Jacqueline Bisset's famous wet t-shirt as film marketing strategy; how it happened and where it was filmed.

Jacqueline Bisset on the stern of Sunkiss

A photo allegedly taken by a National Geographic photographer, of Jacqueline Bisset scuba diving in a white t-shirt, created a film marketing sensation when it was controversially published without Bisset's knowledge and her required consent had already been refused.  

The Deep's potential commercial partners had been promised that over 200 million people would have "read, seen or heard" about the film at least 15 times before opening day 16 June 1977. "THE DEEP campaign began a year ago" and targeted "... everyone in America" with saturation marketing. 
"By June 16th over 200 million people will have read, seen or heard about THE DEEP ..."

"THE DEEP campaign began a year ago"

The Deep saturation marketing campaign
"The Total Saturation ... now Casablanca surfaces with the soundtrack"

As June 16th fast approached The Deep released a photo of Jacqueline Bisset that pioneered viral marketing in film. The photo in question was possibly taken by National Geographic photographer David Doubilet during filming of the movie's opening scenes at the wreck of RMS Rhone in the British Virgin Islands.

Jacqueline Bisset working at RMS Rhone
Jacqueline Bisset pioneers viral marketing in film 
(Source unknown possibly David Doubilet

The picture of Bisset was taken before her character, Gail Berke, came out of the water and climbed aboard a Mako 23 Inboard theatrically named Sunkiss. Manufactured by promotional partner Mako Boats, the vessel was moored at South West Breaker, Bermuda, a popular dive site approximately 2.5 kilometres (1.7 miles) south west of Church Bay, on South Road.  

South West Breaker is renown for its relatively shallow depth, excellent visibility and diverse marine life. Underwater Earth provides a magnificent Street View swim beneath the prehistoric coral reef where Bisset created film marketing history. 

Although the entire story takes place in Bermuda this scene began with Bisset's character thrashing above the wreck of RMS Rhone in the British Virgin Islands. RMS Rhone played the part of the fictitious Bermuda wreck Goliath and as Bisset and Nick Nolte surfaced the filming location cut to South West Breaker in Bermuda. 

Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset and Al Giddings filming at South West Breaker Bermuda 1976
Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset and cinematographer Al Giddings, with his "Ferrari red" Petermar camera system, between takes on the Mako 23 at South West Breaker, Bermuda, 1976 (Source Sony Pictures)

It's unclear whether promoting the The Deep with a 'wet t-shirt' was a preplanned advertising strategy or a publicity opportunity that was identified during filming. Bisset does not appear to have objected to character Gail Berke's translucent aesthetic. However, she was upset that photos she did not approve of were published and, in her view, distracted from the hard work that went into creating the film.

Jacqueline Bisset at RMS Rhone, Salt Island, British Virgin Islands, July 1976
(Source unknown possibly David Doubilet)

Bisset's recollection of events has remained consistent over many years. In 1983, approximately six years after The Deep's release, Bisset replied “no” when asked by Joan Rivers if she decided to take the shot. Bisset continued, “… and I think nobody noticed what was going on until they looked at the rushes really … they said just put the t-shirt on and go diving and then they, you know, they looked at the film.” 

"No, nobody did. Nobody paid, nobody made any remark about if for three weeks and then they looked at the rushes and said ..." (Source YouTube)

Rivers responded, “And nobody had any idea it was going to look like that?”. Bisset replied, “… No, nobody did. Nobody paid - nobody made any remark about if for three weeks and then they looked at the rushes …”

In the 21st century, Bisset's recollection remains the same, “Somebody said to me, ‘This is what they wear.’(Hoffman, 2018) "I did what the designer [Ron Talsky] told me to do" (Parker, 2015). "I had no sense of what I looked like at all.” (Hoffman, 2018). "I thought, “Okay. Well, we’re underwater. Big deal. You won’t see anything underwater.” (Parker, 2015).

