laugh? he nearly died!
Rampaging bananas, plummeting hardware and capsized boats threatened to make the story of how Leonardo DiCaprio's latest movie was filmed more interesting than The Beach itself. But without help from a local dive centre, reports Joanne Gill, the production may have found itself in even deeper water
The jokes were soon flying around. "There's no way I'm getting on a boat with Leo - just look what happened to the last two he was on!" One of the "last two" boats on which Leonardo DiCaprio appeared was the Titanic, the more recent a floundering Thai fishing boat.
Later, after the "love-scene rig collapse" incident, there were ribald references to "the ground really moving" for him. But those and other episodes during the two-month filming of The Beach in Phuket were none too amusing at the time.
More than £1 million worth of filming gear went the same way as the Titanic, while making what is set to be DiCaprio's latest blockbuster. And it was not only DiCaprio but most of the cast who experienced a definite sinking feeling.
The movie, released in the UK this month, is based on the novel by Alex Garland and involves three intrepid travellers who risk life and limb to discover the ultimate travellers' getaway.
The Twentieth Century Fox production wasted no time in garnering adverse publicity with claims in court that insensitive filming in Maya Cove had ruined an area of natural beauty.
But in the water, the drama started on the first day on location at Surin Beach, just north of the bright lights of Patong Beach, as the cast and crew prepared to shoot one of the initial scenes.
The take, in which DiCaprio arrives at a tourist haven, involved a back-ground shot of a busy beach, with three speedboats, two jetskis and a banana boat. As the afternoon wind picked up across the island, the conditions started to become too choppy to control the banana. "One speedboat passed it fairly close, causing a swell that threw the banana into the air and the actors into the water," explains Steve John, who runs Asian Adventures and acted as diving supervisor on the film.
John had got involved with the project when an urgent request came through for an HSE qualified safety diver for DiCaprio. The Beach being a British production, it seemed that only a British diver would do. John had worked all over the world as a commercial diver since leaving the Royal Navy, and had worked on smaller productions before, so he jumped at the chance of getting back into showbiz.
He didn't have long to wait. Watching in horror from the speedboat towing the banana, he realised he had to act quickly. "I jumped off the speedboat and surfaced to see the banana alongside me with a man trapped underneath it by his arm." A desperate lunge was needed because the speedboat had not yet slowed down. "I grabbed the banana. pulled myself to the guy, freed him and pulled him to the surface."
As John surfaced with the victim, who was one of the extras, he heard some other actors on the banana boat screaming that the man he had just saved couldn't swim. "I asked him what he was doing on the boat if he couldn't swim. He just said he'd been told to do it," says John.
After that eventful first day, Asian Adventures was asked to increase the safety diving crew to five and run all safety aspects of the marine works. Its dayboat was booked as a camera platform and dive support vessel, and location safety teams were dropped off to concentrate on the underwater filming.
Most of the filming, however, was in a purpose-built 20m by 20m by 4.5m dive tank. Highlights of the travellers' journey in The Beach include a stomach-churning leap from the top of a waterfall into a rockpool, and a shark attack, for which much time was spent rehearsing with DiCaprio's stuntman -13 hours under water on one marathon session. "We used the tank for those scenes and all went well - until the last one," says John.
It was around dusk and the cast were concluding the filming of a love scene between DiCaprio and the leading lady. The star was climbing out of the tank as John looked skyward to see a 5m square lighting rig hurtling towards him. "I was in the water with the director of photography, Darius Khondji, and Leonardo, when the light came crashing down through the safety platform at the side of the tank and into the water," he says.
John ducked to avoid the falling rig and surfaced with it between him and the spot where Khondji had been. "I dived underneath as I thought he might be trapped, but couldn't find anything. I came up and found him getting out of the water."
However, the incident that made international headlines didn't happen until near the end of the location work. "We were filming one of the last scenes, which involved DiCaprio and two co-stars leaving the beach on a ducktail boat," says Rob Davies, Operations Manager of Asian Adventures.
The day had not gone well. It started with the boat being rigged with a sail which was too heavy for it.
The sail was removed, but the boat was still overloaded with DiCaprio, his co-stars and a cameraman. The decision was taken to tow the ducktail with the support boat. This worked fine in the morning while filming the leading lady's part, but after a short lunchbreak, the crew went back out to film DiCaprio's lines.
"We'd taken reference points from the previous filming and told the crew when we reached the same spot again, but by now there were 1.5 to 2m swells buffeting the boat," says Davies. Danny Boyle, the di-rector, insisted that the boat would have to go further out to take account of the different position of the sun, although Davies advised against this.
"We went out further and 2m swells started hitting the boat, so we got the actors off it and I got onto the small boat with the guy who was filming, to get the equipment off," he says. They managed to remove the gear, but the rope holding the ducktail to the support boat broke, leaving its two occupants at the mercy of the sea.
"We hit a couple of waves, but the third one turned us sideways and the fourth one capsized us," explains Davies. The waves were so high that other supporting vessels were unable to reach the pair. "We spent 15 minutes in the water, drifting to a point where the speedboats could reach us," he says.
But the day's problems were not over. While Davies and the cameraman had been struggling in the water, the support boat with DiCaprio and the rest of the cast had started taking on water. Davies' brother Paul had ordered the 25-strong support team and cast into lifejackets and given the order to abandon ship.
"Everybody and everything was in the water," says Rob Davies. "We went over in a speedboat and I jumped in with a rope and got as many of them as possible to grab the rope so that I could get them into the boat."
After 10 minutes, everyone was safely back on a boat, but it was not an easy rescue. "It was extremely hairy because the boats were almost capsizing during the rescue attempt," explains Davies. "Everyone was crying and panicking. It was a nightmare!"
Luckily everyone was safe and the only loss was the filming gear. But it was the lives that mattered and he appreciated the gratitude of those saved: "Lots of people said thank you. They said if it wasn't for me and the others from Asian Adventures, people would have died," he says.
After cast, crew and safety divers put so much into making it, it would seem almostcallous to miss The Beach.
Appeared in DIVER - February 2000