French writer-director Alexandre Aja has a succinct and pithy way to describe his new horror movie, “Piranha 3D”: ” ‘Gremlins’ for adults.”
That might surprise anyone who has seen the 10 minutes of leaked footage from Aja’s movie making the rounds on the Internet, in which a school of hungry prehistoric fish takes a serious bite out of a debauched spring-break party at fictional Lake Victoria. At one point, a support cable holding up a floating riser comes loose and careens through the air, slicing through a woman’s blue bikini top and severing her torso; the upper half of her body is seen sinking into the depths of the bloody water. And she’s just one of dozens of scantily clad revelers who meet with a gruesome end under a blindingly bright azure sky.
If memory serves, nothing like that happened in Joe Dante‘s 1984 hit “Gremlins” — even if you got the movie’s sweet-natured, doe-eyed creatures wet or fed them after midnight.
which a desperate father murdered a desert-dwelling enemy by stabbing him with an American flag.
“Piranha,” he asserts, is intentionally very different from his previous efforts — a list that also includes “Mirrors,” the 2008 Kiefer Sutherland film. During a recent chat in a Hollywood office building where he was frantically trying to finish the movie’s elaborate conversion to 3-D, Aja said he did have some bigger themes on his mind this time around — what the phenomenon of spring break says about the larger American culture, for example. But to be clear, “Piranha” is not some sort of high-minded message movie. It’s a hard-R-rated, campy gorefest envisioned by its director as a love letter to the 1980s — hence the casting of actors so strongly identified with that era, including Elisabeth Shue and Christopher Lloyd. (In another fun homage, “Jaws” star Richard Dreyfuss makes a cameo.)
Despite its title, though, it is not an updated version of Dante’s Roger Corman-produced “Piranha” from 1978.
“It’s not a remake,” Aja says. “It’s a very, very different movie. The studio decided to acquire the rights to the original to be able to use the title, because we are living in a world where title is more important than anything and where marketing took over all the creative process. I’m not saying that in a negative way; it’s the reality. It’s just a title that is more easy to package and to market to the audience. Even if you’re coming from the planet Mars, you go to the multiplex and you see ‘Piranha,’ you know what it is. It’s going to be a movie about a piranha creature; it’s going to be fun.”
Aja’s movie is centered on teenager Jake Forester (Steven R. McQueen), who lives in a small town that’s invaded every year by college kids on spring break. His mother, the sheriff (Shue), is called in to investigate after an earthquake releases prehistoric piranhas and the ravenous fish start to greedily devour tourists.
The filmmaker says he’s had “Piranha” in his sights for about six years. He received the original draft of the script, by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, after arriving in the U.S. following the release of “High Tension” and enjoyed its campy spirit, which reminded him of the early work of directors Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, movies like “Evil Dead II” and “Dead Alive” that he’d long admired.
“It was written as a comedy, not a horror movie,” Aja said. “There were some horrific moments, but it was much more like a comedy. I really liked the idea: prehistoric piranha released by an earthquake during spring
break. That was a very simple, efficient concept to reboot or reinvent that kind of disaster movie, creature movie from the ’80s, that kind of guilty-pleasure movie that delivers on every front.”
The screenplay didn’t get any nibbles of interest from a studio, though, and Aja was offered and made “The Hills Have Eyes.” After that, Dimension Films eventually came on board and gave Aja and his writing and producing partner Grégory Levasseur carte blanche to refine the initial script. His goal was to develop the characters because, as he says, “if you don’t care for them, if you don’t believe in them, you cannot be scared.”
It was then that Aja decided to do the film in 3-D, just one of the factors that made “Piranha” an exponentially bigger undertaking than anything Aja had previously tackled. “I was writing the script with Greg, and I thank God we never stopped to think about what we were putting on the page,” he says. “If you make the list, we are shooting in the desert during summer on the water, underwater, with thousands of extra kids, CGI piranha and everything in 3-D. I think you cannot put something more to the list of challenges.”
