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Flotation device
Open Water is Jaws dropping
BY PETER KEOUGH
Treading Water

The Lions Gate people who bought the film for $2.5 million at Sundance might be pleased with the phrase, but husband-and-wife filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau are tired of hearing their Open Water described as The Blair Witch Project meets Jaws.

"I was tired of it from the beginning," says Kentis over the phone. "I have a huge problem with that because it really has nothing to do with either of those films. I think those comparisons come because we shot on video and we were unknowns and we were discovered at Sundance."

"Any movie with a shark in it is going to be compared to Jaws," adds Lau.

"But we werenít setting out to make any kind of genre picture whatsoever," says Kentis. "We werenít setting out to make a horror movie, and we werenít setting out to make a shark movie, per se, though sharks are certainly an element of the movie. But we werenít even trying to make a movie that was like either of those films. So hopefully audiences will go with an open mind and see it for what it is. Jaws is a great movie, and itís very flattering to be compared to a very successful film, but it wasnít the movie that we were setting out to make at all."

What inspired them wasnít Jaws but a story in a diving magazine (both Kentis and Lau are dedicated divers) about a couple who like Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) in Open Water went for a dive in mid ocean and returned to find themselves stranded by the tour boat. Just them and the jellyfish and the sharks. The filmmakers also tip their caps to the no-frills moviemaking of the Dogme 95 crowd.

"We were inspired mostly by the fact that these guys just stripped everything down," Kentis points out, "they did it on video, and because they were able to do it down and dirty and cheap, they were able to really challenge themselves creatively. We could maintain total control, and there wasnít a lot on the line where we could play and experiment. Itís interesting to us that this film is getting this wide release because frankly I thought that it was very experimental."

"We needed to work with unknown actors, and we wanted to work with real sharks, and we wanted to work mostly with non-actors," says Lau.

"All for that sense of realism that we were going for," Kentis adds.

Which brings in the Jaws element. Kentis and Lau brought their cast out to the middle of the ocean and dumped them in amid dozens of eight-foot gray reef sharks managed by shark wranglers armed with raw tuna. Not even Lars von Trier could dream up that, never mind Spielberg. Despite the extreme circumstances, though, Kentis and Lau feel their movie is about relationships, even love. So, do they recommend stranding people in the middle of shark-infested waters as a form of couples therapy?

"Thatís a great idea!" says Lau. "It brings out all kinds of things that are under the surface. You really realize what youíve taken for granted in your life when youíre faced with a situation where thereís nothing but you yourself, your partner, and Mother Nature. It just strips things down to the basics."

Was this also a description of the pairís experience together shooting the movie?

"Itís way less stressful because we work together and we can really count on each other," says Kentis. "Making a movie takes up so much time that itís great being able to share it with your partner. I just think we really complement each other. I think that our individual strengths complement one another. I canít imagine it being any other way."

Itís kind of like the Coen Brothers, then?

"Absolutely," says Lau. "We are."

So maybe you both should get directorial credit, not just Chris?

"This is definitely Chrisís baby in the sense that this is not a story that I would have wanted to tell. Heís into the sharks. It was always very clear to me that it was his vision and I was supporting his vision."

"Laura really supported my vision. Weíre hoping our next project will be a script that sheís very close to completion on, in which case sheíll be the writer/director and Iíll take on the producing."

ó PK

If the Blair Witch Project taught us anything, itís the value of cell phones. Had they been widely available at the time, the film probably would never have been made: one quick call and help would be on the way and all the demons in the woods would disappear.

Cell phones show up early and often in Chris Kentisís sardonic and coldly existential thriller Open Water, which some have described as "The Blair Witch Project meets Jaws" I prefer Jaws meets Waiting for Godot. Susan (Blanchard Ryan) canít get from the front door to the car to start off on her vacation with live-in boyfriend Daniel (Daniel Travis) without being badgered by calls. Ironic, isnít it, how a device invented to facilitate communication and bring people closer together only increases an individualís isolation? Daniel isnít amused. Susan snaps the cell shut and, chastened, acknowledges, not for the first time, that this is supposed to be a vacation.

Which means, it seems, a break from some of the technological intrusions that make life so diverting, comfortable, and exhausting. Like air conditioning. Because of the demands of Susanís job, the couple have settled at the last minute on an island package deal thatís a little rough around the edges. During the first sleepless night, Daniel stands guard on the bed with a rolled-up magazine as a giant flying insect hovers just out of reach. Back to nature indeed. Unfortunately, that doesnít include their own natural instincts: more stressed than ever, Susan is not in the mood.

So far, just the usual botched and disappointing holiday. Then hubris sets in. Rather than cut their losses, they decide to take it to another level: scuba diving. (At least sky diving would have been quicker.) They join about two dozen other adventurous yuppies for a cruise out to sea and a half-hour frolic among the coral, angelfish, and moray eels. In fact, itís the only time Susan and Daniel seem happy and free, eyes full of wonder as they watch a user-friendly three-foot sand shark. So happy and free that they overstay their allotted time and surface to find the boat not where itís supposed to be. Itís puzzling, annoying at worst. Funny how slowly the recognition of disaster dawns on those with faith in normality and common sense.

Thatís one of the many chilling glimpses into the human survival mechanism that Kentisís ingenious and limpidly simple premise offers. Like Jaws and Blair Witch (or Stephen Craneís "The Open Boat" and Jack Londonís "To Build a Fire"), Open Water may be more frightening for its psychological insights and metaphorical implications than for its diabolically effective cheap thrills. ("Somethingís rubbing against my foot!") Far more powerfully than the $250,000,000 CGIíd juggernaut The Day After Tomorrow, this $300,000 DVD-shot indie demonstrates the fragile barrier between the daily grind and the inhuman forces that would grind us up for real. Not to mention those repressed terrors ó futility, solitude, death ó that bump against the surface of the routine and the reassuringly ordinary.

Meanwhile, as they await salvation or doom, Susan and Daniel undergo the seven stages of a sinking relationship. At first, Daniel takes charge and is rational and encouraging. They remain calm and tell rueful jokes (the dialogue, at times, has a Beckett-like wit). Then the jellyfish pay a call, and then the sharks, and then Daniel drops his knife. Next come recriminations ("Weíre only here because of your fucking job!" "I wanted to go skiing!"), resignation, and, finally, a reforged, primal bond that almost vindicates the power of love.

So, bobbing in mid sea as a form of couples therapy? Whenever Open Water verges on platitudes, its uncompromising starkness saves it. (Plus the acting: unknowns Ryan and Travis are stars in the making.) Sometimes the film seems to be treading water along with its protagonists, but it does so only to make the agony more exquisite.

The one criticism I have of this meticulously shot and edited emotional workout, which is as efficiently designed and constructed as a shark itself, is that it dithers too long over why the couple got left behind. Is it the fault of the feckless crew? The boor whose pushiness causes the crew to miscount? Itís a red herring. Susan and Daniel were bound to end up there anyway. As is everyone. With nobody to blame, and, if lucky, someone to embrace, barely afloat in a sea full of monsters.


Issue Date: August 20 - 26, 2004
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