"Basically, it was a matter of coming up with a story that would justify the title 'Sharknado.' And that's what I did."
Two years ago, the SyFy channel released what should have been just another of its many cheesy, low-budget monster movies: Sharknado, a film about a freak hurricane that causes a tornado of live sharks to rain down on Los Angeles.
The film was produced by The Asylum, a company known for its "mockbusters"—movies that either piggyback on big studio successes (like Snakes on a Train, Transmorphers, and Atlantic Rim) or go balls crazy with absurdity. Sharknado was shot in 18 days for less than $1 million by director Anthony C. Ferrante, the man who brought us 2012's Red Clover (also known as Leprechaun's Revenge). To Ferrante and others, the film was a chance to go crazy with the premise, relatively assured that they'd make a modest profit, like all Asylum movies. He, and most others, suspected that it'd have its brief run, and then fade into ultra-B-movie obscurity like most of SyFy and Asylum fare.
That didn't happen.
Somehow, Sharknado built a reputation as the right kind of bad movie. Brainless fun, just aware enough of its own insanity to evade pity, yet never breaking the fourth wall, the movie took off as a cult hit, reaching 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (amongst critics—its audience scores are just 34 percent). Buzzfeed proposed potential punny sequels, like Tsharknami: The "T" Is Silent But Deadly; Mother Jones actually dissected the physical possibility of a sharknado (spoiler: it's not possible); and someone even wrote a cheeky How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters guide, with supposed contributions from the films protagonists, Fin Sheperd (Ian Ziering) and April Wexler (Tara Reid, somehow). And the world eagerly awaited to see whether the one-off would become a valid franchise.
A year later, SyFy indulged us all with Sharknado 2: The Second One, and an entire Sharknado Week of creature features, built around Sharknado's fame. The sequel received less acclaim (only 59 percent from critics on Rotten Tomatoes this time); transferring the same disaster to New York City just wasn't enough to keep the first film's crazed spirit alive. But it was nonetheless a ratings coup for SyFy, which was the fifth-most viewed cable channel that week—a big win for the people who brought you 2010's Sharktopus (a poor man's Sharknado).
Now, almost inevitably, SyFy has announced that we're about to be treated to yet another installment in the franchise. Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No premiers at 9 PM tonight, during the network's second annual Sharknado Week. In the latest installment, Fin Sheperd will attempt to save the entire East Coast (including characters played by Michelle Bachman, Michael Bolton, Ann Coulter, Mark Cuban, Bo Derek, Frankie Muniz, Jerry Springer, and Raymond Teller) from a supersized sharknado disaster, with help from Gilbert Sheperd (David Hasselhoff) and his spaceship. I swear to god, I shit you not.
Let's face it: We're all going to watch this. We can't not watch this. But just as it's impossible to look away, it's also impossible not to suspect that this franchise is about to hit a wall. Eager to know just how much further the team behind Sharknado can push its premise, and whether or not we're all going to regret our life choices later tonight, VICE spoke to Thunder Levin, the writer of all three Sharknado movies. We talked about the source of the first film's success, the challenges of delivering on that magic again, and the future of the Sharknado universe.
VICE: OK, so, where did the idea for Sharknado come from in the first place?
Thunder Levin: I did not come up with the word "sharknado." That was actually mentioned in [Red Clover]. There was just a throwaway line of dialogue: There's this town in the movie that's, I guess, being besieged by leprechauns—I haven't actually watched the whole thing. And somebody says, "Gosh, I hope we don't go the way of that other town. They never recovered after the sharknado hit."
One of the execs at SyFy, that stuck with them and they thought, "Hey, we should make a movie called Sharknado!" I had just written a film called Mutant Vampire Zombies from the 'Hood! and so I guess they figured I could handle the lighter tone.
They just gave you the name, and nothing else?
The director of Asylum did put together some notes—like, half a page of notes on where they thought the story could go. I ended up changing most of that anyhow. They had it taking place in Australia, first of all. Although I will give him credit for the idea of throwing propane bombs into a tornado.
But basically, it was a matter of coming up with a story that would justify the title Sharknado. And that's what I did.
Did you have any notion that the movie would turn into a touchstone for modern schlock?
I had hoped that it might turn into a little cult movie like Rocky Horror Picture Show or Buckaroo Banzai, which is a personal favorite. But there was no way to predict just what was going to happen.
How has the success of the series affected the way that you're writing it?
The biggest change has been how many eyes are on it now. When I wrote the first one, they left me alone. Nobody gave a damn. I got notes from The Asylum; I got notes from SyFy; I addressed them, and that was it. The script was done.
On both the sequels—and it seems like it's becoming more the case for each one—every minute thing is examined by a dozen different pairs of eyes. There's a lot more politics and time involved, because a whole bunch of different people need to improve it and they all need to have their input as well. So making everybody happy is the biggest change.
At the same time, I feel a need to make the fans happy, now that we have fans. I do feel beholden to them to give them what they want—or at least what I think they want. For the first one, I just went in and once I figured out the basic premise, I just said, "OK, what would I do if this crazy thing happened to me?" Then I proceeded that way as far as the underlying structure. Now I'm writing to Ian Zeiring's performance as Fin Sheperd. I feel like the second one was more of what the fans were trying to make the first one into.
What is it that you think the fans wanted? And how are you delivering even more of that now, three iterations into the franchise?
