There was a warning at the start of Discovery’s Tuesday night Shark Week premiere Killer Sharks saying some viewers might find reenactments of the horrific attacks that terrorized the coastal town of Durban, South Africa over the holiday season of 1957 disturbing. Disturbing and awesome! “We went there,” executive producer Deirdre Gurney laughs to EW. Her company, Gurney Productions, has done a lot of reenactment shows for Discovery and Animal Planet, and multiple Shark Week productions (include tonight’s How Sharks Hunt with Cody and Dave of Dual Survivor and Thursday’s Shark City with Andy Samberg), so this was the culmination of all they’ve learned. What does filming arguably the most graphic reenactments seen in 24 years of Shark Week entail? Here are a few key ingredients:
• A lot of morning trips to the butcher shop. “We have a producer who’s amazing with the meat. They go to the butcher shop in the morning, and they know the cut that they like. It’s a sirloin. And they ask the butcher to cut it frozen so they can get super thin slices. They lay that over the part of the limb that we bury in the sand, and then juice it up with blood and a couple chunks of chicken, which makes, like, the chunky meat,” Gurney says. “We definitely should have shot behind-the-scenes for this one because the crew was just so passionate about it, and I think it’s definitely noticeable. And our wonderful actors who would lay there with meat on them, especially the little girl who was like 11 (pictured) — we chopped the poor little girl’s arm off.”
• Fake blood, of course. That’s corn syrup, chocolate syrup, and red dye. “Mixing the blood is fun because our producers really get into their formula: This many bottles of Karo syrup and that many bottles of Hershey’s is the perfect mix,” Gurney says. “They compete to get the best-looking blood. The blood is really red and stains everything it comes in contact with.”
• Sensitivity. The hour interweaves interviews with survivors and relatives of victims whose attacks were fatal with the scripted story of how Durban dealt with what became known as Black December. There was one attack that filmmakers thought too gruesome to depict in its entirety — a young boy whose brother spoke in the special. “From the accounts that we read, he was in pieces, and they made a human chain in the water to pass his parts. We had planned to shoot it, but since we had interviewed his brother in real life and his story was so powerful, we just didn’t feel that much needed to be told,” Gurney says. Another story was trimmed for time, but it would have been heartbreaking to watch unfold: “At the end of the movie, the woman you see taking pictures of her children in the water, she’s actually the last attack of the Black December period. She was a young mom in her late 20s who had four children. Her husband had just died in a motorcycle accident six months before. She took her children on their first vacation since then to this beach, and she was attacked taking their picture in the water. She was a very small woman, and the witnesses say the shark came under her and shot her up into the air. She was eaten in front of her children,” Gurney says. “[As in Killer Sharks], the lifeguard did go around and warn that they were fixing part of the net, so part of the net was down, but people kept going in the water because no one really understood what was going on and they felt safe. She was in knee-deep water, and she was killed. We intentionally cast someone with really long hair so that we knew when she was thrown up, the hair would fly. All those little details are what goes into making each reenactment special. We wanted each reenactment to have the unique details of the actual attack because each attack did have its unique set of circumstances. Working with Discovery, it’s really important to get the facts across and the science behind it, too.”
• A good leading man to tie your story together who’s willing to swim with sharks. Gurney has known actor Brad William Henke (Justified, October Road, Lost) for years, and once he got excited about doing a Shark Week project (and SAG issues were worked out for the low-budget cable production), the part of the marine biologist who wants the mayor to close the beach so he can figure out what’s drawing such a large number of sharks to the area was written for him. He helped developed the script, which called for him to swim with reef sharks at Stuart’s Cove in the Bahamas. “Brad was in the water with all those sharks, and those sharks really do get aggressive when they’re feeding. In the cage scene, they’re really swimming around him, and he was in a pretty flimsy little cage because we needed it to look of the period,” Gurney says. “And they really knocked his mask off his head, that wasn’t scripted.” He wore chainmail under his clothes. That’s how you tell which actors got in the water with sharks, Gurney says. “You have to script those roles to be wearing clothes, so you don’t see the chainmail.”
• Patience. It took two years to get this elaborate special fully greenlit at Discovery, but even with the network’s go-ahead, it wasn’t smooth sailing. “It’s getting harder and harder to ship stuff. You saw the scenes where they’re shooting the guns [at the sharks] into the water. That all really happened. They also had people on the beaches throwing grenades into the water, which we shot and had to lose for time. To get our fake grenades and fake guns into the Bahamas was a fun, challenging endeavor. Things were stopped at Customs.”
Killer Sharks repeats Saturday, Aug. 4 at 4 p.m. ET on Discovery.