Mega Piranha: an interview with director Eric Forsberg

Fans of the Saturday night staple that is the SyFy Channel’s movie of the week have something big coming to them this weekend. In fact, they have many big somethings coming for them and their tasty, tasty flesh. Get your popcorn and get to a safe house suitably far from the ocean, because Mega Piranha and its hungry monsters are coming to a boob tube near you.

Mega Piranha has got it all: the well-intentioned scientist (played by 80s pop idol Tiffany, no less) only trying to feed the world, the hard-ass military man (Paul Logan) sent to clean up after her experiment goes awry, and, of course, CGI monsters devouring people left, right, and center.

I got a chance to interview Mega Piranha director Eric Forsberg about his latest project.

Dayle: Good evening! Where are you now?
Eric Forsberg:
Up in Big Bear Valley about two hours east of LA, and 7000 ft up. I bought a house up in the mountains to write. Big Bear has the largest population of people living in the midst of a national forest (the San Bernardino National Forrest).

D: That seems far away from the jungles of Venezuela!
Well, it’s beautiful up here. I came to Big Bear because I’ve missed the snow. But I don’t miss the snow any more. I’m ready to go back to that beautiful L.A. smog. (laughs)

D: So, let’s get to it: why piranhas?
I didn’t make the decision to do piranhas. I’m a gun for hire. I work with a company called The Asylum, which produces original content for SyFy. This is my first time writing and directing specifically for SyFy, although my first feature film, Alien Abduction, ended up on SyFy after it went on the DVD circuit. I wrote two other movies, 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea and War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave that also showed on SyFy. But Mega Piranha is my first film just for them. The Asylum hired me to write it back when there was nothing but a title. The company had just done Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. It had a viral trailer campaign that really caught on (an MTV exclusive). It was a really big opening for SyFy—one of the largest audiences they ever had for a SyFy MOW.

So the folks at the Asylum came up with the idea, which is often the case, and a title that they could market. They tossed it to SyFy who said, “Yep, we want Mega Piranha.” So SyFy wanted it and David Latt (a producer at The Asylum) called me because I’m the guy who writes things based on nothing but a few words. He once called me up and said, “We want you to write ‘Snakes on a Train.'” This was before Snakes on a Plane had come out. I said, “Okay, what’s it about?” And Latt said, “Snakes—on a train.” I had to do research on Snakes on a Plane to avoid ripping them off. It ended up being about Mayan magic. With Mega Piranha, I had to write it with a lot of high tech. It had to be at least a little bit futuristic.

D: Why did it have to be futuristic?
That was what David Latt asked for—do it about Mega Piranhas, but make it have a tech aspect to it. It didn’t have to be futuristic, but it needed to have a tech element to it. I did my best with that. The difficulty with super high tech stuff is that it’s all expensive and requires expensive art direction, which we had less of budget–wise. Doing really good art direction, like building models and designing special tools, requires a big team and a lot of time.

D: Is it a big change going between just writing and doing both the writing and directing?
Being a director is my joy—being a writer is my addiction. I have a drive to direct. But I have to write. I can’t help it. No writer can. If a writer is at a restaurant, they will write on the edge of a napkin, they will write on anything and everything they can reach: journals, poetry, all day, all night. For me, it’s not a problem to write for others. For instance it was wonderful to write for C. Thomas Howell (who directed War of the Worlds 2). I’d do it again for him although right now I’m pushing to direct everything I write myself.

D: Why is that? Besides drawing a double paycheck, I mean.
Money can be a motivation of course, but I want to direct because that is my dream and my greatest joy (in most cases). Sure, a double paycheck helps, everybody wants cash, but it doesn’t cheapen what you do. Money aside, I’ve just been a writer and director all my life. It’s what I’m made for, it’s what I do. It’s very hard to get a job as a director—everyone wants to direct! There’s a lot of competition. If I get an opportunity to direct, it’s most likely to be through my writing. I haven’t yet been hired to direct other people’s writing. I think it all boils down to being a creator of worlds. I like to create worlds.

I’m an old Dungeons and Dragons player, and I was always the Dungeon Master. I drew the maps, charts and tables, I made entire histories of villages and power struggles between factions. After I created a world, my friends would create characters to adventure in it. I’ve done this since I was 14 years old, and I think making movies is similar. You create an alternate universe to our own to explore and people come and go on the adventure inside of it. In order to create to that adventure, I have to be the writer and director. It’s only half a sandwich with just one role. I want to do both! I want to pick the ingredients and put it together.

