Identity crisis. Airplane hijinks. Killer sharks. Is there a common thread here? “All my movies have a concept,” director Jaume Collet-Serra recently explained to IndieWire when asked about how his latest film, “The Shallows,” fits into his oeuvre of thrillers like “Non-Stop” and “Unknown.”
This time around, however, the Catalan filmmaker had much bigger fish to fry than “it takes place all in one night” or “everything happens on a plane,” as the Blake Lively-starring nail-biter features a single beach-set location, a compressed timeline and a giant, very angry shark.
Set entirely on a secluded beach in Mexico, “The Shallows” stars Blake Lively as the resourceful Nancy, who has sought out the isolated surf spot because it’s the place that her recently deceased mother loved when she was younger. What starts as a personal pilgrimage swiftly becomes a bloody fight for survival when a rogue shark attacks Nancy, stranding her far from shore with nothing but her own wits to save her. Oh, and then he stalks her, apparently hellbent on killing her, no matter what it takes.
It’s scary, entertaining fun, drawing on the same set of skills the director has used in his other films: crafting tension and tone with an eye to his audience.
“I like to start movies right away. People are there to experience something. If you go to a comedy, you go there to laugh. You don’t want to laugh [for the first time] 10 minutes after the movie starts, you want to kind of set the tone,” he explained.
For “The Shallows,” that tone hinged on making it clear what kind of scares the audience could expect — and how they would be delivered.
“It’s a cat and mouse game with the audience’s brain,” he said. “I get myself in the audience’s shoes as I’m preparing for the movie and I storyboard it. Then I kind of fool myself, what would I expect to happen. If I fool myself, then hopefully I will fool the audience.”
Part of that foolery is rooted in the film’s visual effects – Collet-Serra estimates that nearly every shot of the final film contains some, even if it’s something as relatively minor as erasing a camera that bobbed into a shot – but the director knew he couldn’t always rely on them to deliver, even when it came to the film’s big bad.
“The shark wasn’t really finished until the last week, so at the test screenings, they basically had a very laughable, funny-looking thing that looked like nothing. It had no texture, it didn’t really move properly,” he said. “When people react to even that, you know that it is going to work.”
“It Is Just Madness”
That shark wasn’t the only thing that was rushed. “The Shallows” came together relatively quickly in order to meet a targeted summer release date. That pressure forced the production to move swiftly, even when it was at the mercy of shoot that took place mostly on or near the ocean.
“There were days that were very, very tough in the ocean when you have nine boats and a big crane and the tide is taking you sideways and you start seeing all the boats and all the boats are entering the lens and the actors,” Collet-Serra said. “I understand how movies that have been shot on the water have gone really over schedule and over budget.”
And that’s not all. Anthony Jaswinski’s script is entirely set on the beach with no cuts to other locations, and Collet-Serra was determined to keep it that way. Not cutting away from Lively’s character and her ill-fated beach location may have been essential to Collet-Serra, but the director also understood that building character and emotional stakes by having her interact with some people was important for audience investment.
Staying in One Place
In one scene, Nancy takes a phone call from her sister and father back in Texas, and Collet-Serra using on-set video chat graphics to keep the conversation clipping along. But although that meant he had footage of the rest of Nancy’s family (played by Brett Cullen and Sedona Legge), Collet-Serra was determined not to break from his single location.
It’s a decision that Collet-Serra had to fight for, and one that was inspired – and aided – by another film that features a single star set against a dangerous backdrop: Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.”
“I had a big push from everybody [during] post-production to cut,” Collett-Serra said. “What saved me was ‘Gravity’ and everyone praising how it never cut back. It works and people are not afraid to watch one character in one place and not cutting back to the person.”
Now, he’s sticking with the approach: The director’s next film, “The Commuter” — which reunites him with his “Orphan” leading lady Vera Farmigia and regular collaborator Liam Neeson — is an action-thriller set entirely on a train.
“The Marlon Brando of Seagulls”
Collet-Serra did, however, find one workaround to the problem of Nancy not having anyone to interact with: A seagull. During Nancy’s ordeal, Lively befriends a curious, injured seagull who keeps her company on the craggy rock she’s stranded on for a large chunk of the film. Eventually christened “Steven Seagull,” the feathered featured player is a real standout, and Collet-Serra swears he was “one hundred percent real.”
“He was sort of like the Marlon Brando of seagulls,” he said. “He’s like an incredibly talented bird. We were very lucky.”
Initially, the production team didn’t know if they were going to go with CGI, animatronics, real animals or some combination thereof. That changed when they met their high-flying star, who managed to beat out two other competitors on his way to Hollywood glory. The bird, which had been injured for several years and lived in captivity, dominated most of the shots.
“There are a couple of shots of the other seagulls,” Collett-Serra said, “but there was one genius one and two other ones that were just dumb seagulls. You could really tell.”
“The Shallows” opens in theaters on Friday, June 24.