The 1979 war film Apocalypse Now is infamous for going over budget, over schedule, and over the top to appease director Francis Ford Coppola’s every demand. 2009’s Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus is infamous for … the exact opposite reasons. Pumped through the direct-to-video company The Asylum’s “mockbuster” pipeline for a fraction of a fraction of the cost of a typical tentpole, the movie delivers just enough to validate the marquee-friendly title. Today, Apocalypse Now is revered as one of the great American films. Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus floats through streaming libraries and provides the internet with big floppy CG shark memes. But was pulling it off any less of a feat than Coppola’s blood-sweat-and-tears epic?
Someone has to treat the Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopuses like their own personal Apocalypse Now, and writer-director Jack Perez was up for such a challenge. His early work in the 1990s, shooting behind-the-scenes documentaries on the sets of Carlito’s Way, The Flintstones, and Hard Target, eventually put him on the radar of Sam Raimi, who hired him to direct Hercules’ backdoor pilot for Xena. By then Perez had directed an indie feature, the found-footage-before-found-footage-was-a-thing horror flick America’s Deadliest Home Video, had stop-motion animation skills in his back pocket, and knew his way around a commercial set. The future was bright enough; Perez spent the ’90s and 2000s bouncing between indie features and gigs-for-hire like Wild Things 2 and MTV’s TV movie Monster Island.
Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, which finds a team of oceanographers scrambling to kill two underwater kaiju by luring them into a tentacle-flapping, jaw-snapping fight, was not a passion project. But when Perez signed on, he wanted it to be good — even if the Debbie Gibson-led creature feature was just another cog in The Asylum’s notorious business model. And it seemed to have worked; the movie’s low-rent visual effects and stilted drama mesmerized internet kids, prompting Asylum to produce several Mega Shark sequels. Before the hyper-self-aware gimmicks of Sharknado (also an Asylum joint), there was Perez funneling his monster-movie memories from the 1970s into cheapo popcorn entertainment.
What did it take to get an Asylum movie wrapped and in the can? Out of morbid curiosity, I phoned Perez to talk about the making of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.
[Ed. note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.]
How did you wind up making Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus for The Asylum?
Jack Perez: I’ve always bounced between independent films and more commercial work, depending on what opportunities are presented. The Asylum didn’t used to be a low-budget schlock factory — they were originally a distributor of independent movies, if you can believe it. The people there had distributed my second feature called The Big Empty, which was like a character-driven noir. They knew me from that, so when the company became this mockbuster schlock factory, they were looking for directors who could do stuff on a really tight, Roger Corman-style schedule. So if I was ever really low on money or a gig fell through or whatever, I was happy to jump in and do one of these nutty movies.
I had been in preparation to do a more personal movie, a bigger budget movie that I had been prepping for a year, and it was ready to go and I was casting and then as it happens, so often in Hollywood, all the financing fell apart. I found myself like, “Oh, shit, how am I going to pay the rent?” So I picked up the phone and called The Asylum and said, “What do you got? I need something for this month.” They said, “Well, can you write and direct a ‘versus’ monster movie in a couple of weeks and shoot in a couple of weeks?” And I was like, “Yes, of course!”
How did you land on Mega Shark and Giant Octopus? Where do you start on a movie like this?
I have a long love of monster movies — the films of Ray Harryhausen, King Kong, and, all the Godzilla movies were things that I was raised on as a kid. So it’s very easy for me to sort of open up that reservoir and reconstitute all those tropes and things that I love into whatever was necessary.
But at the time, The Asylum basically had a distribution deal for VHS and DVD. Basically the distributor said, “We need a ‘versus’ monster movie, can you guys do that kind of thing?” They said yes, and basically turned to someone like me to do it. At the time, they just had “Mega shark vs. Giant Squid” on paper — I don’t know if that came from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But then as I was writing it, they were like, “No, it’s an octopus,” which didn’t really change it very much. The whole idea of “Mega versus Giant” is essentially taking Jaws and making it 500 feet tall. Because there was already a subgenre of shark movies in the wake of Jaws — Mako: The Jaws of Death, Tintorera: Killer Shark, Orca, and all that kind of stuff — it was something that was known. And, I didn’t know about this at the time, but there have been documented actual undersea battles between sharks and octopus on occasion!
So that’s what I was given. I wound up adopting a pseudonym at the time, even though ultimately it traced back to me, because the company had a penchant for re-editing. They did exactly that in this case. These movies are made very quickly, and when you’re dealing with so many limitations, production-wise, I find that speed, like tempo, is a way of compensating. A very fast-paced movie will hold your interest so that you can’t really scrutinize problems with performance, problems with writing, problems with special effects.
The problem with The Asylum is, sometimes they have to meet certain running time lengths, so they re-edit and pad it. So when you watch Mega Shark, my original cut is so much faster and funnier, but they needed it to be like 10 or 15 minutes longer. So the editors went in there and basically opened up the scenes. So you have this preponderance of unnecessary reaction shots and pauses. I can’t believe it still bothers me, but it’s like when somebody tries to extend their book report by double spacing.
How did you write toward the low-budget goals of the finished project while also making it fun?
I had a two-week writing period and then some quick revisions. The stuff needed to be churned out. When you write on that schedule, you basically do the math and say, “How many pages a day do I need to complete it?” If it’s gonna be 100 pages, you have to write at least six or seven pages a day. Crazy.