D: With all the CGI and outsized (no pun intended) concepts, how do you help your actors get comfortable with the sci-fi world you create?
As a director, I do lot of directing in my casting. You find people that fit in these roles, these worlds. When you look at three hundred people, you’ll find some that just fit. It’s like a bell rings, “They’re perfect. That’s them!” Then once that happens, eighty-percent of communicating the world to them is achieved. They are now communicating that world to me. We’re now creating it together. I’m a very collaborative director. I bring them into the world by being excited. I try to give that to them and give them a tremendous amount of leeway to let them build up their characters. My background is improv at The Second City, a famous improv cabaret in Chicago; lots of stars started there. So I write dialogue, but I still let the actors improvise, and that helps a lot.

D: Are all of the piranhas CGI?
There’s a lot of CGI. Scott Wheeler, one of the key people who did the CGI, has done a lot of CGI for the Asylum, and he did the CGI for us. There are a few moments where they’re practical effects or puppets. The puppets look great, but there’s still a lot of CGI. This is a movie about giant piranhas, after all. We put out a casting call for giant piranhas, but none showed up. The day after we finished shooting, bingo, one shows up, ready to go!

D: Are you comfortable with relying on CGI for so much of your movie? Do you ever worry about it overtaking the story?
CGI is okay. I certainly enjoyed my three viewings of Avatar. The hypnotic effect of being drawn into that world was worth the experience. I don’t want to be one of those silent-movie people who think sound will destroy movies. 21st century movies are just like 19th Century French comic opera. How much of us watch French comic opera on the stage any more? Not often. Movies are going to go away eventually. I just want to make sure that, when they do, they turn into something better. It has to happen. Eventually, films will be worlds we go into, interactive experiences where we can affect the result of the film, change the ending or even be the hero. It won’t be as brutally visceral as, say, Strange Days, but it will be like what it is now, only more interactive and alive. On the way to get there, we take steps like Avatar with more and more CGI.

D: Okay, you’ve name-dropped Strange Days and Avatar. Any other science-fiction classics or new films that have inspired you in your career?
The first sci-fi movie that I saw that bowled me over was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I must have seen it ten times. Soon after that, it was Planet of the Apes. The combination of those two films—one cerebral, enigmatic, ambiguous, brilliant art film and the other very hands on, straight-forward, with a twisted, Biblical ending—was amazing. Then it was Star Wars, which put Robin Hood into space. And then Alien, with its unbelievable art direction…

Basically, my science-fiction consumption is across the board, but it consists primarily of movies. I could sit here and endlessly list the movies that are shockingly influential to me. I’ve read very little sci-fi. I’m a bigger fantasy buff; I read Lord of the Rings sixteen times through as a kid. I read science, math textbooks and biographies. But writing for film is all about pictures. I’m creating a stage play, a painting that’s moving. Writing for writing’s sake is different. I’ve read books with hard sci-fi elements—books by Michael Crichton, Isaac Asimov, and even non sci–fi like Anaïs Nin, etc. In fact, that’s who I think of when I think of “writing”—Anaïs Nin, Victor Hugo, Henry Miller. When I think of movies and writing for movies, I think of Ridley Scott.

D: That covers inspiration, but where do you come up with the technological aspects of your fiction?
I always research my projects. In this case, I did not research genetically-manipulated piranha. I did research food projects ongoing in South America. There’s also interesting political activity, with Hugo Chavez running around, sometimes critical of the US, which creates an interesting dynamic. That’s one of my favorite subplots in the film, the political dynamic. I also researched the end of the movie, which is a gigantic underwater battle between the huge fish and some Navy Seals; so I had to create an underwater gun. I researched different types of shells and megaton payloads and terminologies of weapons so I got vocabulary right, even though I made up most the weapons.

D: Why focus your research on the weapons and not the genetically-engineered monster?
Because at the beginning of the film the monsters already exist. I mostly like to talk about things that are happening or are going to happen in the movie, not what’s already happened. You can’t have people sitting around talking about genes for six minutes. I want to get to the action. This is an action movie. It has helicopter fights, kidnappings, fisticuffs, interrogations, and underwater battles, and it comes to a screeching halt whenever you have a scientist sit down and say, “Let’s talk about genes.” Besides, I have no idea how they could actually manipulate piranha genes to make them that big. If I did, I’d have a big piranha in my back yard right now.

D: This begs the question, though: who is supporting mega piranha research?
It’s an international organization, they have grant money and such, but they’re running independently most of the time. Professor Sarah Monroe (played by Tiffany) is a charitable scientist who manipulates the fish to grow faster and be both meatier and hardier in order to produce a better supply of food fish for inhabitants of the Amazon basin. She didn’t know it would end up being dangerous. We give all sorts of chemicals to cows and chickens, and we don’t know whether that could have a horrible effect until it does.

