Jaume Collet-Serra first made a splash by directing the Dark Castle productions’ HOUSE OF WAX and ORPHAN, and now he’s making a literal one in the open ocean with THE SHALLOWS. Opening this Friday, the film finds a young woman played by Blake Lively venturing to a secluded cove on a surfing trip, to clear her head after a personal tragedy. It turns out to be secluded but not deserted; the water is the preying ground for a very large, very hungry great white shark, and she becomes stranded on a small rock outcropping, with the beach in sight but completely out of reach, and the tide coming in…
For Collet-Serra, THE SHALLOWS is a return to the scary side, following his more action-oriented triptych of Liam Neeson thrillers: UNKNOWN, NON-STOP and RUN ALL NIGHT. The director (who discusses his next Neeson flick and a potential return to ORPHAN here) jumped into THE SHALLOWS with both feet, unconcerned about comparisons to the granddaddy of shark films…
BLUMHOUSE.COM: To this day, anyone making a movie about shark attacks is kind of working under the shadow of JAWS. Was that on your mind at all when you took on THE SHALLOWS?
JAUME COLLET-SERRA: No, JAWS is 40 years old. JAWS is JAWS, and it will always be JAWS, but our movie isn’t the same; it’s completely different. There have been a lot of horror movies recently with sharks in them, but not of such great quality, you know? This is going to change that. If anything, what we were trying to take from JAWS was the goal to make people believe the shark is real. Lately, the SHARKNADO movies and whatnot have taken a different tone, so I was trying to go back to the very essence of us as prey for sharks, as they are the superior predators in their environment. That’s something we can all be scared of. We didn’t need to create any other environment to put the sharks into; we just tell a very simple, straightforward story about a girl who goes out surfing and gets attacked by a shark, and how she’s going to survive.
Our shark is on the bigger side, but it’s not a mega-shark. And real sharks don’t necessarily fixate on one person, but they have been known to stay around a certain area, whether it’s because it’s their feeding ground or whatever, and there have been multiple attacks in the same place, and that’s what we tried to recreate. But our shark does not have supernatural qualities or anything like that.
BH: How much of the shark was created digitally, and how much of it was live props?
JCS: There was no actual mechanical shark, though there were pieces we used as shapes to interact with the water, to help us integrate our CG shark with the environment. But that was the extent of it; all the form and texture of the shark was CGI. Only the water interaction was real, and we went to extreme lengths to facilitate those elements for postproduction, because water is probably the most complex element to recreate in the digital world, and it takes a lot of time, which we didn’t have. This is a very small movie, and we had the limitations of a very small movie, but trying to do very complex things.
BH: Did you use any real shark footage?
JCS: No; we wanted to create our own shark, with its own personality and characteristics. People go to extreme lengths and trouble to capture that kind of thing, on shows like the ones the Discovery Channel runs during Shark Week. They take these incredible journeys to get that footage. But that’s not how movies work; we wanted to know what we were getting, so it was much better for us to create our own shark.
BH: How did you go about casting the female lead? Was it difficult finding someone who was up for the challenges this film presented?
JCS: Well, it was a big responsibility to find the right person, because the whole film depends on her; the actress and the execution of the shark were the two most crucial things in the movie. We were looking for someone who had the desire to give it everything. It’s a very physical movie, and a very emotional movie. There was really nowhere to go but to her face, because every time we show the shark, it’s super-expensive, so we tried not to show it a lot, and she had to play a lot of that just with her expressions.
And more than just looking for an actress per se, I was looking for a partner in the storytelling, in developing the character and designing these 24 hours in one woman’s life, the decision-making and what she would do in this situation. And in Blake, we found a very strong actress who had a great sense of humor and was very smart, very brave, who could pull it off, who was very physical and believable as a surfer and a survivor. It was very difficult for her to be in the water for 40 days, basically dealing with nothing but herself and a bird. The rest was just people making splashes around her and saying, “Look over here, look over there.” And I think she wanted that challenge; I don’t know if she really knew what she was getting into, but she gave it everything, and was truly a team player.
BH: Did you or Lively study real shark behavior to prepare for the film?
JCS: I think she had actually been in a shark cage years ago. She came in with a lot of knowledge and insight into all that, which was a bonus.
BH: Did you have any problems with the climate while shooting in Australia?
JCS: Yeah, sure. Any time you shoot a movie that is supposed to take place all in exteriors, you’re basically at the mercy of the weather. We were shooting on a small island called Lord Howe Island, and it had its own microclimate, so the weather would change every 10 minutes and it was impossible to stay consistent. We just had different scenes ready, and whatever happened, we just went from one to another. It was crazy. We spent most of the movie looking up at the sky to see what would happen, and trying to match the lighting from one shot to the next.
BH: Were there any restrictions placed on you in terms of the rating, and how graphic you could be?
JCS: No, there were no restrictions. There is some blood in the movie, but the real horror is conveyed very much from the heroine’s point of view. You can see that in the trailer, when the character is eaten by the shark coming out of the water. That shot is even more effective for being seen from a distance, instead of in close-up. That’s the approach I took as director, and it happened to be in line with what a PG-13 movie should be. But I didn’t minimize the horror; I tried to amplify it by making decisions like that, which would be most effective. It was simply about creating a point of view and sticking with it, and saying, “All we’re going to see is what she sees, so when she’s far away from the shark, we’re going to see it far away, and when it’s close, we’re going to see it up close.” That approach creates an experience for the viewer that’s much more visceral, and at the same time more ratings-friendly, if you want to call it that.