Great White Director Martin Wilson on Breathing New Life Into the Ocean-Based Horror Film

For as long as humans have been venturing out into the ocean, people have been afraid of sharks, knowing that we're in their domain and that any wrong move could come with disastrous results. Back in 1975, Steven Spielberg took the terror to a new level with his adaptation of Peter Benchley's novel Jaws, which set the standard of what could be accomplished in shark-themed thrillers. Filmmaker Martin Wilson, however, rose to the challenge of finding new ways to explore stories set on the water, with his new film Great White not only honoring what Speilberg accomplished, but also finding new perspectives and themes to explore to craft an entirely new experience. Great White hits theaters, On Demand, and Digital July 16th.

In Great White, a blissful tourist trip turns into a nightmare when five seaplane passengers are stranded miles from shore. In a desperate bid for survival, the group tries to make it to land before they either run out of supplies or are taken by a menacing terror lurking just beneath the surface. The film stars Katrina Bowden (30 Rock, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil) Aaron Jakubenko (Tidelands), Kimie Tsukakoshi (Riptide), Tim Kano (Neighbours), and TeKohe Tuhaka (Love and Monsters, The Dead Lands).

ComicBook.com caught up with Wilson to talk about developing the film, the challenges of the shoot, and capturing the spirit of the adventure.

great white movie martin wilson director interview
(Photo: Shudder/RLJE Films)

ComicBook.com: You're in Australia now and you grew up in Australia. I'm in America, so my connection to sharks is different than someone from Australia. Growing up, what was your connection to these fish?

Martin Wilson: Well, in Australia, we're an island, we're surrounded by water everywhere, and we go to the ocean a lot because it's hot. So there's always a lurking danger of great whites. It's huge here. People get taken year-round, so there's always that threat. And you take your life into your own hands when you go in the water. It's just the way it is. It's almost an accepted thing. It's a pretty radical way of thinking, but I mean, the chances are slim, but it's there. It's always there. There's always the joke in the water, or someone doing the Jaws theme.

You mention Jaws, and that's not only a seminal shark-horror movie, but it's one of the greatest movies of all time, I would say.

Absolutely.

When it came time to tell your own shark-horror movie, what were the things that you wanted to honor about that subgenre and what were the things that you really wanted to do differently to set this movie apart?

That's an awesome question, Patrick. I think you don't go out to retread Jaws. It's impossible. It's the highest watermark. It's one of the greatest movies of all time. It's one of my favorite films. It's timeless for me, timeless.

For me, though, when you're doing a film on the water, action-adventure, and you've got 25 days, what do you do? You go back to all your heroes, all your favorite filmmakers, your Hitchcocks, your Steven Spielbergs, your John Carpenters, these types of guys. Dr. George Miller [from] Australia. They just understood low-budget filmmaking and suspense. And that's what you do. You're trying to screw with people's expectations, suspense-wise, keep that going. And, hopefully, you achieve that.

The point of difference is a really good question, because when you look at the film, I guess we were showcasing Northern Australia, tropical Australia. The landscape in the ocean for me was a big character in the movie with a tight, small cast. But how do you expand that? How do you elevate the genre? So I was thinking, "Okay, let's look at the landscape, let's look at the ocean."

Tropical Australia hasn't really been represented in a shark film before. So you've got that. It's beautiful, it's beguiling, it's epic. It's the shoreline. Then the water, it's so beautiful and inviting. What lurks underneath? What's going on under there? So you have all of those elements and then you have the sense of climate change, what's happening to the environment. And I wanted to give character, a sound-theme element to the ocean. We used a lot of whale cries, which are very sad and ethereal. And it's like, what have we done to the ocean?

There's a scene where Joji throws, absentmindedly, just chucks a bottle, a plastic water bottle into the ocean. And that's a little moment where we're saying, "Look at what we've done." Everything's out of whack, which means the sharks aren't these crazy monster villains. They're motivated. Their eating patterns and everything else, their environment has been shuffled and moved out of place. So they're acting out of their normality, so that's all motivated. There's all these elements of ... I try to give a point of difference. And, of course, getting those nuanced characters that you care about on a raft, like Hitchcock's Lifeboat. So you're trying to have all those elements.

If you were able to do, say, a triple feature, where Great White was one of the films in this triple feature, what do you think the other two movies would be to really help people get in the mindset of your film?

Well, I guess it's going into what your tastes are and what gets you excited in the cinema or whatever. All those films I spoke about are claustrophobic in a way and full of suspense and set in the dark, like The Thing, or like Aliens, or these types of movies, where ... They're not shark films, they're suspense/thrillers. They're survival thrillers.

