Posts Tagged ‘Piranha’

“There’s no such thing as a totally new concept, just reworking old ones to make them current and fresh.”
Adam Levenberg
The Starter Screenplay

We’ll start the new year by looking at an old trend in the movie business—Similiarities between films.

It’s not hard to look at Roger Corman’s Piranha (1978) and see how it was influenced by JAWS (1975). But it’s also not hard to see how JAWS was influenced by the classic 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. I’d like to think that a then eight year old Steven Spielberg saw Creature from the Black Lagoon when it first came out and thought, “Gee, when I grow up I think it would be fun to work at Universal Studios.”

—The creature and the shark both kill people
—The creature and the shark strand a boat that threatens all aboard
—Both stories have an element of greed on the part of the humans
—Both have quirky boat captains
—Both have scientists
—Similar music to announce impending danger of creature/shark (Da-Dum)
—Both are Universal Pictures
—The creature and the shark are killed at the end

I’m sure there are a few other similarities. Just as there are similarities between Creature and King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1946), Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). Of course Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein was published in 1818. And if we went back in time we have tales of creatures by the Greeks and Romans, and even in the Garden of Eden we have the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve.

To use Blake Snyder’s phrase, “monster in the house” stories have been with us a long time. (Even if the house is technically a lagoon or a small beach town.) Overall I think we put too much emphasis on the similarities of film instead of their differences. Earlier this week I watched Creature from the Black Lagoon and JAWS and found they each stand on their own.

I once had a teacher say that if you gave ten writers the basic concept of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and had them write a script you would have ten original stories. Heck, Scorsese has made a career out of lifting chunks of 1930s gangster films and giving them his own imprint.

So don’t be discouraged when people read your script and say, “Oh, it’s just like….” They’re just seeing patterns that are in every film. Last week I saw The Black Swan and I thought, “Oh, it’s The Wrestler meets The Fight Club.” Then I saw Mark Walhberg in The Fighter and even though it’s based on a true story, I still thought, “It’s part Rocky (1976) and part Fat City (1972).” Your originality will come from your own unique background.

And speaking of  Creature from the Black Lagoon, I saw where screenwriter Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) is remaking the film. Turns out that Ross’ father, Arthur A. Ross, was one of the screenwriters on the original film. The elder Ross was nominated for an Oscar for the 1980 film Brubaker which was just eight years before Gary received his first Oscar nomination for Big—shared with co-writer Anne Spielberg, who happens to be Steven’s sister. (One big happy family, right?)

And lastly, I can’t help but point out that the actress (Julie Adams) who the creature from the Black Lagoon was attracted to, in real life was born in Waterloo, Iowa. (Just a few miles from where I type this post in Cedar Falls, Iowa.)

P.S. If you’re a filmmaker near the Florida panhandle, the exterior shots for Creature from the Black Lagoon were shot in Wakulla Springs State Park. I’m not sure what the requirements are to shoot there, but it’s as untouched today as it was when then filmed Creature. Crystal clear water and beautiful natural light.

© 2011 Scott W. Smith

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“Visiting the set of Piranha and talking to the people involved in making it helped me learn one of the basic rules of film production, which is talk is cheap and action is expensive.”
John Sayles

The term low budget is relative. Some talk in terms of a $10 million film being low budget, others talk about $500,000. being low budget and others talk about $10,000. being low budget. Talking about film costs is like taking about affordable housing in Manhattan, New York versus Manhattan, Kansas (The Little Apple)—they’re two different worlds.

In his book Thinking in Pictures, writer/director John Sayles talks about the writing parameters for writing low budget films using a union cast and crew. But in general most of his considerations ring true for any size productions. If you’re trying to keep your costs down on a script you are writing, Sayles says the first requirement is an understanding of what costs money in making a movie.

