The best genre films always are somehow rooted in the real world, and from the start, Underwater was conceived as a wildly ambitious blend of science fiction, action, horror and humor, yet one that could plausibly take place in the not-too-distant future.
In 1979, Ridley Scott’s landmark Alien brought the horror genre to outer space. In 1989, James Cameron plunged a submarine crew into danger below the depths in The Abyss.
Tapping into what both of those films did best and introducing exciting characters and creatures that feel entirely new, Underwater offers sci-fi and horror fans a compelling, visceral adventure set seven miles beneath the surface of the ocean and anchored by a fearless central performance from critically acclaimed actress Kristen Stewart.
Stewart is Norah Price, a gifted electrical engineer who becomes the de facto leader of a band of survivors after disaster strikes beneath the waves, forcing them to evacuate the mining rig where they’ve been living. Five thousand miles from land, they struggle to find a way to make contact with the surface in the hopes of calling for a rescue, soon realizing that a harrowing march across the bottom of the ocean might be their only path to safety. Slowly, and with growing horror, Norah and the group begin to understand that they’re also facing a very different kind of threat: a biological threat that’s existed for ages undetected in the murkiest depths. Suddenly, the possibilities of escape seem that much more remote.
Crafting the Screenplay
The film began its journey to the screen as a genre-bending pitch from screenwriter Brian Duffield, whose credits include the third installment in The Divergent Series, 2015’s Insurgent.
Firstborn of Brian and Brenda Duffield of Pennsylvania and eventual missionaries to the pagan land of Ireland, Brian Duffield got into screenwriting by not being allowed to watch television or movies while growing up. To cope with this, Duffield snuck film novelizations, Harry Potter and Stephen King books into the house the way most kids sneak in porn. He eventually began writing his own movies that he would never be allowed to watch if they became real movies. He graduated from Messiah College & Temple University in 2008 and has been a professional screenwriter since selling his 2010 screenplay Your Bridesmaid Is a Bitch to Skydance Productions while working at a clothing factory in Vernon, Calif.
Recently, Duffield has written The Babysitter directed by McG, and Insurgent, the sequel to Divergent, which was directed by Robert Schwentke. Duffield’s directorial debut, Spontaneous, produced by Awesomeness and starring Katherine Langford, is awaiting release. Duffield is currently developing for his pilot Goldfish with Universal Cable Productions.
Duffield’s initial script for Underwater immediately captured the attention of the experienced team at Chernin Entertainment. They saw at once the inherent potential in the story of an undersea mining expedition gone wrong and what happens when the characters must go to extraordinary lengths to survive in the unforgiving environment.
“The simplicity of the concept initially drew me to the film,” says producer Jenno Topping. “The movie follows a group of individuals attempting to move from point A to point B on the bottom of the ocean while outrunning a monster. This type of structure and its affiliated themes felt original within the thriller-horror space. It built upon the traditions of both of those genres while exploiting a really cool mysterious environment: the bottom of the ocean where 95% of it has yet to be explored.”
Adds producer Tonia Davis: “You could call this a survival movie because it’s survival against the elements—you just don’t know what those elements are. One of the things that we love the most about this undersea world is that there’s so much unknown, and it’s actually unknown not even that far off the shore.”
The producers recruited Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) to refine the screenplay and deepen the relationships among the characters: Norah, Captain Lucien, marine biology student Emily, operations expert Smith, systems manager Rodrigo and scene-stealing jokester Paul.
Adam Cozad grew up in Chico, Calif and attended Trinity University in Texas, majoring in history and minoring in economics. While planning to enter the fire academy, Cozad sold his first screenplay to Paramount, which went on to become Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Cozad wrote the 2016 film The Legend of Tarzan, directed by David Yates. Cozad did uncredited work on the upcoming film Bloodshot, which will be released by Sony Pictures in February 2020. He has adapted a number of novels including the New York Times best-seller Rules of Deception for Paramount, Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Lonesome Dove for Sonar, Mark Greaney’s novel The Gray Man for New Regency, the Patrick Lee novel Runner for Warner Bros. and Clinton Romesha’s best-selling memoir Red Platoon for Sony Pictures.
Cozad turned to Alien for inspiration for Underwater, but equally important was Cameron’s action-packed 1986 sequel, Aliens, both of which, of course, featured Sigourney Weaver in her iconic role as heroine Ellen Ripley.
