If certain genre-heavy filmmakers exude a cool, self-serious air of entitlement and others chiefly a geek-made-good enthusiasm, John Gulager is the even more striking exception to these poles — a guy who’s at once painfully shy and yet also gregarious and giving in private, talented but frumpy, and kind of shocked that he’s getting to live out his dream. After winning the directorial competition for the third season of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s “Project Greenlight,” Gulager (the son of actor Clu Gulager) lent his talents to the low-budget “Feast” horror films. Now, after a bit of a break, he’s getting even crazier, in the form of “Piranha 3DD,” a schlocky sequel to 2010’s surprise August hit, in which David Hasselhoff pops up as a celebrity lifeguard and many folks pay the price for the profit-happy motivations of a sleazy water park owner (David Koechner). For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had a chance to catch up with the amiable Gulager one-on-one, chatting about practical versus CGI special effects, working in 3-D, spray tans, and his hopes for his next film. The conversation, held over coffee and one of the rubbery, giant, blood-covered piranhas used in his movie, is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Your other work, on the “Feast” films, leans a bit more heavily on these sorts of practical special effects. When you’re looking at the script and budget for “Piranha 3DD,” its CGI elements, and having back-and-forth discussions, how much of it centers around a breakdown of effects, or did that influence the movie even in its scripting?
John Gulager: Well, when we write the script it’s always bigger, let’s say that. And then as we get closer and closer, it gets smaller. So it just depends on how big you made it in the first place to what ends up in the final shoot. We had a few more giant explosions of things that ended up leaving, but the basic premise of actually having physical fish stayed throughout.
ShockYa: Given your druthers, which would you rather work in more?
JG: I like both. We actually scanned the physical fish like this that we made, so that we could make digital fish that looked like rubber ones, which is kind of interesting. I like the physical ones, too, so we did both. But with the physical fish you can only do one or two at a time, because there’s a guy down there in a scuba outfit, like, making them move around and all this stuff. And then that becomes part of our joke, in a way. Usually piranhas are in a big swarm, but [in our] movie we kind of re-enact the typical shark attack instead, with a piranha. So all these things, to us, are hysterically funny when we’re writing them and making it, but I’m not sure if they’re that way to the audience. I watched another movie that came out a little bit earlier than us and they have some of the exact same things, but with real sharks. But that’s played straight and ours is a comedy, and I think it works better as a comedy.
ShockYa: You shot the movie on location in Wilmington. Was that your first time in North Carolina?
JG: No, when I was a kid I was little Jake in a production of “Annie Get Your Gun” in the largest tent theater in the world, in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, outside of [Asheville]. And there’s also a place called Ghost Mountain that my dad (Clu Gulager) used to do personal appearances at, so we used to live there for like two weeks at a time. And as a kid I almost fell off this ski lift-type thing that would take you up and down. My time [in the Carolinas] is mostly from when I was a kid, but Wilmington was great. We had a lot of surfers on our crew, so they’d go out surfing before work. The crews are great. They ran everywhere, and were so glad to be working. I was sort of shocked at first, and then I really appreciated how hard they worked.
ShockYa: After “Cold Mountain,” which was this hugely successful novel that was set in the state but filmed in Romania because it was cheaper, I think they finally got their act together with the state film commission’s tax incentive rebate program.
JG: Yeah, well everybody’s there right now. I know “Iron Man 3” is going there. And I know two people that are making two separate films there. One is (“Saw” director) James Wan and one is (“Saw” editor and “Saw 3-D” director) Kevin Greutert. It’s funny, they’re making different movies, but both in Wilmington, so the tax credit thing really is a big boon. I’m not sure about this Amendment 1 passage (rewriting the state constitution to explicitly ban gay marriage), but as far as the laidback quality of Wilmington, a lot of people from here — like camera guys and stuff — were thinking about moving there, because it’s just a nice place.
ShockYa: How much of an adjustment was working in 3-D for the first time, specifically in terms of crafting a visual style? Audiences experience it after the fact, whether a movie is post-converted or shot in 3-D, but I would imagine it would change some of the vocabulary and look you’re trying to build for a film.
