Jaume Collet-Serra on Swimming with Blake Lively in The Shallows

The Orphan and Non-Stop director talks his new spin on the shark thriller with Blake Lively in The Shallows.

Born in Spain but working consistently in Hollywood since moving there at the age of 18, director Jaume Collet-Serra has established his career based on the action-thrillers he’s made with Liam Neeson, starting with 2011’s Unknown and carrying through to 2014’s Non-Stop, as wellas last year’s Run All Night. (His next movie The Commuter is also with Neeson.)

Collet-Serra changes things up a bit with his latest movie The Shallows, a shark thriller starring Blake Lively as a surfer trying to survive on a rock off the Mexican coast after she inadvertently disturbs a Great White shark in its feeding ground.

Having only finished the movie last week, it’s already looking according to early reviews like it might be the director’s best received film on our shores to date. Indeed, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a really strong shark movie, and there couldn’t be a better time to be releasing one.

Den of Geek had a chance to sit down with the Spanish filmmaker on the day of his New York junket earlier this week.

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Den of Geek: You probably know there’s been a long history of shark movies, some famous ones. What made you want to direct this one?

Jaume Collet-Serra: A few, I guess. I’ve heard of a couple. I’ve done many movies that have been categorized as subgenres, like you have Non-Stop, [which] is a subgenre of the plane movies, and this one is a shark movie. For me, it’s not choosing, “Oh, I’m going to do a plane movie” or “I’m going to do a shark movie.” I get into a project feeling like, “What can I bring to the project and what’s exciting for me? What’s going to challenge me? What’s going to hopefully make me a better director, a better person, and what fits in with my life as well?”

This movie had a lot of the elements that were interesting. It was a movie that was bright, had a lot of exterior. I had just come from doing Run All Night, which was all at night, many locations, and I wanted to do something that was a bit brighter, a bit more summer-like, a bit more for younger people, have a female protagonist, only one actor, with water, have a lot of visual FX.

I had never done a movie that had visual FX to this level. Even though this is the cheapest movie I’ve ever done, it’s the most ambitious movie. At the same time, it was a movie that was very clear from the studio that they wanted to just make it and release it within a year, and that’s actually rare these days. For a director to be told that is a plus, because you know that you’re going to work very hard, but you’re just going to be able to just do it, and that’s sometimes what we like instead of waiting for two years and changing release dates and things that happen all the time. The studio has obviously kept their promise and here we are.

It seems that at least recently you’ve been doing one movie a year so if they say they want to have a movie done in a year, you know you can get it done and move onto the next one.

I’m already shooting the next one. It’s not like I’m a workaholic. It’s just that I’m afraid that I will never work again, so I have to keep working before the wedding is over.

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Of the other movies opening this week, one director spent 10 years trying to get his movie made, and the other movie took 20 years to get made. It’s rare to have a movie that is started and finished in one year.

There are a few directors that obviously work every year, and there are other directors that don’t like working every year, because their process is different. I am of the directors that likes to work all the time, but for me, it’s not work, so I really feel comfortable on set, preparations, scouting. I’m scouting tomorrow and I scouted yesterday, the day of my premiere I was scouting for my next movie. I’m doing storyboards, I’m doing shot lists, I’m already casting for it, so that’s my life. I don’t know what to do if I don’t do that. For me, it’s important to make movies. That’s what I do.

At first glance, this would seem to be simpler, because it’s just one location, just one actor, but then you realize that because you’re shooting on location and doing FX, it’s probably a lot more challenging. You shoot a lot underwater as well.

It’s impossible. I wish that people could see what we went through. You hear stories obviously about movies in water going over schedule, over budget. Well, lucky for them that they had that possibility of going over schedule or over budget. I didn’t, because this movie had to be delivered at a certain time to be released this weekend. We knew this release date, and we barely made it.

This movie was completed last week. It was a schedule that we barely made it, so we couldn’t go over schedule, we couldn’t go over budget, and that’s very impressive because the water and the elements don’t agree with what your plans are. So, you’re like, “Okay, today we’re going to do the shot over Blake here,” and there’s a huge story. Or, “Today we’re going to put the rock…” and the rock is destroyed because of the tides and the boats cannot even get out of the harbor; it’s just impossible. You just have to improvise and change your strategy and do other things to try not to make the day a complete waste of time.

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I think a lot of directors would have just gone to a studio with a big water tank and a green screen around it…

We did some water tank. It doesn’t look like it.

It doesn’t look like it, but a lot of times that’s the way to solve the problems of doing a movie like this, but it would have taken longer and been more expensive because the FX would cost more.

We had that. We had to have it. Shooting in the ocean is very, very difficult, so we did it for a few weeks, but for the reasons I told you—the sea salt and the waves will destroy anything you put in it within hours. Like the buoy was destroyed several times, the rock was destroyed several times.

Because you built stuff on the location.

