Reporter: Allison Langdon
Producer: David Alrich
James Cameron thinks big whether directing a movie epic like Titanic or creating the awesome alien world of Avatar.
And he loves a challenge when he's away from Hollywood as well.
His latest adventure is as sweeping in scope as anything he's conjured for the silver screen.
Cameron decided to explore the blackest depths of our oceans, as far as man has ever ventured, piloting a tiny sub eleven kilometres below the water's surface.
It was a treacherous, some might say foolhardy, undertaking.
But he did it - with the help of a little Aussie know-how.
Read Allison's blog on this story and have your say
ALLISON LANGDON: Filmmaker James Cameron is a man who lives life large. Just hours earlier, in the dead of night in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he was about to be the loneliest person on the planet. In a bizarre-looking craft built to withstand incomprehensible pressure, he begins an incredible journey – more than 11 kilometres – to the deepest point of the ocean.
JAMES: I was probably apprehensive before the dive but once you get into the process and you’re in the countdown and you’re going in and they’re closing the hatch, way in the back of your mind, there’s a little voice that says “You’re being bolted into a sub that’s about to go to the deepest place in the world” you know – but you have to tune that voice out.
ALLISON LANGDON: That’s the voice you ignore.
ALLISON LANGDON: Any dive this deep is a ride into the unknown. As surface light disappears and the temperature nears freezing, an alien world appears. After a two-hour free fall, James Cameron lands on a muddy, murky ocean floor – a place that’s never been seen before.
JAMES: As I slid across the bottom there’s a big mark down there that I’m sure will be there for another 100 years.
ALLISON LANGDON: So that’s Jim’s mark?
JAMES: That’s right, I was trying to spell my name.
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s all a very long way from James Cameron’s day job of red carpet premieres and calling the shots on film sets. He’s the Canadian-born director who has thrilled us with blockbuster after blockbuster. And it was creating these films that gave him the motivation and the deep pockets for his other great love – deep water exploration. You couldn’t be any further from Hollywood right now.
JAMES: I couldn’t be further from Hollywood, and I couldn’t be happier – and I don’t mean that as a dis of Hollywood, it’s just that I have to kind of code-switch when I go back into that world.
ALLISON LANGDON: But the very different worlds of Hollywood and exploration have become inseparable to him. After making ‘Titanic’ he was inspired to dive the real wreck. So he approached his great friend, Australian producer Andrew Wight, and together they set out to explore and document, the hidden wonders deep below the surface. But as with all adventurers, their dreams just got bigger – or in their case, deeper.
JAMES: This is the last frontier for exploration on planet earth. So you’ve got a whole continent down there we know nothing about.
ALLISON LANGDON: Just waiting to be discovered.
JAMES: Waiting to be discovered.
ALLISON LANGDON: And the deepest frontier of all is the Mariana Trench, near The Philippines. Incredibly in 1960, a two-man submarine got to the bottom – but wasn’t sophisticated enough to collect samples or take so much as a photograph. It was a world still begging to be explored and recorded. The launching point for this dive is here in Guam, a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A day’s sail away, James Cameron will be going deeper than Mount Everest is high – but this adventure started seven years ago in the most unlikely of places. Leichhardt, in Sydney’s inner-west and nestled amongst its cafes – one of the movie industry’s great secrets has been hiding. Ron Allum is a television technician by trade with a passion for extreme diving. And he’s the one man James Cameron would entrust to build his sub. Ron’s engineering challenge was to create a sub strong enough to withstand the crushing deep but agile enough to explore the sea bed.
RON: I suppose it’s like a rocket. It’s designed for vertical travel.
ALLISON LANGDON: You’re pretty clever.
RON: Thank you.
ALLISON LANGDON: But you know it. So do you reckon I can have a look inside?
RON: Absolutely, yep. You’ll have to climb up the ladder.
ALLISON LANGDON: Up the ladder.
RON: Yep, that’s it.
ALLISON LANGDON: Not much room is there?
