Peter Benchley first came up with the idea for The Deep when he was doing research on a story for National Geographic in Bermuda. While there, Benchley learned about shipwrecks, and one in particular captured his interest: the Constellation. When it went down during World War II, the Constellation had been carrying a cargo filled with medicinal drugs, and - incredibly - the spot where the ship sank was directly on top of not one, but two other shipwrecks that had gone down hundreds of years earlier. Slowly, the idea for a new novel began forming in Benchley's head. When he met local legendary treasure diver Teddy Tucker in Bermuda, he found the inspiration for the character of Romer Treece.
When word got out that Peter Benchley was about to finish writing The Deep in late 1975, every hard-hitter in Hollywood stood ready to pounce. After all, Jaws, Benchley's first novel, had been turned into the biggest box office smash of all time in the hands of Steven Spielberg. Among those interested in seeing if lightning would strike twice with The Deep was Peter Guber. Guber had been a successful executive with Columbia Pictures for several years and was looking to establish himself as a producer. With a deal in place at Columbia, Guber formed his own company, Peter Guber's Filmworks, and set out to find a high profile project for his first venture and The Deep fit the bill perfectly.
When the novel was still in galley form, Peter Guber quickly got hold of it and devoured the story in one night. "While the tale lacked, as one critic would later put it, 'the maxillary crunch of Jaws,' it was a good, compelling story in its own right," said Guber in his 1977 book Inside the Deep, "and the filmic possibilities practically leaped off the pages." On November 5, 1975 a deal was finalized giving Guber the rights to make the film before the novel had even been published. Peter Benchley himself would write the screenplay.
The short list of directors that Guber came up with included Steven Spielberg, John Frankenheimer and John Boorman, but they all were already committed to other projects at the time. Another name - Peter Yates - kept popping up for discussion. Yates was a talented director whose biggest film up to that time had been the Steve McQueen action hit Bullitt in 1968. When Yates proved to be both interested and available, Guber secured him to helm The Deep.
While Peter Benchley went back to his typewriter to transform his about-to-be-published novel into a workable screenplay, Guber and Yates set about finding appropriate locations to shoot The Deep. The story was set in Bermuda, but they still had to consider other options with factors such as cost, availability, and accessibility contributing to their final decision. Places such as Florida, the Bahamas, Jamaica and even Catalina were considered. In the end, however, Bermuda itself turned out to be the best choice. It was authentic, had a wealth of comfortable accommodations for cast and crew, and it was easily accessible to New York where the film dailies could readily be processed. It would be an expensive shoot, but the benefits of filming there far outweighed the detriments. It would be worth it, believed Guber.
To prepare for the shoot, Guber and Yates recruited help from some good friends of Peter Benchley. Bermuda treasure hunter Teddy Tucker, who helped inspire Benchley to write The Deep and on whom he based the character of Romer Treece, was hired as a consultant on the film. A colorful character and a valuable resource, Tucker would be a wealth of information for the production team. Stan Waterman, considered one of the best underwater cinematographers in the world and a skilled diver, was hired to photograph the film. Rounding out the core production team was Al Giddings, another prominent underwater cinematographer who was also, as described by Peter Guber, a "maverick designer of underwater camera equipment."
With such a distinguished technical team in place, Guber and Yates wanted "a film richer in underwater visuals than has ever been done before. The majesty and terror of the deep, portrayed in exquisite detail and jewel-like color. Everything from close-ups of golden treasure gleaming in underwater sand drifts to panoramic vistas of a huge shipwreck sprawled across the ocean floor. In other words," said Guber, "all the spectacular 35mm Panavision visuals which film viewers have come to expect from feature films shot on land-underwater." There was only one problem according to Al Giddings: the camera equipment that would be needed to accomplish all of those things did not exist.
In order to achieve the cinematic clarity and excellence they were looking for with The Deep, Al Giddings decided to build an entirely new camera system. "Working around the clock for ninety days, Al Giddings has come through with three new cameras for tens of thousands of dollars in equipment," said Guber, "no charge for the priceless ingenuity or countless man hours involved...Now rarely do I see a piece of equipment that makes me want to wax lyrical over its beauty, but our new cameras are really gorgeous instruments, and Al has every right to feel like a proud papa. [They] are small and sleek, housed in shiny Ferrari-red watertight aluminum cases-the photographic counterparts of a sexy new Italian sports car. And they're just as beautiful inside. Al began with compact Arriflex cameras, outfitted them with Panavision lens systems, and then added such refinements as a 'dome port' - a glass hemisphere over the lens-and other optical engineering to compensate for the visual distortions of filming in water. The cameras are electrically driven, capable of high-speed, slow motion, and standard shooting speeds, with complete flexibility of focus and aperture and a wide range of interchangeable lenses. All told, they weigh just seventy-five pounds on land, and in the water, all of eight ounces!"
