Brooklyn couple’s new movie stars school of sharks

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After reading a report about a scuba diving excursion gone terribly wrong, the seed was planted for the latest film from Brooklyn Heights filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau - "Open Water."

For three years, the couple crafted the suspenseful film about a confident, yuppie couple, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), who book a last-minute island vacation for a little R&R. Leaving their cell phones and computers behind, the couple sign up for a scuba diving excursion. When they surface, they find that their boat has left them behind.

"Open Water" is already generating lots of ink about the actors’ co-stars, a school of sharp-toothed sharks.

"It’s a comment on modernity," Lau said in an interview on Monday. "We get out of touch not only with ourselves and who we are in our relationships with, but really out of touch with nature. Really out of touch with where we belong in the natural order and our place on the earthWe go anywhere on the earth with this arrogance that we own it and we can do anything with it we want.

"We strip that away with the two characters."

What unfolds in "Open Water" is a psychological study of what happens when a white, self-absorbed, American couple is left to bob in the ocean, all the while slowly realizing they’ve slipped a few rungs on the food chain. As the couple comes to terms with the horror of their situation, the audience is encouraged to re-examine the priorities in their own lives.

Kentis, who cuts film trailers by day, and Lau, a full-time mother, both 40, seem to have their priorities in order. The couple have been together for 15 years, beginning with "a secret office romance," and have been collaborating on films together ever since. (Their previous feature was "Grind," a 1997 film starring Billy Crudup and Amanda Peet.)

Lau and Kentis were able to shoot "Open Water" on weekends and vacations over the course of three years, with their daughter Sabrina, 6, in tow.

"There’s two shots of a little girl in the film, and they’re both Sabrina," said Lau.

Kentis recalled, "The first one was from when we were scouting, and, back-to-back, the next one was when we were well-wrapped."

"That was our timeline; it showed us how long it took to make this film," said Lau with a laugh.

She estimated their film was made for $120,000 to $130,000. The investment paid off; Lions Gate Films bought "Open Water" on the first night of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival for $2.5 million.

Kentis said shooting on digital video, instead of 35-millimeter, allowed them to tackle a story that would have taken a big bite out of a Hollywood studio’s bank account.

"We could exploit what Hollywood couldn’t do. It would have been much tougher with a crew," said Kentis. "Minus the stunt people, we used our actors."

Lau agreed, "We didn’t have a huge crew to lug around with all kind of rigs. It was just Chris and me. We could move very quickly, we could adapt and be very flexible. And we had a really experienced boat captain who understood the waters."

And shooting with digital video gave a grittier, less slick look to the film.

"Having chosen to shoot in this format, we were going for realism here. Real people. Real sharks. Real animals. A real story that happened," said Lau.

The hand-held camerawork and the danger lurking beneath the surface of the ocean in "Open Water" have drawn comparisons to the terrifying "Blair Witch Project." The menacing premise of humans turned into shark bait has caused many to compare it to "Jaws."

"It’s flattering," said Kentis. "But we didn’t set out to make a horror film or a shark film, but elements of both exist in our film."

Said Lau, "I hope that people will come in and get a different kind of experience, and have a satisfying experience - if not the scare they’re expecting."

After the Sundance film festival, the filmmakers were approached by composer Graeme Revell ("The Chronicles of Riddick," "Blow") who helped to create an effective soundtrack of spirituals and island folk songs that further serves to underscore that the characters are bewildered, powerless strangers in a strange land.

"I wanted to use indigenous island music, not based on geographical location but based on mood and tone," said Kentis. "Our main theme is nature, so I wanted something primal, very elemental, organic, with very few modern instruments, if any. A lot of pieces are just vocal. Also, some are very spiritual when we felt it was necessary."

Although "Open Water" was as scary to film ("I remember being completely terrorized the entire time and crying from morning till night for two days," recalled actress Ryan) as it is to watch, the husband-and-wife team took precautions to ensure that the two days of shooting with sharks was not dangerous for Kentis, who shot the underwater shark scenes, or the actors. Most importantly, the duo hired a shark wrangler with 30 years of experience.

"There aren’t a whole lot of people in the world who work with sharks in film production, so that’s why we shot in the Bahamas," said Lau. "We worked with Stuart Cove. He does all the [James] Bond movies, all the big Hollywood movies."

Kentis cut in with a laugh, "You don’t look to save money when it comes to sharks!"

"We called him and when he said, ’yes,’ we knew we could do this," said Lau. "He takes out a tremendous amount of divers every year. They do three dives a day, 365 days a year. He’s been working with [this school of sharks] for more than a decade."

Travis said he was excited about swimming with the sharks.

"There are shark populations that are far more used to people and these handlers dive with those sharks all the time," he said. "And they were well fed."

While Travis and Ryan were certified to scuba dive and sheathed in chain mail (flexible metal links) to protect them from being dismembered by the sharks, Kentis chose not to wear it because it hindered his movement when shooting. The sharks’ movements were in turn controlled by wranglers who kept their attention by tossing in chum.

Ryan expressed her fears for Lau’s safety, who shot scenes from a boat.

"She would be sitting there - right where they were chopping up the tuna, and she’d have her little white feet dangling over the side in the water with swarms of tuna chunks and blood all over, and we’d be yelling ’Laura get your feet out of the water!’"

Despite the training and other precautions, Ryan was bitten on the hand by a barracuda.

"We were harassing him," said Ryan. "We were swimming over him and under him and Chris had this big bright red camera casing, and I’m sure the thing was annoyed to no end. It finally just took a swipe at me. And I was lucky because it was a big one and their teeth are so sharp, it went right down on three fingers - right to the bone."

What advice did the cast have for anyone who didn’t want to endure the same plight as the film’s characters, Susan and Daniel?

"Always carry a $50 bill," said Travis. "Tear it in half. Take half with you and give half to the dive master. And tell him when you come back, he can have the other half."


"Open Water" opens in Manhattan on Aug. 6. For theater locations and tickets, go to

"Open Water" opens Aug. 20 at the Cobble Hill Cinemas (265 Court St. at Douglass Street in Cobble Hill). Tickets are $5, Mondays through Fridays before 5 pm; Saturdays and Sundays prior to 2 pm; and all-day Tuesdays and Thursdays. Some restrictions apply. Accepts MasterCard and Visa. For complete movie schedule, call (718) 596-9113.

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