Fishy Business: The behind-the-scenes story of the 'Piranha' movies (Part I)
Image Credit: Mary Evans/New World Pictures/Ronald Grant/EverettDo you enjoy complex plotting? Subtle subtexts? Movies in which scantily clad people don’t get bitten to pieces by fish? Then you should think twice—actually, make it thrice—before seeing Piranha 3D, which opens this Friday.
Directed by French horror auteur Alexandre Aja (Mirrors, 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes remake) the film’s cast features both an Academy Award winner in Richard Dreyfuss, who cameos as his Matt Hooper character from Jaws in all but name, and an Oscar nominee in Elisabeth Shue, who plays the movie’s sheriff-heroine. But this Arizona-shot tale of prehistoric piranhas feasting upon Spring Break partiers after being freed from their underwater lair by an earthquake, is about as far from Oscar catnip as it is possible to get. “From what I understand, it’s the goriest movie in history,” says cast member Adam Scott, from Parks and Recreation and Party Down. “When we were making it in Lake Havasu, there was a tanker truck filled with blood parked on the side of the lake pumping blood all day. I’m not joking. I don’t think anyone’s got us on the tanker truck of blood. I think we’re unique in that regard.”
Of course, Scott is mostly a comedic actor, with limited experience of horror movies. The same cannot be said of Greg Nicotero, the makeup effects wizard responsible for coming up with many of the movie’s bloody “gags.” “It’s really gory,” says Nicotero, a veteran of such horror movies as Drag Me to Hell, Hostel, and Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes. “The idea was that this was Saving Private Ryan meets Girls Gone Wild with a little bit of Jaws thrown in. We came up with a whole bunch of really fun gags, and Alex said, ‘Let’s do them all!’ There’s one gag where a girl gets her hair tangled in propeller blades and we had the propeller rip her face off. That was fun.” Even screenwriter Josh Stolberg, a diehard horror film fan who co-penned the script with Pete Goldfinger, seems stunned by Aja’s movie. “It has some of the most disgusting, disturbing images I’ve ever seen on film,” he says.
Aja showed footage from Piranha 3D on the Thursday of this year’s Comic-Con weekend at a movie theater in San Diego. The screening was originally scheduled to take place in the convention center that hosts most Comic-Con events, until festival organizers decreed the material to be too extreme. “I was promoting Mirrors at Comic-Con two years ago and telling everyone Piranha 3D was going to deliver gore and blood and spectacular curvy girls,” Aja says. “Going back to Comic-Con and just showing the PG-13 side of the movie felt boring and anti-climactic.”
Bob Weinstein, head of Dimension Films, which is releasing Piranha 3D, swears that the venue switcheroo—and the resulting Piranha 3D-Too-Nasty-For-Comic-Con! headlines—”wasn’t planned.” Yet the affair has certainly brought attention to the extreme nature of a movie whose principal selling point is undoubtedly the movie’s bloody mayhem, despite a cast that—in addition to Shue, Scott, and Dreyfuss—boasts Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd, comedian Paul Scheer, Gossip Girl star Jessica Szohr, and Jerry O’Connell. The latter essays the head of a Girls Gone Wild-type organization called Wild Wild Girls, which helps provide an excuse, plot-wise, for the movie’s considerable cleavage quotient. Indeed, the cast also features U.K. “lads mag” favorite Kelly Brook and adult actress Riley Steele, the star of such unreviewed-by-Entertainment Weekly movies as Naked Aces 5 and Bad Girls 3. Meanwhile, Hostel director and Inglourious Basterds star, Eli Roth makes a cameo as the M.C. of a wet T-shirt contest. “Who am I to critique Inglourious Basterds?” asks Roth. “But if there’s one thing that film could have used, it’s a wet T-shirt contest.”
Despite the abundance of blood—and boobs—to be located in Aja’s movie, it would be hard to argue the Frenchman is overly dumbing down the franchise with Piranha 3D, the third big screen entry in the series and the first in 29 years. The poster for the original Piranha, released in 1978, featured a bikini-clad woman desperately swimming to escape a misleadingly outsize piscine monster. 1982’s Jamaica-shot Piranha II: The Spawning (AKA Piranha II: Flying Killers) also mixed curvaceous eye candy—in the form of real-life “Penthouse Pets”— with ravenous fish that, this time around, had developed the ability to fly. “I never thought it would be good—I knew it wouldn’t be,” admits Carole Davis, who played one of the film’s bikini-clad victims.” At that point in my life, I was into traveling and I would do s—ty movies to go to great locales.”
