Part One of an Interview with Jack Perez
Spectacular internet interest spawned by the Asylum’s latest release, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, came as something of a surprise to everyone. Directed by Jack Perez under the pseudonym Ace Hannah, the giant monster B-flick epic was keenly anticipated by many, based on a few spectacular shots of the titular beasts — in particular one of a gigantic shark taking a bite out of the Golden Gate Bridge. The first trailer increased the excitement. Others greeted the whole thing with scorn, of course — but either way, the prospect of seeing two vast prehistoric giants duking it out with each other and the human protagonists generated unprecedented net chatter. Perez talks to the Backbrain about the film, its reception and his own ambitions.
Undead Backbrain: Jack, how did this project come about?
Jack Perez: It was weird. The producers had a title. And that’s it. I actually thought they were kidding at first. I mean, it’s a pretty on-the-nose title. But they were serious. They wanted to know if I could crank out a screenplay based on the titular battle. And as I’d seen every Godzilla and jumbo atomic mutation flick ever made, I was game-on. Plus I needed the work.
UB: Yet I reckon the title is what generated a lot of the pre-release interest in the film. Of course, it had to live up to that title — and the trailer suggested that you had, in a very big way, nailed it. Do you feel you did?
JP: Obviously the trailer promised something very grand, as most trailers do. It was put together by the film’s editor; and he did a terrific job. Still, there was no way the actual movie could live up to it. I mean, we were making the picture in the unenviable world of ultra-low-budget, the Ed Wood universe. Perhaps if I had had a little more money and a little more time — plus some greater control over the cutting — I could’ve come closer to delivering on the promise of the trailer. Apologies to anyone who felt completely let down.
UB: You might be being a little hard on yourself, Jack. I enjoyed the film, recognising the limitations imposed by budget and time constraints — and many feel it is one of The Asylum’s best. At the very least it was entertaining. Sure, many fans wanted more — of the monsters in particular. Yet even big budget SFX films that offer more than enough end up being soundly criticised — early reviews of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are castigating it for being too extravagant with its giant robots! Perhaps you could expand on the notion of ultra-low budget limitations and what that forces on you? Recognising the limitations, what do you do to get as close as possible to the result you want?
JP: Thank you. I’m glad it entertains. The problem with working in the ultra-low-budget world particularly when it comes to a big FX-driven picture like this is … well, NO MONEY FOR FX! I mean, there’s some — but a verrrry small pot. It boils down to each FX shot having a dollar value assigned to it, so you wind up getting a couple dozen shots for the whole picture when something like 100 would be ideal. You try to spread it around and generate as much monster action as you can, but you always come up short. That’s why there’s so much re-use of the same shots over and over again. If you’re clever, you re-size those shots, “flop” em, or slow em down — anything to try to make more of what you’ve got. In some instances — and this is the fun stuff — you employ old-school special effects that are cheaper to produce than CGI. Like miniatures and forced perspective. I did this for the scene where the marine biologists discover the half-eaten whale on the beach. Normally it’d be a CGI comp shot, but we did it all “in-camera”, with a five-foot foam-rubber whale on a card table covered with sand. Then we sent the actors a block down the beach, lined up the two elements through the lens and got the shot. Many of my CGI-reared young crew members had never even seen an in-camera effect before, so for a second there I was like Houdini or something. It was actually one of my happiest moments on the show, because it reminded me of making Super-8 monster movies when I was a kid.
UB: What about other aspects of the production — casting, the editing process, sound? What problems did you have in these areas and how did you deal with them?
JP: Ordinarily a director has a lot to say about casting. In this world, no. The producers told me they’d cast Deborah and Lorenzo, so I rolled with it. I knew immediately that their personalities — individually and combined — would create a certain camp-response in the viewer, which was perfect as the title had set that tone from the outset. Both actors were old pros and knew what the picture was, so they embraced it and played their parts totally straight — which is what ultimately works best for camp. The second you start wink-winking and joking it becomes something else. Something less fun in my opinion.
