Fishy Business: The Behind The Scenes Story Of The Piranha Movies
Do 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.
In 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.”
Corman 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.’”
The 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?’”
After 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.”
Audiences 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.
The story so far: Following the release of Jaws, legendary exploitation-movie producer Roger Corman hired fledgling director Joe Dante to direct a rip-off movie about small, killer fish. The result was 1978′s gore-drenched, but tongue-in-cheek Piranha, which cost less than $1m to make and grossed around $14m in the U.S. alone.
The huge success of the original Piranha came as a surprise to Roger Corman. “Piranha achieved astonishing results,” says the producer. “These low-budget exploitation films can very often get a big gross the first week, but then fall away. Piranha did not fall away. It held, two and three weeks, against major studio competition.” Unfortunately for Corman, his deal with Piranha executive producers Chako van Leeuwen and Jeff Schechtman meant the pair were free to seek financing elsewhere for the film’s inevitable sequel. “I had just a one-picture deal,” says Corman. “I wasn’t able to participate in the other ones.”
The box office triumph of Piranha was even more impressive given the movie was very late to the Jaws rip-off party. Piranha was released three years after Spielberg’s film, and, in commercial terms, actually rode the marketing coattails of Jaws 2, which came out around the same time. Over the previous couple of years, movie audiences had been treated—if that’s the right word—to the sight of onscreen characters being terrorized by a variety of animals including a killer whale (1977′s Orca), a bear (1976′s Grizzly), tarantulas (1977′s Kingdom of the Spiders, penned by original Piranha scribe Richard Robinson), and even worms (1976′s Squirm). “I thought it was very late to do a Jaws rip-off,” admits Joe Dante. “There was a bunch of movies like Piranha.”
Yet another Jaws-inspired film was 1977′s Tentacles, which featured Henry Fonda, Shelley Winters, John Huston, and a giant octopus. The movie was made by an Italy-based producer-director named Ovidio Assonitis. The filmmaker had previously directed the 1974 supernatural horror movie Beyond the Door, a film that prompted Warner Bros. to file suit for copyright infringement because of its alleged similarity to The Exorcist. Assonitis claims the suit was ultimately resolved when he promised not to make a sequel to Beyond the Door and Warners entered an agreement that the producer oversee three movies for the company. One of those films would be Piranha II: The Spawning.
“We were looking to get a sequel to Piranha made,” says Jeff Schechtman. “Ovidio Assonitis said he wanted to finance it. I was very skeptical, but he put his money where his mouth was.” According to Assonitis, “Warner Brothers asked me if I was interested to produce the piece. My reply was yes, on condition that I could basically take over the whole operation, and do it myself.” Assonitis says the studio’s main stipulation was that this time, the fish in the movie should be airborne. “It was not really credible,” says the producer-director. “But they wanted, badly, the flying fish. They wanted to have piranha coming out of the sea.”
The original director of Piranha II was Miller Drake. Drake was yet another Corman graduate who had labored alongside Joe Dante in the New World trailer department—and had essayed the role of “First Mutant” in Dante’s directorial debut, Hollywood Boulevard—before becoming Corman’s de facto head of postproduction. “Jeff Schechtman said, ‘Would you like to direct this movie?’ and I said, ‘Sure,’” recalls Drake. “We met with Ovidio Assonitis and he said fine.” Drake set to work developing a script with writer Charles H. Eglee, who would later collaborate with James Cameron on the TV show Dark Angel. Miller’s intention was that Piranha II should hinge upon Kevin McCarthy’s scientist from Piranha, even though he had seemingly perished in the first movie. “I pitched this idea of bringing Kevin McCarthy back, all chewed up and mutilated from the previous movie,” says Drake. “He was on an abandoned oil rig and he was developing these flying piranhas out there to get revenge, or whatever. I think we were going to bring Barbara Steele back and have him kill her by smashing her head through a fish tank.”
