Jaume Collet-Serra on The Shallows, sharks and a scene-stealing seagull
Genre filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra revels in a good challenge. After making his directorial debut with his bloody and deliciously depraved remake of the horror classic House of Wax, he took twisted to new depths with the creepy kid flick Orphan. Then, he made the dizzying leap to to slick thrillers with a string of Liam Neeson vehicles including Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night.
Now with relish and a gorgeous leading lady, the Spanish helmer dives back into horror with Sony Pictures‘ The Shallows, a mid-budget thrill ride that involves such tricky elements as remote location shoots, water effects, stunt-heavy sequences, and animals, both real and CG.
Blake Lively stars as Nancy Adams, an adventurous surfer whose found sunny bliss on a secret beach in Mexico. But her heavenly vacation turns to hot-blooded hell when she drifts into a Great White shark’s feeding ground. 200 yards from shore, Nancy takes refuge on an outcropping rock. But as the tides rise, her chances for survival are sinking fast.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Collet-Serra and discovered he had no interest in looking to other shark attack horror for inspiration. “I haven’t seen ‘Jaws’ in 10 years,” he coolly confessed. “[The Shallows] is a survival/isolation movie that has a shark in it. It’s closer to ‘127 Hours’ or ‘Gravity’ than [Jaws].”
During the course of our conversation, we plunged into The Shallows, its unique shark, Lively’s game-changing performance, and a vain seagull sidekick.
ComingSoon.net: I like a good shark movie because yeah, sharks are terrifying, but also, there’s this majesty to them.
Jaume Collet-Serra: Yeah. Have you gone shark diving?
CS: Absolutely not. I have panic attacks snorkeling.
Collet-Serra: Why did you even snorkel? Are you asking for trouble? Yeah, sharks are great. They’re majestic, they’re beautiful. They’re powerful. They’re stronger than us.
CS: You built a shark for your movie, and it was CG.
Collet-Serra: Yeah, CG, yeah.
CS: So how did you determine what you wanted your shark to look like?
Collet-Serra: We determined the size based on we wanted it to be a female on the large side, but not the biggest. The biggest is like 25 (foot). This one was like 21. So big enough, but still a powerful female, because you had all these scars (from mating) and they’re probably very territorial. We felt like this was Blake versus shark, it should be a female shark.
CS: Sure. And as it’s a female shark, the movie sort of passes the Bechdel Test.
Collet-Serra: Yeah, yeah! And then, I watched a lot of Discovery Channel, obviously, to kind of get to know more about it. I took frame grabs of different sharks that I like. And then, I said, “What about the mouth like this? What about the fin like that? What about that part here, that detail there?” And then the art department built a sculpture of it with those elements. Then the visual effects scanned that sculpture. And then, from there, they created the CG shark.
CS: So you Frankenstein-ed your own creation.
Collet-Serra: Yeah. That’s what being a director is all about.
CS: I was really struck by is how beautiful “The Shallows” is between the colors, the hi-res slo-mo action. Can you tell me how that look came together and what you hoped that would bring to the storytelling?
Collet-Serra: Well, I think that what’s important is for you–as an audience–to get sucked into the movie from a positive light, in a sense that you want to agree with the decisions that your main character does. So here in the story, you have a young woman, who’s traveling alone through Mexico, hitching a ride. She gets into the water, barely talks to some surfers, and then stays there later (than the locals advise). If the beach looks like a scary beach, she’s very dumb. So if it’s beautiful, if the people are friendly, if it’s like that, then it gives her a false sense of comfort, which is what we wanted. That doesn’t mean that she’s not dumb for going to look at what’s going on there, because every movie needs a bad decision. But at least she’s not dumb from the very beginning. Like the guy in the truck is not some scary guy.
CS: No, he’s quite charming.
Collet-Serra: Exactly. So you understand (her logic). There’s (cell phone) reception. She has battery. She has everything. So it’s a subconscious thing for her to be looking for trouble, but it’s not, “Ah, let’s see, what can I do that’s really stupid today.” That’s on the storytelling side. On the visual side, I wanted to make a movie that was a summer movie. That was bright. My movies have been dark and confined at night or one space. I wanted to open up. I wanted to do the helicopter and just show and go to a location that was far away and kind of discover it for the whole world to see and do that. And I don’t need to make it dark to make it scary because underwater is dark and we don’t know what’s happening there. So that’s already doing the job for me. So this movie, if it was gloomy and scary, it wouldn’t really add anything. It would actually be too much, I think.
CS: You started your filmmaking career in horror. Do you consider this a return to the genre?
Collet-Serra: Yeah, of course, yeah, I love it. I’ve done horror, but I’ve done horror that hasn’t had anything fantastical about it. “House of Wax,” the killers were real psychopaths. “Orphan” was another psychopath. And here, you have a real animal that is a bit of a psychopath.
CS: Are you not interested in supernatural horror?
Collet-Serra: I think that I probably would be able to do it. I could do something that’s really, really on the edge like “Rosemary’s Baby”… I think I could do something like that. Now can I do something where the table moves that’s paranormal? I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe. I think that if I kind of got into it – but I don’t gravitate towards that. I like more the murder-mystery type things. I think “Orphan” and “House of Wax” are extreme weird versions of that. This one is not. This one is a completely different thing, you know?