In short, the franchise is not widely regarded as a triumph of Western Civilization—and Piranha 3D is unlikely to change matters. Jon Davison, who produced the first movie, has seen most of the latest iteration and says the movie is surprisingly like his version. “It’s just more crass,” he laughs. “If such a thing was possible, they’ve done it!”
Despite all this, the Piranha franchise is an oddly honorable and important one, that has a remarkably storied history. The first two films birthed the careers of three famous filmmakers who between them have created some of the most beloved, critically acclaimed, and commercially successful films of the past three decades: James Cameron, Joe Dante, and John Sayles. “One of the reasons I’m so excited to be involved in this, is the history that it has,” says Piranha 3D screenwriter Stolberg. “I mean, Cameron and Sayles and Dante? It really is kind of a special franchise.”
It could even be argued that the Piranha franchise is as important as, say, the Terminator films or the Gremlins movies. Or even Avatar. Because without the Piranha flicks, those films might never have existed at all.
Image Credit: Mary Evans/New World Pictures/Ronald Grant/EverettIn the summer of 1975, the box office success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws changed the Hollywood game overnight. Suddenly, the B-movie was elevated to ‘A’ status. Yes, the Universal-backed Jaws was brilliantly written, directed, and acted—not least by future Piranha 3D star Richard Dreyfuss. But it was, at heart, a souped-up exploitation film that had much in common with the drive-in fodder b-movie king, and New World Pictures boss, Roger Corman had been churning out for years before Dreyfuss’ ichthyologist ever stepped foot on Robert Shaw’s famously too-small boat. Or as one Universal executive was quoted as saying after the movie became a hit, “What was Jaws but an old Corman monster-from-the-deep flick?”
The point did not go unnoticed by Corman himself, and neither did the amount of cash made by Jaws. So when a former producer’s assistant named Jeff Schechtman and a onetime Japanese movie star called Chako Van Leeuwen approached the exploitation maestro with a script about folks getting eaten by piranhas, he was all ears. “I had been working for Warner Bros. for a number of years,” says Schechtman. “And as everybody else does in Hollywood, I struck out on my own, and tried to put some projects together. Piranha was one of the earliest things I produced. Originally, I developed the script, with a screenwriter named Richard Robinson (author of the William Shatner-starring 1977 killer tarantula movie Kingdom of the Spiders), then shopped that around. Chako van Leeuwen provided a bunch of the development money, and that is how she came into the picture.”
Image Credit: New World Pictures/Everett CollectionCorman agreed to put up half the film’s $850,000 budget, with United Artists paying the rest in exchange for the film’s international distribution rights. The New World chief asked Joe Dante to make the film and the director’s friend Jon Davison to produce. Dante had started his career toiling in the New World trailer department where he routinely inserted the same footage of an exploding helicopter into ads to spike the interest of audiences, despite the fact that the plots of the actual movies rarely had anything to do with exploding helicopters. “Our trailers were better than the pictures very often,” admits Corman.
Eventually Dante graduated to directing and, with trailer department colleague Allan Arkush, made 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard, a comedy about a Corman-esque film company called Miracle Pictures (“Welcome to Miracle Pictures, where they make a picture a week” declared the trailer, “and, if it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle!”). That movie, which starred Corman veterans Dick Miller and Paul Bartel, resulted from a bet Jon Davison had made with Corman that he could produce the cheapest New World picture yet. After Davison and Dante managed to finish the film for an incredible $60,000, Corman figured they were the people to oversee Piranha. “The script was frankly a little underwhelming,” says Dante. “The author hadn’t figured out exactly what to do after people found out there were piranhas in the water. So a bear chased them back in the water, to get eaten by piranhas. And then, once they got rid of the bear, there was a forest fire that chased people into the water to get eaten by piranha. I said, ‘We should rewrite this.’”
