The Film That Ate the Internet: A Chat with "Sharknado" Screenwriter Thunder Levin
Emily Koopman: So, before I get into anything else, I feel like it's inevitable that I ask a question or two about the infamous Sharknado. I went into watching the film expecting to dislike it – but I ended up absolutely loving it! (Though I kind of wish it was based on a true story.) Was it something that you pitched, or were you assigned to it? How did you land the job?
Thunder Levin: It is based on a true story. At least loosely. LOL. There are many documented cases of fish falling from the sky miles inland after powerful storms over the ocean. I just took it to its (perfectly logical) extreme.
This was a job that was assigned to me. I’d just finished American Warships for the Asylum and everyone was very happy with it (except Universal Studios, of course!) and we were trying to decide what my next project would be. The Asylum asked me if I wanted to write Shark Storm, which I turned down. But a month later they came back with this crazy concept called Sharknado, about a tornado full of sharks. I told them it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard of, and as long as I could write it that way, I’d love to do it.
Emily: How many rewrites did it take?
Thunder: Hmm… Let me check. (Rummages through dusty computer files.) Well, there are 9 different versions in my files. But most of those involved very minor changes. They made me take out all the landshark jokes and reduce the Jaw references, and a couple of other things. But my first draft isn’t all that different from the approved draft. Anthony Ferrante made some pretty significant changes to the first half of the movie to make it more doable on a low budget, but he kept to the spirit of my material and tried to use it, even if it was in a new location or circumstance. For example, in the script, Fin’s bar was on the beach. He moved it to the pier. I had them rescuing Baz from the hospital after his shark bite. In the movie, Baz stayed in the bar and didn’t need to be rescued, so where I had them jamming an oxygen tank from the hospital into the shark’s mouth and blowing it up, they changed that to a helium tank on the pier. I didn’t have a car chase in the script. I’m still not quite sure why that’s in there, but it was all in the proper spirit of fun.
Emily: What would you do if you were faced with a Sharknado?
Thunder: Well, the way I tend to write is to put myself in the role of the hero and ask “What would I do if I were this guy?” So, the movie basically tells you what I would do. Sort of.
Emily: A lot of the films you've written (and directed!) seem to have a similar feel to them – what's the secret to writing these kind of movies? (IE: Sharknado, Mutant Vampires)
Thunder: I’m not sure I’d say “a lot”. Sharknado and Mutant Vampire Zombies From The ‘Hood! certainly have a similar feel to them. But American Warships and AE: Apocalypse Earth are very different from the other two. The secret to writing something like Sharknado or MVZFTH! is to make sure that the bizarre, unbelievable circumstance remains completely real to the characters. The characters themselves must never wink at the audience. They must always believe that whatever ridiculous thing is happening to them is actually happening. Then if the filmmakers want to wink at the audience, and share a sense of fun, the suspense and tension remains alongside the comedy, without ever devolving into farce. It’s a very fine line, and very difficult to maintain.
Emily: Where do your ideas come from?
Thunder: In an alternate dimension there’s another version of me who’s very talented. Every once in a while, a portal opens between universes and he throws some of his ideas through on crumpled pieces of paper (the internet doesn’t work cross-dimensionally). Then I type them up and pretend I thought of them.
Emily: How do you handle criticism?
Thunder: Very poorly.
Emily: As a screenwriting student, pitching has been a nightmare of a class for me. What's it like for you and how do you stay composed?
Thunder: I hate pitching. Hate, hate, hate!!!! It’s the worst part of the writing process for me. And honestly, it’s an art I’m still learning. It’s probably the weakest aspect of my work. Staying composed is easy enough if I really know my material. But telling it in a compelling way, when I only have a few minutes to convey a 2 hour-long story, and telling it in a way that will make an exec think it’s commercial (when no one really knows what that means!), is tricky. Since Sharknado hit, I’ve been doing a lot more pitching, but I’m not sure I’m really getting any better at it. My only advice is to know your material, hit its strong points clearly, and be really enthusiastic.
Emily: Do you have a specific writing method?
Thunder: I use a computer. Seriously though, your question is very broad. How do I develop ideas? Or how do I take an idea to finished script? Or where do I work? When I’m working on my own ideas for a spec script, the method varies. Sometimes I’ll write the first few scenes to get to know the characters and setting a little and then I’ll go back and do an outline that will get me to the end. Sometimes I’ll go straight to an outline. But I’ll usually leave the outline pretty vague and try to just put myself in the world of the story and then write down what I see happening around me. When I’m writing on assignment, it’s much more structured. Usually I’ll write up a brief pitch which will be anywhere between one paragraph and one page and I’ll get feedback from whoever I’m writing for. We’ll discuss it, work out any differences we have, and then I’ll write a more detailed outline, which I hate. To me writing the detailed outline feels very abstract. Until I see what the characters say and do, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen beyond the broad strokes. But producers and execs usually want something like this before they feel comfortable paying for a script.
Emily: How often do you actually get to be on set (if you're not directing)?
Thunder: So far I’ve only written two movies that I didn’t direct. On 200 MPH I was on set for one day. On Sharknado I wasn’t on set at all because I was in Costa Rica directing AE Apocalypse Earth. The plan on Sharknado 2 is for me to be on set, or at least available to the set, most of the time. But New York is pretty cold in the winter, so we’ll have to see how that goes!
The truth is that, unless you have a specific job, sitting on a film set is one of the most boring things a human being can do, so I’m usually not that eager to visit the set unless there’s some actor I want to meet, or some particular scene I want to watch. And of course, watching another director “interpret” my material is fairly excruciating. Which is why I usually direct myself.
Emily: What's something that people would be surprised to know about you?
Thunder: After Sharknado, do you think people would really be surprised by anything?!
Actually, I suppose it would be that I’m actually very shy and introverted. When I do an interview or a public appearance, or even a meeting with a producer or an exec, I really have to work myself up for it, and afterwards I find I’m completely emotionally exhausted. But this is Hollywood, so I do what must be done. Oddly enough, the only time I don’t feel this way is when I’m on set directing. Then, being at the center of the whirlwind feels completely natural. That’s one of the ways I know it’s what I’m supposed to do.