The filming locations of the Big Blue, an ode to the Mediterranean and the other seas of the world

Released on French screens in 1988, The Big Blue quickly became a cult film for an entire generation. Luc Besson on camera, Jean-Marc Barr, Jean Reno and Rosanna Arquette staged the sporting and friendly duel of two great freedivers, Jacques Mayol and Enzo Molinari.

A childhood passion

Son of scuba diving instructor parents, Luc Besson was rocked from his earliest childhood by the call of the sea. However, he chose another path, that of cinema. A sinus problem and a serious diving accident prevented him from doing the same job as the Besson couple.

For a long time, a story about diving had been running through the director’s mind. That of Jacques Mayol, then a great specialist in the descent at sea without a bottle. He had fabulous performance figures for the time: 60 m in 1966, 100 m in 1976 and 105 m in 1983, the world record.

While waiting to make this childhood dream come true, Luc Besson shoots The Last Stand and Subway. But in 1983, by chance, the director met Jacques Mayol in Marseille. The freediver had come to pay his last respects to his dead mother. The filmmaker then talks to him about his project. The diver accepts and then becomes a consultant on the film.

Then the financing had to be found. On the set of Subway, the director discusses it with Isabelle Adjani, who plays Héléna in the feature film. She is breaking the logjam by talking to producers, including Warren Beatty. We then have to wait three years to see Le Grand bleu on our French screens. It should be pointed out that the film requires long months of preparation and filming in locations all over the world, between land and sea.

Jacques and Enzo: duel in the depths

The Big Blue features the fraternal and friendly duel between Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca, two great freedivers wanting to take up the challenge of going even lower and thus explode the records for scuba diving.

Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr) and Enzo (Jean Reno) have been friends since childhood. They are already diving at a very young age in the blue waters of the Mediterranean. Greece is their playground. But the Frenchman returned to France after the accidental death of his father, also a diver.

After twenty years, their rivalry is still as strong as ever. They do not hesitate to measure themselves by records. They meet at the No Limit freediving world championships in Taormina, Sicily.

Amorgos, place of all the exploits of the Big Blue

It’s the island of the Big Blue in the Cyclades in Greece. Luc Besson chose this land for its light and its waters of great transparency. With its seahorse shape, the island saw the technical teams disembark for several days in many places along the 30 km of beach. The French director knew this land very well since he came there at a young age with his parents.

Jacques’ house

With its small blue door and white dome, this chapel was transformed into the home of Jacques (Bruce Guerre-Berthelot, Luc’s little brother) and his father. The cross on its roof is then hidden by a white chimney. In the film, it is not far from his house that the future freediver hides his fins to go diving in the creek below. We see him feeding a moray eel. It was in these waters that Jacques’ father drowned in 1965.

Luc Besson’s father, Claude, is chosen by his son to play Jacques’ father. Diving instructor, he really misses drowning during the shooting. Luke dives in to rescue him. Note that the moray eel feeding sequence is not shot here but on Faru Island in the Maldives.

Address: Chapel of Agia Anna, Amorgos, Greece

The wreck of the Olympia

Enzo (Jean Reno) is called as a backup to rescue a diver trapped under a wreck. He then dives without a tank and saves him. Supposed to take place in Sicily, this scene was filmed off this small bay. Part of this boat ran aground in front of it in 1980, allowing Luc Besson to film the sequence.

As the set of filming locations – they have changed very little in thirty years – the rusty wreck is therefore visible if one dives from this cove. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Luc Besson makes a cameo in his own film. He put on a wetsuit to play the role of a diver.

Address: Kalotaritissa, Amorgos, Greece

Jacques and Enzo are having fun

The streets of Chora (Khora or Hora) serve as a backdrop for games between Jacques and Enzo (Grégory Forstner) children. This black and white sequence at the beginning of the film allows Luc Besson to present his two main characters to the audience. The capital of the island of Amorgos is a typical Cycladic village with its white houses with blue shutters, located 320 m above the sea. It only has a population of 300.

