What we can learn from: ‘Killer Fish’

NOTE: My apologies for posting this two days late: Christmas and all it’s related fiascos has been taking up more of my time than I expected.

Forget Jaws. Forget ‘Deep Blue Sea’, ‘47 Meters down’ or ‘The Shallows’. If you’re looking for man vs killer aquatic animal action, look no further than the 1979 Italian caper, ‘Killer Fish’, a gripping, heart-pounding tale of criminals vs some of the most ferocious fish ever known to mankind!

Okay, it’s not that exciting. Or quick-paced. Or even on league with the aforementioned films. ‘Killer Fish’ won’t win any awards or be remembered out of bad film circles, but with its beautiful scenery, silly effects, and groovy 70’s soundtrack, it’s good for a laugh or two. Let’s dig in and see what writers can learn from this tale of diamond thieves vs fish.

When doing a killer monster movie, give a tease of your monster at the beginning

It may be a cliché, but giving your audience a tease of the monster at the beginning of the story (without fully revealing it, of course) gives them a delicious tease of the carnage to come after the inevitable first-act setup. In ‘Killer Fish’, however, the piranha are nowhere to be seen for the first half hour, as the film instead focuses on people blowing up a refinery, stealing diamonds, and then sneaking through a jungle and starting to argue with each other at a resort, leaving the audience wondering if they came to the wrong movie by accident; they came to see piranha wreaking havoc, not a criminal heist movie.

As a writer, keep the characters, plot, and action tied to the killer monster, even in the first scene: Imagine ‘Jaws’ without the opening attack; the film would have a much slower, less interesting start, and a bored audience will quickly become an audience that walks away.

Consider having the antagonist’s plan to use the monster backfire

Unlike most monster stories, where the beasts are either discovered or accidentally released to wreak havoc, ‘Killer Fish’ is unique in that the leader of the thieves release the piranha into the lake to guard ‘his’ diamonds, a refreshing change from the usual ‘monsters are accidentally released or are discovered’ storyline we frequently get. What’s great about this subversion (beyond giving the main antagonist an admittingly clever idea for guarding the treasure) is that it also sets up the inevitable moment where the antagonist is done in by their own plan, which is always a crowd pleaser.

Unless you’re going for a jumpscare, foreshadow big events in your story

When the piranha finally claim their first victim, the moment we’ve been waiting a half hour to see, it happens so quickly that – aside from seeing some terrifying bubbles – there’s no foreshadowing of the piranha’s attack. We, the audience, expect that the diver will go down, there’ll be a minute or two before something happens, and… oh, wait. He’s already being attacked. Nevermind.

There’s something to be said about giving audiences what they want in a monster film, but it’s important to remember that building up to the carnage makes the payoff even sweeter. Knowing that they’re finally on the verge of seeing the juicy bits lets creators ratchet up the tension and suspense before a monster attacks. This also applies to non-monster attacks; “Killer Fish’ features a tornado that destroys a dam, unleashing a tidal wave. The problem is, there’s no foreshadowing, or even hints about the tornado’s appearance, making it feel like something the script threw in to keep the plot moving, instead of a well-thought out event that feels logical and not a Diabolus ex Machina.

Consider having your character’s place of refuge slowly fall apart around them

Much like ‘Deep Blue Sea’ 19 years later, ‘Killer Fish’ smartly has the characters trapped in a location that’s slowly sinking, meaning that if they don’t find a way to escape to shore, they’re doomed to a terrible, fishy death. By preventing them from just sitting around and waiting for rescue, the story ensures that they have to stay active and work hard to ensure their survival, which keeps things moving forward. Even better, almost all those on board are thieves who want the diamonds and are willing to betray each other to get them, making their interactions more interesting than ordinary people just trying to stay alive.

Consider having your jerk have one completely selfless moment of compassion for others

Ollie the photographer is a pretty standard camera snob who’s only interested in getting his shots throughout the film (but with Brazil’s gorgeous scenery, can you blame him?). But in a smart move, Ollie does get one good moment on the sinking boat where he tries and help an injured crewmember without any ulterior motives. While he’s not the standard, ‘heartless, smug professional who’s not interested in helping others’ type, it is a nice, effective redemption moment for him.

Having a selfless moment for your own jerk characters allows you to make them more interesting: Imagine a snob who is mean to everyone they meet throughout your story. They insult, put down, and offend everyone they can, just because they can. Then, imagine that they’re seen handing out food and supplies to the homeless in subzero weather without any regard to their own comfort. Though it won’t automatically make them a well-rounded, compelling character, such opposites will help in developing them, and maintain the interest of the audience.

