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In 1979, Ridley Scott's landmark "Alien" brought the horror genre to outer space. In 1989, James Cameron plunged a submarine crew into danger below the depths in "The Abyss." Tapping into what both of those films did best and introducing exciting characters and creatures that feel entirely new, "Underwater" offers sci-fi and horror fans a compelling, visceral adventure set seven miles beneath the surface of the ocean and anchored by a fearless central performance from critically acclaimed actress Kristen Stewart.

Stewart is Norah Price, a gifted electrical engineer who becomes the de facto leader of a band of survivors after disaster strikes beneath the waves, forcing them to evacuate the mining rig where they've been living. Five thousand miles from land, they struggle to find a way to make contact with the surface in the hopes of calling for a rescue, soon realizing that a harrowing march across the bottom of the ocean might be their only path to safety. Slowly, and with growing horror, Norah and the group begin to understand that they're also facing a very different kind of threat: a biological threat that's existed for ages undetected in the murkiest depths. Suddenly, the possibilities of escape seem that much more remote.

The best genre films always are somehow rooted in the real world, and from the start, "Underwater" was conceived as a wildly ambitious blend of science fiction, action, horror and humor, yet one that could plausibly take place in the not-too-distant future. The film began its journey to the screen as a genre-bending pitch from screenwriter Brian Duffield, whose credits include the third installment in The Divergent Series, 2015's "Insurgent." Duffield's initial script immediately captured the attention of the experienced team at Chernin Entertainment. They saw at once the inherent potential in the story of an undersea mining expedition gone wrong and what happens when the characters must go to extraordinary lengths to survive in the unforgiving environment.

"The simplicity of the concept initially drew me to the film," says producer Jenno Topping. "The movie follows a group of individuals attempting to move from point A to point B on the bottom of the ocean while outrunning a monster. This type of structure and its affiliated themes felt original within the thriller-horror space. It built upon the traditions of both of those genres while exploiting a really cool mysterious environment: the bottom of the ocean where 95% of it has yet to be explored."

Adds producer Tonia Davis: "You could call this a survival movie because it's survival against the elements-you just don't know what those elements are. One of the things that we love the most about this undersea world is that there's so much unknown, and it's actually unknown not even that far off the shore."

The producers recruited Adam Cozad ("The Legend of Tarzan") to refine the screenplay and deepen the relationships among the characters: Norah, Captain Lucien, marine biology student Emily, operations expert Smith, systems manager Rodrigo and scene-stealing jokester Paul. Cozad turned to Alien for inspiration, but equally important was Cameron's action-packed 1986 sequel, "Aliens," both of which, of course, featured Sigourney Weaver in her iconic role as heroine Ellen Ripley.

"When it came to the character of Norah, she's a bit of an homage to Ripley," Cozad says. "It didn't matter if Ripley was male or female, and that made her such a trailblazer. No one else had really done a character like that. That was the real inspiration, to try to write Norah as a character where her sex really had nothing to do with what her arc was. That felt like a very authentic representation of a character. It felt like the world we're living in right now, it's the right message to put out there."

As the screenplay took shape, the producers searched for a director who would be able to sustain the white-knuckle tension the story required and who would feel comfortable with the visual effects necessary to tell a story set entirely under the ocean and introducing new aquatic species. William Eubank proved to be the perfect choice. After a well-received indie debut, "Love," the writer-director-cinematographer broke out with his second feature film, "The Signal," a twisty sci-fi thriller that made waves when it premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Once the former cinematographer pitched his vision for the movie, it was clear that there was no other filmmaker for the job. "Will Eubank felt exciting to us as a filmmaker," says producer Topping. "In initial meetings, he had a striking sense of curiosity. He was obsessed with discovering how little we know of the mysteries surrounding the ocean's depths. Visually, we were drawn to him because he is an incredibly confident and inventive filmmaker. Beyond his talents creatively, he is energetic, smart and a tireless worker, all qualities that ended up being crucial to the shoot."