To assist with the movie’s makeup, Drake approached special-effects legend-in-the-making Rob Bottin, who had done a small amount of work on the original Piranha and would go on to oversee the phenomenal creature effects on John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic The Thing. “Getting Rob at that time, because he was just up-and-coming, would have been a real coup,” says Drake. “He was a pretty talented kid, and he would have really brought something.” Before Bottin could weave his prosthetic magic, Assonitis removed Drake from the movie. “In the beginning, the package that I got from Chako and Jeff included also this director,” says Assonitis. “But I didn’t like him. I didn’t think he was right for the movie.” Miller Drake remembers things somewhat differently. “It was one of those things that kept going on forever,” he says. “We waited and waited. Then finally we had some big meeting in a hotel. Schechtman was with me, and we’re meeting with Ovidio. It was basically, ‘Are we going to do this movie or not? I’ve got Bottin and I’m going to lose him.’ And, you know, [Assonitis] is hemming and hawing, and it got a little heated up there. I got a call from Schectman about two days later. He said, ‘Come by, I want to talk to you.’ And I went to his office and he said, ‘Look, Ovidio is kind of upset about the other night, so you’re off the picture.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine.’” Assonitis decided to replace Drake with James Cameron.
The story of how, and why, Cameron was hired to direct Piranha II has passed into movie lore. In fact, it is the most famous chapter of the sequel’s production. According to that tale, a pair of anonymous Piranha II producers in search of a cheap filmmaker dropped by the L.A. set of the Corman-produced sci-fi/horror movie Galaxy of Terror, on which Cameron was working as second-unit director. “I had to do a scene where a severed arm is consumed by worms or maggots,” Cameron, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told ABC’s World News Tonight in 1998. “And we get all ready to do it and it’s like ‘OK, cue the worms.’ They just didn’t do anything. They were unmotivated. And so I’m desperate, it’s my first show as a director and I’m blowing it.” The inventive Cameron decided to get the maggots “motivated” by running an exposed electrical cable under the fake arm and telling his electrician to put in the plug when he called, “Action.” According to Cameron, “These producers come walking up behind me to watch me work, and I am sitting there and I go, ‘OK, roll camera, and, action.’ And the worms come to life and they’re crawling around. And I say, ‘OK, that’s good, and cut.’ And they stop. And [the producers] are very impressed by this, you know? They scale it up in their mind. ‘If he can do that with worms, what can he do with actors?’”
The story of how Cameron got a performance from the maggots was recently confirmed by Galaxy of Terror actress Taaffe O’Connell, who recalled the tale for a making-of doc included on the recent Shout! Factory DVD rerelease of the film. “When they originally shot that scene, they couldn’t get the maggots to move…. The maggots were just sitting there. So James Cameron got the idea to shock the maggots. And that’s how they started squirming. He was amazing.”
But did Cameron’s inventiveness lead directly to the Piranha II gig? Jeff Schechtman says, “No.” “[That’s] not quite how the story went at all,” laughs the producer. “We started pre-preproduction with a different director, Miller Drake. But it became clear that he and Assonitis were not going to get along. Jim was involved in the picture doing some art direction and, even back then, was very, very impressive. He and Assonitis spent some time together, I had encouraged that. And the decision got made—let’s make him the director.” Miller Drake says that he was the one who hired Cameron to work on the movie’s effects after getting to know him when the Canadian was working on Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars. “I brought him onto the picture myself,” says Drake. “Then, a couple of days [after Drake left Piranha II] Jim said, ‘Could I buy you a drink? I want to talk to you about something.’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So we went over to this bar and he said, ‘Look, I’ve just been offered the chance to direct the picture. Do you have any problems with that?’ And I said, ‘No, go for it.’”
Drake says that he harbors no ill feelings toward Cameron—”It’s never been a problem”—and has worked as visual-effects editor on a number of the director’s films, including The Abyss and Terminator 2. There must have been times in the course of making Piranha II when Cameron wished that Drake had dissuaded him from taking the movie, and in 1986 the director would tell the Los Angeles Times that he “was warned by a lot of people that Piranha II would be a bad experience. But it looked like a shot so I took it.” Cameron seems to have hidden his misgivings from Ovidio Assonitis. “When I asked him if he was ready to direct the movie, he was extremely happy,” says the producer, “because he really wanted to do it badly.”
In the end, Kevin McCarthy’s scientist did not return from the grave in the Piranha sequel. Apart from the titular monsters’ new flying abilities and the movie’s Jamaican setting, the plot of Piranha II would essentially repeat the dramatic elements of the first movie: tourists and teeth, babes and blood. Lance Henriksen was cast as a Chief Brody-esque cop, and TV actress Tricia O’Neil essayed the role of a plucky scuba instructor. Models Carole Davis and Connie Lynn Hadden supplied the bikini-clad eye candy.