 (Source Sony Pictures)

Bisset was aware that the t-shirt was translucent after diving. "When we came out of the water, there was always somebody there with a dressing gown, a robe, to put around me so that this would not happen, and I felt pretty secure." (Parker, 2015). 

Bisset in her robe over white t-shirt chats with stunt double Jackie Kilbride (Source Sony Pictures)

"There were a couple of scenes where we came out of the water at the boat, and there was a wet t-shirt look, but it was not focused on at all." (Parker, 2015)

Jacqueline Bisset on the stern of Sunkiss
"David, I panicked" (Source Sony Pictures)

Producer Peter Guber claimed that the "lovely and sensual sight" of Bisset in a "clinging white t-shirt" was a surprise that appeared in the early dailies (rushes) from RMS Rhone. The remoteness of the RMS Rhone location from New York, where exposed film was developed, meant a long turnaround time before dailies arrived back at Peter Island Yacht Club where the production was based. 

Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Shaw and director Peter Yates outside the administration office at Peter Island Yacht Club, 1976, now Peter Island Resort.

Bisset recalls "The first weeks of shooting, nobody had any rushes" (Parker, 2015) and it appears she never got to see them after they arrived. "I hadn’t seen the film, but I was getting very little feedback from that level and thought it was all in hand." (Parker, 2015). But at some point those who had seen the rushes decided to increase the amount of Bisset's performance as Gail Berke and reduce the performance of stunt double Jackie Kilbride, "... they said we looked so different underwater that they wanted me to do a lot more than I bargained for." (Parker, 2015)

Jacqueline Bisset prepares to film the first 10 minutes of The Deep.

When interviewed a few months after the film's release Jackie Kilbride said that she needed to wear a padded bra under her white t-shirt "to come up to Jackie's [Bisset] topside dimensions".

Stunt double Jackie Kilbride with Stan Waterman discusses filming while dressed as Gail Berke in white t-shirt
Sony Pictures).

The Deep author Peter Benchley said he had no idea who decided to put Jacqueline Bisset in a 'wet t-shirt' but suggested it was either producer Peter Guber or director Peter Yates. In an interview published the day after the film opened (18 June 1977) Peter Yates confirmed that Bisset was consulted on which pictures would be published "Jackie had the right to ok all her stills and they had decided to take out ads in all magazines, varying the photo for each magazine. The ones that ended up in Playboy and Penthouse were not the ones she had chosen."(The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 1977). 

Peter Benchley, Peter Yates, Peter Guber, on set
Photo supplied by Columbia Pictures that appeared in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution story.

"Twas not the flimsiness of the garment that bothered Jackie["], said the director. "She felt that picture looked like she was posing. She has passed on two photos that had her in a t-shirt, but she did want to make it look as if she were posing for some nudie shots." (The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 1977). As Yates' last sentence contradicts the first, on the entire point of consent, then it seems the quote of Yates, saying that Bisset did want to make it look as if she were posing is a typo that likely intended to say "she did not".

Producer Peter Guber (left), Nick Nolte (centre), director Peter Yates (right) on location.

Bisset indicates she never saw the dailies; "I don’t know for sure, but I believe the photos that were taken of me and then used, were taken by the National Geographic photographer" (Parker, 2015). The credited underwater still photographer from National Geographic was David DoubiletPaul Tzimoulis, husband of diver and The Deep's underwater continuity crew member Geri Murphy, captured a photo of Doubilet photographing Bisset during filming on the Rhone. Tzimoulis' photo of Doubilet accompanied an article teasing the film that appeared in the May 1977 issue of Skin Diver Magazine the month before the film was released. 

Paul Tzimoulis' captures David Doubilet (far right) photographing Jacqueline Bisset for Skin Diver Magazine, May 1977.

