The shark movie has become a staple horror subgenre ever since audiences heard those two notes of John Williams’ daunting Jaws score in 1975.
Forty-plus years later, there have been many additions to the B movie tradition, some good (Deep Blue Sea), some bad (Shark Swarm), and some inexplicable (Sharknado), but in 2018 The Meg proved that they can still be a box office hit.
The Jason Statham-led shark movie – centred on a mammoth, 70-foot sea creature believed to have been extinct for millions of years – made a staggering £415 million at the international box office making it one of Warner Bros’ most profitable original films of the year.
So what makes a shark movie a box office hit? The Meg director Jon Turteltaub gives us the lowdown in his own words… Spoilers ahead.
Know the genre
Jon Turteltaub: Like every movie, you have to first understand the genre and what people expect. Then you focus on a good story with good characters. Sometimes you succeed, and sometimes you don’t. You don’t run away from the cliches, you lean into them. I think audiences expect them and like them.
With a shark movie, you better see that fin, you better see under the water legs dangling – we love all that stuff and we want to see people dying in really cool ways. That’s what you expect and why you’re going to these movies.
Suspense is key
First of all, you want to set deaths up so the audience is not sure if it’s going to happen or not. You don’t necessarily want these to come out of nowhere. The start of these movies is the suspense so the person in the water instantly gives you that sense of “oh no.”
The worry about what’s going to happen is actually more interesting and enjoyable for an audience than the death itself. Unless there are two people in the middle of getting married and they love each other and it eats one of them. There’s not that much emotion attached unless it’s one of your major lead characters otherwise you just like watching how they’re going to die but mostly are they going to die? What’s going to happen, what are the choices they make?
I really like the death of Dr Heller [in The Meg] because he chooses to die to save Jaxx. The shot of him dying, for me, it’s the most realistic shark shot in the movie because it’s more of how we see sharks rather than how movies see sharks.
The kill list
We really pondered this and that really starts with the writers. Have we killed too many people? Have we killed enough people? But a movie like this you are really paying attention to entertainment value. Nobody thought we were going to win a Nobel Prize when we made this movie, our job is to put on a really fun show so you’ve got to figure out not just how many people die, but who too.
What’s the price, what’s the cost? The more you love a character the more often it is for them to die but there is a point at which, when that character dies, the audience hates you. In our case, it’s a dog! A lot of people were telling me, “what was this dog doing in the movie, we have all these people to kill?” and all I could think of was people always care more about a dog than a person.
If there is a dog trapped in a building and you get him out everyone starts crying. If there is a person trapped in a building and you get him out the audience is like” oh cool, glad he’s safe.”
Making the shark
You have no idea what a complicated process that is because it’s more than having good ideas for the shark but finding those who can realise them. Getting everyone to agree on those ideas is hard too. Everyone has their own point of view, starting with the writers of the novel, to the producers who bought the novel, to the studio who is paying for the movie, then to me who just wants to do what I want to do.
That debate of “gigantic great white shark versus creating our own” went on for a long time and I’m glad I got the shark I wanted because I didn’t want the great white, that seemed very low budget for me. It looks like you took a regular great white shark and just made it bigger in the cheapest way possible rather than figuring out what a shark would have looked like millions of years ago, how it would have survived in the ocean and all that sort of stuff.
Balancing the visual effects
I feel, as a director, you have to make a decision and decide if you want to scare the audience because it’s real or do something that is really cool. I tend towards real; I want things to feel like real life rather than “look how cool this shot is how the camera can jump off the boat and go through the shark’s mouth and come out the gills” and all that stuff.
With visual effects, you can do that, and there are directors who are amazing at doing all that, but for me, I tend to get pulled out of a movie when I can see the director’s hand showing me how cool they are. So I try to create images that feel more real because when you do that it makes the shark look more real and one of the things we talked about was to never let the shark do something that the shark wouldn’t do.
Levity is a must
That was super important to me. Our approach was very tricky because we tried to thread the needle with the notion that the characters in the movie have seen shark movies in their lives. Let’s not pretend they don’t know the cliches or have seen movies like this so you can lean in a little bit to the humour.
Let the characters be funny in these extreme situations. I had people saying “do you want it real or do you want it funny?” I don’t know the difference. That’s part of life.
More than a hero
We knew we needed the guy who you could believe was a badass hero and could save the day. Jason [Statham] for me took care of the first part, which is much harder to find than you think, but we wanted a person who when you walk in a room you feel safer. You feel like everything is going to be OK and Jason brings that too.
He also brings the counterpoint of a sense of humour. He had done a bit of comedy in his movie but he’s never, with the exception of Spy, he’s never been asked to do too much and I think that’s a mistake. You want to believe these super macho guys have another side to them.
Sequels usually suck and try to outdo the first one where there’s a bigger shark, ninety sharks, or a poisonous shark and that’s not what audiences want to see. They want to see a really good story that they couldn’t think of themselves.
But now that I’ve said it, poisonous sharks sound really cool.
The Meg is available on Digital Download now and on DVD and Blu-Ray from December 10.