Open Water and Small Groups

Open Wateris one of those efforts that can blindside you if you're not careful. If your thrills come from CGI extravaganzas or toxic horror films that spill blood like the Exxon Valdez gushed oil, this film is not for you. Rather, this is part of a rare category of films: "relationship horror." In other words, the real pain of this story about a scuba diving couple stranded in the ocean comes not from the sharks attacks or hostile weather, but from the way these circumstances affect the relationship of the two people thus trapped. How would you feel if your loved one battled death in front of you and you were powerless to help? Without giving anything away, the ending is a particular downer and I greatly admire the husband and wife duo of director/writer Chris Kentis and producer Laura Lau for sticking to their guns. For an indie feature, especially one they self-financed, it couldn't have been an easy decision. I suppose The Blair Witch Project, with which this film has been compared, didn't have a particularly cheery ending either and neither did The Perfect Storm, another human beings-vs-the-sea film. But both did business, so perhaps that gave Mr. Kentis and Ms. Lau some confidence.
On a technical level, Open Water has limitations - the picture was often jerky, as befitting digital video giving rise to the seasickness that many complained about Blair Witch, some of the framing was clearly amateurish and the dialogue was muffled in places. However, perhaps because of these flaws the film achieves a realism and immmediacy that wouldn't have come from a more polished production. Nonetheless, imagine our surprise when we found out that the filmmakers, in addition to conceiving and financing the project themselves, were often its only crew! They did this whole feature over a period of three years while Laura raised their daughter and Chris held down a full time job. In an interview with Salon, they explain their choices:

Chris Kentis, director: I was aware of the story for a number of years before I did this, just as a vacation scuba diver. I first heard about it in dive circles and newsletters, and it really sent a chill down my spine. I was horrified by it, but never really thought about it in any other way. But then with the advent of Dogma 95, Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and of course "Blair Witch" and those things, it became clear that you really could make a movie on this [digital] format and people are open to seeing it. I thought this story would work well in this format -- they would complement each other as opposed to just shooting a story because it's all we can afford.

You two worked very closely on this film, which sounds like a trial for anyone, let alone a married couple. And I noticed the relationship and the clashes between the couple in the film were very realistic...

Laura Lau, producer: That has nothing to do with our marriage!

Well, you two are perfect together, of course.

Lau: Of course. We work really closely. We've been together a long time. We made a film before this ["Grind"], we made a short before that, and we've written a couple of scripts together. We have a lot of fun working together.

Kentis: We're really a filmmaking team. There's really no job that isn't interchangeable. I did some producing, and we shot the film together.

The DVD featurettes go into more detail on their choice of shooting formats: apparently, DV gave them much more flexibility in terms of grabbing extra footage and pickup shots. They could sneak mini-DV cameras surreptitiously and shoot locations and gatherings without having to carry a full film crew. Guerrilla filmmaking indeed - good to see that it isn't confined to student filmmakers.

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- August 23, 2005 9:12 PM // Film