The Story Behind Piranha 3D


If you swam by this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, you’ll no doubt have noticed some giant film posters being driven round town on the backs of trucks.

One such poster screamed in blood red letters “Too Hot For Comic-Con!”, and featured giant, razor sharp teeth enveloping the flick’s unforgettable title: Piranha 3D .

Yes, Comic-Con had booted the 3D threequel from its planned appearance in the historic Hall H, deciding that the footage wasn’t suitable for audiences.

“The convention told me I couldn't show this and I couldn't show that and it had to be family friendly,” explains French director Alexandre Aja. “I said: ‘What are you talking about - it is Comic-Con?’”

Refusing to water his film down for the masses, Aja stood his ground, and winded up showing some footage outside of the convention centre.

“I could not come back with PG-13 footage because no one would take me seriously,” he says. “I showed them the original cut that I wanted to show and they said no way because I had people flashing all the time and it is a blood bath from beginning to end. So we would have had to tone it down and not show anything.”

The Con’s refusal to give Piranha 3D a spot, however, sent a clear message to audiences: this flick is bad-ass. Considering it's a much-belated sequel to two decidedly soggy B movies, audiences were always going to be reserved. Clearly, though, Aja’s film has bite.

Piranha is a big disaster movie and we have so many characters, so many actors, so many extras,” stresses the director. “Everything is taking place during the most crazy, insane spring break you can imagine…”

Alright, let’s go fishing…

Next: Origin Of The Species [page-break]

Origin Of The Species

It’s 1978. Three years since Jaws single-finnedly – and quite accidentally – created the summer blockbuster. Everybody’s looking for their next big hit. And legendary underground producer Roger Corman wants in.

Along with fledgling director Joe Dante, Corman dreamed up the perfect companions to Jaws ’ serious shark fear – hundreds of little spiky-teethed menaces. If Jaws made you afraid to go into the water, Piranha would have you running for the hills.

"I think there is a universal interest in this type of film," Corman said while promoting the film’s recent release on DVD. "People like the fact that a low-budget film such as Piranha can come out and sort of compete with the big boys.

“When it came out, we were in theaters and we were grossing in many theaters, particularly drive-ins, but also the hard-tops as well, figures that were comparable to what the major studios were doing. People feel a little bit affectionate toward the underdog."

Movie myth even has it that Universal attempted to sue Piranha -backing studio New World Pictures for ripping off Jaws , such was the flick's success. But their plans to move ahead with legal action were scuppered when Steven Spielberg admitted he was a fan of the mini munchers.

“I've heard that,” Corman shrugs. “I have no idea whether it's true or not. I would doubt it, but if it's true I'm happy to hear it.”

Set in a summer resort, 1978's Piranha follows a group of holidayers as their vacation turns into a nightmare when flesh-eating fish find their way into the resort’s rivers.

Made in just 30 days for a rumoured budget of $660,000, it starred the likes of Barbara Steele and Dick Miller. The piranhas were rubber puppets attached to the end of sticks…

For director Joe Dante, Piranha proved a stressful experience - he refused to leave the editing room until he was happy with the final product.

“I spent a month in the editing room trying to save what I thought was a complete disaster,” he remembers. “I didn't even go to my wrap party. I was chained to the Moviola. Slept in the editing room.

“And it was just me, trying to, you know, ‘Is it better when it's eight frames of this, or better when it's three frames?’ It got to that point. People told me, ‘Oh, I came in to see you when you were editing, and you said “Hello”, but you didn't know who I was,’ and literally, I was in a fog. It was a strange experience.”

Next: Piranha 3D [page-break]

Piranha 3D

It’s 2004. Remakes are all the rage. Horror is having its back catalogues ravaged for reboots, sequels and re-dos. High Tension helmer Alexandre Aja gets sent a script for a film called Piranha In Lake Havasu . He likes the idea, but opts to make The Hills Have Eyes first.

Fast forward to a few years later, and the concept of a third big screen Piranha flick again floats to the surface – this time, with original director Chuck Russell having abandoned ship, Aja jumps into it head first.