Adds Davis: "He was full of energy and enthusiasm and had visualized the whole thing. When he's pitching ideas to you, it's like they already exist in his brain. He said, 'This is how we're going to open the movie.' And literally, even the camera that we used is what he talked about in that very first meeting. That gives you a sense of the precision with which he approached this process and this project. He really knows exactly what he wanted."

For his part, Eubank was excited by the script's themes of survival against the odds, the mysteries beneath the ocean surface and the inherent claustrophobia of the seeing. "Our fears of the water and the unknown are so intense," he says. "The second you're in the water, you're out of control. You can't breathe. It's totally dark. The deeper you go, the weirder it gets. There could be anything down there."

Eubank and Cozad worked together closely to avoid the tropes of the "monster movie"; it was important to them both, as well as the producers, to keep the audience guessing and to ratchet up the tension as the story evolved. "There's a lot of movies that have one monster, and you have to set them up in a very particular way," Cozad says. "This is very fluidly and very organically creating this escalation that in a normal horror movie you can't do. The stakes just keep going up."

As the screenplay progressed, Cozad would send drafts of various scenes to the director, who would build computer models to help determine how the sequences might look when they played out on the big screen. "He was building these CG representations on his computer on the weekends that were so much cooler than what I had in my mind," Cozad says. "His image of it that he would render was so much more epic."

To test out some of Eubank's wildly ambitious ideas, the filmmakers did a one-day test shoot to create a 90-second piece that would serve as a proof of concept. In it, a member of an "Underwater" mining crew hears something over the radio that doesn't sound right, walks across the ocean floor to check on a coworker in another area and finds her missing-only one of her gloves remains behind. As he turns, a monster leaps at him as if from nowhere. The studio liked what it saw, and "Underwater" was a go.


Once the story was established, the filmmakers sought to assemble a stellar team of actors to bring the crew of the Kepler mining operation to life. They began with the lead role of Norah Price, an electrical engineer haunted by her troubled past. "She's tough, she's cool, she's enormously capable and she doesn't suffer fools," says producer Tonia Davis of the character. "Norah's journey of the movie is really going from a place of not being sure about her role in the world to being enormously certain and taking on the mantle of both leader and shepherd for the rest of her crew-and then also facing her own demons and her past, which we discover along the way." Finding a gifted actress who could deliver a nuanced performance while holding her own in breakneck action sequences was paramount. From director Eubank's very first meeting with the producers, there was only one actress he could envision as Norah: Kristen Stewart. "She's so dramatic, and she's so charismatic," says Eubank. "Her face, without her even saying anything, delivers so much. The things that she's able to do subtly, with just a nuanced facial expression, are incredibly powerful."

"Norah starts this film completely caught unaware," says Stewart. "She's quite literally caught with her pants down, brushing her teeth in the morning, when the rig explodes. People tend to get emotional or show different colors in trauma, and Norah is closed off, a little emotionally unavailable. In the course of the movie, you find out that she's in the midst of a pretty intensive grieving process and she really doesn't think she has anything left to lose. Just when it might be too late, she realizes that there's really never a point where you have nothing to lose. There's always something to keep fighting for. Life is precious. Then she really finds her feet and becomes a hero."

"I love watching Kristen on screen because she always conveys a unique combination of strength and vulnerability, which was exactly what the character of Norah required in spades," says Topping. "The whole point of her character was to cause the audience to lean further in, hoping to understand what she is hiding of herself."

Although the physicality of the role helped shape Stewart's performance, her connection with the character was immediate and required little in the way of training or research. "I didn't have to prepare for the role," Stewart says. "They're not soldiers. They're completely normal people doing a job working somewhere they were told was safe but was not. What she's good at is fixing screens and tightening screws and making sure the oil rig runs functionally, but she's definitely not somebody who knows how to survive a situation like this. So, the most preparation I could have done would be to be as present as possible."

It was Stewart's suggestion that Norah's head should be shaved. "Kristin was so game from the very get-go," Davis says. "Literally, 48 hours later, 72 hours later, we were at a hotel room with a hairdresser, and she was shaving her head and dyeing it blonde. To meet somebody who was so immediately committed and not just willing to do the intensely hard work of shooting this movie but also was really willing to completely transform herself to do it? That was just inspiring to us all."