Henriksen says the production, which was based in Ocho Rios, was an underfinanced affair. “All they had for my costume was some chinos from Sears Roebuck, ill-fitting at that,” he remembers. “I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ Jim and I went to have a coffee, and a waiter walked by and he had a blue stripe down the side of his pants and blue epaulets on his shoulders. I bought them off him for $75.” If Henriksen’s costume wasn’t real enough for the actor, then one of the locations was all too real for Carole Davis, who found herself shooting in an operational morgue. “There were dead people there,” she says. “It was awful.” Another scene Davis recalls filming with a shudder was her death at the hands, or rather the teeth, of flying piranhas. “The so-called ‘flying fish’ are ripping out my esophagus,” says the model-turned-actress, who would later appear on Sex and the City and Veronica Mars. “But the piranhas weren’t flying, they were attached to sticks. These people are standing just out of frame pumping fake blood through this prosthetic esophagus, and there’s a local guy shoving this very hard plastic fish at me. I was bruised for a month. This is so far from Avatar.” Maybe so. But according to Davis, it was clear even then that James Cameron was a talent. “You could tell this guy was a real filmmaker,” she says. “He was very serious and concerned that everything looked fantastic.” Lance Henriksen also remembers the future Avatar auteur as someone desperate to make his debut movie as good as possible. “The thing is that Jim, being the kind of guy he is—as history shows–did the very best job that he could do,” says the actor. “He spent a lot of his time in his room making more fish. Rubber fish! He worked his heart out, because this was his first film.”
There was at least one person connected to Piranha II who wasn’t thrilled with Cameron carrying on as director, and he was the only one who mattered: Ovidio Assonitis. After a couple of weeks, the producer fired Cameron and set about finishing the film himself. Last year, Cameron alleged on 60 Minutes that “the producer wanted to take over the movie and direct it himself, especially the scenes with Penthouse pinups. It was extremely sleazy.” Assonitis furiously denies this accusation. “That was absolutely wrong,” he says. “It’s not my style. And besides, I don’t need to do this just to get laid.” Carole Davis confirms the producer’s account. “Ovidio was a gentleman,” she says. “He was never out of line.”
Assonitis himself says that he fired Cameron because “he did a lot of terrible, stupid things that are typical of a person that has not the experience.” Pressed to give an example, the producer recalls that when Cameron failed to get a close-up of an actress, he and his crew sailed off the next day to secure the shot. “He took the whole crew on an incredible cruise trying to get under a cloud to reproduce the lighting,” says Assonitis. “We had to spend the whole day running after the cloud on several kinds of boats.” The producer also says that after two weeks of shooting the film was “heavily over budget.”
Jeff Schechtman, on the other hand, paints Assonitis as the villain of the piece, describing him as “a major pain in the ass” who “fancied himself as a director.” However, Schechtman agrees that the principal reason for Cameron’s firing was budgetary. “Jim was trying to do a good job,” says Schechtman. “He was very dedicated, very committed. And the Italians were concerned about budget. It was a clash of very strong personalities. At the end of the day, Assonitis was writing the checks.”
One of the scenes Assonitis filmed after sacking Cameron was a major set-piece in which characters gather on a beach at night to await an annual fish spawning, only to have hungry piranhas fly from the water and start attacking them. “Assonitis took over this film, just when they’re getting ready to do the big shot of the spawning,” says Carole Davis. “The scene was really the last laugh for Jim Cameron. Because Assonitis speaks in a thick Italian accent and he’s screaming in broken English. He’s telling these Jamaicans he wants them to say this thing. And he goes, ‘Alright-ah. Every-body-ah! You’re all-ah gonna say, ‘We wanna da feeesh! We wanna da feeesh!’ So you’ve got these Jamaicans, who speak in their own patois, going, ‘Heeer vonova heeer.’ You don’t even know what they’re saying. They didn’t know what they were saying. It was so funny.”