But he’s not interested in just another remake…

Piranha is not a remake, period,” he says. “It’s not the same story, it’s not the same character and not the same piranha. It’s a completely different movie. So, it was not about remaking it.

“It was more like the right timing to do that kind of movie. I never think about what people want to see. Me, as a moviegoer, before being a filmmaker, I try to think about what movie I would like to see.”

This new script, penned by Sorority Row writer Josh Solberg alongside Peter Goldfinger, centres on Spring Break – that bubblegum American celebration that generally consists of wild partying and good times had.

Of course, this being a film about killer fish, the revellers merely act as unwitting bait for some vicious water-dwelling creatures, who are attracted by all the commotion - and spy a payload dinner in the boozers.

“When I read the first draft six years ago, of piranha attacking during Spring Break, I thought, ‘This is exactly the fun ride I want to watch,’” says Aja.

“We rewrote the script with Greg Levasseur and we created a story where we have all these characters, and we reinvented the ‘80s guilty pleasure movie. It’s a summer movie where we’re delivering on every level.”

Tonally, Aja decided to move away from the more straight-down-the-line feel of the original two Piranha s. Piranha 3D knows the concept’s daft, and decides to swim downstream with it instead of battling against the current for credibility.

“It's completely different from anything else that I've ever done before and it's very, very dark funny. It's scary as well,” Aja assures audiences. “We are much more on the The Frighteners, Braindead, Gremlins side than like the other movies before. We are completely throwing popcorn.”

Paul Scheer, who plays a website entrepreneur alongside Jerry O’Connell (their Wild Wild Girls site is a haven for those who like babes to be all-but bikini-less), completely agrees:

“This is the most accessible Alex Aja movie that doesn't lose any of the cool shit that you love from his movies,” he says. “ High Tension is frightening and I think this movie will have those types of moments but you have all these other moments as well.”

Next: The New Linda Hamilton [page-break]

The New Linda Hamilton

Heading up the fish fodder are mother and son duo Elisabeth Shue and Steven McQueen. One’s a former ‘80s go-to-girl. The other’s the grandson of some Hollywood icon (can you guess which?).

Together, they introduce us to their drowsy home town, near the Mojave-skirting Lake Victoria, where every year thousands of partygoers descend to get, well, shagged.

Don’t expect Shue to show up as her usual poofy-haired lovey, though – she’s the sheriff of this town, and she dreads Spring Break every year.

“I wanted like a very tough sheriff for this town, someone believable and someone sexy at the same time,” says Aja. “Shue had, at first, a very great physical condition. She's a big tennis player, but she really trained to be that new Linda Hamilton. She's impressed me in the situation and everything.”

Shue even has an on-set fan in the shape of Paul Scheer, who admits: “It was actually crazy, because when I first heard about this movie, it was like, ‘Elisabeth Shue is in Piranha 3D , she’s awesome!’”

Meanwhile, Steven McQueen swapped the fanged monsters of Mystic Falls in TV’s The Vampire Diaries – where he serves as a regular – for the even fangier monsters of Lake Victoria.

Next: Icon Central [page-break]

Icon Central

Alexandre Aja knows what he wants, eh? What if he wants Jaws star Richard Dreyfuss?

“When you write a character and you think about an idea...” begins the director. “When the idea for Richard Dreyfuss to play this part came to us, we couldn't imagine anyone else. The studio really supported us in that decision to get him. From the glasses, to the outfit, to everything you'll see.”

Wondering what Matt Hooper - the ichthyologist (fish specialist) first seen in Steven Spielberg’s iconic Jaws - has been doing since 1975? Well, look no further than Piranha 3D .

In a fun twist, and frankly an amazing coup for Aja’s film, Richard Dreyfuss agreed to reprise his role as Matt for the belated threequel.

“It's very funny because it's an unofficial, indirect sequel or spin-off [of his Jaws character],” chuckles Aja. “So, it's funny.”

