You either get it, or you sit back in bewilderment and wonder how anyone could derive enjoyment from such an enterprise. As polarizing as the “Sharknado” experience may be, one thing you have to grant is the legitimacy of the franchise. This Sunday will deliver the fourth iteration of the cyclonic action series, and it has morphed into a summer tradition for many.
Ask ten people why they enjoy the films so much, and you are liable to get uniform answers: “It’s just so ridiculous that it’s funny!” But press these fans more, and ask them to describe what about this bad film appeals to them so much, and you are liable to get 10 differing answers. For last year’s edition (“Sharknado 3: Oh Hell NO!”) I wrote at length about the mystique that led to the phenomenon, and it was something not only unclear to fans but also the filmmakers.
For this installment, there is built-in intrigue. How will they top the over-the-top action? Will Tara Reid make the final cut? And just how will they justify a shark-choked storm system in the desert? (This year’s entry is set in Las Vegas.) Much of the media focus will be on the stars and plethora of guest appearances, with David Hasselhoff drawing most of the star wattage on an endless string of cameos. I’m more focused on the thought and efforts behind the origins of these offerings.
One of the primary reasons I savor bad films is fascination with their creation. If the disaster is the result of ineptitude, then one can catalogue the amateurish missteps during its formulation. The “Sharknado” series is an intentional gaffe, where a studio aims for the ludicrous and delivers uproarious results. I reached out to the source to get a feel for what it is like to craft a film most think lacks craftsmanship.
Not An Artisanal Film Production
“A strategy? No, nothing like that,” screenwriter Thunder Levin answered when I asked if he or the studio had a game plan for these titles. “We barely had a concept in place for the first two movies. But when the second film went on to break the ratings records for The SyFy Channel, we were pressed to then come up with more material.”
The infamous studio aptly named The Asylum delivers the Sharknado franchise. Approaching its twentieth anniversary, the discount studio has found a lasting business model in producing basic cable movies and feeding the (once-robust) DVD market with “mockbusters”—productions that mirror major theatrical releases. One recent example: An animated kids’ tale about a traveling fish, titled “Izzie’s Way Home.”
Three summers back, The Asylum team thought they had just delivered another in a long line of creature features for the cable network. Then the Internet blew up. The premiere of the first Sharknado film in 2013 created an unforeseen online firestorm of interest.
“I’ll tell you how surprised I am,” Producer David Latt said in one interview. “I don’t even understand this now—after the release. What is the story here? Why is everyone interested?” The Twitter uprising soon led to encore showings, higher ratings, and calls for a sequel. As a sign of the cultural impact, the Sharknado production team now regularly treks to the San Diego ComiCon to promote the films.
I asked Levin what it has been like to not only generate scripts at a regular pace but with the added pressure of needing to be more outlandish each summer. “The shooting schedule is quite narrow. And with all of the hype and interest, the truth is we are actually running to catch up,” he said.
Being a smaller player in Hollywood fosters a collaborative ethic in the productions. This means it is not simply a case of an author selling a script and banking the check. “I’ve been on set for the first three films,” Levin said. “I’ve had to do rewrites and help in other ways.”
This also has led to screen time for the screenwriter. However, it saddens me to report that Thunder will not be reprising his role from “Sharknado 3” of Mr. Benchley, a nod to the author of the “Jaws” novel.
The Curse of Too Much
Along with tight timing and the need to top being over-the-top, there is another challenge in scripting this series. The surge in popularity means hordes of acting talent from various celebrity strata seek to get in the films. Promotional trailers tout the appearance of Hasselhoff and “Everyone else who said ‘Yes’!” That large participation rate is another reason Levin is more involved with the shooting.
“I do have to write the scripts now with an eye towards creating opportunities for those appearances. I will make roles for a specific actor ahead of time, but there are always late casting decisions made as well,” he said. “That leads to rewrites to make room for them. Sometimes the original actor intended for a role will have to back out, and just as often we will get a surprise addition, so I have places throughout a script where a new arrival can be given a part.”
Then there is the problem of too much talent: “Once we were out on a remote location and discovered we had two such actors show up to play the same character.” That’s the kind of work needed for an on-the-fly production. “We got together, and it was decided that I would have to rewrite on the spot, and create a completely new character so we could fit both of actors in. Except we were in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t have my computer, and there was no desk, and nothing to actually write on,” Levin said.
Fans should appreciate the lengths some artists will go to deliver the goods. “I brought my dog with me to the set that day. He had just completed filming a scene, in fact. I had to call him over and make him ‘stay’ so I could quickly write out a few new pages right there — on his back.” Now that is the kind of dedication that leads to three sequels.
Sunday The SyFy Channel hosts a shark movie marathon, including all four movies of the franchise, culminating with the world premiere of “Sharknado 4: The Fourth Awakens,” at 8 p.m. EST.