Once shooting was over, Assonitis agreed Cameron could assist with the editing of the film back in Rome. According to legend, Cameron would break into the editing suite at night and recut the footage to his own liking. Cameron recently denied to a Canadian TV interviewer that he had done this—but in a way that suggested he had. “That would have been a crime, had I done that,” he declared. “[But] somebody might have broken in and reedited the film.” Assonitis says the director did attempt to reedit the film. “He was basically breaking the door of my office at night, that’s true,” he says. “He admit it to me.”
Eventually, Cameron returned to the States and held a screening of Piranha II for the man probably best placed to judge the film, and empathize with his traumatic experience—Piranha director Joe Dante. “I told him I thought he’d done a terrific job with his section of the movie,” says Dante. “I mean, what are you going to do with a flying-piranha movie? There’s only so much you can do with it.”
Piranha II does have its boosters, including Eli Roth. “I’m a big fan of both movies,” says the Hostel director and Piranha 3D actor. “I actually rewatched Piranha II recently, and there’s a shocking amount of ‘T&A’ in it, especially for a James Cameron film. You don’t really associate that with James Cameron movies. There’s plenty of boobs, right from the opening scene. Very well done, though.” Regardless, the film was a box office disappointment. Jeff Schechtman says that while Piranha II got “some kind of release” in the U.S. and “got out there internationally a little bit,” the movie was not a commercial success. Although Ovidio Assonitis recalls that he “made some money” on the venture, he regards the film as essentially a failure, the blame for which he places firmly at the door of James Cameron. “I always told him, Jim, I would like to make a movie with you in two, three movies,” says the Italian. “But not now. Because you are totally inexperienced.”
Needless to say, Cameron did not work with Assonitis again, and “two, three movies” later he was well on his way to establishing himself as one of the preeminent filmmakers of our time thanks to the success of Terminator and Aliens (which actually was the second movie Cameron directed after Piranha II). And while the director may not look back fondly on Piranha II, it was during his stint in Rome that he had a dream that would inspire so much of his subsequent success. “In March, 1981, I lay in bed in a cheap hotel room in Rome with a high fever,” he would recall in an essay he penned for the 1992 Terminator Collection video box set. “I had been fired from my first directing job, a ruinous production about flying piranha backed by an Italian horror film-producer, and I was pissed off at the world, isolated and alienated in a city where I could speak to no one. I dreamed (or nightmared) about machines with glowing red eyes who walked among us like men, bent on turning the course of history to their own cold purposes. From this dream came the idea for a movie which was called ‘Terminator’ in my mind even before a single word of the story was written down.… Eleven years after my fever dream in Rome, I should kiss the feet of the scumbags who were responsible for me being in that dark and depressing state of mind.”
The story so far: Following the release of Jaws, legendary exploitation-movie producer Roger Corman hired fledgling director Joe Dante to direct a rip-off movie about small, killer fish. The result was 1978′s gore-drenched, but tongue-in-cheek Piranha, which cost less than $1 million to make and grossed around $14 million in the U.S. alone. The sequel, 1981′s Piranha II: The Spawning, was directed by first-time film-maker James Cameron. The future Avatar and Titanic auteur was fired midway through the film’s shoot in Jamaica, and the movie was not a commercial success. But this disappointing experience did inspire Cameron to write his breakthrough movie, Terminator.
To say James Cameron has enjoyed more success over the past three decades than has the Piranha franchise is putting matters very mildly indeed. The only “new” Piranha movie made between 1981′s Piranha II and this week’s Piranha 3D was a Mila Kunis-starring remake of Joe Dante’s original which Roger Corman produced for cable in 1995. “Roger embarked on a series of remakes of his pictures for Showtime,” relates Dante. “This was a smaller budget than I had. The kid who was directing called me up and said, ‘Do you want a cameo in the movie?’ I said, ‘Well, no, I don’t think so, thank you. But I’m curious, where are you going to shoot?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, we’re going to shoot it [in LA].’ And I said, ‘Well, where are you going to find the lakes and rivers?’ And he said, ‘Oh, those are all from your picture.’ The entire thing had been done around our piranha footage.” Dante was unimpressed by the result. “There was one key ingredient missing,” he says. “Which was that they didn’t notice that it was supposed to be funny. So it lost its charm, I’m afraid.”
Dante recalls Chako van Leeuwen spoke with him on a couple of occasions in the years following the Piranha II fiasco to see if he would be interested in directing a third film. The director declined to get involved. By the time James Cameron’s Titanic sailed from port and into the record books two years after Corman’s TV remake, the Piranha franchise had basically sunk without trace.