With its 10 million admissions, The Big Blue has become the cult film of an entire generation, now in their forties and fifties. The feature film remains in theatres for three years. If it’s a real public success, the critics sulk when it comes out. It will even be whistled at the opening screening of the Cannes Film Festival in 1988. A heartbreaker for Luc Besson.

Address: Chora, Amorgos, Greece

The Monastery of Panayia Hozoviotissa

In the first minutes of the black and white film, the viewers could see this religious building dating back to the 11th century. This white spot is located 300 m from the wall and offers a surprising panoramic view of the Aegean Sea. In order to enjoy it, you will have to climb all 360 steps. The chapel hugs the rock. Iconic images hang from the old twisted beams.

Shooting on Amorgos lasts five weeks but is not a restful one, since the wind called the Meltem is involved. Supplies are difficult and the teams have to make bad luck with their hearts by eating only pasta for a week.

Address: Amorgos, Greece

Shooting with dolphins

The Marineland of Antibes

In June 1987, the technical teams of the Grand Bleu took up residence in the Marineland of Antibes. They shoot footage where Jacques communicates with dolphins. An unknown actor at the time, Jean-Marc Barr is also inexperienced. He has trouble with these sequences, his game is not very good, so the takes will be redone when the team returns to the scene later.

Other scenes are filmed in this large theme park on the sea created in 1970. The one in particular where Jacques and Enzo free a captive dolphin to release it into the sea in Sicily. A large false connection is then to be noted. While they carry the animal (made of plastic during the filming) on a stretcher to put it back in Taormina’s waters, Enzo no longer wears the same bathing suit. The transport scene is filmed in Italy, but the launch takes place in the Virgin Islands three months after the first shot. For the sake of economy, the script is not travel and we stick to the memory of Jean Reno for the costumes. He thought he had the black one, but in reality the jersey was striped.

Address: 306 avenue Mozart, 06600 Antibes

Virgin Islands

After a quick shoot in New York for the scenes at Johanna’s (Rosanna Arquette’s) employer’s house at One Liberty Plaza, 165 Broadway, a small crew goes to the Virgin Islands. Three dolphins make the trip from the Dolphin Research Center in Florida first by plane and then by truck.

They are released into a large bay with 500 m of net. Every morning, Luc Besson arrives an hour earlier than his teams to swim with them. He also shoots the contrechamp of the scene where Jacques is swimming after the liberation of Marineland. Enzo must therefore be connected between its water outlet in the Bahamas and the beach in Sicily.

The dolphin in the picture is called Natua. He had previously participated in experiments on the language of these mammals. He was therefore chosen for his intelligence.

Address: St John, U.S. Virgin Islands

From Taormina to Port du Niel, via Peru

The Bahamas, Sicily, Peru and France saw the film crew of the Big Blue arrive in force.

Thus, the pass of La Raya in Peru serves as a backdrop for the scene of Rosanna’s search for James. If the exact location is not known, the crews rented a train to go to 4650 m altitude. There’s nothing but the train station and a church. On this 104th day of filming, hail invites itself in and pierces the tents, while men from Shining Path watch Luc Besson and his actors from afar.

Hotel San Domenico

Jacques, Enzo and Rosanna meet in this hotel. The Italian reprimands the receptionist, while the young woman joins them and sympathizes with them. In the evening, for a stupid bet, the two divers try to find out which one can hold the longest time in the pool. They end up on a gurney. The next day, Enzo is refused the competition by a doctor because of his condition. He braves the forbidden.

A bay in Taormina also hosts the No Limit World Cup. Production has chartered a caravel for material needs. There are more than 100 people, actors and technicians on site. The train station also serves as a backdrop for Johanna’s arrival. To shoot, Luc Besson paid baksheesh to various local mafias. Thus, the Big Blue could benefit from their protection! The scene of the stolen dolphin put on the roof of the Fiat 500 is also filmed there. It reveals the difficult relationship between Jean-Marc Barr and Rosanna Arquette. They don’t get along. The actress constantly gives advice to the Frenchman but he is exasperated.

