Harrowing dive with Wes Skiles inspires the film ‘Sanctum'
Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 8:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 10:49 p.m.
It was supposed to be a riveting voyage into the murky depths of an underground springs system on a barren Australian plain. It turned out to be a nightmare — a brush with death that nearly entombed 15 cave divers halfway around the world from Florida.
"Sanctum" benefit screening
What: Advance screening of new underwater thriller executive-produced by James Cameron, set for wide release Feb. 4. The event will benefit the Florida Springs Institute and The Blue Path.
When: 7:30 p.m., Feb. 2
Where: Regal Royal Park Stadium 16
Cost: $35 for screening, $50 for VIP seating, which includes opportunity to meet writer/producer Andrew Wight beforehand; must be purchased in advance, floridaspringsinstitute.org.
With the participation and assistance of High Springs cave diver Wes Skiles, one of the survivors of that 1988 near-catastrophe, Australian filmmaker Andrew Wight was inspired to write and produce a big-screen film account, "Sanctum" — a fictionalized, 3-D thriller executive-produced by James Cameron of "Avatar" and "Titanic" fame — which opens nationally on Feb. 4.
On Feb. 2, however, Wight will attend a special screening of "Sanctum" in Gainesville, which will raise money for local springs awareness groups -- the Florida Springs Institute and The Blue Path campaign -- and honor Skiles, to whom the film has been dedicated, with a mention running before the final credits.
"We had been friends," Wight said in a phone interview from Sydney, Australia, about Skiles, whom he first had met in the mid-1980s. "I had dived down in Florida. Even then, [Skiles] was recognized" as one of the foremost cave divers in the world, Wight said.
Skiles, who died July 22, 2010, in a diving accident off Boynton Beach, had gained renown not only as a cave diver and explorer but also as an underwater photographer, just some of the reasons Wight, a renowned cave diver in his own right, said he invited Skiles and his wife, Terri, to join and film Wight's 1988 expedition to Australia's Nullarbor Plain.
All went well inside the underwater cave system, until an unexpected, freak storm dumped a deluge of water through a donut-shaped entrance above — leaving 15 divers including Skiles trapped below.
"It was a staggering event," Wight said. "Two years' [worth] of rainfall had fallen," said Wight, who had been in a section closer to the entrance than the 15 trapped at a lower depth. "Scuba tanks were bouncing off the walls, and if one of those things had gone off, it probably would have killed us all."
Instead, a miraculous rescue trumpeted by worldwide headlines at the time saved the entire group of 22. The experience was captured in an award-winning documentary with footage shot by Skiles called "Nullarbor Dreaming."
And years later, the experience inspired Wight to write a fictional screenplay and produce the fictionalized, big-screen "Sanctum," with the help of Cameron, a noted diver whose films also include "The Terminator," "Aliens" and "The Abyss," an adventure epic set largely underwater.
Having worked with Cameron on several films, Wight gained the interest of the former, and both Cameron and Wight journeyed to High Springs in 2005, where they had Skiles lead them on several diving trips in Ginnie Springs, just west of High Springs, to shoot footage for a 12-minute film they used to pitch Universal Pictures in making "Sanctum."
The pitch film will be shown to mainstream audiences for the first time at the advance Gainesville screening, organizers said.
The Ginnie Springs voyages had Cameron, Wight and Skiles using 3-D cameras in underwater caves for the first time, said Ross Ambrose, a friend and colleague of Skiles in High Springs who coordinated the shoot, serving in what film parlance would be described as a unit director.
"A lot of what we worked on was ‘How do you make a cave a part of the story? And how do you use a camera in a cave?' " Ambrose said. "And Wes' approach to lighting in the industry was very different, very realistic. His lighting style in caves is very different than anything that had been used in movies.
"So we brought a lot of that to these scenes that we shot," Ambrose said.
The experience also gave Cameron — one of the few divers in the world to dive the Titanic site in the Atlantic Ocean — his first taste of cave diving, Ambrose said.
"Jim [Cameron] had never been cave diving. So Wes took him on his first cave dive, out at Ginnie Springs," Ambrose said.
While "Sanctum" uses fictionalized characters, with Australian actor Richard Roxburgh as a man who organizes an Australian cave-diving trip, Rhys Wakefield as his son and Ioan Gruffudd as a billionaire financier also involved, the big-screen film might well help draw attention to underwater cave systems, including those in Florida springs, said Bob Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, one of two entities that will receive proceeds from the Feb. 2 screening of "Sanctum" in Gainesville.
"The movie is not an educational film. But it's certainly a good medium to reach the public and get some of the information out about the importance of the springs," Knight said.
Annie Pais, executive director of Florida's Eden and coordinator of The Blue Path campaign, a grass-roots campaign that Skiles was involved in to raise money and awareness for protection of the springs, said the Feb. 2 screening likely would please Skiles — especially since it will directly benefit efforts to save the springs Skiles loved and chose to live by.
"About a year ago, we started this grass-roots effort, and Wes Skiles was a big part of it," said Pais, whose Blue Path co-organized the screening along with the Florida Springs Institute.
"We really relied on him and his expertise and the community that he had built around him of divers, explorers and scientists for a lot of our information, including the information that we put out on The Blue Path exhibition at the [Florida Museum of Natural History]," she said.
Contact Bill Dean at 374-5039.
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