Consider having two characters who hate each others guts declare a truce during a bigger disaster

It’s always interesting to see character who hate each other’s guts being forced to work together, which is what happens with Robert and Paul, who have to put aside their desire to kill each other to survive piranha who want to kill them both… at least, until they can both survive long enough to try and kill each other again.

While mutual survival is the most common reason for enemies to work together, writers have a great opportunity to try many different things with such a relationship:

*The two can learn to like each other and become friends.

*The two work to irritate each other as much as possible.

*The two gain a begrudging respect for one another that lasts after the crisis has passed.

*The two still try to kill each other at every available moment.

*The two immediately fall in love and marry each other (not likely)

The possible outcomes for such a relationship are almost endless; few storytelling techniques leave your audience completely in the dark on what can happen, making for compelling drama, comedy, or whatever genre you want to explore.

If you’re doing a monster story, have the monsters be the focus of said story

Perhaps the biggest error ‘Killer Fish’ makes is that it’s not a movie about killer fish: it’s a film about thieves betraying each other and trying to get some diamonds while having to deal with the inconvenience of piranha stopping them from getting away with said diamonds. Most of the film revolves around them betraying each other, with the aquatic menace being regulated to a subplot, instead of the other way around.

No matter your genre, remember to keep the focus on what your audience came to see, whether it’s monsters, a natural disaster, aliens, etc. To use ‘Jaws’ as an example again, imagine if the film revolved around Brody and Co. fighting to save Amity’s only seafood restaurant, with them having to fight the shark to retrieve the sunken deed to the building. Yes, they’d still blow it up, but at the end of the day it would be about saving a restaurant, not saving Amity from a killer shark. Audiences would be disappointed that they didn’t get a shark-focused story, and would be angry at having been tricked into seeing a story about saving a restaurant.

The Takeaway

When doing a monster movie, keep everything focused on the monster, including opening with a tease of its fearsome abilities, foreshadowing its appearance later on (along with any other disasters that might occur). When everything falls apart, consider having your character’s place of safety slowly fall apart, forcing two characters who hate each other to work together for survival, giving a jerk a chance to do one truly selfless, charitable act.

Favorite Moments: ‘Let’s do this!’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Video

‘Super Best Sisters Play – Shadow the Hedgehog’ (skip to 6:57)

Why it’s Great

Ah, the good old fashioned showdown: the protagonist/s and antagonist/s all gather together for one, last, decisive fight to see which side will be victorious. It’s a no-holds-barred beatdown, where no quarter is given, and none is expected. It will be bloody. It will be vicious. It will be cruel.

Unless it isn’t.

In this animated playthrough of ‘Shadow the Hedgehog’, we get a showdown between cute cartoon characters in prison, with their respective tough guy leaders readying for a fight, finally ending with two sides readying to unleash the pain… and then Shadow and his arch-nemesis just stand around for a few seconds before bouncing off each other in the most anti-climactic way possible, followed by almost everyone bouncing around as bright, colorful balls instead of stabbing each other as we expected.

What’s so effective about this scene is how the buildup is used for comedic effect: it makes the viewer  think they’re going to get an awesome fight, only to have it dissolve into a wimp battle that couldn’t be sillier if it tried. Comedy gold.

What We Can Learn from ‘Sharknado’

Sharknado poster

Every so often, an idea comes to Hollywood: an idea that changes the world of cinema forever, that revolutionizes the artform, that makes people look at life through a new perspective.

Sharknado is one of those movies.

Okay, perhaps it’s not a life-changer. It may not make it onto AFI’s top 100 movies of all times list, but there’s no denying that in a genre as stuffed as the killer shark one, the idea of shark-filled tornadoes stands out, and somehow lasted for six films, featuring mech suits, worldwide devastation, sending the sharks into outer space, and even time travel. It’s impressive that a goofy, made-for-tv movie turned into a series that lasted as long as it did.

With that said, let’s take a look at where it all began, and see what we can learn from one of the goofiest shark films ever made.

No monster, no matter how outrageous, is out of bounds when it comes to storytelling

We’ve had robot sharks, snow sharks, countless giant sharks, and even multi-headed sharks in fiction over the years. In a crowded genre, you need to really work to stand out, and Sharknado manages this with a premise that is as impossible as it is cool.