JG: Some of it. I think it changed how we did shot, because everything was so heavy and big — it’s like two cameras in one, and then for the underwater stuff you have housing around it and everything. It’s heavy enough that it has to be on a techo-crane or some sort of dolly system, you can’t just carry it around. Well, I have a friend that has done Steadicam with 3-D, in Russia and stuff like that, but I guess it’s just pretty crazy. We didn’t have a Steadicam anyways. We did a little bit of handheld with a smaller system called SI, or silicone imaging cameras, but mostly everything was more classically oriented, if you could call “Piranha 3DD” a classical look.
ShockYa: And have you been enthused by the 3-D presentation thus far?
JG: When I got there last night (at the press screening) to set the sound volumes and everything they had the wrong key for the DCP (digital cinema package), and they couldn’t open it. They had the wrong date on it. And so (since) they’re trying to keep some kind of semblance of security with all this digital stuff it took them about half an hour to get the right thing from Technicolor and Dimension, and they had to be in synch so they knew it wasn’t someone trying to steal it. I guess that stuff happens. A friend of mine who was a projectionist at the Sunset 5 the night it closed down told me that just now the amount of digital cinemas versus film cinemas in the world had tipped to digital, and I believe that all the theaters in North Hollywood, the new Laemmles, were all digital. He used to run all the projectors at the Sunset 5, one after another, and now it’s going to be a guy who comes in and sits at a console and programs the whole week — the lights going down, the curtains opening, the things showing — and then he’ll leave. So it’s going to be a different experience.
ShockYa: As a filmmaker, do you feel like you have a horse in that race?
JG: (sighs) I don’t know, I love film but at the same time as the digital gets better and better… I have a romantic link with film, and so far I still like the film versions of a lot of cinema that I see. But everything I’ve done has been on digital for one reason or another — usually money. I think once they got the 3-D cameras up to a certain technical level, it’s just easier.
ShockYa: Danielle Panabaker, your leading lady, came on to the movie right before shooting. What were your impressions of her?
JG: The first time I met Danielle, she and Katrina (Bowden) walked up and said, “Can we go get spray tans?” I don’t know anything about spray tans — look at me — and I said, “Well, is that normal?” And they said, “Yeah, we get them all the time, it’ll look natural,” so I said, “OK, have at it.” So that was my first meeting, my big-time filmmaking decision.
ShockYa: When you’re making a genre film like this that winks at the audience and has a knowing sense of self, is it tough keeping everyone on the same page, tonally, or in the case of “Piranha 3DD” is it really just all right there in the title?
JG: A lot of people who were cast are strangely similar to who they play. Danielle is very much all business, and some of the other kids were very similar to their characters in the film. Matt Bush is just the nicest guy — I mean, strangely nice. I actually tried to get him to spray a hose in these girls’ faces, and he just couldn’t do it, you know? [laughs] He had to veer it off to the side, and I’m going, “No, no, hit ’em in the face!”
ShockYa: Were you able to abscond with one of the “Getting You Wet Since 1981” T-shirts (featured in the movie’s water park)?
JG: Yes! I have T-shirts, I have the banners that say, “No one gets you wetter!” from the park’s grand opening, and one with the two big breasts that says something like “The Wet Spot,” for the bar. I have those, I might have stolen them. And a bunch of the little blue men’s bathing suits. Oh, and the disco ball! I think you should take something from every movie.
ShockYa: So what movie will you be taking things from next?
JG: Well, I’m trying to make this noir movie, and it’s really hard to get it [going] because it’s kind of the opposite of “Piranha 3DD.” It’s dark and slow and really super gory and over-the-top that way, but with no music. It’s like “Dog Day Afternoon” meets “The Last House on the Left.” And I also have a Western, but whenever you want to make one it’s always out of fashion, until someone makes one. I know Quentin [Tarantino]’s making “Django Unchained,” but it’s totally different than that, too. Then there are horror films, of course. My noir film is a horror film, but more on the Grand Guignol side, instead of monsters or whatever, except for some dreams. But I don’t know — I think you just have to keep putting your foot forward.
Written by: Brent Simon