When Bisset finally did see herself, she says, “I thought I was going to die!” (Hoffman, 2018). "I felt betrayed because it’s all people talked about and it had nothing to do with the work we put into the film" (Lampert, 2019). Yates echoed the loss of focus on the film's achievements, "It's unfortunate that we put out so much information on a film and that's what every-one focuses on," (The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 1977). Some of that information revealed many technical firsts in filmmaking including:
  • Al Giddings' Petermar camera system which enabled Panavision lens cameras to film underwater without visual distortion.
  • Cinematographer Christopher Challis' specially modified 5000-watt "Senior" luminaries which became waterproof by sealing the cable ends directly to the lamp terminals. This enabled cinematic lighting while deep underwater (American Cinematographer, 1977).
  • The world's Biggest Underwater Soundstage, and,
  • The world's first underwater script continuity (Geri Murphy) crew member.

  • Stan Waterman, Al Giddings and Chuck Nicklin with Giddings' Petermar camera system that filmed Bisset underwater.

    Both Peter Benchley and underwater cameraman Chuck Nicklin believed that Bisset felt "exploited" a word she has not used herself when interviewed. Bisset says she was "upset, very upset" ... "I thought it had nothing to do with the film. I had a really dangerous time underwater at times during filming. I’d almost drowned at one point" (Parker, 2015) a fact she reiterated in 2019 when asked to share stories behind her favourite career photos. 

    "What I remember most is almost dying" said Bisset when seeing this photo (Source Sony Pictures)

    Bisset and Nolte both lost their air supply while filming Gail Berke's escape above RMS Rhone. As Bisset kicked toward Sunkiss above, Nolte's regulator separated from its mouthpiece. Nolte's sudden realisation that he was without air was caught on multiple cameras and he is seen ripping off his mask, swimming toward the camera crew and making the hand-signal for needing air. 

    Nolte kicks for the crew and taps his mouth after his mouthpiece shatters "I need to share air" (Source Sony Pictures)

    "What I remember most is almost dying." continued Bisset, "I was deep underwater with Nick Nolte, and there were so many bubbles I couldn’t find my mouthpiece to breathe. Luckily the cinematographer realised I was in trouble and shared his with me. I thought I was a goner." (Lampert, 2019)

    Bisset's struggle to find her mouthpiece caught on film (Source Sony Pictures).

    When Peter Guber saw the incident in dailies he decided the smashed mouthpiece was so dramatic he had the incident written into the film. 

    Final print of Bisset and Nolte's real loss of air incident (Source Sony Pictures)

    Writers Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters say Peter Guber "exploited images of Bisset in her revealing T-shirt to the maximum". Guber allegedly said "That T-shirt made me a rich man."

    Producer Peter Guber (left), Jacqueline Bisset, and Al Giddings (right).

    David Doubilet's presence was likely intended as an acknowledgement of the positive role National Geographic played in The Deep origin story. In 1970, National Geographic sent Peter Benchley, and photographer Emory Kristof, to Bermuda to tell the story of the island through its shipwrecks. During that assignment Benchley first met Teddy Tucker who became the inspiration for the character of Romer Treece played by Robert Shaw. Benchley's story was published in July 1971 and included Teddy Tucker discovering "... a silver coin - so badly oxidized that it seemed nothing more than a black stone until he cracked it open and revealed the feint imprint of a design." Kristof's photos included a treasure-diving couple backlit by the sun and above a Spanish shipwreck which carried tobacco. 

    National Geographic July 1971
    Benchley describes Teddy Tucker's discovery of a "black stone" (left), while a backlit couple dive a 16th century wreck (right)
    (Source National Geographic)

    Comparing July 1971 National Geographic with the first 10 minutes of The Deep:

  • From National Geographic (below left) a treasure diving couple are backlit above a 16th century Bermuda shipwreck, while (below right) Jacqueline Bisset and Nick Nolte are backlit above the as yet undiscovered 16th century wreck of Grifon during opening credits.

