Every year the population of sleepy Lake Victoria explodes from 5,000 to 50,000 for Spring Break; a riot of sun and drunken fun. But this year, there's something more to worry about than hangovers and complaints from local old timers; A new type of terror is about to be cut loose on Lake Victoria. After a sudden underwater tremor sets free scores of the prehistoric man-eating fish, an unlikely group of strangers must band together to stop themselves from becoming fish food for the area's new razor-toothed residents.
In the wake of Jaws' success in 1975, another underwater predator was quickly presented on the screen that countered the size of Steven Spielberg's merciless eating machine with quantity. Instead of one large menace, Piranha introduced hundreds of lethal, voracious nibblers on the big screen in 1978. With the assistance of director Joe Dante, executive producer Roger Corman and acclaimed screenwriter John Sayles, the film knowingly put a spin on the Jaws formula with a tongue-in-cheek twist.
Piranha would birth a sequel, directed by James Cameron, and a made-for-television redo, however, none of these films would come close to pushing the levels of fear Dimension Films and director Alexandre Aja would explore over three decades later in Piranha 3D.
Aja, the director of extreme horror offerings such as High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes, says Piranha is "a desire for me to get back to the feeling of the '80s. That kind of guilty pleasure movie that was so instantly cool when I was growing up. A movie where it could be as scary as it is fun - where there was a lot of nudity and gore - just an amazing, entertaining ride."
When Aja was first introduced to the script written by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, the director had other film commitments. He was re-introduced to the property years later. Aja recollects, "I said this is exactly the base of what I would love to do. I want to go back to that Spring Break under attack concept and I want to increase the fear, I want to increase the gore, I want to increase the action pieces, I want to develop the characters. I really want to make it feel really big. And Dimension and Bob Weinstein let me do that."
"I think the audience is going to be in for the ultimate ride," he adds. "It's Spring Break craziness that turns into a huge disaster movie when the piranha show up and attack everyone. You know you're going to have fun, you know you're going to be scared."
If Aja manages to make audiences second guess going into the water, then he has done his job. "You always think about the kind of fear you're exploring when you're making a horror movie. When I was doing Mirrors, I was really hoping, and I think I did manage, to create some kind of trauma with the mirrors you have in your home. And, after Jaws can you really create another movie that's going to traumatize another generation?"
Executive producer Alix Taylor believes so: "I think it's a completely visceral ride. It's got naked girls, crazy fish, great actors, a fun story line, and 3-D. [Producer] Mark Canton is saying it's the Jaws of our time, but I think it's even more than that. It's just even more fun."
A NEW DIMENSION IN TERROR
"Can you imagine watching a real horror movie in 3-D?"
That was the question Aja posed to his writing and producing partner Greg Lavasseur while in script development on Piranha 3D. At the time, James Cameron's Avatar was still a highly secretive project, but the looming spectacle played on Aja and Lavasseur's curiosity.
"When you making a movie," Aja says, "what you're working on is to create the best emotion possible for the audience. You try to make a film that's not only something that you want to watch on the screen, but something that becomes an experience, because fear and suspense is only about forgetting that you're watching a movie. "
Aja believed 3D would heighten both the story and the FX and it didn't take long for him to convince Dimension to apply Piranha to the ever-growing device in filmmaking. The 3D technology widened the tapestry of horror for Aja, not only allowing him to amplify the carnage he wanted to bring to the screen, but to place his audience face-to-face with the film's eponymous threat. "You need to be sucked into that world and be underwater with all of the fish coming at you."
"I grew up going to see Captain EO in Disneyland," he smiles, "and Piranha is like that very extreme 3D theme park attraction. Making Piranha was exactly like drawing the blueprint of a theme park attraction or drawing the blueprint of a roller coaster. It was made to be the opposite of Avatar in terms of 3-D - everything is coming out of the screen; everything is flying at you. Because the story was made for that. It's Spring Break under attack by prehistoric piranha! It's a justified feeling; we don't have to hide and say, 'Oh, we are too gimmicky, or we are too over-the-top.' No, we are making this over-the-top experience, and the 3-D is there to make it unforgettable."
