Director John Gulager is no stranger to the grizzlier side of cinema. He first came onto the scene when his stint on “Project Greenlight” lead to the creation of his terrifying feature “Feast”. The success of the first film lead to two sequels and opened the door for him to direct his latest project, the sequel to Alexandre Aja’s 2010 hit, “Piranha 3D”. In our opinion, when it comes to blending comedy and horror, there was no better choice for a director than John Gulager! “Piranha 3DD” incorporates the classic elements of the teen horror/exploitation movies of the 1970s, packed with ferocious flesheaters, scantily-clad young victims, and bizarre and exciting twists and turns. Whereas “Piranha 3D” took place on a lake, the 2012 sequel is set at a water park, complete with water slides and a lazy river – the perfect places for piranha mayhem! Back for more outrageous fun, Christopher Lloyd reprises his role as the eccentric piranha expert. After the terror unleashed on Lake Victoria in Piranha 3D, the prehistoric school of bloodthirsty piranhas are back and this time, no one is safe from the flesh-eating fish as they sink their razor-sharp teeth into the visitors of summer’s best attraction, The Big Wet Water Park. Now with double the action, double the horror, and double the D’s, “Piranha 3D” stars Danielle Panabaker, Matt Bush, David Koechner, Chris Zylka, Katrina Bowden, Gary Busey, Christopher Lloyd, and David Hasselhoff. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with John Gulager to discuss the process of bringing the film from script to screen, the challenges of shooting in 3D and much more!
What was the initial spark that made you want to become a filmmaker?
My whole family has been involved with filmmaking and my Dad, Clu Gulager, wanted to be a director. I would act in things for him. At one point, he bought me a Super 8 camera. I wanted to do animation at the very beginning, probably when I was in sixth or seventh grade. He had bought me a little Vivitar camera and I could do things like that with it because it had the little release where you could shoot one frame at a time. We had gone over to Hanna-Barbera and they had shown me how to animate by drawing the cells, paint them and everything else. Needless to say, I was big into animation for quite a while for all of my little school projects and stuff like that. From there, I started shooting live action stuff. I was making little shorts with my brother. He was just a little kid but we would get little packets of ketchup and he would squeeze them at the right moment, so that it looked like he got shot in the head! It was the usual thing that you always hear about from someone getting into filmmaking during that time period. Since my parents were always involved in the industry, I was just used to that kind of environment. At some point, I was either going to make films or be a bum! I was pretty much a bum for a long time! [laughs] Then I slipped on a banana peel and ended up on “Project Greenlight” and then I could actually earn a living! I expected it to happen a lot earlier in my life, that is for sure! I expected it to happen when I was a teenager or in my early twenties but at the same time, I am kinda lazy, so it didn’t! [laughs]
Things are looking up!
I think so! I can actually earn a living and pay the rent doing this — doing something that I love. You hear about people who don’t like their jobs and I can’t relate to that at all. I can’t think of something I would rather be doing! I think you can think of different projects and different movies as a portion of your job but being able to go out and shoot stuff, put it together and have it come out has been mind blowing!
What intrigued you about helming “Piranha 3DD” and what state was the project in when you came aboard?
I had seen the first film, “Piranha 3D”, and I was a big fan and I loved it a lot. I took Diane, my old ball and chain. I said “I really want you to see this!” I had already gone to see it. I took her down to the Chinese Theater and she liked it too. At the time, we didn’t have any idea that any of this was going to happen. The I got a phone call and they said “Hey! We want to do a sequel to this film. Are you in? Do you want to do it?” I was kinda like “Yeah!” [in an excited tone] This was at the very, very, very beginning. They had the genesis of the title and wanted it to be “Piranha 3DD”. I thought that would be pretty funny! They also knew that it would involve piranhas going through pipes and that was it. That was all they had! That was the studio, Bob Weinstein. It was at that time when I came on along with writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. From there, we went to Louisiana to find a water park. We found one that we really liked and wrote the script. The water park read the script and said “NO WAY!” [laughs] We ended up checking out water parks from Michigan to Florida to Georgia and everywhere in between! Everywhere except California because they wanted this tax break thing. Ultimately, we ended up in North Carolina at a little Mom and Pop water park called Jungle Rapids. That is why some of the story changed a bit to accommodate that type of water park as opposed to some giant extravaganza type of place. That’s what it is all about, ya know? Adapting to certain circumstances and using what is available.