  • (Source National Geographic (left) and Sony Pictures (right))

  • From National Geographic (below left) Peter Benchley describes cracking open an oxidised coin, while (below right) David cracks open the oxidised medallion of Elizabeth (Isabella) Farnese

  • (Source National Geographic (left) and Sony Pictures (right))

  • From National Geographic (below left) Emory Kristof is credited as the staff photographer, while (below right) National Geographic photographer David Doubilet, who was credited as The Deep's underwater still photographer, photographs Jacqueline Bisset on location at the RMS Rhone wreck.

  • Positive acknowledgement of the role of National Geographic in The Deep origin story - Emory Kristof credited in 1971 and David Doubilet in 1976
    (Source National Geographic (left) and Sony Pictures (right))

    The Tucker Cross, which appears on the National Geographic page facing the couple backlit by the sun (below left), makes a cameo later in The Deep when a version is discovered by Gail (below right).

    (Source National Geographic (left) and Sony Pictures (right))

    By the time Peter Benchley published Shark Trouble in 2002, he had worked with David Doubilet for more than twenty years. 

    The week before the movie was released Kenneth Turan, writing for the Washington Post, discussed how The Deep was making "movie history" with its print advertising. His story, "An Ad Plunge into The Deep", is noteworthy because it corroborates the Yates interview that would appear the following week. Yates disclosed how photos were varied for each magazine but Turan's article showed the actual pictures including the one (below far right) that Bisset had not approved. 

    (Source Washington Post)

    "Excitement and sex appeal" for the "Lusty Men" market
    Print advertising as it appeared in Playboy and Penthouse 
    (Source Sony Pictures) (Photographer possibly David Doubilet)

    Turan revealed that 10% of The Deep's print advertising budget focussed upon 5 potential audience categories; "Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch America", "Love-Struck teens", "Underwater Freaks", "Romantic Women" and "Lusty Men". The photo Bisset had not approved, reportedly considered "excitement and sex appeal" by publicity staff, targeted "Lusty Men" with a 3 page foldout in Playboy and Penthouse that decades later is still traded online.

    The 3 page foldout that appeared in June 1977 Playboy.

    When Barbara Thomas' story broke the day after the film's release it was clear the photo had surpassed the "Lusty Men" market and become viral. Thomas wrote, "Yates and most everyone else is talking about the magazine ads from "The Deep," showing voluptuous Jacqueline Bisset swimming about in a clingy wet t-shirt. Publicity increased when she complained about the picture and the photo and comment ended up in Newsweek." In fact, Newsweek was also one of The Deep's promotional partners whose coverage of the film began at production and continued through release. 

    "But the film's greatest triumph is Bisset's beauty ..." (Source Newsweek 11 July 1977) 

    The 11 July 1977 Newsweek gave one line to the film's "technical triumphs" but filled newsstands with pages about "A Beauty Named Bisset" whose "wet T shirt that creates a nakedness beyond nudity". Thomas continued, "At her request, Columbia Pictures "banned" the photos in the ads, said Yates, but all the chatter has made the ads "collector's items."" (The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 1977).

    The Deep reportedly "cost $8.5 million to make and an additional $8.5 million to advertise and brought the studio $31 million in film rentals" (New York Times, 1978). Bisset's photo helped recover almost the entire production budget within three days of opening.

    (Source Paper Nostalgia and eBay)

    Nick Nolte also recalled technical challenges but singularly credits Jacqueline Bisset for making the film a success. "... we can thank Jackie. Her T-shirt clings to her like a second skin as she climbs out of the water. It was the talk of the movie trade for a long while ..." (Nolte, 2019).

    When Piers Morgan raised the issue in 2014 Bisset elegantly laughed it off and over the years she appears happy to autograph copies of the photo which has become collectable. 