Caught in this predicament with Norah is the captain of the Kepler Station, Lucien, a good soldier who knows the lay of the land and the possible route the remaining members of his team can take to survive. He's determined to get everyone out alive. Veteran French actor Vincent Cassel had both the dramatic chops and the gravitas necessary for the role. "Vincent has an amazingly powerful, enigmatic air about him that just screams captain of an "Underwater" mining vessel," Eubank says. "He's super tough. He looks like he could give you great friendly or fatherly advice. But he also looks like he could wrestle a bear if he needed to."

The same could not be said of Emily, a marine biology graduate student who possesses tremendous academic knowledge of both deep-water plant and animal life but very little experience working in the field. When disaster strikes, she's terrified and must dig deep within herself to find the courage necessary to continue on. To portray Emily, the filmmakers chose Jessica Henwick, who was previously seen as the warrior Nymeria Sand on HBO's "Game of Thrones" and accomplished martial artist Colleen Wing in Marvel's "Iron Fist." "Emily, in some way, serves as the audience's eyes in that her reaction to everything is very real and innocent,"

Henwick says. "Since most audience members will not have gone through this situation, she's probably the closest point of contact."

Smith, a good-natured operations expert who shares some history with Norah, does his best to help Emily through peril. Having been based at the Kepler facility almost as long as Lucien, he's the designated optimist of the group. John Gallagher, Jr., who starred in the films "Short Term 12" and "10 Cloverfield Lane," won the role. "He's a good-hearted person who cares a lot about the safety and survival of the team, about getting everybody else out alive," says Gallagher, Jr. of Smith. "There's an everyday quality to all the people in this film. They're really tight-knit, and they take care of each other, and they depend on each other."

"He's warm, he's funny, he's smart and he's super engaged," Eubank says of Gallagher, Jr. Adds Davis, "John is charming, sweet and handsome, and like Smith, a little nerdy."

Mamoudou Athie, whose credits include the series "The Get Down," "The Detour" and "Sorry for Your Loss" as well as the films "The Front Runner" and "Patti Cake$," plays Rodrigo. A systems manager who is emotionally and spiritually grounded even under duress, he inspires Norah to confront her traumatic past. "There's just so much soul and power in his eyes," Eubank says.

Rounding out the group is Paul, a macho welder with an ego to match his imposing physical size. With a fair amount of technical know-how, he's spent more hours outside the rig than anyone else doing the "Underwater" equivalent of space walks. A surrogate big brother to Norah, he does all he can to protect her. At the same time, Paul has a great sense of humor. And a stuffed rabbit he cherishes. "Will came to me and said he thought we should add a little bit of levity and a little bit of fun to Paul, who had been originally conceived as just a tough guy," Davis says. "There was only one actor we could all think of who's big and strong and burly on screen but who could also keep us going on the fun journey that we wanted to be on-that was T.J. Miller."

It turns out that Miller, who was coming off HBO's hit comedy "Silicon Valley," was fascinated by the "Underwater" world; "The Abyss" is one of his favorite movies. After meeting with Eubank, he was impressed by his vision for the project and his earlier work. "I thought he would give me the space to make this character whatever I wanted it to be," Miller says. "Plus, there's not a movie like this in the landscape right now, and that's often what attracts me to stuff . There's no movie that is "Aliens" crossed with "The Abyss" crossed with a completely new kind of claustrophobia that's going to be in this film."

In "Underwater", time is short and oxygen is in short supply, and the characters must surmount every new obstacle to have a second chance at life. "The fact that the story all takes place "Underwater" feels thematically compelling to me," Topping notes. "This sense of claustrophobia feels like it mirrors the evolution of Norah as she evolves over this extremely compressed period of time. You become incredibly emotionally attached to her and root for her to survive against all odds so she can have a chance at life again."

As Norah grapples with her personal demons and the literal monsters all around her, Topping is optimistic that the audiences who turn up ready for excitement and thrills will connect with her journey on a deeper level, too. "I hope they go for a ride and indulge in the fun and scares of the film-and maybe when they leave the theaters they take with them the emotional catharsis of watching a character choose to not only live, but to fight for what they want out of life," Topping says.

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