For Jerry O’Connell, geekboy-first-actor-second, Dreyfuss’ involvement was just too good to be true.

“He was so game,” says O’Connell. “Personally, I thought he’s going to come here and be a little over the joke. I’m sure everyone makes Jaws references to him.

“But he came on and he was so into it. I found it to be very invigorating. We had been there for close to two months and the conditions were very hot and uncomfortable. He really invigorated me and I realized it was really something special.”

Adds Aja: “We were very shy to ask him about Jaws , but he was giving up everything about the experience. He came for two days and it was an amazing two days.”

Surely, with Dreyfuss sharing the screen with Ving Rhames (as no-bullshit Deputy Fallon) and Eli Roth (as a wet contest-prescribing partier) among others, the casting genius should stop there?

But Aja wanted more from his “post-modern cast”. For the part of piranha expert Mr. Goodman, he set his gaze on none other than Christopher Lloyd. And he got him.

“For our generation Christopher Lloyd is that kind of... I couldn't imagine anyone better than him to play that old adventurer that came back to Lake Victoria to open a pet store, but still passionate about preserving the species and stuff,” he says.

“We were shooting that scene last week and the way he lights up when he starts to be passionate about something, it's dark, there is no question. It just belongs to that kind of pop culture mix that we are trying to create here.”

So where does that leave O’Connell and Scheer, the two playboy vagabonds who want to capitalise on Spring Break for their Wild Wild Girls website?

“Jerry in the movie is the human piranha,” chuckles Aja. “He is like that other kind of predator on spring break. In the water you have piranhas and above you have Jerry’s character.”'

The pair, who are part of their very own internet viral campaign , get to have more fun than is probably legal.

“We did a lot of deep research to play these characters too,” deadpans Scheer.

O’Connell, meanwhile, is quick to assure fans that this will not be a dud horror:

“There are no doubts in my mind that all horror fans will be pleased with this movie. I’ve done a couple of horror movies. You can IMDB me and you can see there are a couple on there that are not fulfilling.

“And I apologise to everyone about that. That said, this is going to make up for all of that. It is going to shut everyone up. People will leave me alone. They will say, 'Jerry, sorry we left those comments about this particular film I don't want to talk about.'”

Next: It's A Girl's World [page-break]

It's A Girl's World

“Everyone is so nice!” says porn star Riley Steele. “We lucked out, there’s no prima-donnas. Everyone's very down to earth. You have breakfast, lunch and dinner with these people and you all begin to form a bond. We all carpooled on the way back from LA.”

What’s Spring Break without busty babes? A damn depressing place, of course - and considering the amount of flesh on display in the flick's trailer, Piranha 3D promises to be anything but.

Rounding out a cast that includes Gossip Girl ’s Jessica Szohr and British tabloid darling Kelly Brook, Riley Steele is a successful porn actress who is making her Hollywood debut with Piranha .

“Jessica is so sexy!” she enthuses, evidently revelling in her big screen role. “She has this energy about her that just instantly hooks you. Obviously you've seen the pics of how much fun Kelly and I are having on set.”

Speaking of… What do girls in horror movies do? Well, strip off of course! And Piranha 3D is no different. Except, it sort of is.

See, not only is there stripping off, there’s also some decidedly raunchy water-based loving going down ('hem). Yes, you’ll be seeing Brook and Steele getting it on underwater together, naked as the day they were born... IN 3D!

A few months back, tabloids revealed the saucy shenanigans when they spoke to Brook about her involvement in the film.

"I had to learn to hold my breath for a very long time," she teased, while Riley added: "It's not work when you get to kiss Kelly Brook. She's so hot."

Brook also boiled the film’s plot down for us, revealing that Piranha 3D is about "a lot of fish that eat a lot of buff boys and big-boobied girls". Cheers for clearing that up, love.

Next: Bite Size Baddies [page-break]

Bite Size Baddies

Jaws had Bruce. Piranha had rubber puppets on sticks. Neither of those were good enough for Aja's flesh-stripping bonanza, the director wanting super-sleek menaces in his fanged fishies.