Strength was the primary attribute Aja as looking for in his leading protagonist: Lake Victoria's Sheriff Julie Forester, a mother who must contend with her rebellious older son, her two other younger children, a horde of Spring Break revelers partaking in all manner of debauchery and the unexpected arrival of the piranha.
Aja scoured Hollywood for someone that could "face 20,000 kids every year and be tough, but someone who could show weakness when the disaster hits her own people, be human enough to bring the audience to that nightmare genre where after saving or trying to save a town she has to save her family and her kids."
The director found his required qualities in actress Elisabeth Shue.
"The physicality of the role really attracted me and Alex," Shue says. "I think if it was any other director I might not have been as interested, but knowing what a talented director he is, and his work in the past, and knowing that he would take this fun popcorn movie premise and deepen it, create more tension and drama, make it as artistic as it could possibly be, excited me."
The actress admits to doing very little training in preparation for the role aside from her daily tennis routine. The rigors of the production was training in and of itself, from the heat felt on location in Arizona, to shooting on the water, to the stunts.
"My favorite moment was probably when I got to do my first stunt," she remembers, "but it seemed too dangerous for me to do, and I wanted to do it so badly. Alex was so sweet in letting me do it. I was so scared, my heart was pounding through my chest. It's just after the massacre has happened where hundreds of Spring Break kids have just been eaten by these killer fish, and I get a call from my son saying that he is out on a boat with my kids. He was supposed to be at home babysitting them, but no, he's on a boat with my kids, and the boat is sinking. I immediately realize that I have ten kids who are bleeding to death on my boat, and I have to find a way to go rescue them. I look around and there's floating debris that is pointing in the direction of a speed boat. I jump off the boat and I run across the floating debris and end up on the speed boat and then take off."
For Jake, Forester's oldest son, Aja turned to Steven McQueen, grandson of the legendary Steve McQueen. "He had that potential - a young Matt Dillon feel to him that was very interesting material for me to work as a filmmaker," says Aja, "because he had that kind of naïve way of saying things, and being that teenager that wants to experiment at Spring Break. But when danger shows up he has the skill and strength inside him to make a difference."
In addition to Shue and McQueen, Aja called in Adam Scott, Jessica Szohr, Ving Rhames, Brooklynn Proulx, Sage Ryan and Jerry O'Connell for the mayhem along with a few casting surprises like Christopher Lloyd, as Mr. Goodman, and Richard Dreyfuss as Matt Boyd.
Goodman is "almost a mad scientist kind of character," explains Aja. "Of course, there is only one 'Doc' - Christopher Lloyd. Growing up with the Back to the Future movies, I didn't think it was possible to get him. I have to thank Bob Weinstein for that. So I got Christopher Lloyd and he came for a very, very, very long day that I will describe as a week of shooting in one day, and he did an amazing performance that is going to please so many people."
"But the best cameo of the movie is something that came as a crazy idea when we were writing," Aja adds. "We were always opening the movie with a fisherman in the middle of an earthquake, and getting killed by whatever is under the water. I was thinking about who can play that, and the idea of a version of Matt Hooper, the character from Jaws, retired from the ocean, fishing in the opening of the movie, came as an idea."
A familiar pang of cynicism arose in Aja and the director never believed he could get Dreyfuss. Ultimately, the stars aligned "and Richard Dreyfuss showed up on set for that scene. He's completely aware of what he's doing. The wardrobe he has is the Matt Hopper wardrobe. The glasses are exactly designed for him as the Matt Hooper glasses in Jaws. Everything is the same. He is singing the same song, "Show Me The Way To Go Home" in the opening of the movie. And Richard was so playful with it. I just it's best cameo. It's not even a cameo, it's better than that because it's like another character is stepping from one movie to another movie and coming back.