The producers at The Asylum always had this mandate where they said, “This has to be written and directed with absolute seriousness.” In other words, you can’t poke fun at this stuff. Which, to me, was insane. To be dealing with such extreme limitations, you’re not going to fool anybody, so at every turn I tried to add absurdity into the story in terms of what happened, like the shark biting a plane out of the air, or the shark eating the Golden Gate Bridge. I mean I had one character making reference to Julius Caesar in the middle of the movie. I had things that I threw in the hopes that anybody who was half-aware would realize that the filmmakers were very aware that this was ridiculous, as opposed to being The Room or an Ed Wood movie.
One of my favorite things is: There’s a scene I wrote where they’re trying to come up with this formula to get the animals to come together to kill each other, some sort of pheromone, and I have this ridiculous little montage where they’re like basically adding food coloring to beakers and water, trying to solve the chemical equation problem. Some actual chemists got ahold of it, and they posted something on YouTube called “doing science” and they just show that scene because it’s the most uninformed idea of chemistry.
The one thing is, if you make a movie called Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, there really should be way more mega shark fighting giant octopus stuff. I would have preferred that they spent a little bit more money and made another, because I wrote way more fighting stuff than what’s in it. Like, instead of them double-spacing to pad the overall pacing, how about we just do a couple more fight sequences? Because that’s what people would want to see. But that would end up spending money, and nobody wants to do that.
So, I just wrote the most extreme stuff that I could. Knowing that the effects were not going to be photorealistic, the concept of the effect was more important to me. They needed to be the idea of the effect — like a shark jumping out of the ocean eating a plane. It wasn’t going to be photorealistic, but at least it would be fun.
You shot the movie in 12 days … how?
It’s insane. I don’t wish it on anybody. Funny enough, the schedules have become even shorter.
I used every trick in the book. I had made three or four features and TV prior to making Mega Shark, so I picked up a few things. You just have to design the hell out of it. You don’t shoot one frame more than you need. You shoot to cut.
Mostly it’s just about solving the problems that were inherent in my own script. In the movie, there’s all this submarine action, but there are no submarine sets flying around. And at least at the time [at The Asylum], there was no construction or production design budget to build a submarine set. So how do you convey a bunch of submarine scenes? I realized one of the stages we were shooting at had a standing sci-fi hallway set à la Alien, because there were 25 million Alien knockoffs in the wake of the original. So we had that kind of classic Ridley Scott futuristic corridor, and it was kind of narrow, which is what a submarine is, so I decided to just rent a periscope. We put everybody in sort of Red October jumpers and headsets, and put the periscope dead center, and we thought: if we used it as a strong sort of foreground, maybe people would forgive that the rest of it is not a submarine at all, but a hallway.
Is the shoot a blur now, or are there some enjoyable memories that stand out?
There’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where they find a sperm whale that’s been bitten to pieces. That comes straight from Jaws 2, which I saw as a kid. So the mega shark would attack the biggest whale in the world.
Typically, that would be a CGI effect. But I did a foreground miniature as an in-camera effect. We built a foam rubber whale that was about four feet long and set it up in front have the camera. It’s a classic force-perspective gag — you move the people a block away, and you line it up so that it appears that two are interacting with each other. And it’s an in-camera effect. It looks great! It just works every time. That was like me trying to have some fun because I felt so sort of frustrated at all the limitations. I was like, “I’m going to do something like I would have done when I was like a kid making Super 8 movies.” Everybody got a huge kick out of it, because nobody was accustomed to experiencing in-camera practical effects like that.
There were rumors that the movie would be converted and released in 3D, which is kind of unimaginable.
Yeah, that was talked about, which is crazy because that technology costs money. You can’t fault them for being ambitious in terms of what they want to do. And 3D hadn’t quite made a huge comeback, so the idea was really exciting. But I think the movie would have probably had to have been made in four days if they shot it in 3D.
I’ve also been a film professor for 10 years, and I tell my students that if you’re going to make your first film, and you only have a couple thousand dollars, then do yourself a favor and write something that can be fully realized for the budget. If you only have $2,000, you don’t try to make Raiders of the Lost Ark, because it’s just not going to work. But that’s never stopped The Asylum. It’s like, “No, we’ll do Jurassic Park, but we’ll do it for a $1.95.” So you get this weird sort of approximation of something that sort of fits in a DVD sleeve.
But The Asylum is just a microcosm of the whole movie business. They know how much money their movie’s going to make. So they don’t want to spend a penny more that’s going to eat into their profit. Even though spending more would yield a better movie, if their primary goal is to make money, then they will sacrifice the quality of the movie and quality effects and the number of days it takes to shoot to ensure that there’s a return. But if you’re a filmmaker, you don’t think in those terms. You’re thinking, “Give me another shot. Give me one more hour, and I can make the movie better.”
The chance to make any movie is rare. If you’re one of those people who makes a movie every year, which is the 1%, then you’re probably not going to have the same appreciation. But, generally, it takes a couple of years between movies. So any opportunity, regardless of the limitations or the story, is an opportunity to play. You can either meet that with professionalism or you can meet it like a bitter brat. So I’ve always been real conscious of that, particularly when I only have like 12 days. Let’s try to make this as good as we can.