Anyone familiar with Alexandre Aja's films might have been a bit surprised when he was announced as the director of Piranha 3D. Could the horror auteur – whose dramatically visceral style was celebrated in films like High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes remake – reimagine Joe Dante's campy debut fright film (which Dante himself has acknowledged as a Jaws rip-off) into something that would entertain a generation of filmgoers accustomed to no-nonsense, high-impact shocks?
I decided to see for myself, and drove out to the Lake Havasu set of Aja's new film to join a few lucky journalists in speaking with the director and his cast and crew. I'll be running this coverage in several installments over the coming weeks. But to get things started, here are my conversations with Piranha's makeup effects wizard Greg Nicotero and its Oscar-nominated star Elisabeth Shue.
Nicotero, whose work enlivens scores of classic genre films, has been tasked with recreating the titular creatures as they enter a new dimension – and with crafting the human carnage they leave in their wake. Shue plays Julie Foster, a sheriff in the small town of Lake Victoria, who finds herself and her family besieged by two waves of invaders – man-eating fish and the hard-partying (and hard-bodied) kids of spring break
Aside from perhaps The Hollow Man this is your first horror film.
Yeah. Nothing will ever have so much gore as this.
It's also a comedy. Is that what attracted you to it?
Yeah. It's a horror film, but it's also fun. I think that's what Alex is really good at. But we all have to play it for real. So it's definitely been challenging in a good way – to take the situation that in some ways is so unreal and have to believe it. So even though there's a sense of fun, there still has to be authenticity to the experience. Otherwise, if they don't care about the people on any level, or fear they that they might die, and they're not applauding every death… It's definitely a challenge. But it's a good challenge. We're glad we're in his hands. That's all I can say. You wouldn't want to do this movie in anybody else's hands but his.
Had you seen Aja's previous films?
I'm familiar with his reputation, and to be honest I have not gone to see a horror film ever since The Shining. I'm very, very sensitive to images and input, and things just never leave me. I think once you become a mom… I don't know, just the idea of watching people die in gruesome, gory, scary deaths isn't as appealing once you get to be a mom. So I really just asked around, and his reputation in the genre is the highest of the high.
Will you let your kids see this?
No. No way. They'd never see this. I might not be able to watch it.
Your character in the film is allowed to be a kind of action hero. How much ass do you get to kick?
That was definitely an appealing part of the film for sure. It's rare for women to be heroic in film today. And I love that her heroism is very simple. She just needed to save her children. So I like that. I grew up with three brothers, spent a lot of time beating up on them, and they beat up on me. So I felt very connected with what it must be like to be a sheriff in the middle of this small town where everybody is looking at her going, "Why is she the sheriff? She doesn't look like a sheriff!" She had to have physicality, a toughness to her that I had to establish. In the first scene I have to arrest these frat boys that are making fun of me, coming on to me. I have to flip some guy, throw him against a car and handcuff him. That's what I felt like. So I like that part of the movie a lot. Once that scene's over, I'm really just a mom trying to save her kids. There's a few scenes with me as the sheriff, but I'm really not the sheriff the whole time.
What was the toughest scene for you to shoot?
This sequence where I have to climb across a rope. We did a lot of time on the rope. It was just difficult to climb backwards. It's such a small thing, but I got so nauseous. And the heat… the most challenging part of this movie is the heat. Then you put anything on top of it, anything physical on top of it, and it becomes incredibly challenging. But it surprised me, because I feel like I'm so tough and I can do anything. I wanted to do everything, but climbing on a rope backwards in the heat flattened me. But that's about it. All the other stuff's been fun – I get to shoot a lot of guns, and I got to do a stunt running across some floating debris and got to dive across to get on a boat to go save [people] and got to drive speeding boats everywhere and make really sharp turns. [Laughs.] All of that's been awesome. I've never gotten to be physical in a film, and it's so much a part of my personality it's strange I never got to do it.
Were you familiar with the original?
I'm not. Because, again, I never saw any horror films after [The Shining], and so I never would have gone to see it. I didn't have that much interest in seeing it, to be honest. I knew how different this was going to be. It didn't seem connected. They basically just borrowed the title, and they share the same fish. But this fish is different. Completely different.
Considering this will be in 3D, is there anything about your approach that has changed?
No, I completely forget that it's 3D all the time. I never think of it at all. I mean, I wonder what we will look like physically in three dimensions the whole time. That might be a little horrifying. [Laughs.] But no. Every once in a while we have to do a 3D shot, like if I taser a gun, or you have to redo a shot. You can visualize it – "Oh, that's going to go out and hit the audience in the face." But we don't really think about the 3D part of it.
How much of the effects will be CGI, as opposed to practical?
The majority of the fish stuff is all CGI. So what we provide was the hand puppet stuff, and thousands of body parts, and the hundreds of gallons of blood. The stuff that goes in the water. It's been pretty amazing. I mean, Jake Garber has been here for the whole show. So I came down for the big gags.
You know, there was a whole massacre scene that made me laugh because the AD's had loudspeakers and bullhorns and everything; and when they would get the five-hundred extras to act they'd go, "Okay haven't got time, everything's fine now. SHAAAARK!!!" They didn't even yell piranha, they just yelled shark. They figured, "Okay these kids are like 20, 21 – they may not know what piranha is, but if you yell shark, it's like – boom!" That was just kind of funny to hear that. We had a whole week and a half of people being decimated. Eli Roth was here because he's got a part in it.
Who does he play?