Around 2003, a lawyer named Marc Toberoff was relaxing at his house when it occurred to him that no one had made a Piranha movie in a while. As it happened, he was in a position to do something about that. Toberoff’s Intellectual Properties Worldwide, specializes in relaunching dormant creative properties that possess “brand value.”
“I was just sitting at home one day and thought, ‘Piranha would make a great remake,’” he explains. “It turned out the rights were held by a Japanese lady: Chako van Leeuwen. So I made an arrangement with her.” Toberoff informed newly appointed IPW president of production J. Todd Harris that he should put making a third Piranha big screen movie happen at the top of his to-do list. “Piranha was a forgotten title,” says Harris. “Like many B-movie titles it had been basically discarded and forgotten. When I got to IPW, Marc said, ‘This is a big priority.’ I immediately got involved in trying to find a good writer for Piranha.”
Fortuitously, writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger had already penned a piranha movie—one initially inspired by Stolberg’s viewing of the notorious Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape. “The whole thing started because I had seen Pamela Anderson’s sex tape video that took place at Lake Havasu,” says Stolberg. “I was thinking, ‘God, I want to go there!’ I was looking Lake Havasu up online, and thinking how beautiful it looked. Then I saw it’s basically this crazy-ass spring break [destination]. They actually have boats with stripper poles.” Stolberg realized he had stumbled upon an ideal setting for a horror movie. “Part of horror is putting people that deserve to die together,” says the writer, who together with Goldfinger would also pen 2009′s fright fest Sorority Row. “I thought, ‘What better location than this?’ Pete and I started talking about it and we were thinking, maybe sharks. But that didn’t really fit. Piranhas just seemed to be the way to go. Our first script was actually called Killer Fish. IPW read it and said, ‘Oh wow, this is actually a perfect way to re-envision Piranha.’” (In fact, Stolberg is wrong about the location featured in the Anderson/Lee tape, although he had the correct state. By rights, Piranha 3D should have been filmed 200 miles away on Arizona’s Lake Mead. Regardless, Piranha 3D would be ultimately shot in Lake Havasu was due in large part to Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. “No s—!” says the Mötley Crüe drummer and Methods of Mayhem singer when informed of this fact. “That’s f—ed up.”)
J. Todd Harris developed the script with Stolberg and Goldfinger and then approached Alexandre Aja about directing the script after being hugely impressed by the Frenchman’s 2003 movie High Tension. “I read a draft of Piranha about seven years ago,” says the director. “Me and my writing partner, Greg Levasseur, we kind of had a crush on that script. It was such a fun, scary film in the vein of Evil Dead or Gremlins-for-adults, somehow.” However, Aja wasn’t a big enough name at the time to get the gig. “High Tension was an unbelievably scary movie, but I couldn’t get anyone to bite on Alex,” says an accidentally punning Harris. Instead, Aja went off to make The Hills Have Eyes and the project was handed to Chuck Russell, whose credits include The Mask and Nightmare on Elm Street 3. Meanwhile, IPW also reached out to 300 producer Mark Canton, while in January 2006, it was announced that Dimension had signed on as domestic distributors.
Harris says that Chuck Russell came up with a very different take on the project than that envisioned by Stolberg and Goldfinger. “It was an underwater thriller for the most part,” explains the producer. “I actually liked the script very much, but the movie kept budgeting at 22, 23 million dollars. It was just too expensive for everybody’s taste. Richard Saperstein, who was the head of production at Dimension, wanted Chuck to rewrite it, so it would be a less expensive movie, and we just had a hard time getting there. We kind of came to loggerheads over the rewrite. It became a natural break off point for the relationship with Chuck Russell, and the Weinsteins went after Alex.”
By that point, Alexandre Aja had established his commercial bona fides with the comparatively low budgeted Hills Have Eyes, which was released in the spring of 2006 and grossed a respectable $40m. He was still interested in the directing the Piranha script—just not the Piranha script that Dimension was now suggesting he direct. “It’s a very strange thing,” says the director. “I read that script from Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stohlberg and that was like, piranha, spring break, earthquake. All those elements. When I was approached by Dimension, I pitched them how excited I was by all those scenes, and I realized they didn’t know anything about that script. The script had been developed by Chuck Russell into another storyline, completely different. I said, ‘If I come back to this movie, I’m really excited about that spring break storyline. Not by the other one.’”