Yes, the rock is not there. The rock was not supposed to be there. The rock has a big platform that goes down many feet underneath. It was very dangerous for marine divers to put it there, and it gets moved constantly, and it gets destroyed. It’s also a soft material so Blake doesn’t get hurt. It’s not a real rock, so it’s even more fragile. Same with the buoy. So the things that are friendly for filming are not friendly for nature. It’s more difficult than it looks.

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Was Blake already attached when you came on board?

No, but it was our hope that she would do it. We were looking for a specific profile of somebody that looks like they can surf, is smart, tough, resourceful, and she infused something to this character that’s impossible to write. She really elevated the movie.

And you also have to have someone that people will want to watch for 90 minutes, because for a lot of this, it’s literally her, a seagull and a shark.

The shark, whatever we could afford, but she had to obviously really carry the movie. When I couldn’t afford something, I’d cut to her face. That’s what it is. It’s the oldest trick in the book, but you need it and you have to use it correctly. If you overuse it, it loses its effectiveness.

So is there somewhere an hour of close-ups of Blake’s face doing all these expressions?

Everything. Oh, yes, there is. That’s all we had. We had no shark, we had nothing. She’s reacting to tennis balls and things that you’ve heard or seen from other movies, so it’s the same thing.

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It’s a pretty impressive CG shark. You were able to do things like having underwater shots where you follow his vision but when you see it, it’s a shark. It’s huge, it’s scary. Did you have anything on set practically besides the tennis ball?

No, there was a fin that is not camera-ready. It’s just for water displacement. The thing that makes it real is that the water is actually real. When you see a fin go through the water, our fake fin was replaced by a CG fin, but the water around it is real, and that’s what makes it real. CG water, when you mix it with real water, doesn’t look that great. When you have a whole ocean of CG then you believe it because you see it interact, but obviously, we had the whole ocean so we didn’t need a CG ocean.

They worked very hard at those interactive moments, but that took time to set the diver on an underwater scooter, so we had a fin attached to that and the diver who would take a deep breath and be the shark. But that took time and half the time we couldn’t use it because it was too long to prep.

Did you have time to do the R&D [research and development] you needed to do this or did you have FX and stunt guys that have done this before?

No, we did R&D. We prepped this movie in a month, it was very fast. I flew to Australia in mid-September, I was shooting mid-October, we finished shooting by Christmas. I had my director’s cut at the end of January. I was editing during Christmas. I delivered shots to VFX January 5th, so they could start working on sharks. Some shots took months, months. I didn’t see the shark finished for months. That’s what’s scary really.

Because you have to have an edit before they can do FX.

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Exactly, so that’s what’s scary because you have a movie but there’s no shark. And then, you’re like, “Oh, the shark looks very realistic” but I didn’t know that until about two weeks ago.

Was the seagull CG, too?

No, that was real.

What was involved with that? Did you find someone who could train seagulls?

It was just luck. It was like a gift… like literally we were thinking how to do it. Would it be a CG seagull or animatronics and I was like, “Well it’s just a seagull. I don’t expect it to talk or anything so why don’t you just use a real seagull and whatever the seagull does I’ll be fine with it.” So, we found a seagull that had been injured for many years and was used to working with people, had been around people and they trained it to go from A to B with little worms or whatever.

We had three of them, but one of them was this guy Sully who was a genius actor. You could really tell because when you put the other seagulls, they were really dumb and they would just try to get away and do nothing. This guy would literally look at Blake and do everything, so it’s like the Marlon Brando of seagulls.

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When I saw the movie last night, when she put the seagull on the surfboard, and the audience was freaking out: “No! No! Don’t let the shark get the seagull!” It was like having a dog in a movie getting killed. You don’t want to see that seagull die. It really won the audience over.

We never considered killing the seagull, just so you know. It always survives, but there was a shot until very recently in which the seagull is going away, the shark fin was going by, and I took it out for that same reason. It’s better to place it in the audience’s mind then to actually see something.

Was doing this movie PG-13 something considered very early on? When I spoke to Eli Roth, he’s doing the movie Meg about a prehistoric shark, which has been development for years, and he’s doing it as PG-13 too. Blake’s shark bite wound in the movie was grisly stuff, so you were definitely pushing the edge of PG-13.

Yeah, we are. It is obviously a summer movie for young people. I think young boys like sharks. They’re fascinated with big creatures, dinosaurs, so to do a movie like that and not give them a chance to see it is not very smart. Why would you do that? So yes, it’s a very conscious decision to be PG-13. I think even Jaws was PG-13.

There was no PG-13 back then so it was just PG. You’ve already started your next movie which is also with Liam Neeson. What’s the relationship between the two of you?

We hate each other.

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You hate each other so much that you keep working together hoping that you’ll like each other eventually.

I keep trying to kill him. I actually killed him on my last movie, and it was really fun. No, we like working together. The movies I’ve done with him are mostly mysteries. The last one was a Mafia thing, but we love this sort of mystery thing with a bit of action and it’s just finding concepts to keep doing those.

Is he usually calling you with a script or are you calling him?

It just goes back and forth. It’s a very good relationship, and I hope I can work with him forever. Why wouldn’t you?

The Shallows opens in theaters on Friday, June 24.