He plays the host of the wet t-shirt contest. Everybody, everyone I ever work with, the first thing that they always ask me is "How's Eli in Inglorious Basterds?" No one ever asks anything other than how is he in the movie. I'm like, "He's great." I mean, I think he is. Listen, the guy talks a good game, and he can bring it, you know? I like his movies, and he was really great. Seeing him on stage with these two super-soakers, soaking down all these chicks with "Wild Girls" t-shirts… I think Eli said, "I should never be around this many boobs and blood in my life, ever." But we had our crew of seven guys here and we were doing, like, sixty to seventy make-ups a day, plus gags. We had to paint a lot of the blood on with tattoo color so it wouldn't wash off in the water. We had bodies everywhere, body parts. We even recreated Chrissie's arm [from Jaws] for one of the body parts that floats down.
The next bit of stuff we're going to be shooting, the visual-effects stuff in the tank, it's all the underwater carnage. We got a lot of the above-water stuff. It was amazing… The first day on set, Matt Kutcher, who is the physical-effects guy, built this whole rig that they sank in the bottom of Lake Havasu, that pumped blood and bubbles. So the first take, bubbles start coming up. They have these polls and they would direct people in heavy prosthetics to swim towards the bubbles, and they'd get in and the bubbles and the blood would start flowing. I think the lake was dyed for a week and a half. And the pools of blood would sort of move down the stream to the vacation area where all the little kids were playing in the bloody water.
They didn't even care. They would see us – we had our own boat that we moved all of our body parts and stuff in, every night it was just like we would load these cadavers onto the boat and then to the dock and people would just see us unloading stuff, and not really have to much to say.
So Richard Dreyfus was here the other day doing his cameo which was fucking unbelievable. It was really great. Of course, Alex and I just stood there geeking out the whole time. I mean they changed his name in the script to Matt, so he's actually… When we first started the movie, they were CCing me – they were sending me the cast list of everybody that they wanted. When the list came out for cameos they had William Shatner and Sam Elliot, Billy Bob Thornton. They had this list of all the people they wanted to play this character. At the bottom it said, "Richard Dreyfuss – unavailable due to scheduling." Ironically, that night I had dinner with a friend of mine and he said, "Hey, guess who I represent now?" I said, "Who?" and he said, "Richard Dreyfus." I went, "Hey, that's really weird. I just saw his name on the list today". He said, "Well, what are the dates again?" I said, "Oh, some time in June or something like that." He goes, "You should have them contact them again." So I instantly called Alex and said, "Go back to the people right now." He kind of gives me a little bit of credit for helping get Richard Dreyfuss. So of course, the first day on set, the camera pans off the rocks and into the boat, and he's sitting there in his blue denim shirt, looking like his character from Jaws. He has a couple lines of dialogue. When you hear his voice, and he's in that character… Alex and I were fucking freaking out. I just sat with my video camera the whole day. I shot the entire day's worth.
But listen, if I was twenty years old this would be the greatest movie I have ever worked on, because it's just gore and hot women and 3D and monsters. I mean, how much more fun can you get? So we did the body parts. There's a sequence that we call the "D-Day sequence," where they're bringing all the survivors up onto the beach. The camera is going through and finding people with their limbs chewed up. Hunks of raw meat. We even used a couple of surfers and we put chewed up legs on them. A lot of the gags that we came up with was Alex going, "Oh, we gotta do this." The nice thing about Alex is that he really lets us just go. He knows that this movie is about the gore and about when you get to that point in the script where the piranhas start attacking you – it has to feel like it's complete gore and mayhem. So all of us have little bits and pieces. We're doing a lot of underwater work too.
Have you done a 3D movie before?
We did Final Destination. The new one. That stuff looks great. We did re-shoots in March down in Orlando, and I saw a lot of it, because they actually shot that in the 3D process. But this movie is so ambitious budgetarily. I think originally the Weinsteins were trying to compare it to The Mist, and were trying to say, "Well, you know you should be able to do it for just a little bit more money than The Mist." But you don't think about it until you get here. You show up at work, you get onto the boats, the boats take you an hour out into the lake, and it's different camera barges – A-camera barge, B-camera barge, wardrobe barge. Every single day I would look at the guys and it's like "This is what making Jaws was like." The current would start moving one boat out of the way and then the shot is fucked up. Or there's other boats in the background. You really have no idea absolutely how long it takes.
The first couple of weeks, just being out in the elements and in the sun all day long, lugging bodies around… We were in the water between takes moving bodies around, anchoring bodies, with a whole other makeup crew touching up the make-ups. And then they'd shoot this one and go, "Okay, now we're gonna shoot over here, but we need bodies." We'd jump in with our scuba gear and move bodies. We shot the entire massacre scene in seven days. We worked 97 hours. It was actually more if you add the previous Saturday to it. I'll tell you, it couldn't have gone more smoothly. Each of us did about seven or eight make ups a day. It's like doing a zombie movie. You do all the zombies and then you go and sit and do all the gags. On this one you do all the bites and all the victims, and then you go and set up. You set up for the hero gags, and those take a little bit of time, so we just sort of banged it out.
It's been a lot of fun. And every day I wore a different Jaws shirt. I said to Alex, "Do you realize how many directors would have loved to have been able to pull this off, the fact that you got Richard Dreyfuss?" It's just one of those things – I said to him one day, "If I hadn't been working on this movie, and I saw it and I realized that they had Richard Dreyfuss, I would be pissed that I wasn't there. I'd be like, ‘Fuck, how come I wasn't on that movie?' So now finally I can go, "Hey I was actually there when that happened!"