Image Credit: New World Pictures/Everett CollectionThe man tasked with that mission was John Sayles. These days, Sayles is an in-demand script doctor and respected writer-director, with a filmography that features such critically acclaimed movies as as Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, and Lone Star. Back in the late ‘70s, he was a young, little known novelist with a hankering to find out more about the movie business and no compunction about picking up a $10,000 check to de-bear-ify a Roger Corman piranha flick.
Sayles set about writing a tongue-in-cheek script in which mutated piranhas menaced a riverside entertainment park. “The thing I tried to bring was a little bit of self-consciousness,” he says. “Some of the fun is: ‘Okay, this is a dollar ninety-eight version of Jaws.’” According to one of the many legends that surround the making of the first two Piranha films, Sayles also wrote a “shadow” script in which the military—who could hardly be more villainous in the finished movie—are the heroes of the piece. Supposedly, this script was sent to the appropriate authorities at the National Guard who agreed to lend soldiers and equipment to the production. “I think what happened is they showed a different version of the script to the military,” says Sayles. “Certain things may have disappeared.”
Joe Dante recalls Piranha being, “a very difficult movie to make, partly because a lot of us didn’t know what we were doing. That’s the story of New World Pictures—learn on the job. But also we had special effects, kids, water, dogs. I mean, everything you’re not supposed to have in a movie, we had.” Roger Corman insisted Dante shoot test footage of the film’s model piranhas underwater before he would go any further with the project. So the director and his special effects team took over the Olympic-sized swimming at the University of Southern California for what Dante describes as some “rigorous r&d.” “We had mechanical piranhas, we had piranhas on wires, on strings,” sighs the filmmaker. “Finally, we figured out that if we had these puppets on rods we could get them to look like the piranha footage that was available at the time.”
Dante also shot some water footage with future Young and the Restless star Eric Braeden, who had been cast in the role of the scientist responsible for breeding the movie’s strain of genetically engineered, super intelligent, mutant fish which are accidentally let loose into a river. During his stint at the USC pool, Dante and his special effects team dumped so much foliage and fake blood into the pool they themselves brought to life a new creature of sorts. “We created this fungus that was apparently hard to classify,” says the director. “They had scientists down from Sacramento to try to figure out what it was. It was apparently some sort of new life form. It was in the water—and of course in our lungs as well. They had to sandblast the pool to get rid of it.” Given this, it is not surprising that Braeden decided to back out of the film. “I think Eric was just horrified by the primitive conditions we were shooting under,” says Dante. “He called me one night very politely and said, ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t do this.’”
Finally, Dante had around two hours of footage featuring fake piranhas, and gory mayhem. “We [planned] on showing it all to Roger in a mammoth session,” says Dante. “About 15, 20, minutes in, he said, ‘Okay, it’s not bad. We’ll do it.’ He was about to leave the screening room and I said, ‘Roger, don’t you want to see the prosthetic breasts getting eaten?’ And he looked to me and he said, ‘Do I have to?’”
Image Credit: New World Pictures/Everett CollectionAfter being given the go ahead by Corman, Dante decamped to the Aquarena Springs resort complex in San Marcos, Tx., with his cast. The director had recruited Invasion of the Body Snatchers star Kevin McCarthy to replace Braeden and also signed up Hollywood Boulevard actors Dick Miller and Paul Bartel. He filled out the rest of the cast with cheap but familiar-from-TV actors, including Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies, and horror icon Barbara Steele. Jeff Schechtman says that, though Dante worked hard to ensure his first solo directing gig was a success, he never took matters too seriously. “One of the things about Joe that was really refreshing, particularly in this business, is that he had the ability to laugh at himself,” says the producer. “He had the ability to realize that, ‘Yes, I want to make the best movie I can, with the resources that I have. But, you know, it’s a movie about freakin’ fish that eat people. Let’s not get too full of ourselves.’”
Sayles’ script called for a state-of-the-art water park, but Aquarena Springs was a rather more quaint complex. Its chief “attraction” was a pig named Ralph that swam and performed tricks. Dante persuaded Sayles to come down to Texas and play the small role of a soldier so that he could perform unpaid surgery on the script to accommodate the somewhat antique nature of the resort… and an appearance by Ralph. “Ralph the swimming swine had been an attraction at Aquarena Springs for years,” chuckles Sayles “I went to a Mexican market in the town and they were selling whole pigs heads. And I tried to convince Joe that at some point we should see the pig’s head floating around after the piranha attack. He said, ‘People will put up with humans being eaten, but not pet animals!’”
