Open Water tells the story of a young couple stranded at sea and surrounded by sharks. The director got the idea from a dive newsletter.
2003’s Open Water is based on actual events surrounding the disappearance of an American couple scuba diving in the shark-infested waters around the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia. The movie was written and directed by Chris Kentis, and produced by Kentis’ wife Laura Lau — both avid divers. The couple shot the film over the span of two years, and they funded the project with $130,00 of their own money. The movie tells the terrifying story of a couple, Daniel Kintner (Daniel Travis) and Susan Watkins (Blanchard Ryan), who go on a diving expedition and find themselves stranded 20 miles offshore. The movie became a sleeper hit, upended the killer shark genre, and went on to earn over $54 million worldwide.
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During a vacation at an undisclosed location, Susan and Daniel embark on a scuba diving trip and stray from the group. They resurface to discover the tour boat has left them behind after a member of the crew performs an inaccurate headcount. At first, the couple believes their absence will be noticed, but as the hours wear on, their situation’s harsh reality begins to sink in. The movie’s most frightening moments are derived from the presence of an increasing number of sharks that Susan and Daniel are powerless to fend off. Eventually, Daniel is bitten, and at some point during the night, he dies either of blood loss or shock. Susan releases Daniel and watches his body get ravaged by the predators. Realizing she’s going to die, Susan removes her gear and sinks beneath the surface.
Tom and Eileen Lonergan disappeared in January 1998 during an expedition run by Outer Edge Dive to the rim of the Great Barrier Reef 40 miles offshore Port Douglas, Queensland. As in the movie, Tom and Eileen went off on their own and resurfaced late. It took two days for the boat’s skipper to report the couple’s disappearance—in the film, the incident is reported the next morning—leading to a week-long search, but their bodies were never found. In the weeks following the couple’s disappearance, pieces of their scuba equipment washed up on a deserted beach, and while there was damage, it was attributed to coral and not an animal attack. According to a 2004 article in the New York Times, some people believed the Lonergan’s faked their deaths, a conspiracy theory authorities debunked. Journals found among the Lonergan’s personal belongings painted Tom as a man with a “death wish.” This led to speculation that Tom may have killed Eileen and then himself. Eileen’s father, John Hains, believes Tom and Eileen became dehydrated and disoriented, which would have led them to shed their suits and equipment, resulting in death by drowning or sharks.
Kentis learned about the incident from a dive newsletter. In a 2004 interview with IndieWire, Kentis said: “I did a lot of research on various men who are left at sea at wartime, like the USS Indianapolis. And we also used our own experiences as divers. What was pertinent to us was how it happened, so the characters are fictitious because they weren’t pertinent to the story that we were telling.” Kentis told the New York Times that he used the idea of a couple abandoned at sea, but steered clear of the sensationalized accounts surrounding the Lonergan’s case, feeling they would undermine the film’s credibility.
Instead, Kentis and Lau used digital video, two actors, and a herd of real sharks to create a horror movie with a documentary aesthetic. Open Water resonates with audiences because it’s a fresh take on previous shark movies. “Pretty much any film with a shark is kind of the same thing, somebody falls in the water, and the shark rips them apart. We wanted to take a more realistic approach.” The Lonergan’s real-life story makes for compelling true crime fodder, but the circumstances that led to the Lonergans being left behind are the only similarities between the incident and Kentis’ story of a doomed couple lost at sea.
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