Aja got his wish, and then suggested they make the film in 3D, inspired by advance word on James Cameron’s then-as-yet-unreleased Avatar (which, given Cameron’s history with the Piranha franchise is either deeply ironic or highly appropriate, depending on your point of view). “I was reading a lot about Avatar,” says Aja. “I called Bob and said, ‘Avatar is going to be spectacular, but imagine a really scary movie in 3D. Bob right away said, ‘Yes.’ But the ultimate goal by making Piranha in 3D was to do somehow the reverse of Avatar. Avatar was beautiful and very elegant and an open window on a new world. And here it was like playing like the gimmick. Like, this movie is going to deliver 3D that flies off the screen. That’s what we want.”
Thanks to Aja’s growing rep, and the greater profit potential of a 3D movie, the director was gifted a budget that producer Mark Canton describes as being “in the 20s.” The director’s young turk status also helped snag a famous face-packed cast headed by Elisabeth Shue. “There’s no way this cast would have come together without Alex,” says the Leaving Las Vegas actress. “He’s just a wonderful director. It would have to be someone of his caliber, otherwise it would be kind of scary. Piranha 3D? Just the title itself is tough. It just sounds like a movie that could go either way.” The onetime Academy Award nominee admits there were many times during the shoot when she and Adam Scott had trouble keeping a straight face while uttering such line as, “I want to know what the hell this thing is doing in my lake!” “That was our challenge,” says Shue. “Adam and I were required to really hold down the reality. At times it was nerve-wracking, like, ‘Are people going to laugh at us?’”
Another big casting coup for Aja was Richard Dreyfuss’ decision to effectively reprise his bespectacled Matt Hooper character from Jaws. It seems the actor needed some more convincing than Shue to sign on. Dreyfuss recently told the Hollywood News website that he only agreed to appear in the film because Bob Weinstein gave a generous-sized check to his nonprofit, the Dreyfuss Initiative. “I said, ‘No,’ because I didn’t want to make fun of my own career,” explained Dreyfuss, who was unavailable to be interviewed for this article. “Bob Weinstein said, ‘We can give you a lot more money.’ He wrote a check to the Initiative and I said, ‘Okay.’” Weinstein says, “We did something for his initiative, which we would have done anyway. He just wanted to talk to Alex, and make sure that it was a cool tone, and he loved it.”
Dreyfuss’ brief appearance on the Lake Havasu set turned at least one hardened industry vet into a bug-eyed fan boy. “It was a really surrealistic experience to see him in that character,” says Jaws 3D makeup effects supervisor Greg Nicotero. “Because he literally is dressed in the same outfit his character wore in Jaws. He’s got the wool hat and the octagon glasses and the denim jacket. It was like, ‘Wow, look, there’s Matt Hooper!’ All of a sudden I’m physically standing next to the guy who was in that movie. And it’s not just the actor. This is the guy! I had my video recorder in my hand, and I recorded the entire day. I would have been pissed if I had not been there.”
Nicotero made sure his love for Jaws is evident in the finished film, at least to eagle-eyed viewers. The makeup artist paid tribute to Spielberg’s movie by including an identical prosthetic severed arm to that belonging to Susan Backlinie’s character Chrissie Watkins, one of the victims of the great white. “Well, in Jaws, there is a specific angle where the cut is, and it’s got some kind of meaty, fleshy tissue on it,” explains Nicotero. “So we sculpted one to match that arm exactly. We even bought the same rings that were on the one from the movie. I just thought it would be a cool gag. Those in the know will be like, ‘Hey, looks like Chrissie’s arm from Jaws!’”
That prosthetic represented just a tiny part of Nicotero’s gory workload on what may be the bloodiest film ever made. Hostel director and Piranha 3D actor Eli Roth, for one, suggests this is a “Call Guinness!” situation. “I think it’s the most blood ever spilled in a horror film,” says Roth. “On Hostel, I think we had 500 gallons of blood. And when I was shooting [Piranha 3D], they were already up to 7,000 gallons. I don’t know what else to say.”
