Twenty hours at sea.
That’s the first thing we heard about Bill Durden’s incredible story.
Our collective first thought, none of us survivalists or ex-Navy like Bill, was that we’d all be done for in the first few hours. Easy.
The second is that if he was out there for twenty hours, he was in the water at night. Completely alone in the pitch black of night, a whole ocean beneath him that he couldn’t see through even if the sun was high in the sky. Anything could be there. Anything at all. The mind stirs up a thousand nightmares, and all you can do is stay afloat and hope none of them come true.
After coming together in partnership with our friends at Charles Schwab on Bill’s amazing story, we knew what the best version of this short documentary would be and started figuring out how we could put it together: Bill, back in the ocean, a solitary man up against the vastness of the sea and the merciless clock, counting down the hours until he had nothing left in the tank. We would go underwater, too: shots looking up at Bill like more than one sea predator must have done during the time he was stranded. No sea floor anywhere near his dangling feet, just a whole lot of water, home to who knows what.
We made a dream list of everything that we would need to pull this off. A helicopter. Underwater camera rig. A large picture boat with rigging that allows a camera to be placed damn near anywhere on it. Bill’s own boat, the very same one he fell out of, speeding through the water like it would’ve done on that day in June of the year prior. We’ve never let the length of the piece limit it’s cinematic scope, and we knew this was how Bill’s story needed to be told.
So, we crewed up and started piecing everything together. Safety team. Marine Coordinator. Photo double for Bill. Local dive shop to provide everything we would need out on the water. Wetsuit rentals for Bill (and a photo double) that were similar to Bill’s skin tone. Underwater cinematographer Jordy Klein Jr. with credits like The Abyss and Cocoon. Aerial cinematographer Patrick Longman, who’s attached cameras to helicopters for projects like Jason Bourne and Daredevil. We had to make sure all the pieces were in place, down to the smallest detail. We even tracked down the exact clothes Bill wore on that day and made him don an outfit he probably wanted to leave in some forgotten corner of the closet.
We had the travel booked, the loading dock and lodging ready to go, and checked for good weather (which in true Florida fashion changed to rain once we bought our plane tickets).
Once the foundation for the shoot was set, our director Ben Proudfoot, cinematographer David Bolen, and myself were on the flight to Florida from Los Angeles, everyone very focused on the story ahead. I mean, what do you say to the this man? It was hard to think of anything that didn’t sound cheap.
It really got me thinking about what must have been going through his mind. The knowledge that you are truly and utterly alone. That chances are… you’ll never see land again.
You wouldn’t be alone in thinking that someone stranded twenty-seven miles out in the middle of the vast ocean ain’t coming home. Think about trying to find one person out there, even if you’re searching from the air. No landmarks. No identifiable terrain. Nothing but endless blue.
And yet somehow we now found ourselves in Homosassa, Florida, in Bill Durden’s living room, sipping on orange Gatorades (Bill’s first drink after his rescue and now a personal favorite). We set up the camera and sound equipment for an interview and talked for a long time about what it was like, and how we could accurately capture those elements and do them justice.
Time got away from us and it was already pretty late, myself and the crew spending a lot of time planning out the shot list and coming up with a rough schedule to abide by out there on the water because we knew once the day got going with the helicopter in the air and the boats in the water, things would be getting a little crazy. This quickly became, as it does on all productions involving just three core crew members, habitual, and we would be searching for dinner somewhere at midnight every night.
(I’d like to pause for a moment to recognize the Chili’s and Applebee’s of Crystal River, FL, the only restaurants open late enough to feed us dinner at midnight after a few very long and hectic days. Cheers.)
Just like that, before we knew it, it was Day 1. Aerials Day.
The aerial team was flying in that morning to Crystal River. I met them at the local airport and drove them to our launch point, butterflies in my stomach the whole time, knowing that I would be coordinating a helicopter team, an underwater team, my director and DP, a safety/marine coordinator on a jetski, and Bill himself at the same time, while making sure that Bill or his photo double were in position for every shot… all from the comfort of an open boat in turbulent water and possibly bad weather.
But therein lies the excitement, eh?
We planned out the shots, ate a quick breakfast, and headed out to the loading dock. Ben went with the helicopter team to direct from the air, David and I went with the photo boat and underwater team. A quick, all-around thumbs up was the go ahead signal and we were off!
But there’s a twist.
Florida has more than it’s fair share, and we can’t have any of that on the Cineflex that’s rigged up to the helicopter, or the water’s all over the lens cover and the image is ruined by a hundred drops refracting the light. We beached the boats on a nearby island and waited for our walkies to fire up with Ben or the pilot’s voice saying the rains clear and “It’s a go!”
