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INTERVIEW: John Gulager (Piranha 3DD)

Director John Gulager has a rather unique career inception story. That of a reality TV show star. Gulager first came to attention as the winner – and thus focus – of the third season of HBO/Bravo’s ambitious reality series, Project Greenlight. If you’re not aware, the third season was about the production of the horror semi-classic Feast, written by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton and director by Gulager. It was also the only film Project Greenlight produced that was at all successful financially. Feast has two sequels, both directed by Gulager. And now Gulager has moved on from his horror franchise to pick up where Alexandre Aja left off with the fledgling Piranha 3D franchise.

Gulager is my favorite kind of horror director to talk with. He’s a consummate fan of the genre — he isn’t faking or pandering. And he isn’t bitterly waiting until he can get a gig directing a “real” film. These are the kinds of films he wants to be making.

Josh: What state was this project at when you came on board?

Gulager: Nothing. Bob [Weinstein, head of Dimension Films] said, “Piranha. You wanna do it?” He had come up with the title. And that was it. And that’s what kinda sold me. That’s horrible. But I was like, that’s kinda cool, you know, in its stupidity.

Josh: And embracing stupidity was certainly part the fun of the first film.

Gulager: I loved the first movie. I actually went to see it twice at the theater, before any of this ever happened.

Josh: The first film was a remake of Joe Dante’s Piranha

Gulager: Vaguely!

Josh: I’m curious, did you give any thought to James Cameron’s original sequel? (Cameron directed 1981’s Piranha II: The Spawning.)

Gulager: Well, yeah, no.

Josh: That film had flying piranhas.

Gulager: And we thought about that. We thought about the flying piranhas. But we didn’t want to go that far that fast [with the franchise.] And I ran into Joe Dante – and its kind of embarrassing – but I said “I’m going to be doing this sequel to the new Piranha movie that came out recently.” And he goes, “Hmm.” Then he goes, “Well, it’s all Jaws. Good luck.” (laughs) So, since the first film was always just a rip-off of Jaws, our joke is that we did Jaws 3D. Instead of the good one, we ripped off the bad one! So instead of Sea World we did a little mom’n’pop water park. In our minds that’s a huge joke, but I think it is neither here nor there as far as the movie goes.

Josh: The film is actually more of a follow-up to Piranha 3D than I was expecting.

Gulager: In sequels, a lot of the main characters don’t really want to come back. There’s also a money thing involved. I’ve been involved with sequels before. With Feast 2 — we wrote a version that was all straight-on sequel, starting right from the end of the first Feast. But not everyone came back, so it became what it became. And its fun! But it wasn’t what we actually set out to do. So with [Piranha 3DD] I was pretty aware of that already. A lot of people weren’t coming back, so it was just a different animal. Luckily Christopher Lloyd came back. Ving came back. And the thing about Ving [who died in the previous film]. I went back and watched Piranha 3D. So you see him going down in the water, but it cuts away to the deputy going, “Noooo!” So you never really see him die. He actually left a message on Bob Weinstein’s phone. “This is Ving. You didn’t see me die in Piranha 3D. Rhames.” So there you go.

Josh: So he was actually vying to be in the sequel?

Gulager: Oh yeah.

Josh: Was David Hasselhoff always going to be the celebrity guest star?

Gulager: Yeah. At the very, very, very beginning, before there was a script or anything like that, a lot of names were thrown out for possible celebrities to get munched. Because that was a possible direction the film might take. I said, look, we should take Hasselhoff but make him a real part, not just a cameo. Now originally this was all going to be kind of secret. But its all come out already. Originally I thought [the audience] would go in assuming he’d just get killed [immediately.] And then that’d be it. But no, wait a minute, he’s a regular part! That kind of thing. But he was in it from the beginning. Every script had him in it. He hadn’t said yes yet. In fact, I think he said no. And we were like, “No! What are we gonna do?!” Then he said yes.

Josh: It seems like Hasselhoff is trying to out pace William Shatner, as far as the number of times he has played himself in things, making fun of his famous TV personae. But this one was shockingly honest, making fun not just of his Baywatch image, but acknowledging his less than flattering public image. Particularly that we first see him drinking in his crappy hotel room.