Address: Piazza S. Domenico de Guzman, 5, 98039 Taormina ME, Italy

The scene under the ice

Johanna Baker is in Peru. Accompanied by Dr. Lawrence (Paul Shenar), she attends the suffocating experiment where Jacques dives under the ice. If the first part of the scene is filmed at the Col de La Raya, the underwater part is shot in one of the Chardonnet lakes in Tignes.

On 9 December 1987, Luc Besson and his teams settled in this Savoyard town. They then build the doctor’s camp there in ten feet of powder snow. Llamas are rented to a zoo in the south of France for the plans referring to Peru. The following week, shooting of the underwater scenes under the ice began. The water’s at 1°C. Before diving, Jean-Marc Barr is well prepared. He is given grease on his body and before putting on his suit, he is given a layer of plastic. Firefighters also provide security.

Address: Les lacs du Chardonnet, Tignes

Jacques is waiting for Enzo after the competition

Two scenes were shot in this port on the Giens peninsula. In both sequences, Enzo arrives at high speed in his very big red boat. In the first one, Jacques is waiting for his friend to return after the competition and in the second one, the Italian is in charming company, that of a Spanish actress.

The film owes much of its success to Eric Serra’s music, for which it received a Victoire and the César for best film music in 1989. Sold in more than three million copies worldwide – including two in France – it remains inseparable from the feature film since he created it after shooting. Composer of Coup de lune for Jacques Higelin, he collaborated on numerous films by Luc Besson, notably Nikita and Atlantis. Despite being hailed by critics, the musical part of the American version is different from the European one, because of the pressure exerted by the distributor across the Atlantic. The soundtrack is then composed by Bill Conti. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of Le Grand bleu, Eric Serra played the soundtrack live with six musicians during film concerts. He then takes up this beautiful idea again in 2020 in Belgium, Switzerland and France.

Address: Port du Niel, Presqu’île de Giens, Hyères

The scene of the descent into the water capsule

Jacques, Enzo and the Belgian diver meet in this underwater capsule to descend to a depth of -230 m. A giggle takes them when they start talking. Their voices are distorted by too much helium.

Luc Besson decided to use the Comex underwater craft for this mythical sequence in his film, on June 15, 1987. Abbreviation of Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises, COMEX is the world’s leading company in engineering, technology and human or robotic underwater interventions. Founded in 1962, it is located in Marseille. It was also on this day that Rosanna Arquette met Jean-Marc Barr for the first time. Three days later, they shoot their first scene together in Nice airport for their reunion sequence.

Address: Comex, 36 Boulevard de l’Océan, Marseille

Municipal swimming pool of Maisons-Laffitte

Today an aquatic centre, the municipal swimming pool of Maisons-Laffitte serves as a backdrop for the reunion between Enzo and Jacques.

If Jacques Mayol was immediately seduced by the project and became the consultant on the film, this was not the case for Enzo Maiorca, the Frenchman’s great rival. He sued Luc Besson for defamation. The director then changed his name to Enzo Molinari. This procedure blocked the broadcast of the feature film in Italy for 14 years. The film was only released there in 2002.

Moreover, the European version of the Big Blue is different from the American one. On the old continent, the last scene – cult – shows Jacques diving into the waves, hanging on to a dolphin’s fin and not coming out of the water. That would imply he committed suicide. In the one on the other side of the Atlantic, the freediver continues to swim, with the dolphin jumping over him. The real Jacques Mayol really committed suicide by hanging himself in 2001 in Capoliveri on the island of Elba, in his home at the age of 74.

Address: Centre aquatique, 107 Rue de la Muette, 78600 Maisons-Laffitte

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By Damien Canteau

Thursday, March 26, 2020

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