‘The Meg’ Director Jon Turteltaub Reveals the Most and Least Scientifically Accurate Parts of His Giant Shark Movie
Movie shoots on the water can be notoriously difficult. Movie shoots on water involving sharks can be borderline impossible. But director Jon Turteltaub says shooting on his giant shark movie, The Meg, went smoothly.
“It went ridiculously well,” he told me, “considering how badly it should have gone. We learned a lot from the other movies that have shot on water, particularly shark movies. I knew all the Jaws nightmares. So we tried to avoid all of that.”
The toughest days he revealed, involved “really big scenes” featuring thousands of extras at the mercy of the Meg (short for megalodon, a species of huge shark that really did exist in the ancient past and, in the film, has survived for eons at the bottom of the ocean). “Just making sure everyone gets out takes about an hour. It can be really tricky.” Turteltaub added, before noting with a chuckle “That’s why God invented big budgets.”
The Meg is an unusual mix of high budget (The Hollywood Reporter says it cost “at least $150 million to produce”) and low-brow exploitation fare. Jason Statham plays a deep-ocean expert who winds up face-to-jaws with the meanest shark that ever lived. Turteltaub hasn’t made a monster movie before, but he knows his way around large-scale B movies; his National Treasure films might look like knockoffs of The Da Vinci Code, but they’re vastly more entertaining than any of the films based on Dan Brown’s novels.
The National Treasure films (and the amazing Andy Samberg Nic Cage impression they inspired) came up during our conversation, along with one of Turteltaub’s earliest films, 3 Ninjas. We also talked about why people love movies about sharks, and the most and least accurate aspects of The Meg. You might be surprised by his answer to that one; I certainly was.
Why do sharks make such great movie monsters? I can’t think of any real animal that’s been the subject of more horror movies than sharks.
You’re probably right. I never thought of that. Giant gorillas show up every now and then, and occasionally some snakes.
I think we’re first of all fascinated with the oceans. We know we don’t belong out there. So if you’re out there you’re already a little bit uncomfortable. And what’s cool about sharks, ironically, is that you can’t see them. That’s what makes them so scary. They come out of nowhere and there is nothing you can do to prevent it or stop it. Hunters kill lions. But there’s really no way to go kill a really big shark that’s about to eat you.
Unless you have Jason Statham handy.
I usually bring Jason Statham with me when I go swimming.
The movie is based on a book that came out a while ago and there have been different iterations of the movie, with various casts and studios and directors. None of them worked out, but this one did. Why did it come together this time?
I’m not sure. I came in to the party pretty late. So by the time it got to me all the exhausting, frustrating, miserable development work and all the rejection and false hope had happened already.
Timing has a lot to do with it. It was just the right time for a big popcorn movie that felt both old fashioned and kind of new in how old fashioned it was. It seemed to be now.
I don’t know if audiences are fluctuating in these areas; every movie is a gamble and a risk. You don’t know what the audience wants. Week by week, you take your best shot. What’s funny is really the only thing Hollywood spends all of its time and money on is finding movies that the public wants to see. We’re trying so hard to please people! And they’re constantly mad at us. It’s a rough marriage.
What’s the most scientifically accurate and least scientifically accurate part of the film?
Interesting. I love that! Um ... look, the fact that megalodons did exist, that no one quite knows why they went extinct, and the possibility that tremendously dangerous and previously thought extinct animals could live in the ocean is pretty scientifically accurate.
The least scientifically accurate thing in the movie ... boy, that’s a great question. First of all, you think you’re avoiding those things, but then we all secretly know there are those that we didn’t avoid. And then we have to figure out what we’re comfortable telling you. [laughs]
Shark-related, I actually think that if a megalodon suddenly appeared after 2 million years in our oceans, it would be far more curious and do more damage than it actually does in the movie.
Why is that?
This is a time-travel movie, really. We’re not traveling through time; the Meg is the one traveling through time. Oddly enough, it’s the Meg that’s the fish out of water. It would be trying to figure out “What the hell is this boat? What the hell are people? What’s happening around me?” Every boat would be explored and tasted. Every animal would be explored and tasted. In addition, this is an animal that didn’t have any predators. So it would be pretty fearless.
You can either write all of that, or you could say some of the vessels that go down to 30,000 feet probably wouldn’t go down nearly as quickly or come up as quickly as they do in the film. Instead of taking a half hour or an hour to get a vessel to the bottom of the ocean it would probably take a month.
That would be a very different movie.
Yeah. That would be a great Wes Anderson movie.
I haven‘t read the novel of The Meg, so I don’t know what parts are taken directly from it. But I wonder on a movie like this if there’s ever a point in the process where you just sit around and try to think of the most creative ways for a shark to kill a person? That seems like a crucial part of the movie.
In these kinds of movies, the audience knows from the poster that some of those people aren’t going to make it to the end. And these days, where everything seems to get a sequel, the actors hope they’re one of the people who don’t get eaten. It used to be the death scene was the greatest part of being an actor, now you know you’re being cut out of the sequel. It’s actually pretty funny.
Coming up with clever and fun ways to kill people is really awesome. But all of these things, such as picking and choosing the parts from the novel, deciding between ten ideas which ones you’re going to use, these are the problems writers have. You discuss them a bit. But this is what writers do, and this is why writers are underrated and undervalued. These kinds of choices are painfully difficult and extraordinarily important. So you pay them so they’ll make these horrible, difficult decisions. And I just take pictures of it.
I’m curious what your first meeting with Jason Statham was like, and what drew him to the project. Did he have any demands for what he wanted to see in the movie?
Jason was awesome right from the beginning. For a guy who’s completely male, he is also sensitive, has a great sense of humor, and really smart about detail. He’s anything but a brute. We just laughed a lot when we first met. I think he was happy to know that I wanted this character to have a sense of humor. His thing was to make sure the integrity of the character was so strong that you never doubted his resolve.
I need this lead character to convince the audience they’re not seeing a ridiculously silly movie. So that’s why you cast him and not Kevin Hart.
I enjoyed both of the National Treasure movies, and I really enjoyed Andy Samberg’s Nicolas Cage impression on Saturday Night Live, which was heavily influenced by those films and always ended with him saying “I’m going to have sex with the Declaration of Independence!” What did you think of those sketches?
They’re awesome. If anything you’ve done in your career ends up on Saturday Night Live, it means you’ve had a career that matters. It’s really true.
I made this movie called 3 Ninjas. It was a super low-budget movie; three brothers who were ninjas. I remember seeing kids playing that game in front of their house, pretending they were the kids from 3 Ninjas. That to me is movie success. Andy Samberg’s Nicolas Cage, or making a meme out of National Treasure, is movie success. Not Oscars.
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