Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter heads Underwater to the last undiscovered place on Earth.
Real-world drama has played havoc with 2020’s movie release schedule, but while we wait for more big screen adventures the ones that made it in and out of theaters early are now available to enjoy again at home. Underwater (2020) unfortunately tanked at the box office, but it feels like a film destined for new discovery down the road as it’s a legit fun disaster movie turned creature feature. I’m a fan, so you know it’s good. (I kid, but also, I don’t.)
The home video release is packed to the gills with extras including a commentary track featuring the film’s director and a couple friends, so of course we gave it a listen. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
Commentators: William Eubank (director), Jared Purrington (concept artist/associate producer), Phil Gawthorne (“huge contributor in many crazy ways”)
1. The sight of the 20th Century Fox logo makes them wonder why they didn’t get a variation of it that was underwater.
2. They recorded the commentary two days before Christmas 2019, so roughly two weeks before the film opened on January 10th, 2020.
3. The opening credits feature maps, text, and headlines that “paint a picture of the world.” The maps are actual schematics used to build their sets.
4. The script didn’t originally open with a descent down the pipe to the ocean floor, but “we really want to create something where you feel like you’re spending a while just traveling down, down, down, to sort of build that idea of how deep you really are.”
5. Those are people on the pipe’s arm extension at 3:30, but they’re so small and moving so fast that no one notices.
6. A playing card, the Queen of Hearts, is visible at 4:40, and it’s the film’s first nod towards Alice in Wonderland.
7. The spider in the sink was almost a moth, but “I thought a moth might be a little too Guillermo del Toro.” The scene is meant as foreshadowing both the film’s theme and to get viewers instantly on Norah’s (Kristen Stewart) side.
8. They wanted Stewart to be barefoot through that opening run — “which Kristen was totally down to do” — but concerns about cutting/hurting her feet led them to create footwear painted pink to complete the illusion.
9. Norah loses her glasses in that first action beat which suggests her vision is for shit from that point forward. “This was a point that we brought up, yes.” They wanted to keep them on her, but they realized it just wasn’t feasible with what was coming including more action and underwater shenanigans in a diving suit.
10. Paul’s (T.J. Miller) chest tattoo is of the Cheshire Cat, which is another nod towards recognizing the inspiration of Lewis Carroll’s creation.
11. The sets were built in VR first which enabled them to mess around with details and lighting schemes before building the physical sets.
12. Captain Lucien is played by Vincent Cassel who spent his down time riding around the set on a motorized skateboard. “He makes us all look very inactive.”
13. They toss some praise towards Legacy Effects for these suits which are legit fantastic-looking. They also weigh 100 lbs each. “I wore one, and I could barely wear it for twenty minutes.”
14. “They’re really underwater” for that scene starting at 27:20 (and for some others) for those thinking the actors were only shot “dry for wet.”
15. Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) is the first real character to die, and while they mention its purpose was to remind viewers of this world’s actual threats it’s still unintentionally unfortunate to see a black character — the only black character — die first in a genre film in 2020.
16. Paul’s bunny was real when they first started shooting, but they swapped in the doll for safety reasons for an increasing number of shots. Eubank never told Miller that they weren’t going to use the live one, so the actor treated the doll with visible reverence believing it was only a stand-in and that the film would actually show him holding a real rabbit. They’re not sure if that makes Paul seem more human or more pathological.
17. “If you look extremely closely in here there’s some funny secrets, but I won’t divulge what they are,” is something Eubank says at 50:41 which goes against the entire point of commentaries. “They’re just fun little Easter eggs,” says the jerk, rubbing it in even more.
18. Eubank is understandably proud of the shot at 58:52 of a character flipping through the water onto a large platform. “I don’t know if people will even believe that, but that’s a real shot of people flipping onto an actual god light we had dangling from a crane. It’s like eight or nine feet off the ground, but still.” There’s obvious CG through many of the action scenes, but there’s also a lot of physical work from both the actors and the stunt team.
19. Andy Muschietti (It, 2017) offered advice and tips regarding the horror elements, and “he was an awesome person to have early on checking out the film and whatnot.”
20. My suspicion on first seeing the film was that some additional plot elements, specifically of the explanatory variety, were cut from the finished release. The scene that hints at just that occurs when Norah is separated from the team and winds up in the older, currently unused section of the base, and she finds some things in the captain’s old locker. Eubank doesn’t expand on that, unfortunately, but at 1:05:53 he does say “Some major nods there to people who want to get into that. A whole other mythos revealed right there.” He adds only that “that’s where you really get into the cosmic horror of it a bit. Obviously we take a lot of nods from Lovecraft.”
21. Eubank learned to SCUBA a few years prior to making the film, and he recalls telling Jim Pearson — his instructor at the time and the film’s water safety advisor — that he was considering making an underwater thriller. He called him back for help once the film got the green light.
22. Asked what he thinks “makes a good monster” in his mind, Eubank suggests the ideal monster should represent “something big in the story, something important, something having to do with the characters.” He also thinks it’s important to understand what exactly the monster “wants” so that its intentions with the characters are clear.
23. They mention during the end sequence that it’s great seeing Norah and Emily (Jessica Henwick) save the day even as they have to carry around the dead weight that is Liam (John Gallagher Jr.). “It’s very progressive but also speaks to that awesome tradition in science fiction that’s been more progressive.” They neglect to mention that the women are in their skimpy underwear while Gallagher is wearing boxers and a shirt, but their point still stands.
24. The shot at 1:22:08 reveals the giant creature outside the window with dozens of baby monsters ready to birth from its back. Eubank mentions that inspiration from nature for that design is a certain frog before adding “don’t Google that” because it’s kind of gross. Well I’ve saved you the trouble, and while there are more educational videos available online I think this is the most entertaining.
25. Eubank finally gives in and reveals a single Easter egg that appears at 1:24:36 — there’s a real bunny rabbit in Liam’s lap once the pod door closes. I recall noticing it in the theater but immediately dismissing it as a trick of my eyes. Well played.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Don’t scream into the mic.”
“I don’t know if we’re allowed to say Alice in Wonderland.”
“The amount of water and the amount of just crud on our actors is testament to how willing they were to get completely dirty.”
“I like glasses on characters.”
“I love in movies where there’s a beep.”
“Something about its head is very unsettling.”
“Have you ever counted the jump scares?”
“Little secret right there if you look really closely.”
This is a fun commentary for a fun movie, and while I wish Eubank had offered up a few more secrets instead of merely teasing them, there’s still plenty of information and insight to be heard here. Worth a listen for fans.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.