Aja faced a tricky balance when it came to designing the film's prehistoric piranha FX. Delving into research material concerning deep sea fish, the director juggled between depicting the piranha realistically or going completely radical in their features.
If he chose the latter route, "we'd lose that feeling of piranha that everyone has because everyone knows piranha," Aja says. "They are a universal animal. When you think piranha, you think about a thousand fish coming - eating you and being very, very aggressive. If you change them and you turn them into monsters, they're not piranha anymore; they are just some type of monster."
Cue creature designer Neville Page.
"When I met him," recalls Aja, "the first time he said, 'I have two passions - the prehistoric era and fish.' That was the best sell that you can have, and we started working together on different designs, different approaches, and before we started shooting we'd keep going to the design you see in the movie now which is between a piranha and a monster piranha."
While Aja reunited with Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and their team from KNB EFX on practical effects, the director called upon visual effects artist Derek Wentworth to bring the digital piranha to life.
Over 250 effects shots are required for Piranha 3D which Wentworth describes as, "a huge undertaking." On the grocery list of the film's larger scenes: A sequence near the opening of the film when two divers are first introduced to "thousands of computer simulated fish killing them." And then there is the Spring Break massacre. Wentworth says. "We've got literally about a hundred people in the water splashing around, freaking out," Wentworth says. "There's a lot going on in the water, there's people jumping off of boats, and so we have to isolate every single one of those people and put in the piranha around them. And the way to do that is you basically put one digital stunt person per person in the water doing roughly their action and set the piranha loose in amongst that, and they will try and go for those people and avoid them if they need to. It's a huge sequence and very complicated."
Aja adds: "When you do CG piranha, it's very easy to create them in 3-D and that increases the effect. It was my first CG creature movie, and I wanted it to be as perfect as possible."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
Born in Paris on August 7, 1978 to a French director and a cinema critic, Alexandre Aja practically grew up on a film set during his formative years. His roles ranged from that of actor, writer, director and producer, alongside his frequent collaborator and friend Grégory Levasseur.
He made his directorial debut at the age of eighteen with the short film Over The Rainbow, which received a Golden Palm Award nomination at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1999, after graduating from Sorbonne in Philosophy, he wrote the screenplay and directed his first feature Furia, a futurist movie starring Marion Cotillard based on a short story by Julio Cortázar.
But it was the release of Haute Tension (High Tension) in 2003, which placed Aja on the map for the horror movie genre. The French slasher pushed the gore and tension envelope at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, where it garnered media acclaim for Aja. Critics hailed him as a "bright young talent who has respect for the art of the fright, and is fascinated with the power of the genre to disturb". The film was nominated for the grand prize at the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival and earned Alexandre Aja awards for best direction and best fantasy film at the Catalonian International Film Festival. His ability to "deftly juggle gore and suspense" placed him on Variety's - Ten Directors to Watch list in 2004. "No one else under 30 makes movies this savage -- and disturbingly symptomatic."
For his second feature, American director Wes Craven asked Aja to come up with a concept for the remake of his 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes. This "refreshingly brutal and thoroughly entertaining update of the cult classic", was described by Film Jounal International as "a realistic survival movie in the tradition of John Boorman's Deliverance."
After the success of Hills, Aja wrote, directed and produced Mirrors, a supernatural thriller for Fox starring Kiefer Sutherland and Paula Patton. He also produced the indie thriller P2 for Summit.
He is a member of the so-called "Splat Pack", a term coined for a new wave of directors making brutally violent horror films including Rob Zombie, Zack Snyder and Eli Roth.
Alexandre Aja has spent the last three years developing, co-writing and producing Piranha 3D with Grégory Levasseur. He directed the shoot in Lake Havasu, Arizona and has been breeding his predator fish ever since. He hopes the unusual mix of humor and gore will not only be an ode to the B movies of the past, but will push genre conventions yet again and bring back good ol' popcorn fun.
THE ART OF SEQUELS