When you make a B movie, it’s best not to question the plot—no matter how ridiculous it is, advises Anthony C. Ferrante, the director of Sharknado, which debuted on Syfy last summer. "It bogs you down if you worry about that stuff," Ferrante says, musing, "A sharknado can do whatever we tell it to do. It can tear through cars. It can go into the subway. And it doesn’t have to have a reason for anything. That’s the beauty of it. And once you accept it for what it is creatively as a director, you’re liberated because you’re not going, ‘Sharks in a tornado can’t really come into the city and do this!'"
You probably already have some views about what a sharknado can and can't do, or at least some familiarity with the concept of a sharknado, thanks to the social media frenzy that surrounded the first movie when it aired July 11, 2013. As those of us who did tune in to the campy flick saw, the city of Los Angeles was inundated with sharks scooped out of the ocean by tornadoes and deposited on land where they terrorized the populace. In one of the film’s most wonderfully ludicrous scenes, a heroic surfer/bar owner named Fin (played by Ian Ziering) cut his way out of a shark with a chainsaw.
The movie, conceptualized by the production company The Asylum and written by screenwriter Thunder Levin, was an unexpected hit for Syfy, which produces about two dozen of these low-budget films a year. The movie was a bona fide Twitter sensation— at its peak, it was generating 5,000 tweets per minute, and based on total tweets, it was either way bigger than, or roughly equal to Game of Thrones' Red Wedding episode—and earned additional screenings both on TV and in movie theaters.
And, now, a Sharknado sequel, also written by Levin and directed by Ferrante, is about to premiere. Sharknado 2: The Second One, airing on Syfy July 30, finds Fin and his wife April (Tara Reid) traveling to New York City where another sharknado just so happens to occur, of course, forcing New Yorkers used to fighting off rats and roaches to battle an onslaught of toothy sea creatures.
Neither the original nor the sequel actually explains what causes a sharknado, by the way, and that’s purposeful. "There isn’t an explanation like, ‘Oh, maybe it’s global warming. There are no scientists saying, ‘This is what it is.’ It’s up to you [the audience] to decide," Ferrante says.
His theory? "Maybe the sharks just want revenge because we killed them in the first movie? Who knows?"
Co.Create talked to Ferrante, whose credits also include the horror flicks Boo and The Headless Horseman, about the making of the Sharknado sequel, which he shot in a mere 18 days in Los Angeles and New York City, to get a sense of what goes into making a B movie.
Ferrante went into production on Sharknado 2 just months after he finished the original. "It never felt like we stopped making the first movie. Everything blew up, and then we started talking about the sequel, and we started shooting the new one this year," he says, noting the rush back into production wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. "In some ways, I think that was good because we had the same cast, same production team, same writers, same director," he says. "There was consistency."
"We had to in order for the franchise to survive. It had to be more than just, ‘Here’s a tornado full of sharks, and they go around hitting buildings.’ We did a lot in the first movie, but if people are going to like this movie, or hate it, or whatever, we had to be bigger and better," Ferrante says.
Without sharing any spoilers, there appear to be a lot more sharks swirling around in those tornadoes this time around, there are a lot of celebrity cameos (Matt Lauer, Kelly Osbourne, Kelly Ripa, Michael Strahan, and Billy Ray Cyrus among them) and a whole lot of New York City landmarks under threat.
While Ferrante didn’t get into budget specifics, it has been reported that Syfy gave him about $2 million to make the first Sharknado, and he says he got "a little more money" for Sharknado 2 so that he could shoot some of the film in New York City rather than fake the Big Apple elsewhere. "You can’t do it in New York and not have more money," the director says.
New York City film officials were accommodating when it came to letting Ferrante and his crew shoot in the city, but there were strict limitations that he had to work with. Case in point: Ferrante wanted to shoot a scene for Sharknado 2 in which the audience first sees Fin’s sister and brother in Times Square. His location scout told the director she could get him in the heart of Times Square, but he would only have two hours to shoot on a weekday, and he could only use a small crew. "People used to shooting big studio movies would say, ‘There’s no way I could do that,’ " Ferrante says. "We said, ‘We can do that.’ Being there was going to add production value, and I knew I could do it in two hours, and we just did it."