A good rule of thumb: If your monster/disaster idea makes people stop and do a double take, that’s a good thing, because they’ll want to know how such an outlandish beast could work out.

Consider making your protagonist a well-meaning loser

While he would later become the stoic everyman who’s thrust into increasingly absurd scenarios, protagonist Fin Shepard isn’t all that memorable here, along with most of the characters. While he is divorced and risks everything to save his family from the sharks, Finn feels like so many other protagonists we’ve seen in these types of films over the years, and does little to stand out, being upstaged by Gerald. At first glance, he appears to be a stereotypical middle-aged drunk and womanizer, but we soon learn that he’s a lonely man who’s too old to enjoy surfing anymore, the one joy he had in his life. Furthermore, instead of being a coward who runs at the first sign of trouble, he stays and does what he can to help. These contrasts make him interesting, and one of the people I was hoping would make it to the end. (Sadly, bar stools just aren’t enough to keep hungry sharks at bay.)

The takeaway? Protagonists who care about their family are easy to do, but well-meaning losers can be far more interesting.

Be cautious with padding action sequences

About halfway through the film, Sharknado has a brief police chase, in which Fin and other survivors fight to reach his daughter while outrunning the cops. While it’s understandable that a father would do anything to reach his daughter, it’s an odd sequence for a film about sharks in tornadoes.

While it’s inevitable that you may have to pad your story at some point to kill time, try making it appropriate to the style of the story. In this instance, the chase scene could have started off with the police chasing Fin, only to then run away with him as sharks start chasing both vehicles.

Save the big event for the climax

Sharknado deserves credit for resisting the urge to unleash its title creation early in the film, instead slowly building up to the big event via the hurricane, then flooding, and then finally unleashing the title monster at the end, and then amping it up even more by having not one, not two, but three sharknadoes for our protagonists to deal with. Had the film unleashed the sharknado in the first act, or even the second, then it would have felt like it was climaxing too early.

Like monster movies, it’s a wise idea to start slowly in our disaster movies and slowly build up to the main event with ever-escalating events, whether it’s natural disasters or monsters out to gobble up everyone in your group. If you must have the disaster/monster show up early, consider having it only appear briefly, and then have it inflict the most damage in the third act.

Keep your focus on the climax once it starts.

When the climax of your story kicks into high gear, all other concerns become secondary: When the Titanic hit the iceberg, Rose and Jack focus everything on surviving. When the meteor in Deep Impact is less than an hour from hitting the earth, all efforts go towards survival or tying up one final loose end before death comes, and when the Death Star is about to blow up Yavin in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, everyone puts everything aside to deal with it. In Sharknado’s case, Fin and friends focus their attention on stopping the three sharknadoes from devouring Los Angeles.

However, while Fin and the others construct bombs to drop into the sharknadoes, the film slows down to give Nova time to detail her backstory and why she doesn’t like sharks. While character development is always good, putting her past here was a mistake: We want to see our heroes take on the sharknadoes, and stopping to learn about someone’s backstory puts the brakes on that excitement.

When letting us learn about your characters, their motivations, and what makes them tick, do so in the first two thirds of your story. If you’re about to do the climax of your story, and we still don’t know or care about your characters, your chances of helping us do so are low.

Chainsaws are always awesome

Though they may be impractical as weapons in real life, chainsaws are one of the most awesome weapons a character can wield in fiction: it’s noisy, intimidating, and satisfies the primal bloodlust of have a weapon that can obliterate an opponent and leave you looking like a badass. In other words, chainsaws are cool, and Sharknado doesn’t disappoint in its most famous scene, where Finn, to save his daughter, shoves her to safety and leaps into the mouth of a great White Shark, carving it up and slicing his way free from the inside, saving his girlfriend in the process. It’s ludicrous, awesome, and funny all at once, and arguably wouldn’t have worked with any other weapon.

In your own stories, as long as it isn’t out of place with the tone (such as a story that’s trying to be as realistic as possible), having your characters wield a chainsaw in combat is all but guaranteed to get your audience’s attention and end up with them thinking, ‘hell yeah!’ at seeing the antagonist be dispatched with said weapon.

The takeaway:

When it comes to making monster stories, there’s no limit as to how ridiculous they can be, but take care to make sure we have interesting characters to fight them, while doing a steady buildup to the monster’s big rampage scene (being careful not to pad the story too much, or giving background when it’s not appropriate), and making sure the story focuses on that rampage when we reach that point, preferably with a chainsaw or equally awesome weapon.