A MYSTERIOUS THREAT. AN ISOLATED LOCATION.
SURVIVAL IS NOT GUARANTEED.
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 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
"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 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
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.
THE CHARACTERS AND THE CAST
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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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