“When it came to the character of Norah, she’s a bit of an homage to Ripley,” Cozad says. “It didn’t matter if Ripley was male or female, and that made her such a trailblazer. No one else had really done a character like that. That was the real inspiration, to try to write Norah as a character where her sex really had nothing to do with what her arc was. That felt like a very authentic representation of a character. It felt like the world we’re living in right now, it’s the right message to put out there.”
As the screenplay took shape, the producers searched for a director who would be able to sustain the white-knuckle tension the story required and who would feel comfortable with the visual effects necessary to tell a story set entirely under the ocean and introducing new aquatic species.
William Eubank proved to be the perfect choice. After a well-received indie debut, Love, the writer-director-cinematographer broke out with his second feature film, The Signal, a twisty scifi thriller that made waves when it premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
William Eubank got his start working at Panavision, where he helped oversee the integration of HD cameras on films like Collateral and Superman Returns. Eubank’s first feature film, Love, was commissioned by the alternative rock band Angels & Airwaves. It became a breakout success, playing at numerous film festivals and ultimately winning the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s “Best of the Fest.” Eubank served as writer, director, cinematographer and production designer on the film. Following Love, Eubank directed second unit on 20th Century Fox’s Broken City,. His second feature, The Signal, which he co-wrote, stars Laurence Fishburne, Olivia Cooke, Brenton Thwaites and Beau Knapp and premiered to great acclaim at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival; Focus Features released the film in 2014. As a follow-up to UNDERWATER, he’s currently developing his original idea, Warbot, with Chernin Entertainment.
Once the former cinematographer pitched his vision for Underwater, it was clear that there was no other filmmaker for the job.
“Will Eubank felt exciting to us as a filmmaker,” says producer Topping. “In initial meetings, he had a striking sense of curiosity. He was obsessed with discovering how little we know of the mysteries surrounding the ocean’s depths. Visually, we were drawn to him because he is an incredibly confident and inventive filmmaker. Beyond his talents creatively, he is energetic, smart and a tireless worker, all qualities that ended up being crucial to the shoot.”
Adds Davis: “He was full of energy and enthusiasm and had visualized the whole thing. When he’s pitching ideas to you, it’s like they already exist in his brain. He said, ‘This is how we’re going to open the movie.’ And literally, even the camera that we used is what he talked about in that very first meeting. That gives you a sense of the precision with which he approached this process and this project. He really knows exactly what he wanted.”
For his part, Eubank was excited by the script’s themes of survival against the odds, the mysteries beneath the ocean surface and the inherent claustrophobia of the setting. “Our fears of the water and the unknown are so intense,” he says. “The second you’re in the water, you’re out of control. You can’t breathe. It’s totally dark. The deeper you go, the weirder it gets. There could be anything down there.”
Eubank and Cozad worked together closely to avoid the tropes of the “monster movie”; it was important to them both, as well as the producers, to keep the audience guessing and to ratchet up the tension as the story evolved. “There’s a lot of movies that have one monster, and you have to set them up in a very particular way,” Cozad says. “This is very fluidly and very organically creating this escalation that in a normal horror movie you can’t do. The stakes just keep going up.”
As the screenplay progressed, Cozad would send drafts of various scenes to the director, who would build computer models to help determine how the sequences might look when they played out on the big screen. “He was building these CG representations on his computer on the weekends that were so much cooler than what I had in my mind,” Cozad says. “His image of it that he would render was so much more epic.”
To test out some of Eubank’s wildly ambitious ideas, the filmmakers did a one-day test shoot to create a 90-second piece that would serve as a proof of concept. In it, a member of an underwater mining crew hears something over the radio that doesn’t sound right, walks across the ocean floor to check on a coworker in another area and finds her missing—only one of her gloves remains behind. As he turns, a monster leaps at him as if from nowhere. The studio liked what it saw, and Underwater was a go.
“It’s a gripping thriller about the repercussions of taking things that don’t belong to you because we are tapping our Earth to a diminishing extent,” offers Stewart of the film. “It’s an action survival story about a group of people who really don’t know each other, but at the end of the day are connected by way of just being human.”
Concludes Eubank: “This movie has a lot of twists and turns and surprises around every corner. Hopefully, we blow people away.”