Gulager: I don’t think we were mean about it. And here, in his weird way, he is kind of a hero. Not in a big way. But in a little way. He’s also the voice of the audience. “I can’t believe they went back in [the water].”

Josh: One of the more famous – or should I say infamous – moments from Piranha 3D was when Jerry O’Connell gets his dick bitten off. Did you feel that since that already happened in the first film, you had a free license to get as depraved as you wanted?

Gulager: Yeah. And we have a nod to that in our film too. We give a nod to a lot of things.

Josh: Did they ever ask you to tone anything down?

Gulager: In the beginning stages of a script, there’s always all kinds of crazy things that happen. They’ll be like, “Oh do one without nudity.” “Do one without piranhas.” Then all that stuff gets worked out. It has to do with just starting a project. But it eventually became what it needed to be. Piranhas. Nudity.

Josh: Wait… was that a joke? Or was there ever a version where they didn’t want piranhas?

Gulager: That’s true.

Josh: What on Earth did they want instead of piranhas?

Gulager: Oh, not no piranhas. Just less piranhas.

Josh: Okay. That is far less ridiculous. What was the location you shot at? I assume that was a real water park.

Gulager: Yes. And as you can guess, we got turned down by a lot of water parks. They’d be all, “Great!” Until they read the script. One was a Christian themed water park. We’d shot at this park for Feast 2, shot a little bit going down these slides that were supposed to be underground tubes. And so we knew about it, but when we went back there it had since gone out of business and then become a Christian water park. Needless to say, they weren’t too into it. And not just cause of the script, but because they thought people would think we were talking about the real kids working there. They would be besmirched. We went to water parks all around the country. Some would get excited, “Oh we had a movie shoot here before!” Look at script. “Oh you can’t do this.” We ended up in Wilmington, North Carolina. We shot at a place called Jungle Rapids.

Josh: Was this an instance where you had to shoot off-season? Forcing the actors to walk around in swimming suits and act like it is nice out, but in reality it is freezing?

Gulager: No, the weather was exceptionally nice. Though there were were actually tornadoes that happened [in the area.] Killed several people. But where we were it was good.

John Gulager is the son of veteran character actor Clu Gulager (Return of the Living Dead, The Killers), who is also a beloved fixture in the Los Angeles repertory movie theater scene — 90% of the time I go the New Beverly Cinema, Clu is there, front row.

Josh: Last question. How much did or didn’t growing up seeing you dad in horror films influence your desire to make horror films?

Gulager: With horror I was probably way more into them than dad. Dad is more into the world cinema stuff. Loves all movies. He’s the biggest film geek of all of us. Did you see him at the screening [of Piranha 3DD]?

Josh: I did.

Gulager: His white head bobbing around in the front row. He loves movies. (whispers) He doesn’t even watch TV. People give him DVD players. He puts them outside in the rain. He doesn’t want to hurt there feelings, but he likes going to the movie theater. He goes to the New Bev. The Arclight. The Chinese. The Nuart. And he walks there! Which is the crazy part. [Clu is 83] But he used to bring home movies, when I was a kid. Show them in the backyard for all the kids in the neighborhood. 16mm. All the Creature From the Black Lagoon films, you know. King Kong Vs Godzilla. Anything with a monster or anything with horror [he knew I liked.] One day he brought home Snow White for my birthday, and I wouldn’t watch it. “No way!” But he put it on in the backyard and I slowly crept in. And, you know, it was great. But he would judge these horror marathons, these 72-hour things with Wolfman Jack and Fofrest Ackerman, and they would judge the costume contest. So I would go to those. That’s how I first saw Freaks. I was always in love with monster movies. More monster movie than horror movie, if that makes sense. Now I love them all, but back then I really loved the extreme make-up and rubber costumes.

At this point in the interview I can’t help but look down and realize that there has been a giant, sinister looking piranha puppet sitting on the coffee table the whole time.

Piranha 3DD opens in theaters Friday, June 1.