The challenge of a 12-day shoot was remedied by minimizing the set-ups. Normally, when you have a lot of cast members and extras in a room — like the war room or submarine — you spend tons of time getting “singles” (individual shots) of everyone. The idea being that it gives you control in the cutting, can heighten suspense, etc. Actually, I hate “coverage”; to me it’s boring visually. And since I didn’t have the time to run around getting all those singles anyway, I created a lot of deep focus compositions where everyone fit nicely into one frame. As long as the actors knew their lines (and they mostly did) you could control the pace and run a whole scene without cutting. Unfortunately, I went into pre-production on another film while this film was being edited and as a consequence a number of choices were made that I think hurt the overall pacing. I mean, I wanted the thing to fly, and in earlier cuts it really moved fast. On the other hand, I think given their own limitations the music composer and sound effects techs did an incredible job. Their work sounds big and bold and enhances the picture tremendously.
UB: One question that is always of interest to me relates to a statement of yours earlier — that you’d seen every “jumbo atomic mutation flick ever made”. As you’ve no doubt realised, I’m a tad obsessed by the Really Big Monster subgenre and find myself (when commenting on it) veering from pretentious analysis of the underlying metaphors to reveling in the sheer awesomely destructive fun of an impossible behemoth on a rampage. What’s been the appeal of these films for you? Which ones are your favourites?
JP: I can’t tell you how much it genuinely pleases me to converse with a Really Big Monster scholar such as yourself. For me the genre is totally deserving of in-depth analysis. I guess the appeal begins with the fact that the first movies I ever saw were of the giant monster variety – The ’33 King Kong, Destroy All Monsters, Beginning of the End, Tarantula, Reptilicus, The Giant Claw, Them! — all Saturday afternoon matinees on television. The imagery was so powerful, so fantastic; the destruction so literally earth-shattering. The stuff resonated beyond all measure, cutting a giant monster love-groove right into my brain. Maybe if I had been exposed to Bergman or Antonioni when I was seven years old, I wouldn’t be such a geek. I mean, I love both those guys now, but there’s a special place in my heart reserved for Gordon Douglas and Bert I. Gordon, Willis O’Brien and Eiji Tsuburaya. And I still enjoy watching all those films as an adult. They’re operatic, truly sensational movies. Again, maybe that’s why it was so easy helming Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus. If I had to pick a couple favorites, which is hard, I’d have to say the original Kong and Them! Mainly because both possess such strong atmosphere and real emotion. Then again, I also love The Amazing Colossal Man, which is pretty kooky.
UB: Yeah, the two Colossal Man films are a lot of fun — and my favourite from Mr BIG’s dodgy oeuvre. I have no trouble loving, and finding meaning in, King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Them! — and especially the whole daikaiju eiga genre of Japan (particularly as good, untampered-with versions with subtitles are available on DVD these days) — while simultaneously appreciating and more sporadically loving Bergman and Antonioni (and Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Kubrick etc.). I have to admit, though, that if I were going to be stuck on a desert island and could only take a limited number of films, a slew of those giant monster flicks would be on the top of the list and other more mainstream “greats” might have to elbow themselves onto the solar-powered Compact DVD Viewer as best they could.
So, Jack, tell us something of your pre-Mega Shark filmic background?
JP: My first feature was America’s Deadliest Home Video starring Danny Bonaduce and Melora Walters, which has taken on a kind of cult status, since it was the first thriller to employ the “entirely through the lens” documentary design later popularized by Man Bites Dog, The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. But I’ve been really lucky to make a number of films in a variety of genres — some highly personal, others just for the experience. A revisionist private eye movie called The Big Empty (1997) and my south-of-the-border noir, La Cucaracha (1998), starring Eric Roberts and Joaquim de Almeida, are probably my most personal independent features. But I also directed the pilot for Xena: Warrior Princess for Renaissance Pictures, Wild Things 2 for Sony, and actually managed to get my valentine to stop-motion-animated monster flicks — and atomic mutation movies in general — Monster Island (starring Adam West and Carmen Electra) made over at MTV. I wish more people had seen the latter; the MTV audience was too young to appreciate nods to The Deadly Mantis, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Dinosaurus!
UB: I notice that Monster Island is available on DVD (released in 2005). I just ordered a copy from Amazon. I look forward to checking it out. You say that The Big Empty and La Cucaracha are your most personal independent features. Both noir, I assume. Is that a genre you’d like to explore further?