Aja may have gotten Dreyfuss onboard—literally—but he didn’t have it all his own way cameo-wise. “I was planning on having two boat captains giving a safety speech,” says the Frenchman. “And those two parts were written for Joe Dante and James Cameron. James Cameron was too busy and we never could found a way to do it.” Dante did assist the movie by offering advice to Greg Nicotero, who was responsible for making the movie’s handful of non-CGI piranha. “Joe and I are really good friends,” says the special effects expert. “He said, ‘When I did Piranha, I got a lot of mileage out of extreme close-ups of piranhas with their heads buried into little chunks of meat, just chomping away—shoot it at a different frame rate, and it looks like there’s a frenzied piranha attack.’ So we built six or seven little hand trigger puppets that we could have tearing into blood bags and eating through chunks of gelatin flesh. There’s nothing old about a trick that works.” Aja received another directorial assist from his friend Quentin Tarantino who suggested a shot in which the rump of a woman sitting on an inflatable ring becomes fish food. “There is one specific shot that I loved,” says Aja, “which is the piranha vision getting to that ass as a first bite. That was really Quentin’s suggestion.”
It is possible Richard Dreyfuss’ reported reluctance to appear in Piranha 3D was related to the fact that he knows all too well the problems that arise when filming on water. And, by common consent, the Piranha 3D shoot was a frequently hellish experience. “This movie is a combination of the worst challenges that you can have in filmmaking,” says Aja. “You have shooting in the desert of Arizona during summer, which is 100-120 degrees every day in the shade. Then you have the shooting on the water. Anchoring, currents, boats drifting around. Then you have a thousand extras that need to be believable when they die, when they cry, when they scream, when they dance, when they act drunk. Then you have CG piranha and then you have 3D. You cannot beat that. Maybe making a 3D movie in Antarctica would be the next challenge.” That might be fine with Tiffany Cache who plays a wet t-shirt contestant in the film and describes the unrelenting nature of the Arizona climate as, “horrible. A lot of us ended up with heat rash. I had heat rash for days. It wouldn’t go away.” Elisabeth Shue explains that, to get through the experience, “I just decided that I was not making a movie, I was actually a contestant on Survivor. That really helped. I knew my goal was to survive the experience.” Adam Scott meanwhile says that he “felt like were making Apocalypse Now, except we were talking about these fish.” Scott’s assessment is echoed by Josh Stolberg who visited the set for a couple of days with fellow screenwriter Pete Goldfinger and says that the set reminded him of the Apocalypse Now making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness. “I don’t know how Alex did it,” says Stolberg. “I think he is one of, if not the, most talented of the young horror directors. But the chaos that was going on? It was the day that they had 600 extras, all in bikinis, screaming and yelling and kegs of beer flying around. To see, literally, hundreds of these people? And dozens and dozens of boats? It was a madhouse.”
Heat rash was not the only physical condition incurred on set. Eli Roth says he developed an eye infection after filming a scene in which he pressed his face into the breasts of a co-star—or, to use the colloquial term, “motorboated” her. “I had to do a motorboat scene with a girl and I got sunblock in my eye,” says the Hostel director. “I actually went to the hospital, because it was getting infected. The doctor looked in my eye and he said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘I had a motorboat accident.’ He said, ‘Really? You don’t look cut up at all.’ I said, ‘No, you know, how like in the strip clubs when you put your face between a girls’ breasts?’ I’m such a Jew that I actually got an eye injury from a motorboat. It’s the most pathetic injury ever on a movie set.” Indeed, Piranha 3D might also deserve a place in the record books for “Most ‘Motor Boats’ In A Single Movie.’” Screenwriter Pete Goldfinger recalls arriving on set to discover, “literally 700 half-naked extras shooting a scene on a boat where they’re all chanting ‘Motorboat! Motorboat!’ while Kelly Brook is being motorboated by Riley Steele. That was the first thing we saw. It was surreal.” Piranha 3D isn’t all about breasts, erogenous zone-wise. It’s also about Jerry O’Connell’s manhood, which at one point in the film becomes detached from the main body of his, well, body, and, thanks to the wonder of 3D, starts making its way towards the audience. “There’s a bit where Jerry O’Connell’s penis is slowly moving towards you,” says Goldfinger. “When you see the movie, that will be in 3D. If you thought a little bit of Jerry O’Connnell’s penis is a good thing, but a lot is a bad thing, you might not like it.”
