Director John Gulager came to the public's attention with the third and final installment of HBO's filmmaking series Project Greenlight 3, which spawned the horror franchise Feast. After churning out this wackadoo monster trilogy, Gulager wasted no time in setting up his next project, the sequel Piranha 3DD, which moves the action to a water park.
Arriving on Blu-ray this week, it might be easy to write off the film as a quick cash grab that dines on the gory bones of its predecessor, which was directed by fellow horror auteur Alexandre Aja. But no, John Gulager actually has a strong voice that is all his own, and this new flesh-eating fish tale is comparable to when Piranha Part Two: The Spawning's James Cameron took over for original director Joe Dante. Yes, we truly believe, a few years down the line, John could go onto create a movie as beloved as Titanic and Avatar. And there are plenty of original, surprising moments to be found in Piranha 3DD to prove just that.
At the same time, though, the film's roots remain planted in the trashy Drive-In landscape of its previous installments, and what we are left with is a blood-drenched affair that is quite funny and bizarre. It's no throwaway sequel, and it certainly lives up to its title. We recently caught up with John Gulager to chat with him about the film.
Here is our conversation.
I watched the movie a second time last night...
John Gulager: My condolences.
Was the studio expecting just a straight up sequel to Piranha 3D? Or did they know, right off the bat, that when they hire John Gulager for a movie; they're not going to get some run of the mill sequel, but that they're going to get a straight up John Gulager movie? Cause there is no denying who this came from...
John Gulager: This is the funny part, and this is going to sound bad, I guess...(Laughs) When I started on it, I was not trying to make it like Feast 2 and Feast 3, but slowly, but surely, the studio wanted it more like that. Then, it ended up like that even more so because the studio wanted a wacky fun movie. I hate to disappoint you. I wasn't going to have it be quite so zany. Things happen, stuff changes. (Laughs) Things come out the way they come out. Obviously, I have that side. I have a wacky side, and sometimes we try to hide that. We don't want to show who we are. Kind of. The great comedian always wants to be the dramatic actor. The great dramatic actor always wants to do comedy. They all want to sing. Sometimes, you don't want to always be who you are. Basically, I have been told over and over again that I am a clown. You know? I want to be Stanley Kubrick. But the clown wins each time. That's the answer to that.
Yeah, but for me, the fan, you have a very distinct voice. I think that would be the most important concern. I watch Piranha 3DD and I know it's a Gulager film. There have been a ton of giant fish and piranha movies in the last couple of years, and they are all faceless endevors. I can't tell you the name of one person who has directed any of these other Syfy knock-offs.
John Gulager: Yeah, that's what I mean. You can't hide who it is. Even if you have this idea that you can. You are who you are, inside, whether you are gay or you're straight...You can't hide it. Maybe artists and filmmakers, and bakers...You do have that voice that separates you from your other compatriots. Maybe you can't hide it! It just comes out. As a director, no matter how you are doing it, you are really the only person there from the beginning till the end. There are lots of people working with you, and all kinds of people doing awesome things, but you're still that thread. I guess there is no hiding it!
But that's how the next Kubrick emerges. When you can look at something and go, "Hey, it's that guy!" You're not faceless, so I think that is a good thing...
John Gulager: I'll tell you one thing, I don't want to be a faceless director. You know? I always enjoy all of these guys, John Waters and David Lynch. They have made that iconic film somewhere along the way that really set them apart from everyone else. I haven't done that yet, and perhaps I never will. But I don't want to be a journeyman either. I appreciate when people go the extra mile, or do something that is fucked up, maybe, at some point in their career. I'm still looking forward to that. I think this, here, is just part of that journey.
I like that you bring up the singing aspect. Everyone wants to be a singer. Which brings up the musical. Could this have been a dramatic musical? Is that in your future wheelhouse?
John Gulager: (Laughs) Well, I did write the songs for David Hasselhoff to sing. The 'Love Hunter' song in the first part of it. But, yeah. I was in a rock opera that my dad made when I was a kid. I wrote the music and we shot it...We shot part of it. It was pretty cool. Universal bought it for one week, and then they unbought it. That was so weird. You know, we just showed something Sunday at the New Beverly. It has a musical element to it, which sort of shocked everybody. When a character starts singing, and then the character that has been beaten to a pulp starts humming in key...So, yeah. We are interested in music, and operas, and stuff. My whole family. We may do something along those lines, so we'll see.
Watching Piranha 3DD, we get to the big climactic Water Park attack scene, and midway through, we realize there's not that much you can do with Piranhas in a swimming pool. And we still have at least 30 minutes of movie left to get through. Once the initial attack happens, shit goes flying off the rails, and we get a real, true John Gulager experience. Did you realize midway through shooting that there really isn't much you can do in terms of piranha attacking a water park? Where and when did this realization first occur to you?