The only way to judge what the fans want has been from the feedback on Twitter and other social media. It seems to have been a case of them wanting just the craziest stuff to happen—enjoying the campiness of it and the over-the-top comic book dialogue moments. And crazy cameos, which developed almost entirely out of the Twitter response, because we had all of these celebrities saying that they wanted to be in it. Really, we didn't have much in the way of celebrity cameos in the first movie. John Heard was there, and he leant the whole film a little legitimacy, but he wasn't a cameo—he was a supporting role.
I guess just the sense of fun—the sense that we really can't go too far; that people are embracing the absurdity of it. But at the same time, I don't think any of that works if the film doesn't have heart—if it doesn't have characters you can root for and in some way empathize with. You've got to be able to follow these characters on their journey, or else it's just goofball. We can't go too far into mockery, nor can we stray too far into serious disaster movie. It has to walk this tightrope.
Actually, the thing I'm proudest of is being able to walk this tightrope, where everything in the film is played straight, yet it is done to humorous effect.
What's the heart of that story, in your own words?
The whole trilogy now has been this story of our hero, Fin Sheperd's sort of redemption—of rebuilding himself as a man. It sounds ridiculous to talk about these crazy movies in a serious way, but the truth is that there is something going on with his character. He has an arc. He starts out as this ex-famous surfer whose life has been destroyed by his own fame and his own ego. He's lost everything that was important to him and he's running a bar at the beginning of the first movie. And it's about how over the course of the three movies, he resurrects himself, restores his family, wins back the heart of his ex-wife, gets his kids to love and trust him again, and goes on to save the world. By the end of this third movie, that character arc is basically complete, where he's started his life over and he has a chance for a new family and a new life.
While we're doing all this wild and crazy stuff and having all of this fun, there is a real character there at the heart of it, giving it this emotional base. Maintaining that while doing all of the crazy stuff that is now required of a Sharknado film is another one of the challenges. Keeping Fin true to himself. Keeping the logic... I hesitate to use that word—we actually have a logic jar; anytime someone uses the word "logic" in an argument about Sharknado, they have to put a quarter in the jar—but there is an internal logic. Making sure that the film sticks to its own rules is important.
Is there any other B-Movie out there that follows that dictum, or is that why we haven't seen any other movies take off like Sharknado out of the genre in recent years?
Maybe Buckaroo Banzai, but that was a long time ago. Maybe the Evil Dead movies, and they do have a cult following. Everybody loves Ash [that franchise's protagonist] to the point now where it's going to be a TV series. But not a lot, and I think that's one of the reasons why we did strike a nerve, because we were able to walk that very narrow line successfully.
Now that you've been walking the line between serious and ridiculous, what do you think of the other stuff that The Asylum puts out, which is really sometimes just ridiculous?
Obviously, I don't want to bite the hand that feeds me... There are two different flavors of Asylum movies: There's one where it's just ridiculous and bad and it almost seems like nobody cares. And then others where the filmmakers are really trying to do something worthwhile, whether it's campy or whether it's trying to make a good film, and just not having the resources to make it look as polished as the audiences might expect, but still having the interior content there.
The whole idea behind the "mockbuster" that The Asylum is famous for isn't so much mocking the concept of any of these big studio films. It's more about mocking the idea that you need $200 million to make a movie. So some of their movies actually have good stories and they succeed to greater or lesser degrees based on just how ambitious the production requirements are. The film I directed while Sharknado was being shot that prevented me from directing Sharknado, called AE—it's a big science-fiction film, but I went out of my way to make sure that there was nothing in the story that we couldn't do. So I'm very proud of that film, because I think it works even on the incredibly low budget that we had without making a mockery of itself.
Do you think that there's some other Asylum movie that should have the same following as Sharknado then?
Obviously both of my films. But it would be for very different reasons. Anyone who went to watch my other Asylum films thinking they were going to get something like Sharknado would be sorely disappointed. My first film [Mutant Vampire Zombies from the 'Hood!] would appeal to the Sharknado fans a lot more. That's got the same tone where we walked that very fine line between all-out parody and a serious, dark horror film.
The guys at The Asylum are very determined that their films be seen as serious. They won't let you wink at the audience, so Sharknado is kind of an aberration in that regard. It had to be because of the title. But in general, the partners at The Asylum don't want you to do that kind of humor. And of course, we never actually wink at the camera in Sharknado. The characters never actually break the fourth wall. They don't really intentionally tell jokes unless it would be appropriate for their characters in the moment. It's more about the filmmakers being in on the joke, which allows the audience to be in on the joke.
There really aren't other Asylum films that play to the same dynamic. So I don't think there's really a good answer within the Asylum land—except, there was one film that the visual effects supervisor did called Nazis at the Center of the Earth. It plays it straight, but it's still so over-the-top ridiculous that it can be a lot of fun.
You said that Fin's character arc is done now. So can the series go any further? Or have you basically taken fan service, wish fulfillment, and the concept as far as it can go?
I absolutely think that there are places we can go. We've already started batting around ideas. There are a lot of ways that the story can go. Just because Fin has completed his redemption, I don't think that means that his character is done. I don't think we're anywhere near done.
To cap this off, what is peak Sharknado? What is the high point of the series?
I don't think there can be any doubt about that: It's the moment at the end of the first movie where Fin dives into the shark [that his love interest Nova's in] with a chainsaw, cuts his way out, and he pulls her out and she's still alive. That just sums up Sharknado perfectly.
We had a moment like that in the second movie, where he surfs the shark through the sky and lands it on the spire of the Empire State Building, then pulls [his wife] April's severed hand out of the shark, takes the wedding ring off it, and proposes to her with it. And in this one, there's another moment like that. I can't tell you what it is, but I think the audience will enjoy it.
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