• Chilled Waters: David Ellis talks about directing Shark Night 3D

  • Shark Night 3DIf you’re looking for a filmmaker that can combine scares and stunts in equal measure, David Ellis your man. The former stuntman-turned-director has created a string of films that feature spills and chills, including Final Destination 2, Cellular, Snakes on a Plane and Asylum. His latest film is Shark Night 3D, in which a group of vacationers at a Louisiana Gulf lake house become the victims of a series of fresh water shark attacks. Starring Sara Paxton, Chris Carmack, Katherine McPhee and Joel David Moore, the film aims to rethink their last-minute lakefront vacations the same way that Jaws kept beach-goers out of the water in 1975.   

  • Ellis recently talked about the challenges of creating a virtual army of sharks while subjecting his young cast to the perils of shooting under the hot Louisiana sun…


  • How did 'Shark Night 3D' end up in your lap?

    David Ellis: I had just finished directing The Final Destination in 3D, and at the time, I was one of the few directors that had directed a full live-action 3D movie. I also had a tremendous amount of experience shooting action sequences under and above water on movies like The Perfect Storm, Deep Blue Sea, Master and Commander and Waterworld as well as shooting a ton of action and this movie had action, water and 3D, so I was a natural candidate.

  • I pitched my ideas about the script and what I saw as my vision for the movie and they liked that. At the time, The Final Destination was getting good buzz, so they felt they could help sell the movie with my name attached to it, so they did some foreign pre-sales and raised the money, and here we are.

    Do you find when you’re shooting a film largely set on water, there are always factors that you can’t anticipate?

  • Shark Night 3DEllis: Shit happens, for sure. Of all the movies I’ve done starting with Homeward Bound 2, I’ve gone against all the things that people say you shouldn’t do: don’t work with animals or kids, don’t work on the water or with big mechanical special effects. Those are all things that you can’t predict and will create problems for you in keeping to a tight schedule or budget.

  • I understand how things work, but I also have the patience that if they don’t work, I know how do redirect and adapt to a situation that’s not working in my favor. I like the challenge, so all of that doesn’t really bother me. We had a really tight budget [on Shark Night 3D], because this was an independent film, so we had a tight schedule, and we were working with 3D cameras on the water with a lot of electronics so there were a lot of things that could have gone wrong, but we were blessed. We were in Shreveport where they get thunderstorms and all sorts of stuff, but we weathered the storm and finished on schedule and on budget and had a great time doing it.

  • If you were working with a limited budget, how did that affect the use of practical versus digital sharks?

  • Shark Night 3D

  • Ellis: We had certain scenes where we needed sharks to interact with people and be ramming into cages, or our actors were fighting sharks, so we built animatronic sharks for those scenes, but they’re not cheap either. They’re very expensive to build and we had several different kinds of sharks in the movie so we had to build several animatronic sharks and we still needed to do CG work, so we needed to identify what was going to be animatronic and the rest were going to be CG, which meant we had to pick our shots.

  • We knew how many sharks we could afford to have as CG and we knew they were going to look great and if we were lucky to come in under budget, or close enough that the people that were putting up the money were really stoked with what they were seeing, maybe we could get a little extra money in post to add a couple more shark shots, which is pretty much what happened. We came in a little under budget, so we could afford to buy a few more and there were a couple of places where I really wanted to have a couple of extra shots and they paid the money to do them.

  • And of course you had Walt Conti, who’s the go-to guy for animatronic shark work.

  • Ellis: He’s the best. Walt is an awesome guy and I worked with him on Deep Blue Sea, where I shot all the shark stuff in that movie with Walt. I also worked with on the shark and the swordfish on The Perfect Storm, so we already had a good working relationship. He is hands-down the go-to guy for animatronics. We initially wanted to build more sharks than we could afford, but Walt delivered what we needed and then the visual effects team delivered what I needed from them and I think the sharks in this movie are awesome.

  • Was there a lot of discussion about whether the film would be a PG13 or an R?

  • Ellis: We never planned to do an R-rated film. We’re always going to be compared to Jaws and I would never try to compare our film to something like Jaws, but we knew that if we went for 13-25 and really strongly for 13 to 18 year-olds, we were probably going after a generation that for the most part have not seen Jaws, so with that group we wouldn’t have to be compared so much to Jaws, but this movie is not about gore. It’s about scares and the anticipation of what is going to happen and the different cast members were reacting to what’s happening and spotting the shark and building the tension about whether or not they’re going to get away. Just to have gratuitous gore and boobs and bad language, we didn’t need that for the film to succeed.

