In spite of having quit smoking several weeks before, I had just smoked three cigarettes in the last twenty minutes. I nervously paced back and forth in front of an ominously imposing building on Sepulveda Boulevard.
“Here’s what we’re NOT gonna do,” I said. “We are NOT going to make it toxic waste. That doesn’t make any sense. It’s a tectonic shift caused by offshore drilling. This uncovers a sheaf of magnetite. Sharks hunt using their electromagnetic senses, so if there’s an electromagnetic disturbance, it’ll send them into a hunting craze. Makes sense, right?”
I was talking to my writing partner, Matt Chernov. He and I had met on a message board dedicated to horror film, and at this point had been working together for over a year. We were both lifelong horror fanatics who’d been subscribing to Fangoria since the 80’s, and we were both living in Hollywood trying to make it as screenwriters. We met up in 2004, started catching horror films together (our respective girlfriends were more than happy to let us do so, since that spared them) and were soon working on our first script: a devil-worshiping biker opus called Hard Ride to Hell. Three months after we finished the script, we sold it (and five years after we sold it, incidentally, it got made).
This led to a number of script assignments. Assignments are the bread and butter of most working writers in Hollywood. Assignments keep the bills paid and the lights on while you’re working off-hours on your own ideas (commonly called “specs” for “speculative scripts”). Sometimes, the stars align, and an assignment lines up artistically with your goals as a writer: in this case, we’d been approached to write a script called Shark Swarm. It was set to be a four-hour miniseries on NBC, and accepting it was a no-brainer — Matt and I both count Jaws as one of our favorite films, just as we’re also fans of the many “animal attack” films of the 1970’s.
So we wrote a treatment (essentially a detailed prose synopsis that laid out the story beat by beat).
We set our initial treatment in Hawaii. It involved myths about ancient shark gods, treasure hunters, volcanic activity that uncovers a mineral deposit that sets off the sonar of all the sharks in the surrounding waters, and a bunch of other side stories to help flesh it out as a four-hour miniseries for television. It was our original take on the material, but it already had a number of studio dictated aspects to it, even at this treatment phase. And we figured we might get a free trip to Hawaii in the bargain.
The notes we got back after that first treatment were simple. Set it in California. We need a clear human villain. Try to add some element of a ticking clock into the story. We need some romance. We need things to be as clear at all times as possible. We need more characters, fill up a whole town’s worth, more shark attacks. We re-wrote the treatment – it ended up clocking in at forty pages. I took a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to speak with marine biologists there and to view a captive Great White. We wanted the science to be feasible, if a little extreme.
And we also wanted it to be fun! We dropped in references to Peyton Place and John Carpenter’s The Fog. We named a character after director William Girdler, who’d done Grizzly and Day of the Animals back in the 70’s. We spaced out kills specifically, to build toward a climax that would ultimately see our heroes racing to get underwater to detonate explosives on a rock shelf that would cover the magnetite that was causing the sharks’ aberrant behavior – this resulted in a lighthouse collapsing onto a pier and sending hundreds of people into the water to be devoured.
Now, if you’ve actually seen Shark Swarm then none of this will sound familiar. The film plays quite differently than how we initially imagined it. It’s filled with random kills that seem to go unnoticed by the townsfolk, the order of scenes is wonky (indeed, the first scene in the finished film was actually our epilogue) the effects and prosthetic sharks are dodgy, and the whole things feels like it was made as a Hallmark movie.
Which it ultimately became. Rather than NBC, our killer shark film made its debut on The Hallmark Channel!
At that point, we were still novice screenwriters and former fanboys who bought into the promises of execs and line producers, who believed that everyone on board respected our story ideas and listened to our thoughts. We were genuinely of the mind that we were going to make the greatest shark movie ever filmed.
It’s not. Not remotely.
And the impetus for what Shark Swarm ultimately became was born that day on Sepulveda Boulevard, where I spent a half hour before the meeting going over all the things we wouldn’t do in the script.
We walked into that story meeting, ready to make the movie the way we saw it.
“So,” said the producer who was in charge of the film. “I love the new treatment. There’s some really great stuff here. You guys knocked it out of the park. We’ll start pre-production and casting in two weeks while you pound out the script. We’re absolutely gonna make this movie! ”
Matt and I did the best we could to hide our excitement. Really? They were already determined to move ahead based on the strength of the treatment? Did things always come together this quickly?
“However, we do have a few notes for you. That whole offshore drilling and magnetite bit is too difficult and expensive. We think it should be toxic waste. Now, let’s talk about this collapsing lighthouse scene.”