Giddings was also asked to help find a real shipwreck that would serve as the story's Goliath, a crucial plot element of the film. While there were thousands of shipwrecks all over the world, the one that they needed would have to be very specific: "It has to be lying in very clear, relatively shallow (100 feet or less) water close to hotel and diving facilities," explained Guber. "It has to be fantastic-looking, cavernous, and mysterious, with a huge, intact hull section."
After looking at shipwrecks in Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Grand Cayman Islands, it was cinematographer Stan Waterman who came across the perfect one: the Rhone in the British Virgin Islands, which had sunk in 1867. The Rhone was a huge wreck in relatively shallow waters that was close to a luxurious beachside community-it was ideal. "That's our Goliath," director Peter Yates announced when he first saw it.
Before filming began, the production team also had to figure out how they were going to safely shoot the extensive underwater scenes that the story called for using actors who were inexperienced with diving. While Guber and Yates desperately wanted as much authenticity as possible in The Deep, the thought of submerging actual stars into the ocean for long periods of time raised alarm bells with executives at Columbia Pictures. For years, Hollywood had used water tanks safely built within the confines of the studio to film anything underwater. However, Guber and Yates felt strongly that this method would not work for The Deep. The ocean was too much a part of the story, they believed, that it simply must be as authentic as possible. Tony Masters, the production designer on the film, had an idea: "So, when we can't go into the ocean," said Masters, "let's bring the ocean to us!" The solution became to construct a controllable underwater tank on location "using all the visual elements that the real ocean offered: real sea water, real fish and sea life...a total, absolutely authentic underwater environment, the biggest such undertaking in the world. That way," said Guber, "we could do all the key establishing exterior scenes on the actual wreck of the Rhone in the Caribbean of the British Virgin Islands, but do the intricate scenes which had to take place inside the shipwreck on an underwater set painstakingly built to look just like the real thing."
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Peter Benchley was having trouble turning his novel into a strong screenplay. After completing two drafts, the studio decided that it still needed some work. In order to bring a fresh perspective to what Benchley had already written, a new writer, Tracy Keenan Wynn (son of actor Keenan Wynn), was brought in to do a rewrite.
While all of this was going on, in April of 1976 the hardback novel of The Deep was officially released. With positive reviews and word-of-mouth, it didn't take long for the book to become a worldwide bestseller-extremely welcome news to everyone working towards the film production. If public interest was any gauge, it looked like The Deep could be a big hit.
When the time came to cast The Deep, Guber and Yates began with the character of Romer Treece. Even though Treece was essentially a supporting character, he was pivotal to the plot and required a skilled veteran actor in the role. Names like Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Sean Connery were all tossed around for discussion. However, Guber and Yates thought one person in particular would capture Treece perfectly: Robert Shaw. Shaw had also appeared in Jaws as the unforgettable shark hunter Quint, and his link between the two Peter Benchley tales would surely work in The Deep's favor.
To play the leading role of David, every name from Ryan O'Neal to Jeff Bridges came up before someone suggested a not-so-obvious choice: Nick Nolte. After several years of kicking around Hollywood, Nolte has just scored a major hit with his breakout performance in the 1976 TV miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, which had earned him an Emmy nomination. At first, Nolte himself wasn't interested in playing what he considered to be a rather bland role in The Deep, and many studio executives didn't think he had the box office clout to carry an expensive high profile film. Even director Peter Yates wasn't convinced that Nolte would be right. However, Guber did his best to convince everyone that Nolte was the right choice. Nolte and Yates agreed to meet and talk about it. "I walked into a conference that could not have started on shakier ground if we'd held it on the San Andreas fault," said Guber, describing that meeting. "Here was an actor that the studio didn't want, sitting down to discuss a part he'd already rejected, with a filmmaker who'd decided he wasn't right for the role anyway! Nick immediately sensed that Yates wasn't too thrilled with him for the character. But as they talked, Nick became intrigued with the changing character and with the challenge of working underwater, and Yates became intrigued with Nick. Finally, after two hours, Yates reached across the table to Nick and said, 'You're the man for me,' knocking Nick for a loop." As Nick Nolte recounted in a 1998 interview, "...after Rich Man I had a lot of offers for three picture deals and I'd say, 'What are the pictures?' And they were always crap. There were three pictures I tried to get into that year: Apocalypse Now, George Roy Hill's Slap Shot, and Billy Friedkin's Sorcerer...And during all that time, they had The Deep just sitting there, with my agents going, 'Do The Deep! Do The Deep!' Since I wasn't cast in these other pictures, I went to work and did The Deep."
Finding the right actress to play Nick Nolte's leading lady Gail proved to be more difficult. At the beginning of the casting process Guber and Yates discussed using Katherine Ross, Candice Bergen or Charlotte Rampling. Guber was particularly interested in using British actress Jacqueline Bisset, a brainy beauty who had established herself in films such as Bullitt, which had also been directed by Peter Yates, and Airport (1970). However, the studio had a different idea. They wanted to launch a broad talent search for an unknown new actress to play Gail. It would, they believed, be great publicity for the film. Soon girls from every walk of life were lining up to have their chance to be cast in The Deep. "There were wall-to-wall appointments with sweet young things," said Guber, "and wall-to-wall readings with an amazingly obliging Nick Nolte."
