“It’s funny the things you would do when you’re starting out in your career that you probably wouldn’t do the same later.”
There are probably not six degrees of separation between the movie Piranha and anyone is working in Hollywood.
Of course, you could probably take any feature ever made and find an interesting crossroad of careers for cast and crew members. The 1978 Roger Corman film Piranha is a good example. Perhaps the biggest surprise on that film is it’s the film that launched John Sayles’ film career.
But before we look at Sayles, let’s glance at some of the other people that worked on the JAWS-inspired cult classic.
It was director Joe Dante’s (Gremlins) second feature with New World Pictures.
The lead actor in Piranha, Bradford Dillman, had the lead role in the 1961 film Francis of Assisi directed by the great Michael Curtiz (Casablanca).
Barbara Steele who had a small role in Piranha was in Fellini’s classic movie 8 1/2.
The low-budget film was edited by Mark Goldblatt who would go on to edit the not so low-budget films The Terminator, Armageddon, and X-Men: The Last Stand.
Piranha’s sound effects editor Richard L. Anderson has since be nominated for two Oscars and has worked on sound on dozens of films including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Shrek the Third and won an Emmy as part of the team that did sound editing on Amazing Stories.
Phil Tippet who was a creature designer on Piranha has won two Oscars and two Emmys for his visual effects and has worked on Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark movies and most recently was visual effects supervisor on Eclipse.
I believe Piranha was also the first make-up credit that Rob Bottin earned on his way to working on The Thing, Fight Club, Seven, and received an Oscar-Nomination for his work on Total Recall.
I’m sure that list could go on and on of people who were on the crew happy to be getting their start working on what would become a cult classic. But since this is a blog on screenwriting let’s look at John Sayles’ role as the screenwriter of Piranha and how he got to work on that film.
Sayles was born in Schenechtady, New York, raised Catholic by his educator parents, and graduated from Williams College in 1972 (B.S. in psychology). According to his website, after college he hitchhiked across much of the U.S., worked as a nursing-home orderly in Albany, as a day laborer in Atlanta, and as a meat packer in Boston. In the 1975, Sayles who had been writing stories since he was eight-years old had his first short story published (I-80 Nebraska) in the Atlantic Monthly, and it went on to win an O. Henry Award.
That led him to publishing his first novel, Pride of the Bimbos, which eventually led him a literary agent, for who he wrote a screenplay for just to show the agent he could write a screenplay, followed by an opportunity to write his first produced screenplay, Piranha, for $10,000.
“The great thing was between Roger (Corman) and (story editor) Frances Doel, the story conferences were very compact and very specific. I never got these very vague directions like ‘We’ve got problems with the second act,’ or something like that. I did a lot of re-writes based on very specific notes. The other great thing about working there was that Roger only paid someone to write a script that he was going to make. There’s not a lot of development of material that’s not going to be produced. So I wrote three things that got produced in a very short order. I wrote very quickly, usually two or three drafts, that made Roger happy because he got to see something concrete right away.”
Interview with Alex Simon
Sayles success and experience working on the Roger Corman films paved the way for him to direct his first feature Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979). Since then he’s carved out a nice filmmaking career. (And he does have a blog where he writes about his recent film Amigo.) The important take away from Sayles start is it was his writing that got him the connections and opportunities. He didn’t go to film school, he worked odd jobs around the country, wrote some short stories that finally got published, won a big award, published a novel, wrote a second novel, then landed an agent, and wrote a spec script—all before he hopped on the Piranha highway. My guess is since he had been writing stories since he was eight-years-old and was 25 when he began to get published that Sayles got his 10,000 hours in before he started to make any money on his writings.
The DVD of Piranha came out this summer and has a humorous commentary by Dante and producer Jon Davison as they recount how they messed up the swimming pool at USC and filmed at Aquarena Springs in San Marcos, Texas (near Austin). Davison says that most of the crew was paid $50. a day.
And as a nice footnote to getting your start on low-budget features, Piranha Part Two:The Spawning was the first feature film directed by an up and coming film director/writer named James Cameron. Yes, James Cameron who directed Titanic and Avatar.
Related post: Coppola & Roger Corman