While designing his piranhas, Aja first reached out to Joe Dante for advice. His only suggestion? "Even if you go with CG fish get some puppets."

In the end, most of the fish in the film are actually CGI. Which meant that research ended up being key. To perfect the piranhas' look, Aja working closely with legendary concept designer Neville Page, looking into deep sea creatures and prehistoric creatures that still exist today.

“Then we tried to think about the way they were two million years ago and how they were able to survive,” Aja says. “The design that we were able to create is a good mix between all the old species without losing what makes it a piranha - the size, not too big, the tooth shape.

“Then we were following some very logical elements like, they were [in this cave] for like a million years feeding on other species and killing each other. They would lose some senses like vision.

“That's a little bit of direction. And then, when you study the piranha you have a piranha that can jump a meter out of the water, three feet out of the water. We used all the kind of different skills you can find in nature.”

Next: Spring Break Massacre [page-break]

Spring Break Massacre

Piranha 3D 's crowning glory comes in the form of a massive 25 minute set piece that all involved subtitled The Spring Break Massacre.

Filming in Lake Havasu, which doubled for Victoria, the production utilised five cameras and just about every cast member for six days of filming that resulted in around 30 hours of destruction-soaked dailies - not to mention 5,000 gallons of fake blood.

Suffice to say, Lake Havasu remained ominously red for days after the last scream had echoed into a whisper.

“The Spring Break massacre, in this film, was a specific, huge set piece that’s 25 minutes, that I was really excited about,” enthuses Aja.

“The amount of blood came with the story. You have to be realistic. There is a little bit more than a gallon in a human being. If you have a few thousand people, that makes a lot of blood. I’m very realistic in my use of blood.”

Next: Something Fishy This Way Comes [page-break]

Something Fishy This Way Comes

It’s August 2010. Comic-Con has been and gone, and the footage that was screened off-site has horror fans in a tizzy. Finally, this Friday the malevolent menaces will be set loose in cinemas both sides of the pond… in 3D.

And yes, that’s post-conversion, for those wondering. But despite the stigma surrounding post-con 3D, Aja remains confident that his Piranha flick will blow all the competition out of the water. No stodgy Clash Of The Titans rush job here.

“The conversion is more expensive, much more work in post-production,” the director says. “You're basically shooting the movie in the traditional way thinking 3D and then the whole movie would be converted by computer.

“Without being presumptuous, I think the 3D experience on Piranha is going to be the best one that's ever made.”

Jerry O’Connell is psyched for the extra dimensions too, but for a reason that echoes the motivations of his lady-loving character…

“I didn't want to come off as perverted but this ballet scene they are doing in 3D - it is going to fucking blow your mind,” he says of a scene involving Kelly Brook shaking her thing. “It is crazy. That is going to be in 3D and it is going to go on and on and on. It is French people, they know what they are doing.”

So that’s Piranha 3D , but what about the future? We all know that Hollywood loves a sequel, and Piranha seems like the perfect model for more fishy follow-ups.

“It’s piranha. There were two movies before, and I’m sure there will be more after,” agrees Aja.

But would he go for another round in the water? “It depends on the story,” says the director. “It’s all about the story. If we find a great story, I would definitely do it.”

For now, he’s just happy to have completed his piranha resurrection. “We are going for the rollercoaster ride,” he enthuses. “We are here to spend an hour and half in the most insane world that we can imagine. The movie was funny even while writing. It's so in the vain of all those guilty pleasure movies that we had in the '80s.”

Chips with that?

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Josh Winning has worn a lot of hats over the years. Contributing Editor at Total Film, writer for SFX, and senior film writer at the Radio Times. Josh has also penned a novel about mysteries and monsters, is the co-host of a movie podcast, and has a library of pretty phenomenal stories from visiting some of the biggest TV and film sets in the world. He would also like you to know that he "lives for cat videos..." Don't we all, Josh. Don't we all.