I came on at the very beginning and the script went through many stages as you can imagine. At first, they didn’t even know if they were going to have the rights to the movie. That lead to us writing a script that wasn’t necessarily a sequel but a script that was about piranhas! [laughs] If you can imagine the craziest scenario of what someone would say to you over the phone about going forward with a project — that’s what happened! [laughs] In the end, everything worked out. Obviously, there are boobs, there are piranhas and a water park! [laughs] The water park was just us goofing on “Jaws 3D” because that was set in a water park but it was more of a “Shamu” type of water park. Even though no one would necessarily know, that was our idea — set it in a kids water park where the piranhas can come in through the pipes. There are always these little stories that probably don’t matter for the public but for us that is where it came from.
How did shooting in Real 3D affect the filming process and how you tackled the project as a director?
Ya know, it definitely changed a few things. Everything took a little longer than anticipated. It was fun because you got to use a crane and all of these different things because everything was so heavy, you had to have it supported all of the time. Then we had the underwater version that used the silicone imaging cameras, which were a little bit smaller so they can be maneuvered a little bit. It did make everything take longer, I can say that for sure, so you have a plus and you have a minus when it comes to shooting. As a director, one of your main battles is always with time. People might think that it is equipment but the most expensive thing on any set is the whole crew being there for day after day and hour after hour. Any downtime you have, you are aware that the clock is ticking and the dollars are flying! [laughs] We had a finite amount of time to work with because the water park was set to open on Memorial Day and we couldn’t shoot there after that because of all kinds of health regulations regarding the water and the blood and everything, so we were limited that way also. Although the 3D stuff did take a lot more time, it was a lot of fun to watch in the dailies though! Every now and then our heads would explode! [laughs] If something went a little bit wrong in the dailies, we had a stereographer who would be on set with a black cloth over his head to see the monitor, like those old -time photographers with the 8 x 10 cameras taking the pictures in the Wild West, he looked like that kinda! [laughs] He would be working the stereo live while we would be doing the shots but every once and a while it would still be a little out there and it would be fixed a little more in post. The whole 3D thing was quite an experience!
As you mentioned, you were on the project since the beginning. How did the casting shake out and did anyone bring something to the project you may not have been expecting?
Well, for one thing, Ving [Rhames] wasn’t in the going to be in the movie originally. I think this is on the commentary but he actually called and left a message for us that said “Hello. This is Ving “You never saw me die at the end of Piranha 3D” Rhames…” [laughs] So after that, we wrote those scenes and stuck him in there! That was kinda surprising that he was even there! He actually ended up having one of my favorite lines, you know the “Bring me my legs…” line. David Hasselhoff was another element that was there from the beginning but then he didn’t want to do it, which we were a little freaked out over. We had to rewrite the script a little bit to make him not so down and out. [laughs] I wanted him to be so down and out that he had to open this crappy water park. He didn’t want to be that down and out, so we put two girls in his bed! [laughs] That whole thing was really interesting. There would be women across the street from where we were shooting screaming “David! David!” and stuff like that. I had never been around anything like that before on anything I have worked on! [laughs] That was really interesting! I think the kids in the film, like Danielle Panabaker, Matt Bush, Chris Zylka and Katrina Bowden, are all really good actors. I feel bad that Adrian Martinez, who plays Big Dave, got cut out of it so much because he was so freakin’ funny on the set, man! Paul James and Meagan Tandy were great as well and then you had Christopher Lloyd! That was pretty interesting because he was just the quietest guy. You expect him to be kinda whacky or kooky but he is so down to earth. Then there was Gary Busey and he is exactly what you expect — totally out there! [laughs]
Of course, any time any actress would take their clothes off, I would be so grateful! Even with a movie that has a title like “Piranha 3DD,” it is tough to have nudity in the background or whatever. It is harder than you think, no pun intended! [laughs] It is tougher than you think to get people to do this! People will show up and then change their minds at the last minute, so anytime people would come through, so to speak, I would be like “Ahhhhh!!!! Thank You!” There was no Spring Break or anything like that that was going on at the time. We actually had to go out and find people and cajole people into it. Obviously, some people came.That whole process was pretty interesting. I came from a different era but I think a lot of the actors today are scared of nudity. Maybe it is because of the internet but ya know, Sissy Spacek did it and it never hurt her career! [laughs] What can I say, it’s a different era!
Is there a particular type of film or genre you are looking forward to tackling in the future?
Yeah! One that is not funny! [laughs]
Is that on the horizon then?
No! [laughs] I know they say that sometimes you can’t help what you are but I think I want to try to make something that is a little more serious and a little more filmic! Possibly! [laughs] So we will see!
Thank you so much for your time today, John! All the best to you!
Thank you so much!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.