That's what Great White is. It's a survival thriller. What goes on in the elements? You look at films like The Grey, for example, with the wolves. There are all these types of films that are epic survival thrillers. What would you do as a human being put into these extraordinary circumstances? That's very much what this film was about.

Growing up in Australia, being an Australian filmmaker, I feel like there's something different that I can't necessarily point out, because I'm in America, I'm used to American filmmakers telling stories about these animals. You mentioned showcasing Australia as a landscape, but is there something you notice that American filmmakers do with shark movies that are different from what you want to do?

I think everyone's got a different perspective, don't they, as filmmakers, and we all look towards the people that have made films before you. And what are their techniques and how do they do stuff? Then you have your own upbringing and your own knowledge and your own, I guess, unique look at the world because you grow up somewhere different.

You're trying to emulate the best parts of all those other filmmakers and what they've done with shark films. And there's been two really good ones. Obviously, Jaws. Then you have The Shallows, which I thought was really good. That was shot in Australia. Then you have 47 Meters Down. Those two have been pretty good shark films, I reckon, and pretty good at the way they use the camera in the water and those low-lens things. Of course, Spielberg set up all the stuff with the legs dangling. That's an expectation, in a way. But if you do it okay, then you get through it. Because it does, let's be honest, it does build tension.

It's a really fascinating question. What are the different perspectives of filmmakers? You look at say The Road Warrior, which was called "Mad Max 2" in Australia. The end sequence, which is an incredible end sequence, a visceral, what Hitchcock used to call "pure cinema." That is an Australian look at an action film at the end. It's been copied so many times by other filmmakers, yet that was Dr. George Miller, an amazing filmmaker. He really knows the craft backwards, an incredible filmmaker.

I was looking at those types of guys as well. I was looking at Duel. What an amazing movie that is for me to watch over and over again. The suspense that Spielberg just wrings out of that. And I encourage every filmmaker to watch the DVD, behind the scenes, where Spielberg does an interview. It's just a fascinating look at how he did that in 12 days or whatever, just amazing. He talks about how he had Hitchcock on his shoulder when he was making that.

I would say that the ways in which Great White really shows restraint in showing the titular shark, it is very reminiscent of Jaws, in the sense that it's not necessarily about the shark, it's about the people who are trying to survive the shark and their dynamic. Was there much evolution of these characters or the story from the script, once you found the performers? Or was it pretty much what the script was on the page being brought to life for the movie?

Because we knew we had 25 days, we knew we had to really drill down on these characters and keep evolving them. Right down to when you're shooting, and I'm sure this happens all the time, but I was so mindful that these guys had to ... They had to have something to play, because it helps you working with the actors. If they're getting immersed and involved in the characters, in the story, you're only going to get a better movie.

So I was working with Michael Boughen on the script, the writer. And then I wrote a bunch of bios and questions and deep, back histories for the characters. And those elements, they keep seeping into the characters and seeping into the script as much as I could. So those periods where they're just on the raft, we had those, I guess, real fears and real emotions come through. And that despite hating Joji, [I wanted it] to feel like everything he did was motivated by something. It wasn't just, "Oh, we need a villain." You know what I mean? Because it's so much more interesting if these reactions and these behaviors are based on his own fears and traumas.

We've talked about a few different shark films and shark franchises and, something like Open Water got a bunch of sequels, Deep Blue Sea got a bunch of sequels. 47 Meters Down, that got sequel. Narratively, it's easier to see, "Okay, super-smart sharks. That's how we continue this Deep Blue Sea narrative." When it comes to Great White, for example, could you see a Great White 2 or an expansion of this concept? And what do you think that would be? What would that core element of your film, how could that potentially be replicated with a follow-up?

Well, you never say never when people do those types of ... when these franchises appear. And you get it, you understand why they do it. So maybe, into the future, if the market demands that and the producers go forward with something else, which is a great way, too, for example. Maybe it's based around the two ... I'm not going to give away how the ending works and how you move forward with that. I would build it on how the film ends and goes further if they were to ever do that. But, I guess you never say never. And it's always up to those guys, and they can take it forward.

Hey, I know some of the characters are not too far off from an island. Let's say they land on an island and it turns out it's Mad Max: Fury Road. And you can collaborate with Mr. George Miller and you got a picture.

Oh yeah. I love your thinking, Patrick. Nice work, man.

*****

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Great White hits theaters, On Demand, and Digital July 16th.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.