    The autographed photo of Jacqueline Bisset diving the Rhone
    (Source Unknown possibly David Doubilet)

    One has to wonder whether beloved art historian Sister Wendy Beckett would have seen the controversy as a flawed interpretation of “comforting art” (what Beckett called “art that is very easy to react to). In this case the viral marketing relied upon reacting to Bisset portrayed as a sexy soaked shirt. Whereas, one imagines Sister Wendy challenging viewers to take a considered position that there was nothing shameful about Bisset’s appearance at all. In a 2000 interview Sister Wendy said emphatically “We’re made in the image of God … there’s nothing amiss in any part of the human body.”

    Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool - David Hockney
    "A beautiful young man" Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool by David Hockney (Source Sister Wendy's Odyssey)

    This was not the first time in history that a woman in wet clothing was the subject of a sensual artwork. The theme originates in antiquity at least as far back as an Aphrodite marble attributed to Callimachus almost 2500 years ago. 

    Venus Genetrix
    Venus Genetrix at the Getty Villa, Malibu (Source Getty)

    Aphrodite (Venus Genetrix in Roman copies) appears in sheer wet drapery, one breast covered the other exposed. Her garment appears to have been submerged and is reminiscent of Nick Nolte’s description of Bisset ... “Her T-shirt clings to her like a second skin as she climbs out of the water”.  Like Aphrodite, Bisset’s left leg is forward and her right leg slightly back.

    Like Aphrodite Bisset’s left leg is forward and her right leg slightly back.
    Bisset pose emulates Venus Genetrix left leg forward and right leg slightly back  (Source Getty (left) and Sony Pictures).

    In Greek mythology Heracles’ companion Hylas was abducted by water nymphs who became fascinated by his beauty. The story appears in ancient and modern art particularly in paintings of the 19th and 20th centuries. Sea Nymphs, also called Nereids, Goddesses of the Sea, were usually represented as very beautiful girls who often wore white. According to the psychology of colour in film white symbolises love, reverence, purity, simplicity, and peace. 

    Bisset's character in white during the first act.
    (Source Sony Pictures)

    Bisset, as Gail Berke, wears white throughout the film’s first act until the violation implied in the voodoo scene.

    The ancient Greeks also believed that a man who sees a Nymph becomes possessed by her. Such was the fate of Hyla when Dryope reached through the surface and pulled him to her.

    Nick Nolte remembered a story from Teddy Tucker about nitrogen narcosis (also called ‘rapture of the deep’) which had caused him to hallucinate the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She would hover only a few feet away and beckon him to follow. 

    "She sits about five feet away ..."
    (Source Daily News 10 October 1976)

    The ancients transitioned Nereids from an oral tradition into fresco and marble, then, during the second millennium AD, painters brought the same myth to life using canvas and oil. At the cusp of the third millennium, above the wreck of RMS Rhone, David Doubilet powerfully transformed Jacqueline Bisset’s Gail Berke, into a ‘rapture of The Deep’, a still photo of a motion picture character become Sea Goddess, hovering only a few feet away. 

    The Bisset photo overshadowed the success The Deep achieved as possibly the first motion picture to successfully cross-promote through low cost merchandising deals. Mako Boats, the manufacturer of Sunkiss, the small boat Bisset and Nolte climbed aboard, created a display at the 1977 New York Boat Show that included a 4 minute looping trailer of The Deep seen by 700,000 visitors. Mako Boats also sent a brochure saluting the film to 500,000 dealers, customers and boating fans. 

    Mako 23 1970s
    "You'll find them where the fish are"

    So, whatever happened to Sunkiss, where Jacqueline Bisset created film marketing history? In 2019, a Bermuda seller advertised one of two Mako's purportedly brought to Bermuda and used in this scene. Described as "a piece of Bermudian history", the vessel's real name ... Boobie Trap.

    Booby Trap which played Sunkiss for sale in Bermuda in 2019
    Boobie Trap which played Sunkiss (Source boattrader.bm)

    Were you there when The Deep was being filmed? Share your story of the The Deep filming locations in the comments below.



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