Despite the onslaught of potential movie stars, it turned out that truly talented actresses were few and far between. The talent search quickly became tedious. "The girls just didn't have 'it'-star quality, charisma, presence, call it what you will," said Guber. "We still wanted Jacqueline Bisset for Gail, more than ever." Soon they got their wish and Bisset signed on.
Filming began on the underwater sequences in the British Virgin Islands during July 1976 near Peter Island where the real Rhone shipwreck was located that would be doubling for the film's Goliath. Shooting on location in the ocean presented plenty of problems for the production team - most of them having to do with Mother Nature. There was the problem of being at the mercy of ever-changing weather conditions. Then, there was the problem of plankton distortion. "Even assuming you have a tolerably clear and calm sea," said Guber, "plankton and sand are always in the water. And even if it's invisible to the human eye, it reflects the light in strange ways onto a camera lens, reducing visibility and contrast. Even more strange is what happens to color in the deep...At twenty-five feet below sea level, the colors of the spectrum, begin to vanish...In fact, the deeper you get, what you don't light, you probably won't see at all. Since you can't light up the whole ocean, you settle for key lighting and special filters and pray that the background sunlight filtering down will provide enough ambience illumination of colors, textures, and depths of field to create an effective image on screen."
Another big challenge was dealing with temperatures in the deep. "Working in warm, 80-degree water is equivalent to working in a bathing suit in 42-degree air, since water draws heat away from the body very quickly," said Guber. "It may feel pleasant at first, but soon the body is struggling to maintain itself at 98.6 degrees. Wetsuits help by allowing a thin layer of water next to the skin which warms quickly and helps maintain body temperature. Al Giddings has designed good-looking wetsuits for the crew, but even so, the cold will eventually force us to limit their time in the water. And for our stars, who will not be wearing wetsuits in several underwater sequences for aesthetic reasons, the diving time will be cut to almost nil."
While stunt doubles were used for Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset for the more dangerous underwater sequences, Guber and Yates encouraged the actors, along with the rest of the cast and crew, to take diving lessons so that they would feel more comfortable in the ocean. Bisset was particularly apprehensive about doing her own diving at first. However, with a little practice, she was soon enjoying it and volunteering to do many of her own stunts along with Nolte. Robert Shaw already had diving experience, and after brushing up on his underwater skills, according to Guber, it was more difficult to get him out of the water than get him into it.
In August 1976 the production moved to Bermuda where Peter Yates was able to capture the gorgeous location scenery and local flavor that was so crucial to the story. Between shooting on land and in the giant above ground tank that was constructed near the water, the cast and crew were able to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the tropical paradise. Despite the occasional bout with cabin fever, it was a mostly enjoyable experience for everyone. In November, principal photography on The Deep was finally completed.
Everyone had high hopes for The Deep when it opened in theaters during the summer of 1977. To capitalize on the success of Jaws two years prior, Columbia promoted The Deep with a big PR campaign. Marketed with a memorable movie poster and tagline that asked: "Is anything worth the terror of The Deep?", the film's stars hit the TV talk show circuit while the media ran an onslaught of ads promising that it would be the next summer blockbuster. The Deep even tapped into the disco craze at the time with Donna Summer contributing a song called "Down Deep Inside" to the film's LP soundtrack, which was pressed on see-through ocean-blue vinyl.
The PR push worked, and audiences lined up around the block to see The Deep when it first opened. Although it never reached the stratospheric level of Jaws, it was a solid hit and eventually became Columbia's top-grossing film of 1977.
Critics, however, weren't as kind as moviegoers. While they praised the gorgeous underwater photography and technical elements, many pointed out weaknesses in the story as well as what some saw as an unconscious racism with the majority of the film's villains being African-American while all the heroes were white.
Nevertheless, the success of The Deep helped turn both Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset into major movie stars, with both actors' careers taking off soon after its release. Bisset became an instant sex symbol thanks to the opening sequence that famously featured her diving in a wet t-shirt. "That t-shirt made me a rich man!" Guber reportedly said according to the 1996 book Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood.
Producer: Peter Guber
Director: Peter Yates
Screenplay: Peter Benchley (novel and screenplay); Tracy Keenan Wynn (screenplay)
Cinematography: Christopher Challis
Art Direction: Jack Maxsted
Music: John Barry
Film Editing: David Berlatsky
Cast: Robert Shaw (Romer Treece), Jacqueline Bisset (Gail Berke), Nick Nolte (David Sanders), Louis Gossett, Jr. (Henri Cloche), Eli Wallach (Adam Coffin), Dick Anthony Williams (Slake), Earl Maynard (Ronald).
by Andrea Passafiume