“Anything set in a historical period costs more for costumes, props and sets than the same story in a contemporary setting would (unless you’re doing Adam and Eve in Griffith Park). Shooting on location brings with it the expense of lodging, per diem, travel days, long-distance phone calls and shipping of film materials. Each speaking part you add means another day or more of Screen Actor Guild (SAG) minimum wage, even for a few lines. Music you don’t own the publishing or performing rights to can cost a fortune. Precision camera movement calls for a crew that can pull it off—the best people in those categories are expensive to hire. Star actors cost a lot more than SAG minimum and can run you into lots more maintaining them in the style to which they’ve become accustomed. Special effects and stunts are more expensive and increase your insurance bills. Action scenes and stunts are more expensive to shoot in terms of shots and man-hours per screen minute than dialogue scenes are. Special equipment—cranes, Stedicams, helicopter mounts—all cost a lot. Each additional day you shoot has a price tag on it.”
John Sayles
Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan

There are those that think you shouldn’t inhibit your writing by worrying about the expense of shooting. Just tell the story as best you can. But it’s not easy to get any film made, so if you’re not working on Steven Zaillian-sized projects at least consider this post food for thought. Every film has concerns about costs and sometimes whole scenes are cut because of budget restraints and others need to be re-written to accommodate the budget.

One famous scene in a studio film that was changed from how it was originally written was in Rocky when Rocky Balboa pays the skating rink maintenance guy to let Adrian and him into the rink when it’s closed. The scene was originally written to take place on a busy skating rink, but the producers decided they didn’t have money in the budget for all the extras, so it was re-written to basically be just Rocky and Adrian and it turned out to be a solid scene. Probably better than how it was originally written.

“Embrace your limitations” should be the motto of the low budget filmmaker. (Actually, I think I first heard that phrase was from DP Nancy Schreiber on the DVD commentary of the $150,000. film November in which she won a cinematography award at Sundance for shooting.) Don’t worry about what you can’t do, focus on what you can do.

Sayles writes, “The ideal low-budget movie is set in the present, with few sets, lots of interiors, only a couple speaking actors (none of them known), no major optical effects, no horses to feed. It is no wonder so many beginning movie-makers set a bunch of not-yet-in-the-Guild teenagers loose in an old house and have some guy in a hockey mask go around and skewer them.”

But it doesn’t have to be a horror film. Here’s a short list of films of various budgets that all took advantage of shooting mostly in one location (some with no wardrobe changes over the course of the film):

Panic Room
The Tenant
Phone Booth
12 Angry Men
The Breakfast Club
Paranormal Activity

Rear Window


Take note that those last three films were directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  “Embrace your limitations.”

Scott W. Smith

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“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.”
Joe Dante
Director (Piranha)

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.”
John Sayles
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

Scott W. Smith

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I think it was designer Milton Glaser who said all creativity is is connecting influences. The other day when I was writing the post on Temple Grandin called Thinking in Pictures (the title of one of her books) I seemed to recall there was an old book on filmmaking also called Thinking in Pictures. So I poked around my books and found it yesterday.

John Sayles’ book Thinking in Pictures was published back in 1987 and subtitled The Making of the Movie Matewan. (Just saw where you can buy a used copy on Amazon for $4.24.) One nice connection with the movie Temple Grandin and Matewan is both feature actor David Strathairn. Back in the day, it was hard to find much information out about independent filmmaking and Sayles’ was a beacon. It’s still a solid book that gives an excellent overview of the production process.

I flipped through the book this morning looking at my yellow highlighted sections hoping to find a quote that seemed to jump out at me and fit what I try to communicate on this blog called Screenwriting from Iowa…and other unlikely places and found this quote:

“If storytelling has a positive function it’s to put us in touch with other people’s lives, to help us connect and draw strength or knowledge from people we’ll never meet, to help us see beyond our own experience. The people I read about in the history books and the people I met in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia had important stories to tell and I wanted to find a way to pass them on.”
John Sayles
Thinking in Pictures
page 11

So if you’re looking for a filmmaker who champions unusual people and places then check out John Sayles’ films. And tomorrow I’ll talk about how Sayles himself got his unusual start in the film business—writing the script for the 1978 Roger Corman film Piranha.

Scott W. Smith

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