The director also made limited time in the subway work. "We didn’t even think we would get to use the subway, but the MTA said, ‘Look, we have this Grand Central shuttle. We can give it to you for three hours from one to four in the morning.’ So we did it, and we got to use a moving subway car."
"In the end, we have more iconographic things in our movie than most movies that have bigger budgets than we do have," Ferrante says. "We really wanted to make a love letter to New York, and I think it worked."
"Everybody has to play it straight in these movies. Whether you’re dealing with witches or headless horsemen or ghosts or sharknadoes, you have to ground the story in reality. If you ground it, and your characters believe in what’s going on, then the audience is going to be invested in them and is going to care about them," Ferrante insists.
"The only people that can do anything that is self-referential or outside of the box in the film are people that are designated as your comic relief. So, for example, in the first Sharknado, we could tell John Heard to do whatever he wanted because that was the character. He was the guy with quips," Ferrante says, "and in Sharknado 2, it’s Judah Friedlander and Judd Hirsch. But that’s all downplayed. It’s all organic. It’s reactionary as opposed to someone suddenly being like, 'Hey, I’m going to start telling jokes.' Judah’s character, if you look at him from a character perspective, his defense mechanism is making light of things. That’s how he survives. That’s why he says the things that he says."
Given that his actors were oftentimes acting against imaginary sharks, Ferrante needed to give them something to react to. "I wouldn’t tell them when I needed the reaction. I would just yell ‘Shark!’ very loud or go, ‘Okay, one, two, three, shark!’ I would do it to try to get them jazzed, and if you watch the film, you’ll see the actors are reacting to that. When you don’t have something to act off of, it’s good to have someone who’s crazy like me screaming and yelling crazy stuff," Ferrante says, pointing out, "Sometimes the editors hated me because you could hear me talking over the action, yelling, ‘Okay, the shark’s coming from the left! Okay, run, duck!'"
We’re talking really last-minute. "We’d get a call the night before we were shooting and hear, ‘Oh, Richard Kind’s going to be in the movie.’ So, literally, you’re trying to find a way to write something for an actor and make sure it integrates properly into the movie," he says.
Kind’s character was created and his scenes were actually written around midnight the night before the actor was set to arrive on location to shoot.
"We learned a lot about what we could and couldn’t accomplish with the first movie, and so going into the second movie, I had a really good idea of what we could make happen and how to utilize the practical with the digital," Ferrante says.
The in-house visual effects team at The Asylum had just two months to deliver over 400 visual effects shots for the original Sharknado, and for Sharknado 2, the team had to deliver 700 visual effects shots in the same time frame.
Without giving too much away, Ferrante teases that the most difficult visual effects sequence to pull off in Sharknado 2 involved a New York City cab stuck in rising water with sharks circling about. Ferrante shot the live-action portion of the scene in midtown New York. "We had to be very strategic about where we placed the camera because people were in our shot no matter where we turned," Ferrante says. "It was a very tricky sequence."
"I’m actually a more brutal director than a lot of other directors in that I’ll cut things out. I’ll trim things if they’re not working within the context of the movie," he says, noting, "I want the movie to move fast. I don’t want it to sit there, so if there is a long dialogue scene, and I can trim a little bit of it, and it moves quicker, I’m more willing to do that. I don’t get precious about certain things. I want what’s best for the overall movie."
Ferrante took part in writing and performing the music featured in both Sharknado and Sharknado 2. "You can’t afford to license songs for these low-budget movies. You can’t get popular songs. You can’t even get semi-popular songs," he says. So for both films, Ferrante teamed up with his musician friend Robbie Rist (Rist played Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch when he was a kid) to write music, including the Sharknado theme song "The Ballad of Sharknado" (Ferrante sings that song as well as some of the others) and the New York-themed tune "I’m Gonna Take a Bite Out of the Big Apple Before It Takes a Bite Out of Me."