A Director Takes a Dip in The Shallows
by Brad Balfour
Sharks are never far from the news – whether it’s a rare catch off the coast of New York City, or attacking swimmers en masse off the surfers’ shores of Australia.
But in The Shallows, young-though-experienced surfer Nancy Adams (played by a leggy and tanned Blake Lively), is unexpectedly gnashed and seriously injured by a marauding Great White shark off the shore a beautiful but isolated Mexican beach. She gets trapped on an outcropping of rocks 200 yards out in the shallow waters – too far to swim to the shore, but close enough to try and devise an escape before the rising tide.
Once a full-time medical student at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, she had gone to surf at this beach called “Paradise” – a place her recently-deceased mother had visited years before – when she get stranded. She has to safely get back to shore without being attacked again, forcing a contest of wills and wiles.
Written as In the Deep by Anthony Jaswinski, this survival-horror thriller has been realized by Catalan film director/producer Jaume Collet-Serra. The film is primarily a one-hander for the 28-year old Lively, who last starred in the sci-fi fantasy, The Age of Adeline.
Born in Sant Iscle de Vallalta, Catalonia, on March 23, 1974, Collet-Serra began his career as an editor before directing music videos and TV commercials for companies such as PlayStation, Budweiser, and Verizon.
In 2005, Collet-Serra landed his first feature film, House of Wax, through The Matrix producer Joel Silver. A remake of a 1953 horror classic, it was a financial success, despite negative reviews.
Since then, the 42-year-old directed the 2009 psychological thriller Orphan, and the very successful action-thrillers, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night – all starring Irish action star Liam Neeson. Thanks to such a track record, he formed production house Ombra Films. Using money from StudioCanal, the small company began making low-budget English-language horror movies, with an eye toward up-and-coming Spanish filmmakers.
That experience led him to replace director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans) on this project, a very focused and simple drama, which relied both on a convincing performance by Lively and an effective sense of danger from this injured, pissed-off female Great White.
This exclusive one-on-one interview was conducted at the Crosby Street Hotel just before the film’s opening.
When you were making this film, did people call it a surf movie or a shark movie? What did you call it?
A survival movie.
Did you look at other survival movies or shark movies or anything else?
Why would I have to look at survival or shark movies?
When the script was introduced did you ever say, “What would I do in this situation?”
It’s a very hard position to extrapolate yourself into and put yourself into that position, because I have no experience in the water. It’s not like when I did Nonstop. Then, I had a genuine fear of flying, airports and getting searched. I knew that world well because I travel so much. Here I know nothing. I can’t do it from reading a script.
I had to go there, look at the location, design with all the elements together, then work it out once I was there. [I had to] feel the environment. There are people who are experts with sharks, or experts at surfing or at being medical advisors. The script already had a great base of what could happen, I just had to make it plausible.
I had to find an actress who would fill the screen with her presence, who we would care about. Blake did a wonderful job with that. I knew that was the secret. If she can [hold] the movie together, then the rest is going to be fine. The rest was easy because that was the hard part.
Blake was mentioned early on?
Very early on. It’s one of those things. You know how it is. You have a wish list – maybe it’s a possibility, maybe it’s not. She was at the top of the list for a while. Then we finally got to talk to her and had a long conversation over the phone. She had just done two movies, had a baby, and then these men ask her to go to Australia [New South Wales] for a few months.
I said, “It’ll be fun, I’ll make it easy for you.” But obviously I was lying. She knew what she was getting into. She liked the challenge of doing something different, something physical. She is a physical person and wanted to show that. She also wanted to carry the movie. So we worked on the character, because obviously when you have only one character you have to tailor it to the actor.
Did she need any surf lessons?
She did get training and preparation. But you can’t prepare [for everything…]. The same thing for me – you can only do so much. The circumstances are so extreme that you can only hope.
Were there things you added to the script, like with the shark?
It was there, but it was different. Well, not different. It’s the same story, the original script. But because it’s a script that people have to read and not see, it has a lot more information in it that once you start shooting, you don’t need to have in. You just [have to] get it.
The whole story with her mom [who had died], it became much more simple. You don’t want to overwhelm the story. I really wanted to have a big metaphor, which is: the shark equals fear. Whatever your fear is. It’s mostly for young people. It talks about a certain time in your life.
Not, “If I was just thrown into the ocean and I’m shark food…?”
That’s not the metaphor [smiles]. The metaphor is that there’s a certain time in your life when you’re subconsciously looking to find who you are. You cross certain lines and boundaries which, if you come out alive, you’re a stronger, better person. You can’t do that through the rest of your life, because you will go through pain and put other people through pain. That’s why it’s a young people’s story.
The specific thing she’s dealing with is her mom… I didn’t want it to be so heavy that people – especially young people – couldn’t say, “Oh it’s my first year of college. I’m afraid of doing this. I’ve had a fight.” Anything where they can project themselves into a situation where they have to find inner strength to fight.
The way I related to it was to put myself into the same situation. How would I survive? But maybe it’s because I’m old…
What if you don’t have earrings? [Sharp pointed ones which Blake’s character uses to sew up her huge shark bites]. You’re not a medical student; it’s a very specific thing.
What did you learn that you could apply to the situation? Or already know? You’ve lived near the water, right, growing up on the Spanish coast?
