Shark Week: How Discovery chooses titles like 'Air Jaws: Fin of Fury'
As Shark Week begins Sunday, Aug. 10, so does viewers’ amazement at the titles of Discovery’s new specials. “We have brainstorm meetings for titles on every show, and I’m telling you, when a brainstorm meeting on the next car show comes up, you go to a conference room and there’s like four people in it,” Michael Sorensen, VP of development and production for the channel, says. “Anytime we have a Shark Week brainstorm for titles, you have to get more seats. It’s packed, people throwing out mash-ups: One of my favorites that came out of one of these meetings was Sharkcano. I’m like, ‘I don’t even know what that is, but if we ever find sharks feeding around underwater volcanos, I’m sure there’s a show there.'”
A good title does often come first, he admits. “This might be a bit of a spoiler for next year, but Donna [Alessandro, VP of programming] came in, and she’s like, ‘I know one: The Bride of Jaws.’ I was like, ‘What is that show?’ She’s like, ‘I don’t know. That’s for you to figure out.’ So it took us like three or four months thinking, ‘Is The Bride of Jaws a love story? Is it about how great whites are mating? Is it the journey to bring two sharks together?’ And then finally, we met with this incredible science team in Australia who’s been working with this shark called Joan of Shark, which was a pretty big news story a couple months ago. She’s the biggest female great white they’ve ever seen. We’re like, ‘That could be it! That could be the focus here,'” he says. “Now it’s a show with a fantastic title, and I think it’s gonna have some incredible science.”
Here, Sorensen shares the stories behind some of 2014’s most noteworthy specials, including Air Jaws: Fin of Fury, Lair of the Mega Shark, and Zombie Sharks.
Air Jaws: Fin of Fury (premieres Aug. 10, 8 p.m. ET): This is veteran filmmaker Jeff Kurr’s two-year search for Colossus, the massive, aggressive great white with a deformed dorsal fin he captured breaching in South Africa in 2011. Kurr took EW behind-the-scenes of two must-see moments and said he can’t take credit for “Fin of Fury”—and neither can Sorensen. “I think where we started was Air Jaws: The Search for Colossus,” Sorensen says. “Colossus is a great name, and people are gonna know who the shark is in the first 30 seconds.” But network head Eileen O’Neill suggested they have more fun with it, and it was D’Alessandro who said, “‘His fin is a key to identifying Colossus. It’s the Fin of Fury—we have to go find it.’ It gave us a bit of a kung-fu reference, and we all just smiled,” Sorensen says. “It’s great when it actually ties into the plot line.”
Lair of the Mega Shark (premieres Aug. 12, 10 p.m. ET): Kurr and fellow shark expert/cameraman Andy Casagrande head to New Zealand to investigate the sightings of a 20 foot great white, and Casagrande and colleague Kina Scollay take part in the first cage dive at night in those waters—where sharks are known to work in tandem as a gang. “Honestly, we’ve never seen anything like that. Jeff Kurr even says in the show, ‘Twenty-five years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.’ Those sharks are super aggressive, really amped up, and almost tore that cage apart,” Sorensen says. Originally, the team was thinking Den of the Giant Shark or Den of the Mega Shark, but it didn’t feel fun or menacing enough. “My five-year-old son is obsessed with Ninja Turtles, and he literally calls our house our lair. He’s like, ‘We gotta go home to the lair,'” Sorensen says, with a laugh. “Lair is such a cool word—so that’s what we got to call it. This is his home, his lair.”
Zombie Sharks (premieres Aug. 13, 9 p.m. ET): A recent spike in orca attacks on great whites has some scientists wondering if orcas have learned how to immobilize and prey on sharks. So professional diver Eli Martinez sets out to test whether great whites can even achieve “tonic immobility,” a catatonic state sharks appear to enjoy—unless it renders them helpless at the wrong time. “It goes back to zombie movies and The Walking Dead,” Sorensen says of the title. “In some way, shape, or form, we’re looking for that pop culture touch point that people can relate to and understand what it is.” It’s another example of the title coming first: “Very, very early on, they were like, ‘We have a special: it’s about sharks being turned into zombies. We call it Zombie Sharks.’ We’re like, ‘That’s amazing. Let’s figure out the details later.’ Then we had to build the show around it.”
Jaws Strikes Back (premieres Aug. 11, 9 p.m. ET): Marine biologist Greg Skomal takes the sharkcam, which allows him to track a great white at depths of 300 feet, to the remote Pacific island of Guadalupe hoping to film an epic clash between a mega shark and a mega seal. The original title was, in fact, Great Whites vs. Mega Seals, but it was deemed “kinda clunky and long,” Sorensen says. “Last year, we did Return of Jaws, which was great whites coming back to Cape Cod for the second time in four years. We were sitting around in a meeting, and it’s like, ‘Return of Jaws kinda feels like Return of the Jedi. What’s another Star Wars name? Well, Jaws Strikes Back.'” They were sold on the title after they saw a cut of the special, which finds the sharkcam coming under attack. “We could have called it Jaws of the Pacific, but as soon as that shark started taking out our camera, we were like, ‘Finally, the great whites are coming after the camera,'” he says, laughing again. “So Jaws Strikes Back stuck.”
Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss (premieres Aug. 12, 9 p.m. ET): Shark researcher Paul Clerkin heads to the deepest depths of the Indian Ocean in search of new shark species and a glimpse of the last known group of bioluminescent sharks. It, too, is a sequel. “Last year, it was very much an expedition show. We came up with the title Alien Sharks, and all of a sudden, we were able to start telling a story about how mysterious the deep is, and how the deep ocean is less explored than outer space,” Sorensen says. “As one of our scientists says this year, ‘As you move deeper and deeper, it just gets stranger and stranger.'” And referencing the film The Abyss doesn’t hurt either.
Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine (premieres Aug. 10, 9 p.m. ET): “We’re talking about this legendary shark, Submarine, who has this dark past,” Sorensen explains. “You gotta go into the heart of darkness to find something—well then, could this shark be the Shark of Darkness? It just kinda stuck, and we couldn’t shake it.”
Spawn of Jaws: The Birth (premieres Aug. 13, 10 p.m. ET): In last year’s Spawn of Jaws, Dr. Michael Domeier tagged a pregnant female shark. Now he returns to locate the pupping grounds. “We’ve been following that journey for 18 months,” Sorensen says. “Everyone says colons are never great in titles, but I think with sequels you want to give the audience what Part 2 has in store. We wanted to make sure that people understood that finally we were gonna get to the core of the story where this great white gives birth.”
Great White Matrix (premieres Aug. 16, 9 p.m. ET): Shark attack survivor Paul de Gelder and Casagrande investigate a series of bizarre shark attacks in Australia. “That show was actually called Sharks 360 when we first picked it up. It’d actually been in production for two years before I came on. We didn’t know what that means. Then talking to the team who built this huge camera rig to study how the sharks attack things in 360 degrees, or close to, they just kept saying, ‘We need to get The Matrix shot,'” Sorensen says. “It’s like, why don’t we just call it Great White Matrix?”