also the voice throughout Roebuck Station.
I did want to build this idea that you’d have to be a little crazy to truly work down there. There’s just no way you’d go to a place that isolated and that hard to get out of without being a little loose in the noggin. But, yeah, that’s a really cool thought about that direction with his daughter. Unfortunately, it’s a little darker than that.
At the end of The Signal, were the Albuquerque rail yards the foundation for the shot that initiated the closing sequence?
They were, yeah! How did you even realize that? That’s amazing.
I’m overly familiar with Albuquerque’s filming locations, and I was always impressed by this shot because you managed to do something new with a location that’s frequently used.
That’s awesome, and I love that you noticed it. When you’re popping out for that ultimate reveal, I tried to keep some of the influences of that structure. You can still see those long window panels that are kinda cool. I can’t believe you noticed that. It’s a crazy location.
Since you’ve had some time to think about it, do you know what you’re doing next?
I’m working on a lot of different things. Right after this one, Fox optioned my next one, Warbot, which is a pretty cool story that I wrote. With the merger, I’m not sure how that all shakes out, but we’ll see.
Underwater is now in theaters.
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