  • When you’re working with a young cast as you did on this film or The Final Destination, do you find that they tend to look up at you as a mentor of sorts?

  • Ellis: This is a group of young college kids. We didn’t have the budget to go and get big-name stars; we felt that 3D and sharks were going to be the hooks for this movie, so what I wanted to do was get really good actors. And because in this movie we develop characters a lot more than the Final Destination movies, where you really get to know these people and their back-stories, they’re more complex and you care about whether they live or die.

  • Shark Night 3DI needed really strong actors that could also go through a range of emotions, from having a lot of fun in the movie to being terrified for half of it so we did an exhaustive casting process, seeing hundred of young, up-and-coming kids. We didn’t really need big names, although Sara Paxton has certainly been around and has done some stuff, and Donal Logue has obviously been around and is a great character actor. Joel David Moore was the third or fourth lead in Avatar, so he had a fan base. Katherine McPhee had a fan base from her American Idol fans, but they’re all relatively new and young and they’re going to be unknown to a lot of people.

  • It’s the same thing as when I did Cellular and I had Chris Evans; we were looking at bigger names, but I felt that Chris was going to be a star, so I really fought to get him in the movie, as I fought for a lot of these kids and I think they’re going to break out. In regards to being a father figure, because I’ve been around and done a lot of stuff over my 35-plus years in the business, I try to be a good leader and friend and try to gain their trust. I also make the set a lot of fun to work on and relax. I put the actors through training to learn how to do underwater stuff so I really take care of them so they trust me and look to me for guidance and we did become a big family. We had a lot of fun making the movie and it’s kind of sad when it’s over.

  • What did you find were the biggest challenges for you on this film?

  • Ellis: The biggest challenge was shooting 3D out on the water, but the other was continuity of weather over two and a half months when the movie was supposed to take place over two days. There were little hiccups like that, but we had a very talented crew and were able to adapt and change course very quickly so we could stay on schedule and keep shooting. If we had mechanical problems because of electronics while we were in boats on the water, we always had a Plan B that we could go to right away so we could stay productive.  

  • But when you’re shooting in Shreveport, you’re also dealing with alligators, snakes, mosquitoes and so forth, aren’t you?

  • Ellis: There was everything. There were alligators everywhere, there were water moccasins, there were bugs; we drove by an 18-foot alligator on our way to drop one of the actors in the water and she saw it, but he had safety men on Wave Runners, who were constantly on the watch. Obviously alligators float on top of the water so you can see them but they look like big logs. So we constantly had safety people around, but they were all over the place.

  • What are you happiest with as far as Shark Night 3D is concerned?

  • Ellis: First of all, I’m happy that the CG sharks look real, but I think I’m happiest that the biggest comment from our test audience was that they found the film a lot of fun and that you go on an emotional thrill ride. You’re happy, sad, scared, shocked; you jump out of your seat, so I think I’m happiest that the people that have seen it are entertained.

  • How do you feel about the current backlash that seems to be growing against 3D films?

  • Ellis: That’s because people are just doing really gimmicky 3D where they’re constantly hitting the audience with objects that they’re throwing at them, as opposed to using the beauty of 3D, which is the depth of it. Our movie is not throwing stuff at the audience; we’re putting the audience in the water with the sharks, and you really see the depth of the underwater stuff. And then we have sharks swimming in the row in front of you, which is really scary, because people are freaked out about sharks. So it’s not just about throwing things at people and making them duck. It’s about putting the sharks out in the audience.

  • I think 3D films are getting hammered, because it’s being overused. The Final Destination I did was the first one to come out in 3D and it didn’t really hit, but they’ve done another one on 3D and that one didn’t perform that well, because people have already seen it.  There are proper uses of 3D and films that can be shot in 3D.

  • The thing is, our film is going to be show in 2D in a lot of theaters, so first and foremost, it has to hold up in 2D. It has to have a good story, good characters and good action and it has to look good so it can play in 2D but it’s a bonus when it plays in3D.

  • So what comes up after this?

  • Ellis: Right now, I’m working on a film called R.I.P.D. It stars Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon and I came in to direct the action for them. It’s kind of like a Men in Black type of movie, so I’ll be doing that for the next few months and then we’re in negotiations right now on a couple of films for the future, so we’ll see how that works out. I’m attached to a film called Clock Tower, which is a supernatural thriller, and another film based on a Japanese anime, so if I can make those deals, I’ll be off directing my own movies. In the meantime, I’m just going to have fun directing some action and blowing stuff up!

    Shark Night 3D opens Friday, September 2nd.

  • END