At one point in the movie, Sayles’ soldier guards Menzies and Dillman, who have found out about about the military’s involvement in creating the film’s strain of mutant piranha. The pair escape after Menzies’ character opens her blouse and flashes Sayles her breasts. On the day of filming, however, Menzies told Dante that she was uncomfortable with being filmed essentially topless. “I felt that the scene was a bit gratuitous,” the actress recalls, via email. “My late husband, Robert Urich (star of the TV shows Vega$ and Spenser: For Hire), had an issue with it. So, I declined to do it. They had to audition breasts.” They certainly did, much to Dante’s embarrassment, as the director related on his commentary for the Piranha DVD: “Heather Menzies came to me and said, ‘I know that I’m supposed to do nudity in this movie but my husband will kill me, I can’t do it. I’m not going to do it. So we shot the scene with her opening her blouse, and she had a bra on, and then we had to shoot an insert—probably one of the more ignominious inserts that I’ve shot—of a waitress… who we had to sort of ‘audition,’ if you will. I picked the first one… It was so embarrassing.”
Dante was more comfortable filming blood than breasts. Both the director and Sayles were determined to make a movie that gently spoofed Jaws as well as ripped it off. However, they knew they had to deliver the requisite amount of gore to satisfy Corman. “We had exploitation elements in spades,” says Dante. “I mean, we killed a whole summer camp, and it wasn’t even the last reel.” According to another Piranha legend, there was never enough gore for Roger Corman who, after viewing the dailies, would routinely call Dante and deliver a two-word order: “More blood!” “I think I did say that once,” says Corman. “But not regularly. I thought Joe was really making a good picture.” Heather Menzies remembers that, when she saw the finished movie, she was “pleasantly surprised by the quality of it. I think the bulk of the credit goes to Joe Dante. There is a reason why he went on to become so successful.”
Image Credit: New World Pictures/Everett CollectionAudiences agreed with Corman and Menzies. Piranha was one of New World Pictures’ biggest hits, grossing around $14m domestically and a similar amount abroad. “It was huge in South America,” says Jon Davison, “where they actually have piranha. So you’d think they’d know better.” The film still enjoys a sizable cult following and is re-released this month on DVD and Blu-ray by Shout! Factory. “Piranha is amazing fun,” says Edgar Wright, director of the cult horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. “It’s a Looney Tunes horror film. It has non sequiturs and gags that shouldn’t belong in your normal gory B-movie.” Eli Roth is another fan. “I’ve seen it with a modern audience,” he says. “And during the scene where the kids get attacked, everyone’s laughing at first. But the attack goes on so long it actually becomes very disturbing.”
The movie’s cult status is a source of astonishment to many of its creators. “Everybody thought it was this silly little piranha movie,” says Jeff Schechtman. “It was a Roger Corman movie! Nobody thought it was going to turn into anything that people would still be talking about all these many years later.” Producer Jon Davison is similarly amazed by his movie’s enduring appeal. “It was just a silly idea for a rubber fish movie, to capitalize on Jaws,” says Davison, who would go on to produce Airplane! and Starship Troopers. “It was something to have fun with—and apologize for!”
Dante agrees that Piranha was “very important for my career. You’ve got to remember, when you worked for Roger, the expectation was not high. The pictures were expected to be bad. So when a good one came along, you were a hero.” The director teamed again with Sayles for his next venture, the hit werewolf movie The Howling. He was later handpicked to helm 1984’s Gremlins by Steven Spielberg, the man he had spectacularly ripped-off on Piranha but who, according to Dante, “was apparently able to spot the humorous intentions.” Gremlins cost just $11m, and ultimately grossed $150m in the U.S. alone, propelling Dante onto the A-list of directors.
John Sayles wrote two more movies for Corman, the ’30s-set crime drama Lady In Red and 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars, a sci-fi retelling of The Magnificent Seven. Among those working on the crew of the latter piece of space-schlock was a young, ambitious, Canadian, who in the course of the shoot graduated from miniature model-maker to art director. Soon afterwards, he would be hired to direct Piranha II: The Spawning—and then fired.
His name was James Cameron.