The film was shot on Arizona’s Lake Havasu in May, June and July of 2009 on a budget of $25 million to $30 million. Aja said he began post-production that September; he delivered the finished movie on Aug. 7. of this year. The day before the deadline, the director, looking a little rumpled and weary from a week with very little sleep, admitted that he could have spent months more working to perfect the final product.
Aja originally resisted the idea of filming in two dimensions and adding a third later, but shooting in 3-D was simply impossible from a practical standpoint because of the extreme summer heat, which would have caused the equipment to melt. He felt the conversion worked well because it was planned at the outset and because the film’s monsters were somewhat easier to manipulate in post-production since they were computer-generated.
“Making a movie in 3-D, that starts with writing the script,” Aja said, acknowledging the backlash that had emerged in recent months against poor-quality 3-D films. “You cannot do a good conversion if you don’t shoot for that. That’s why there were so many problems with ‘Clash of the Titans’ or ‘The Last Airbender.’ People are judging conversion on movies that didn’t want to be converted.”
Growing up in France, the son of filmmaker Alexandre Arcady and movie critic Marie-Jo Jouan, Aja said his only exposure to the uniquely American phenomenon of spring break came from images of dance parties broadcast on MTV when he was young. Studying the annual migration of college students to exotic destinations for a week of bacchanalian excess for “Piranha,” though, he said he became fascinated by what seemed to him a rite of initiation into adulthood.
“I have to admit that I have that kind of attraction/repulsion with spring break,” he said. “I realize that there is a lot of the American paradox inside spring break, talking about the puritanical society and the extreme behaving of college kids during that week, then everything stops after the eight days. It’s very interesting. In Europe, it’s different.”
He’s not criticizing twentysomethings for indulgent behavior, he says, even though in the film those characters are served up to the piranhas like “roast duck.” But he attempted to capture the lurid air of exploitation that pervaded many a spring break getaway, utilizing a hyper-real, over-saturated color palette inspired by photographer David LaChapelle. He cast Jerry O’Connell as a “human predator” inspired by “Girls Gone Wild” provocateur Joe Francis — last week, O’Connell revealed to the Daily Beast that his character, Derrick Jones, had his penis bitten off by a piranha — and for supporting roles, he hired adult-film stars including Riley Steele, who played a stripper named Crystal.
One bonus: Those performers were comfortable with the nudity the parts required. But Aja said they were far less comfortable during auditions, something he found rather surprising. “It was such a funny experience,” he said. “I cast a lot of strange people for ‘The Hills Have Eyes'; we had a lot of very, very interesting, over-the-top people coming in the room. Here, we had a lot of the adult industry coming to audition, people who are spending a lot of time naked on set doing a lot of things that no one would dare to do in public. They were so shy! They were so nervous about auditioning for a movie. Some of them were shaking.”
Maybe it’s because they knew what they were in for. The sizzle reel currently playing online was originally assembled for Comic-Con International’s 6,500-seat main hall, but organizers of the San Diego confab rejected its content as too extreme for the venue. Aja wants to make clear to anyone who’s watched the sensationalist footage that the film does actually have a story — in addition to copious amounts of blood, gore and naked bodies. He also maintains that “Piranha’s” sky-high body count is done with a winking, impish spirit and is not intended to traumatize moviegoers, unlike the graphic imagery in his early features.
“There is a line when you start enjoying too much having blood spurting everywhere,” Aja says. “I tried as much as I could — ‘Piranha’ is completely different — but in the past to not cross that line even if I had very brutal scenes. It’s very important for me that violence and blood and brutal imagery is always creating some kind of repulsion in the audience and not attraction.
“We might have used more blood than any movie in the history of filmmaking for this movie,” he concluded, “but it’s more in a fun way.”
– Gina McIntyre
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Photos, from top: Ving Rhames does something that may look cool in 3-D. Credit: Gene Page / Dimension Films. Director Alexandre Aja at the film’s premiere. Credit: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images. Jerry O’Connell’s “Girls Gone Wild”-type impresario reaches for help; one of the hungry fish makes an appearance; and teenagers meet their fate in “Piranha 3D” Credit: Dimension Films
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