CS: Both of “Orphan” and “House of Wax” were rated R, and “The Shallows” is a PG-13 horror movie. Did you feel that was a limitation?
Collet-Serra: R for me has nothing to do with visuals, it has to do with concept. So the concept of you killing people and putting them in wax, that’s a horror concept, you know? You could do it PG-13, but then you’re doing a disservice to the concept. The same with “Orphan.”
CS: It’s hard to imagine that movie as PG-13!
Collet-Serra: No, but you could do it graphically. But [The Shallows] is a PG-13 concept. You know, there’s not R. Like the shark is not doing anything other than being a shark. She’s just surviving nature, and that’s a PG-13 concept. That’s something that there’s nothing that a 13-year old cannot be exposed to conceptually. But graphically, we’re on that edge. I don’t think showing more blood or less blood changes their story in any way.
CS: There’s a scene in this, where instead of witnessing what the shark is doing to one of its victims, we see just Blake’s reaction. How did that evolve?
Collet-Serra: It was very simple. I pushed the camera. She hit the shot. She sold it.
CS: It was in the script that way?
Collet-Serra: No. I mean, sometimes things happen. And I was like, “Why would I cut away when she’s giving it to me?” Why? This is pure filmmaking. It’s like, I can cut to the guy short of acting and going like this [flails arms about, miming swimming struggle]. It’s almost silly, when you can just have wonderful actors. She steals the moment from the guy, right? That’s what happens in movies, you know? So it’s not in the script. But she earns the close-up on the thing. You just do it and it happens very naturally. You have to realize that she does the whole scene every time. It’s not like, “Okay, Blake, so now he’s going to die. We’re going to push into him.” I’m with the crane and I’m following her and she’s doing it all in her mind. And then, she goes, and I just talk to the crane guys like, “Push slowly.” And it was like, slowly, slowly, you know? And you just go there and she goes and starts tearing up. And he’s like, “How am I going to cut away?” So I just keep it in the movie.
CS: It’s interesting to hear how what’s on the page changes when you’re actually on set.
Collet-Serra: Well, that’s how we make movies, you know? The pages are not so specific. In the pages, it’s like “she reacts to him getting eaten by the shark.” So as a director, you can do it in a million ways. You can do her coverage, the shark. You could show everything. And you can shoot everything, and then you decide later. In this case, I shot her close-up, and then, we didn’t need to shoot the other side.
CS: And then, you have a real element, her seagull sidekick.
Collet-Serra: The seagull was in the script, and it was a device. It was a device for her to talk to the seagull and explain things to the seagull. But obviously, as the movie evolved, it felt sort of too much like a device. But we kept the seagull as like a little companion. And it’s just to have a couple of moments, so it doesn’t become like a “Snow White” with talking to the bird. We found three seagulls that were injured. They were used to being with humans for many years.
CS: They were from an animal rehab facility, right?
Collet-Serra: Yeah, and one of them was a genius seagull. There were two dumb ones, and then one was a genius. And that’s the seagull that’s in the movie. It was just there and would react to everything.
CS: Blake suggested that the seagull was trying to run away with the movie.
Collet-Serra: Yeah, I think it was expecting maybe a sequel or something. But you just were lucky because we had so many issues. Normally in another movie, having a seagull would be a big problem. But we had so many other problems that the seagull was the easiest thing.
CS: It was funny because watching it, you see the seagull on the rock and I thought it was going to be a small thing, just because it seems so difficult to include a seagull in…
Collet-Serra: …in every shot.
CS: Yeah! But it works out.
Collet-Serra: We are crazy people.
CS: There’s one moment where Nancy spots a hook in the shark’s mouth. It seems to suggest that it’s been in a brush before. Is that meant to setup a prequel for “The Shallows”?
Collet-Serra: No, it’s just meant to show that hopefully subtly that we’re not trying to demonize sharks. I think that if this shark, for whatever reason, is acting in a way that normal sharks wouldn’t act, is probably because of human, previous interaction and it’s driving him crazy. So it’s because we’re trying to suggest that all sharks are like that. She was trying to protect their territory. And on top of it, probably went through the torture, battle with some other people that were trying to hunt her, and that’s why it’s not acting (normally).
CS: Nancy doesn’t demonize the shark. She basically says, “I came on its feeding ground.”
CS: Which was an interesting choice…
Collet-Serra: It’s not an interesting choice, it is what every surfer would say. Every surfer that’s in the water knows that they’re in somebody else’s territory, and they’re trying to respect the rules and that’s what they would say. So I think it’s important that she would be consistent with any other surfer.
CS: You took on a genre that is often derided.
Collet-Serra: Every genre that I do is often derided.
CS: And that doesn’t scare you at all?
Collet-Serra: Why? I am often derided. What am I supposed to do? I do what I like. Nobody tells me what to do. So if I like it, I do it. I don’t care what people think.
CS: So what drew you to the script for “The Shallows”?
Collet-Serra: For me, it’s like the character. Subconsciously, I was looking for trouble. Subconsciously, I’m looking for a hard movie that’s very physical, that’s crazy to do, impossible to schedule, no budget, and I just wanted to see what I was made of. And I survived, a few scars like her, and that’s it. And after the next, I grow up and it’ll be better, you know? But you’re just looking for that.
The Shallows opens in theaters on Friday, June 24.