Here's a tip if you're planning on swimming with lethal, 11-foot sharks: Feed them well, and they might not think of you as shark food.
In Jaws, Steven Spielberg built a mechanical monster that terrified moviegoers in what would become the modern-day model of a big-budget, summer movie blockbuster.
Nearly three decades later, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, filmmakers have found a much simpler way to conjure up deep-sea terror: They simply threw bloody chunks of tuna into the water, attracted a swarm of 40 to 50 large sharks, lined the actors' scuba suits with chain mail, and hoped for the best.
The result — Open Water, which opens nationally today — speaks for itself. Audiences in New York and Los Angeles, where the movie is already in theaters, have been raving about the rugged filmmaking and bone-chilling authenticity.
"We would throw bait in the water to get the sharks to move," says writer-director Chris Kentis. "But once too many pieces were in the water, the sharks would get really worked up, and then the actors would have to get out of the water."
In the film, based on a true story, a young couple on a scuba-diving vacation are stranded at sea when their group charter boat leaves them behind at the diving site.
First they're annoyed, bickering with each other. Then the fish circle and start nibbling, and who's to blame no longer matters.
Kentis and his wife — producer-cinematographer Laura Lau — decided to make the movie after reading the tale of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were abandoned at the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 and never seen again.
"When I sat down to write the film, I wasn't interested in portraying the real people involved," Kentis says. "I did no research on them. I didn't want to represent their relationship or their lives, out of respect for their privacy and because it was not pertinent to the story."
On a shoestring budget of $130,000 — less than what's spent on the hospitality table for a typical Hollywood feature — this husband and wife team shot the stunning footage 20 miles offshore, drifting in Caribbean waters amid jellyfish, kelp, and razor-toothed barracudas, not to mention creatures even more deadly.
"We were working with top experts," says Kentis, who claims he and his wife felt completely safe, even up close and personal with gray reef sharks and a few bull sharks, which average 7 to 11 feet in length.
"In the water, with the camera, I'd be getting bumped constantly," he says. "There were times I'd look down, there would just be gray, no blue."
For their own part, the sharks seamed to enjoy the constant feeding that spared actors Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis from serious injury. Film crews even figured out how to manipulate their swimming patterns with food.
A barracuda, however, did take a chunk out of Ryan, but the actress understood the risk involved when she took the part.
"It was bleeding a lot," she says. "I was like, 'Did you get it?' Because if I'm going to get bit, at least let it be usable footage."
Open Water is already a hit. After fantastic buzz at the Sundance Film Festival, Lions Gate paid $2.5 million for the distribution rights, and the film has already grossed that much in a limited release. Now, however, Hollywood is calling it Jaws Meets the Blair Witch Project — and it's poised to do some major box-office damage as it opens in 2,000 theaters nationwide.
As Ryan and Travis helplessly bob in the water, these hapless tourists deliver some of this summer's most chilling dialogue.
At first, they're philosophical: "Other people go on vacation and spend their days just lying around," he says. "We have a story we're going to be telling for the rest of our lives."
Then, they're bickering: "I wanted to go skiing!" she says.
"The only reason we are out here in the first place," he says, "is because of your [expletive deleted] job!"
Then, their dinner guests arrive: "Oh God!" she says. "Something's rubbing against my foot!"
But do their dinner guests get served? Maybe Ryan and Travis should have gone skiing.