RON: Nah, it’s pretty tight. Now, what you have to do is you have to get your feet towards you and get your bottom down. Yep, that’s it and then you can lay into that position.
ALLISON LANGDON: There we go – it’s quite cosy in here, actually. So I’m ready to go to the bottom of the ocean?
RON: Yeah. Yeah.
ALLISON LANGDON: But this historic expedition was very nearly cancelled at the very last minute. Just how close it came is a story that hasn’t been told until now. In February, during final tests off the New South Wales South-Coast, James Cameron’s original partner on this whole expedition Andrew Wight, along with cameraman Mike deGruy, were killed – as their chopper took off to film the sub.
JAMES: It really called everything we were doing into question because it forced us to kind of stare into the mirror and stare into our own mortality and think about what ‘risk’ really means. It took a few days and everybody sort of thought, “well if we walk away from this, then everything that they worked for and that they stood for is being thrown away”.
ALLISON LANGDON: Finally, after personal tragedy and logistical challenges, it’s time for last-minute preparations. For marine geologist Patty Fryer, all the excitement is tempered by knowing the risks of heading into such an extreme environment.
PATTY: The pressure down there is about 16,000 pounds per square inch.
ALLISON LANGDON: Which kinda means what?
PATTY: Ah, it means take the Eiffel Tower, turn it upside down and put it on your big toe.
ALLISON LANGDON: That’s the kinda pressure we’re talking about?
PATTY: That’s the kind of pressure we’re talking about.
ALLISON LANGDON: And there’s another pressures James Cameron has to contend with on his marathon dive. How do you go to the bathroom?
JAMES: Well, did you ever go in a long car trip with your parents?
ALLISON LANGDON: I’m worrying about where this is going.
JAMES: And they have like, a little bottle because they didn’t want to pull over?
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s like that.
JAMES: Well it’s like that – we call it “a range extender”.
ALLISON LANGDON: Locked down, James Cameron is now completely on his own – in a vessel like no other. Unlike a conventional sub, the Deapsea Challenger is tipped on its nose. It has just a small metal sphere for the pilot – the rest of the body is made out of super-light, crush-proof foam. Dragging the sub down is half a tonne of weights. Releasing them sends it back to the surface. But if anything should go wrong, this untethered craft is well beyond the reach of rescue.
JAMES: You’re in a place that’s so remote, nobody could come and help you. I mean, if I got into trouble in earth orbit, we could always asks the Russians to come and help us or even the Chinese. There’s no help where we went with this vehicle.
ALLISON LANGDON: On James Cameron’s many previous voyages into the deep, he has filmed the bizarre and improbable. But the Marianas Trench is triple those depths again and here, on the world’s deepest ocean floor, the search for life is not unlike exploring on distant planets. It’s remote and hostile. What I find amazing is the fact that more people have walked on the moon than have gone where you just went.
JAMES: Yep, yeah that’s true. It is amazing and it’s right here on earth. So I’m down there feeling as isolated as if I was on the far side of the moon, by myself and guess who calls me? My wife. Which just – you know, men out there – if there’s any doubt in your mind whatsoever, they will find you.
ALLISON LANGDON: After a lifetime of dreaming, seven years building and untold millions spent, he did it. And not only that, he brought back some of the trench floor for research. So this is as precious as gold?
PATTY: Absolutely! Do you know how much it cost to get that?
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s not much to look at, but for Patty, even the discovery of bacteria in this tiny bag of mud is scientific pay dirt. This trip has been like Christmas for you, hasn’t it?
PATTY: Oh gosh, I’ll say. It surely has.
ALLISON LANGDON: 35 years of studying this trench and you’ve learnt more in the last two weeks.
PATTY: Oh, it’s amazing – it really has been a trip.
ALLISON LANGDON: And it won’t be the last. In the extraordinary life of James Cameron, you get the sense that an even bolder adventure is never far away. So do you consider yourself more an explorer than a filmmaker?
JAMES: Tough question to answer. When I’m making a film, I think about exploring. When I’m exploring, I think about making a film. The grass is always greener on the other side. No, I – don’t make me choose. I want it all.