With principal photography complete, Aja set about overseeing the movie’s 3D conversion. The director had originally intended to shoot with stereo cameras but eventually realized that doing so on a water-based shoot would be too technically difficult. Instead he decided to convert the film in post-production. Aja’s film has not been “retrofitted”—a term which means converting a film to three dimensions that was originally intended to be screened in just two—because the director always planned that his movie would be shown in 3D. But any sort of 3D conversion has become a sore point amongst directors worried that the process may be killing the three-dimensional golden goose. In the spring of this year, Saw franchise director Kevin Greutert blogged about his fears that the 3D rendering in Aja’s movie might deter audiences from seeing other films including his own Saw 3D, which is released October 29, and was filmed using stereo cameras. “Piranha looks like a very fun film, it’s just the conversion I’m scared about,” says Greutert. “It’s really going to hurt my film if Piranha has just burned people’s eyes out because there was a bad conversion done.” Aja admits that he was at one point vehemently against the idea of converting movies, but changed his mind after seeing seeing twenty minutes of footage from Peter Jackson’s King Kong that had been given the 3D treatment. “It was the best 3D I ever saw,” he says. “That changed my mind. We are trying to get the best results as possible and I hope make people change their mind on the conversion perception.”
Meanwhile, those who prefer their piranha movies more “old school”—that is, cheaply-made and in just two dimensions—received their fix in April when the SyFy channel screened Mega Piranha. This hilarious, ludicrous slice of shlock stars ’80s pop star Tiffany as a scientist battling a new breed of, yes, mega-sized killer fish. In the film’s most preposterous scene an enormous piranha cannons into the air to attack a helicopter—a sequence that would surely meet the approval of Joe Dante, the man who brightened many a Corman trailer with exploding whirlybird footage. “Well, I don’t think they used the same shot,” chuckles the auteur.
Regardless of its ultimate box office take, Piranha 3D is unlikely to affect the career of the now established Aja in the same way Piranha did to that of Joe Dante. And chances are it won’t inspire the Frenchman to dream up a sci-fi franchise that indirectly leads to an Austrian bodybuilder becoming governor of California. But like its big screen predecessors, Aja’s movie is both a bloody and an important one. Dimension and its parent corporation, The Weinstein Company, have had a patchy time at the box office over the last couple of years, and TWC founder Bob Weinstein would dearly love to have a “new” franchise along the lines of his Scary Movie films and the soon-to-be-relaunched Scream series. “Oh, please, you insult me,” deadpans the Dimension boss when the subject of a sequel to Piranha 3D is broached. “That’s just my joke. A franchise would be great.” Alexandre Aja admits that thoughts of a sequel have also crossed his mind. “We had many ideas,” he says. “There is the Full Moon Party in Thailand, a huge event with like 200,000 young people from all around the world taking mushrooms and partying on the beach.” Producer Mark Canton says that the Piranha 3D team have, “talked about sequels a lot. But we just want to get this one open right now.”
Indeed, before anyone greenlights a sequel, Piranha 3D has to become a hit. Aja and company may not be able to count on too many people involved in the first pair of movies plunking down money on a ticket. “It just seems like an act of desperation,” says Piranha producer Jon Davison, “it’s a remake of a rip-off.” Piranha II actress Carole Davis is similarly appalled: “Have they really run out of ideas to the point where they’ve stooped so low as to remake that? Come on! Richard Dreyfuss? That old fart? What does he play? A blowfish?”
Fascinatingly, John Sayles, the man who has brought us such indie classics as Brother From Another Planet and Matewan, says he is looking forward to seeing the new Piranha, which he intends to watch in 3D and on the big screen. “If a monster hasn’t been visited for a while, why not pull it out of the deep freeze and try it again?” he says. “And I like 3D movies, I think it’s fun. I don’t know if it will opening night, but yeah, I’ll be there.”
Alas, we have a small piece of bad news for Sayles. More than three decades years after Joe Dante shot down his suggestion that the original Piranha should feature a severed pigs head, it seems the world is still not ready for big screen porcine decapitation. “There are a lot of people chewed up in this movie,” says Greg Nicotero. “But we don’t kill any pigs.”