An hour goes by. Nothing. Another half hour of us looking nervously up at the sky when “Alright, here we go!” comes from the walkie. We rush back into the boats and head out to the predetermined coordinates for filming. I was getting Bill’s photo double ready during the journey over, a highly competent dive master named Vince Raida (matching clothes to Bill, flesh-toned wetsuit and all) when Bill chimes in with “Ah, c’mon. I’ll just do it.”
And so he did. Over the course of the next two days, Bill, alongside the safety team, essentially reenacted his entire experience of being lost at sea, wanting to do it all by himself: treading water, staying afloat in turbulent waves to simulate the rotor-wash of the helicopter, falling into the water over and over again with a fishing pole clutched in his hand just like he did one year prior.
This is a trend with Bill, doing all of his own stunts, or doing the things that would be scary enough to back away from, for most folks anyway. He told us a story from his time in the Navy, how he kept missing the landing on an aircraft carrier. Seven times, in fact. They finally scrubbed it, had him land on shore, and made him do it all over again in the morning. Just like that, the next morning, he did it on the first try. The fear hadn’t built up to a crippling climax over time.
At the end of this shoot, he told us that filming this documentary, reliving that experience, was a way of repeating that same lesson he learned all those years ago.
Back to the water. We reached the time for a pretty important shot: one of the close ups of Bill, split-level in the water, where the rotor-wash of the helicopter is sending him all over the place. Jordy Klein Jr, our Underwater Director of Photography, David Bolen, and TJ Nichols, our marine coordinator, are all out on a jet ski with a rigged up Alexa Mini, submerging it in the water to get the shot, all while the waves threaten to tip the jet ski over and give our safety crew a fishing job of their own. Jordy’s trying to maintain balance with the camera, David is desperately trying to pull focus without being able to even see the screen and being knocked around by the turbulent waves. Meanwhile, I’m over on the photo boat, looking at my laminated shot list (so the paper survives the water/rain of course. Nice tip, Ben) waiting by the walkie and watching my cinematographer hold onto the jet-ski with his legs while somehow still keeping Bill in focus.
Before I get to the that, I need to step back a bit. Jordy was telling me earlier in the day about a neat little trick he knows to get water off the outer casing of an underwater camera rig…. by using a potato. Now, before I start getting a bunch of emails, I have NO clue how this works. All I knew is that Jordy is now shouting back at me from his jet ski, trying to yell over the noise of the helicopter that he “NEEDS THE POTATO”. We have Cooke Anamorphic lenses and Alexa Minis on both a helicopter and inside an underwater camera rig and the most urgent need now… is a potato.
So there I am, having found the potato in the storage of the photo boat, holding this damn thing above my head in my best Peyton Manning impression, desperately trying to line up the best throw this world has ever seen right into Jordy’s hands… but after about a minute of me trying to understand him over the helicopter and re-angling the throw, it turns out he didn’t need it after all, and they got the shot without the assistance of this mystery fix. Thank goodness for that. I’m a terrible quarterback.
The second day was all underwater filming, moving from location to location in search of the cleanest water, and avoiding all the rain that we could. We finally found a spot right next to a group of families out to hang on the beach and swim, all of them asking us what we were filming, and if we’ve seen any manatees. Never did get to see a manatee, but maybe that’s for the next trip. Please enjoy this photo of maverick director Ben Proudfoot while we were getting those underwater shots:
Bill was the same trooper as the day before, performing every shot over and over again with no complaints and a tirelessness that makes this producer, 30+ years his junior, jealous. The only thing he did say was a quick “Here we go again…” when he was about to jump in the water for a dusk shot just before sunset. It wasn’t until afterwards that I realized he wasn’t saying that because of the amount of times he jumped in the water that day. It was because this was the first time he’d be back in that ocean water while the sun was going down. The most terrifying moment of his entire life. He even said it with a smile on his face.
It was a long day of underwater filming, our Underwater DP Jordy and Bill diving into the water over and over again, take after take.
Finally, after a jet ski ride that seemed like hours and a couple dead walkie talkies that had us worried we might’ve just stranded Bill out in the water (AGAIN), we got the last shot. We did it! We got the movie in the can! Time to head back, and get a nice dinner for the crew, where we can toast to one hell of a production! Only about thirty minutes of travel time back to the dock, and we’re home free.
Just then, the darkest clouds you’ve ever seen are right on top of us and we boat the 20 minutes back to the dock in an absolute downpour.
Hey, at least the camera was safely secured in that underwater rig. As for the rest of us, well, I could tell you about the four hours of soaking wet cleanup and breakdown, or I could tell you why we we’re doing it all. What it feels like to see the film released into the world.
Nothing short of wonderful. And now you can experience that journey too, with Lost at Sea.
And now, for a good night’s sleep…