JP: Thanks for checking out MI — I know you’ll get all the references; hope you enjoy it. Re: Noir — yes, it’s a genre I have great passion for and return to more than any other. Maybe it’s because I’m a moody person, but I’ve always been attracted to dark stories and haunted characters – vulnerable misfits trying to navigate a harsh world. The Big Empty (not to be confused with the Jon Favreau pic done a few years later) is my best expression of the genre to date. And I never grow tired of the stark atmosphere of noir, the brutality and the black humor. La Cucaracha was described by one reviewer as “Like a Noir by Sergio Leone”, which I love.
UB: Giant monsters and noirish detectives, eh? Ever considered joining the two into a noir giant monster epic? I guess the original Gojira had a noirish feel. Not surprising as director Ishiro Honda worked on some of his buddy Akira Kurosawa’s noir films, in particular one of my favourites — Stray Dog (1949) (as the Great Man’s chief assistant director). Several of his own non-giant monster scifi films display a definite noir influence — The Human Vapor and The H-Man especially. Maybe you could introduce a noir detective into the sequel to Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus. Speaking of which, what are the chances of a sequel?
JP: Cool idea. You’re absolutely right about Honda invoking his great mentor in H-Man and The Human Vapor. And yeah, Gojira is totally noir — super stark. It’s actually a natural choice considering the evolution of the genre — taking the deep shadows and extreme moods of 30s Universal Horror pictures (Frankenstein, Dracula, etc) and carrying ’em over into the giant mutation flicks of the 50s. Again, that’s why Them! strikes a particular chord with me. Also The Deadly Mantis and The Black Scorpion. All black-and-white and extremely atmospheric. I mean, that silhouetted night-train attack sequence in Scorpion is absolutely horrifying because of its noir design. Also, I recently showed Gorgo to my wife and was amazed by the atmospheric photography by Freddie Young (who shot Lawrence of Arabia!). Though color, the mood is overwhelming. And Gorgo comes off all the more real and threatening as a result.
In general, I love the collision of genre — it’s invigorating. You become like a mad scientist, mixing things together that don’t ordinarily go. Sometimes it blows up in your face, but sometimes you make something totally new and baddass. Inserting a P.I. into a horror scenario’s a cool one — it worked with Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart. Why not with a big sucker?
Re: a Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus sequel — it’s being considered. But I’d only wanna do it if I have a bit more control and can really deliver the goods, monster-wise.
UB: Earlier you mentioned that you went into pre-production for another film at the end of Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus‘ post-production. Can you tell us about that? What’s coming up for you? Do you have any projects you’d particularly like to undertake in the foreseeable future — or even beyond that?
JP: The picture I’m beginning is called Shotgun Wedding. Guess what? It’s a Noir! A pro-gay-marriage, lesbian shoot-em-up Noir. Stylistically, it’s pretty extreme — think Blue Velvet erupting into a John Woo movie. Hopefully I can get it completely off the ground soon. Beyond that, I have a number of projects in the hopper ranging from a character-driven comedy to a western to a post-apocalyptic animated series. I’d also love to do a World War 2 horror pic, along the lines of the old Weird War comics. I’m working now with filmmakers Josh Becker and Gary Jones putting together a company to make low budget sci-fi and horror stuff along the lines of Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, but with greater creative freedom and hopefully a little piece of the back end.
UB: That all sounds really exciting, Jack. Lots of fascinating ideas. “Blue Velvet erupting into a John Woo movie”! A post-apocalyptic animated series! A Weird War horror pic! It’s all the sort of stuff I like. And the prospect of another company dedicated to producing giant monster (and other) genre flicks … that fills the heart with hope! Good luck with all those — and I trust you’ll keep us informed as these projects progress. Meanwhile, thank you so much for spending the time to talk to me — it’s been great.
JP: The pleasure’s all mine, Rob — I had a blast. And I’ll certainly keep you posted on everything coming up. Meantime, I’ll continue devouring your awesome site. Take care!
Check out Part Two of Straight From the Mega Shark’s Mouth: An Interview with Jack Perez for a Director’s Reel, a video profile and other goodies.
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