News Column

The Evolution of a Cult Movie

August 22, 2013

YellowBrix

SHARKNADO

The first time Thunder Levin was approached to write the script for a project that ultimately morphed into this summer's TV sensation, he turned it down.

"I had done another movie for The Asylum, the production company, that everybody was happy with and they came to me and said, 'We want you to do this thing called 'Shark Storm,' and I was like, 'Haven't we seen this 100 times already?' " Levin says. "It was more of a straightforward thing and I wasn't interested."

About a month later, though, The Asylum folks returned with a different proposal. "They said, 'What we really want you to do is a movie called 'Sharknado.' And I thought they said "SharkNATO." I was like, 'What do sharks have to do with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? Are they invading Europe or something?' I'm not making that up. And they said, 'No, no. Sharknado, a tornado full of sharks.' They gave me a half a page of notes and I said, 'This is the craziest thing I've ever heard of and as long as I can have fun with it, I would love to do it.' And fortunately, that was the approach they wanted to take."

"Sharknado" -- a Syfy original movie that gets its fourth airing at 7 tonight (leading into the new Syfy movie "Ghost Shark") -- is a phenomenon. During its July 11 premiere, it generated an average of 5,000 tweets per minute. And each time Syfy has aired "Sharknado," viewership has risen: from 1.4 million to 1.9 million to 2.1 million. Syfy has already ordered a sequel, to be set in New York City and slated to air next July. The title, Sharknado 2: The Second One."

"Nobody could have expected this level of a reaction. We're all blown away by this," Levin says. "I mean, I liked the script. I thought it was going to be a lot-of-fun movie. And when the poster was released back in November, the buzz sort of started, because it was such a simple, sort of obvious fun thing. And once I saw the marketing campaign was gonna have fun with it the way I had when I was writing it, I was very hopeful ... but what happened on Twitter that night, and since, it's just incredible. ... And now it's feeding on itself. It's just amazing."

The tone of Levin's writing in "Sharknado" is no doubt a factor in the movie's success. As Time's TV columnist James Poniewozik wrote, "Really, it's a deceptively tough feat that the makers of 'Sharknado' pulled off: making a movie that's shlockily and campily hilarious without seeming to try too hard to make something shlockily and campily hilarious."

In the movie, sharks suddenly start dropping from the skies, crashing into signs and windows and pools and swimming through the streets of Los Angeles, attacking humans willy-nilly. The regulars of a beachside bar unite to save themselves and investigate the ecological nightmare behind this relentless barrage. This not-so- merry band includes bar owner Fin Shepard (Ian Ziering of "Beverly Hills, 90210"), his ex-wife April Wexler (Tara Reid, "American Pie"), bartender Nova Clarke (Cassie Scerbo) and local drunk George (John Heard, "Home Alone"), who, at one point, uses a bar stool to fend off a shark.

Fin's brigade has more success with shotguns, revolvers, big sticks, bombs, pickaxes -- and one very powerful chain saw. In one comically preposterous scene, Ziering's Fin flies into the mouth of a shark with that whirring saw, then cuts his way out of the beast' and emerges -- bloody but triumphant.

Athough the casting was genius, Levin takes no credit for that. "I didn't really have any known actors in mind when I wrote it," he says. "And then, I wasn't involved in the casting process."

He does, however, claim responsibility for the references to "Jaws," including the line "We're gonna need a bigger chopper" (a reworking of "You're gonna need a bigger boat").

" 'Jaws' is one of my favorite movies, and I think if you're doing a shark movie, you're required to pay homage to it," says Levin.

Only recently did he learn how "Shark Storm" morphed into "Sharknado."

"Apparently, The Asylum and Syfy were simultaneously developing sharks-in-a-storm movies. And they discovered [this] and decided to combine them and Syfy had the better title in "Sharknado" (said to have been inspired by a throwaway joke in the 2012 Syfy original movie "Leprechaun's Revenge," which was written by Anthony C. Ferrante, who went on to direct "Sharknado").

"Sharknado"-level success has been a long time coming for Levin (whose first name really is Thunder).

"I grew up in New York City, went to film school at NYU and then came out here with my student film under my arm and knocked on Hollywood's door. And Hollywood kind of roundly ignored me," Levin says. "And I spent 20 years, really trying, as a director and a writer."

He started out wanting to direct, and was advised to "write a script that somebody wants to make, and then attach yourself as the director." And so, he wrote a bunch of scripts, always getting "just enough attention to not give up, to think that the next one was gonna be the one ... until finally ... I decided to make my own films."

And so, he raised money from private investors to make a tongue- in-cheek zombie flick called "Mutant Vampire Zombies from the Hood!" (available on Netflix). While it did not get great distribution, Levin could take it to production companies to show what he could do. "And that led to some jobs with The Asylum and that led to 'Sharknado.' And that hopefully will lead to bigger and better things."

Like "Sharknado 2"? That's still in negotiations, but it seems likely that Levin will be writing (and possibly also directing?) the sequel.

Since New York and New Jersey are neighbors, will sharks rain down on Bergen County?

"You mean they don't already?" Levin quips. "Obviously, there's gonna have to be stuff with New York landmarks. But we just haven't really discussed in any great detail yet what's gonna happen."

Better get the chainsaw.

A review of "Ghost Shark" is on BL-8.

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