D: How do the piranhas come to menace Florida?
One of Dr. Monroe’s batches of modified piranhas goes bad, and she tries to destroy it, but the fish escape. They kill a few people at the beginning, one of which is an American diplomat played by me. The diplomat’s death gets Secretary Bob Grady (Barry Williams) involved, and he sends an agent, Jason Fitch (Paul Logan) to the Amazon. Fitch meets up with Dr. Monroe to try to figure out how to destroy the piranhas. There’s an element to the piranha’s gene construction that makes them grow bigger and it doesn’t stop. As they eat, they grow bigger and bigger as they head down to the ocean. Even though they’re fresh water fish, their genetic manipulation allows them to breathe in salt water. So they head to Florida because there’s lots of action up there, lots of ships and bodies in the water. There’s a lot more activity in the waters of Florida than the waters around British Guyana! By the time the piranhas get to Florida they’re the size of whales. These suckers eat mega sharks for breakfast.

D: Speaking of: are there any tributes to Mega Shark?
Yeah, we have some actors that are playing the same roles. There was a guy in Mega Shark who was on top of a building going “Holy shit!” when he saw the Mega Shark. So we put him in our movie saying “Holy shit!” as the mega piranhas attack him.

D: They’re the size of buildings!?
Oh, absolutely. And they eat buildings too. But this is a very different film from Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. In Mega Shark, the people are all only observing what the mega shark or the giant octopus is doing from afar. In Mega Piranha, people actually get in the water with the giant fish and have a huge, hands-on underwater battle.

D: How did you film that?
We got actually divers (including Paul Logan, action star magnifique) to play a unit of Navy SEALS. And Paul is actually terrified of sharks. He was, at one point, a couple of feet from a shark. But he overcame his fear, and he kicked ass. He was carrying this big underwater gun. He looked amazing.

D: Is the battle anything like, say, the underwater brawl in Thunderball?
Our guys are like the grandsons of the James Bond crew. And our guns are firing underwater bullets—not spears like in Thunderball. In the future, our military will have—a Navy SEAL would—a weapon that could take out a sub. In this movie, they need it because the piranhas have three hearts and really tough skin.

D: Do piranhas normally have three hearts? Or is that to make them tougher?
I would be harder to kill if I had three hearts!

D: How quickly did you shoot Mega Piranha?
We had about fifteen days of actual shooting. I usually get twelve, but I got fifteen because I shot some in Belize, over about three weeks. Torrential rainstorms in California delayed our outdoor shots. David Latt sent us to Belize so we could get sunshine and jungle and get away from the rain. That’s what piranhas like: sunshine and jungle. And guts.

D: Why set the film in Venezuela?
Instead of Brazil? Yeah, most piranha movies take place in Brazil because that is where the main body of the Amazon River is. But there are many rives that contribute to the Amazon. I chose to set the film along the Orinoco River because it passes both through really dense jungle highlands and human-inhabited areas. And it is filled with piranhas.

We were also originally supposed to shoot in Puerto Rico, where people mostly speak Spanish. So I wrote the film to account for the location, and I needed a country that spoke Spanish to suit our production. In Brazil, they speak Portuguese, but in Venezuela they speak Spanish, so Venezuela was right for our story location. But we ended up not shooting in Puerto Rico; we went to Belize instead. That’s the crazy thing. If I’d known we weren’t going to Puerto Rico, I might have shifted the location around a little. Belize is more like Guiana, where they speak English/island pidgin, and have lots of piranha also. Honestly, it could have been filmed in America, with it being an American lab that did the experiments. As a director, things are tossed at you all the time and you never know what will come at you. You have to be the blood moving between the parts to keep them going with the flow.

D: What are you doing for the premiere?
I’m working up a little shindig. It’s not a premiere that I’d want to have in a theater. It’s a not a movie for theaters. It’s a SyFy movie. I’m talking with some clubs to see about setting up a small showing.

D: Thanks for chatting with me about the film. Looking forward to the carnage!
Good talking to you.

Mega Piranha airs April 10th on the SyFy channel at 7 and 9 pm EST. See your local listing for channel and show time information. You can read more about Eric Forsberg and his past and upcoming projects at his website.

All pictures in this article are property of SyFy Channel, courtesy of Eric Forsberg.

Dayle McClintock now has to add piranhas to the list of things that scare her specifically because they will eat her alive. They join a venerable list that includes zombies, velociraptors, and the Langoliers. (DAMN YOU, STEPHEN KING!)


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