In the May season 3 finale of The Vampire Diaries, Nina Dobrev did some of the finest underwater acting ever in not one, but two drowning scenes — one that flashed back to the night Elena’s parents died and Stefan rescued her, and one in which Elena died after demanding that Stefan save Matt. Here, supervising producer Chris Grismer, who helped episode director John Behring helm the chill-inducing underwater sequence shot over three days, takes us inside the scene that changed the show forever. For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2012 (Behind the Scenes) coverage.
As told by: Chris Grismer
I started the actors training for the scene about two months before we shot. They had to train every weekend with dive instructors. Nina Dobrev was already PADI-certified, but those who weren’t had to become. They also had to learn how to act underwater for a long period of time without air: They had to learn how to do a scene and then get air between takes from a safety diver, who was never more than five or six feet away, instead of coming back up to the surface, which I think was pretty terrifying for them. Some of them wanted to swim to the surface between takes, and I had to explain to them that if you start at the surface and swim 20 feet down, you’re kinda almost out of air by the time we say “action.” [Laughs] And then they had to learn how to do it in an enclosed space. I don’t know if you’ve ever been underwater in an enclosed space, but your body just doesn’t want you in there. The actors have to be pretty brave and pretty strong. Nina Dobrev took to it so unbelievably well. She was amazing. I think in the first two weeks, I saw some video of her inside pretending to panic, and I was just blown away by it.
We shot at a police training facility in Georgia with a pool that’s designed for simulating river rescues. So we were lucky enough to build our set inside there. If the actors wanted to communicate to myself and John Behring, the other director, they would have to communicate through hand signals on the screen, because we were up at the surface like cowards. [Laughs] No, it’s hard to direct underwater. Nina is known for always wanting one more take because she always has an idea, and she’s great with that. So she points with her hand that she wants one more take and to keep rolling. It was when she was underwater with her dad, and she improv’d mouthing the words “I love you” to him. I remember it just sent chills down everyone’s spine at the monitors. There were some people crying. It was pretty amazing. I wanted to tell it with the hands, too, with the hands coming away from each other. I thought that was important.
It’s a hard thing to do, to really feel the stillness. The one moment we weren’t quite getting, and that Nina and I worked together on quite a bit, was the panic right before you give into it. She panics right before she gives up and just goes still in the water. I think when you make your body panic like that, the muscle memory when you’re in an enclosed space probably also makes you panic in real life as well. I know that when she was panicking a number of times underwater, people on the surface believed it. I think there was a couple of times that we cut early, and she was like, “I was acting.” [Laughs] She’s a very good actor, so it’s hard to tell when she’s pretending and when she’s not.
The sequence of the truck sinking was in the script originally, but for time, [showrunner Julie Plec] was forced to cut it out. And then when I was directing the second unit, I was like, we’re just gonna get it. We got that whole sinking sequence in one hour using balloons on the car and just slowly deflating them so it could sink. The actors had to actually be inside the car while it sank and then hold their breath right when it went under water.
Not only were the actors amazing, but there’s stunts underneath there that are pretty subtle. Like when Stefan pulls the door off, there’s a stunt person, I think it was a woman, lying upside down underneath the car, holding her breath because the air would be in the frame, who grabs the door to help rip it off the hinges.
It was amazing to work on because everyone was excited about it. No one had done anything that big underwater before. We created this underwater world for the river. And to do the bridge jump itself was a phenomenal night. We almost didn’t get it because the truck came right up to the edge and didn’t quite have the power [to go over], and it almost just fell off the bridge. But then it just rolled back into place to try again by accident. The film gods were smiling on us when we did that sequence.