John Gulager: (Laughs) Yeah...We'd have the attack, and then it's resolved. We have the resolving of this love triangle...I love that part ,myself. We have the underwater retribution thing, with the kids. And the thing that happens with the trident. And the fishies. I always wanted to blow up the fish. In every Jaws movie, the shark gets blown up, right? Even, what is it, Jaws: The Revenge? The boat hits the shark, and it still blows up! For no reason at all. Our take on that comes in at the end. Even in Alexandre Aja's Piranha, they blow them up, and then you are left with these kids...They are in the same area that the fish are in, so they all die. It's a tradition that the fish blow up. We were going to originally have a water tower that sucked up all the fish, and then that was going to be blown up. We couldn't do that, so we just said, "Screw it!" We decided to make up our own science. We pour these chemicals into the pipes, and we have it blow up. So that we could do that thing with the fish. Its our homage to the frogs coming down at the end of Magnolia, or something. I love that part. That whole sequence after the attack. I love the whole thing with the kid. And I love David Hasselhoff's last line, actually. I like the outtakes. A lot of people have complained about the outtakes. What? Were we just going to have white letters on black? I think its great. I love outtakes, especially in movies like this. Especially when you know there is going to be a lot of irreverent stuff. It's goofy. You know you are going to get that, because you are working with big giant rubber fish. I actually enjoy watching that kind of thing. What can I say? The thing is, you write these things, and they get cut out, and then you write them back in, and then they get cut out again...In the end, it has to be somewhere in the script, otherwise it never gets shown. Because no one prepares that material to be shot. On the other side of that, even if it's in the script, everything goes wrong, of course. I don't know if you've been on a lot of films, but nothing ever works. Especially if everything is mechanical, and your budget is under a million dollars...Its like, nothing works. You shoot it the best you can. Whatever works. Whatever fails. Whether it's the explosive cannons, or it's the sinking van that won't sink...There are all kinds of things. But you put it together. You find a way to do it. And it's usually pretty convincing. Somethings might change. But you do come out with a kernel of what you went in with. But it's always a little bit different...I would say this is true on every movie, not just on my movie. There is a ton of problem solving on set. It usually comes out of left field. Wherever or whatever that is. Like when someone suddenly decides they don't want to take their top off, or the water cannon won't shoot the fish in the air...Whatever that thing is, you just preserver. You find a way to make your film.
How does that apply to working with both Gary Busey and David Koechner?
John Gulager: (Laughs....Continues laughing for a long time...) It always goes wrong. So, okay. I love Gary. At the time, we didn't have a person to play that part at the beginning of the film. We had offered that part to someone who was in the original Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. That person did not want to do it. Gary was on this Apprentice TV show. He got fired, so we said, "Let's get Gary!" He agreed to do it. He came out, and luckily we had two nights to shoot this on. Sometimes, when you have something that might take two nights, it gets cut down to one because of budgetary reasons. Luckily, we could stay two nights. This was also our first days of shooting, out in the middle of this lake. Gary has ideas about things. He is not the easiest person to work with. Actually, he's both. He is gung-ho, and he is tough. Because, you know, he doesn't want to be there, in the middle of this lake, and its kind of chilly. My dad was also out there. They are both getting up there in age...My dad is much older than he is...But, Gary is not a spring chicken. He did it. David Koechner on the other hand...He is a much younger guy...But he doesn't like certain things...Maybe of a...He didn't like being involved in anything sexual. Which is funny, especially with the title, Piranha 3DD. If it were words, he was fine. If it was some kind of physical thing? He is totally not into that. So we didn't have any of that stuff. Otherwise, I think David Koechner is a truly great actor. But he always plays the sleaze ball. He plays the weird, over the top character. Most of the time, I think he was willing to do almost anything...
From what I hear, it sounds like Gary still has pneumonia from being out in that lake...
John Gulager: (Laughs) Gary is so funny. We would be shooting, and, I don't know if you remember his scene, but there is this lantern there, and he goes off the dock...They go off into the water. We had to keep moving the lantern around, switching directions, because we couldn't actually have them walking out into the middle of this lake. We had to do it near the side of the lake, and have it appear that it was out in the water. Because the ground just drops off. They had to pretend like they were out there in the lake. So we had this lantern there for him to run towards. But we also had our chairs, and everything up, we had the video village where we watch the shoot and everyone sits. He's supposed to be running out of the water, screaming. But he kept running over to his chair. We kept telling him, "You need to run towards the lantern. You have to run towards the light!" He turns around and goes, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I got it." But he keeps running towards the chair, and sitting down. Then, he didn't want to go in the water. We had to tell him to do it, and he didn't want to go. We had to say, "The fish are going to be on your face. The only way that is going to happen is if you jump in." He goes, "Okay. I'll do it...ONCE!" Stop me if you've heard any of this...But he goes out in the water, and we get the shot. He goes underwater. But then our DP comes over, and says, "We have to do it again." They are supposed to have this flair. I guess it didn't matter much, but I go, "Gary, we have to do it again! You need to have your flair." He goes, "Flair? I've never gotten a flair!" We're like, "Yes, you've had the flair this whole time." He's screaming, "No. I've never gotten a flair!" He didn't want to do it again. But he did. And we went on like that all night long. We still had enough stuff to edit from.
You have an audio commentary on the Blu-ray that we can listen to while we watch, right? Cause I'd love to hear some more of these stories...
John Gulager: Yes. And I only tell the truth. It's on there.