Yes, I was on the coast. Obviously you lift things you already know, like the power of the ocean and nature. We were able to witness… We’d build a set there and the next day it was gone.
I was thinking about knowing about the high tide and low tide and what you could adapt to. Did you find people reacted that way? Would you have thought you would be lost if you were there?
I would have thought I was lost because of the medical aspect of it. I once cut myself and saw my blood and nearly fainted. Personally I’m a very fragile being. I’m not strong like that. I would completely freak out.
There are certain people, especially medical students, that could deal with this situation even if it was their first situation they had to deal with. Afterwards, their resourcefulness [would kick in]… if I survived the wound, I’d have the imagination to try something crazy enough that might work.
You had this element about the stupidity of youth in Run All Night so that seems to be a theme here as well. She should have known better than to go out to the water by herself. She’s a med student!
That’s because it’s very much a movie that has to be taken from one moment in your life where… you’re not yourself. We’ve all felt like that. The beauty of the place – it gives you a false sense of security. If the beach was dark and gloomy, then of course. Or if the guy with the truck was a weird guy, then obviously she’d look dumb. But if not, she wasn’t going to go back to the water.
She was going to surf, go back in. So she talks to her father and her father is like, “Please come back.” She doesn’t answer. Her action is answering her dad by saying, “I’m not ready to come back.” When she answers the surfers – “I’m going to do one last one” – she does it as if she’s answering her dad. She’s there because she’s not ready to face her life, and that’s what gets her into trouble.
You set up the movie with these beautiful surf shots. Were you thinking about fooling the audience with these shots?
Well everybody that goes to this movie knows [that’s not all there is]. But in a movie like this, that you know you’re going to have a terrible time as an audience because you’re going to suffer, you have to have some energetic fun stuff at some point that makes you understand what she went all the way there for. If you just have a girl with a surfboard, she gets one wave then she comes back… It’s like, “Why did you go all the way there – just for one wave?”
But, if you see that “this is unique” [you’d go for it]. Now I know a bit about surfing and shooting those images. It’s very unusual to be alone or practically alone with two people with a perfect wave like that. It’s impossible. That island actually was the one place where you can do that.
When we were there really was no one else there. It’s one of the rare spots in the world where you can do that. The waves are real. They’re there. We were alone. We’re not blocking anyone from surfing. There’s just no one there.
At least you didn’t have to borrow Steven Spielberg’s shark.
I’m sure I could have used it.
Thought about using puppets for a moment there?
We didn’t have puppets. We had shapes that did water displacement. If a splash comes from out of the water, we had a big balloon come out. If a shark was falling down to the surface we had a big cylinder come down. We had shapes. We had a fin break through the surface, and a Seabob. It was realistic water interaction, but the shark was CG [computer generated].
I was hoping a dolphin or porpoise would rescue her – like when we see them in the waters before the shark appears.
They were leaving. The crabs were leaving. The birds were leaving. Everybody is leaving. She should have interpreted the signs. Every surfer knows that if dolphins leave, then you should go too.
The shark advocates are saying sharks get a bad rap in these movies, and that conditions push these sharks to act crazy this way like global warming is drawing more of them to the shores.
That’s what we try to say in the movie. The movie is a metaphor.
You don’t think that you’ve given sharks a bad rap?
I don’t think so. I mean, this shark is injured. It has a hook [in it]. We make it clear [we’re] not demonizing the shark. The shark was probably hurt and tortured by humans. That’s why it’s not acting like normal sharks do [which is to usually stay away from humans]. We’re not saying sharks act like that. We’re saying that this shark has been injured. People will understand that when they see the movie. And if they can’t understand that, then I can’t help them.
I just wanted to make sure that shark advocates know you’re sympathetic.
I’m very sympathetic. I really admire and respect the sharks. I think they’re beautiful, majestic creatures and should definitely be protected because they’re nicer than we are for sure.
You’ve moved things forward for the use of seagulls in films.
She’s the best seagull in movie history. She deserves an award for seagulls.
What did you learn about seagulls working on this? Will you use seagulls in other cinematic efforts?
This one, hopefully. But all of the seagulls were pretty dumb except one. I learned that they’re pretty much useless except that one.
Does this mean you’re going to do more films with animals or not?
I’ve shot with animals a lot in commercials. I’ve shot with every animal possible already.
Was the device on the helmet which recorded the surfers a GoPro, or a Sony?
It was a GoPro.
Has GoPro seen this?
They gave us permission, of course. You have to go through getting clearances.
They must have been excited to see a new application for GoPros to be an emergency service device.
As long as we used their cameras to shoot the real footage and not trick it, and have the graphics be exactly as it is, we had their permission to use it. So the GoPro footage was shot with a GoPro.
Was there ever a moment when you wanted to throw in a tiny hint of the music from Jaws? Wouldn’t that be a funny inside joke?
An inside joke is when only a few people know about it.
How does this film bode for the future of your career?
We’ll see what happens when this film opens. For right now, I’m doing another movie with Liam, this time in a train. I don’t know if it’s coming out next fall. We’re going to have a whole box set with me and Liam…
What is it about your bond with Liam Neeson?
We just love making movies together.
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 2, 2016.
Photos 1-2 ©2016 Brad Balfour.
Photos 3-8 ©2016 Courtesy of Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.