Sharksploitation Filmmaker Stephen Scarlata Talks Jaws, His Love of Sharks, and More

Filmmaker Stephen Scarlata talks his love of sharks and developing Sharksploitation.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg changed the face of cinema with Jaws back in 1975, as its popularity was so tremendous, it helped coin the concept of a "blockbuster." The film's impact wasn't entirely positive, as it not only spread the fear of sharks to audiences around the world, but it also inspired countless imitators that all aimed to recreate that film's success. With the new documentary Sharksploitation, filmmaker Stephen Scarlata explores what it is about shark cinema that makes it such a popular subgenre, as well as diving into the real-world impact of these outings and the wealth of offerings out there. Sharksploitation debuts on Shudder on July 21st.

Sharksploitation is described, "In the wake of blockbuster classic Jaws, a new subgenre was born. This new documentary explores the weird, wild cinematic legacy of sharks on film and the world's undying fascination. The film features multiple interviews including Roger Corman, producer of Sharktopus and Dinoshark; Joe Dante, who directed Corman's Piranha; Carl Gottlieb, writer of Jaws, Jaws 2, and Jaws 3D; Johannes Roberts, director of 47 Meters Down, and Mario Van Pebbles, who starred in Jaws: The Revenge along with marine and environmental conservation advocate Wendy Benchley, who was married to late Jaws, author Peter Benchley. Produced by Scarlata, Kerry Deignan Roy (Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist), and Josh Miller (Sonic the Hedgehog), the feature-length documentary examines the sub-genre of sharksploitation films, from Corman's 1958 She Gods of Shark Reef, to the release of Jaws, and the subsequent knockoffs." caught up with Scarlata to talk his first experiences with the genre, the personal impact of developing the documentary, and more.

(Photo: Shudder) Do you remember the first time you watched Jaws and the impact it had on you? Also, do you remember the first Jaws ripoff that you watched that also had an impact on you?

Stephen Scarlata: The first time I saw Jaws, I didn't realize it at the time, but it was definitely one of the re-releases in the theater before it came on HBO, because that was another big deal, when it came on HBO. I saw the re-release. I'll never forget, because my mom never goes to the movies. I was in the theater with my mom and my dad. It blew my mind because I couldn't stop drawing shark fins or drawing sharks, and then because the movie would get re-released and be out in the theaters for a while, my dad would literally come home from work, six o'clock at night, and then just say, "Let's go see Jaws." We'd jump in a car and just go see Jaws, sit in a theater, and just watch it whenever, whatever scene was on.

I remember we walked in and the raft was on the beach, and my dad was like, "Oh, we missed Jaws eat the little boy." Before it came on HBO, my dad would take me all the time just to go see the re-release. My dad was in the Navy and all that stuff, so he loved aquatic adventure movies, but Jaws is what did it. Jaws is what made me obsessed with horror. 

I was always obsessed with horror films, before I can remember. That's a whole other topic, but Jaws is what got me obsessed with sharks and aquatic movies and it became a drug, where I had to chase the Jaws dragon by watching anything that had to deal with ocean and sharks. That's a huge impact.

The first Jaws ripoff, it's hard to pinpoint it. It was probably Piranha, I'm guessing. I know I saw Up from the Depths as a kid, also on cable. Probably Piranha was the first Jaws ripoff, and I loved it. That's another masterpiece, for sure. But at the time, I didn't realize there were Jaws ripoffs. It was just whatever I could watch that had a shark in it, whatever I could watch that had the ocean, like, terror in the ocean, I had to watch it because I had to see a shark. I f-cking needed to. Then I would take books out of the library that had sharks in it. I was obsessed. I was more obsessed with Jaws than Star Wars. 

Your love of sharks, your love of Jaws, and you being a documentary filmmaker, when did the inspiration strike you of, "This is a topic I want to fully immerse myself in because this is a topic that hasn't been covered with a documentary," the same way a zombie documentary or a slasher documentary has been covered? 

Well, doing a documentary, it was definitely ... Before Jodorowsky's Dune, I was going to write a book on shark movies and then I slowly came to the realization, I didn't know yet that I had dyslexia, but I knew I'm not going to be able to write a book on shark movies. It's not going to happen. I can't do it. But then when Jodorowsky's Dune premiered at Cannes, that's when it started to hit, because people started talking to me, like, "What do you want to do next?"

Then, just immediately, I just started saying, "Maybe a documentary on shark movies." I wasn't putting it a hundred percent together in my head how insanely difficult it would be, but I just knew when I made Jodorowsky's Dune, I was obsessed with [Alejandro] Jodorowsky's Dune, that I just wanted to live in it and research it, which I did a lot. So I knew the next project I had to do, I had to do something I knew I was going to be enjoying, immersing myself in. I'm obsessed with shark movies, so it just made sense, that should be my next thing. 

I was stoked to see Dr. Emily Zarka show up in your documentary because I'm a fan of her YouTube channel and I interviewed her about monsters a couple years ago, so I really appreciated seeing her.

She rules. Emily rules.

The amount of historical knowledge about, "Oh, what about a banshee?" and she can just rattle off the complete history of it.

Dude, some people want questions ahead of time and all this stuff. Her, just chilling in her sick library area of her home filled with Stephen King books, all kinds of horror stuff. It just would bring ... The scene in the movie about The Suicide Squad, she just brought up The Suicide Squad and I was like, "Can you talk about that a little bit?" Because I love shark-men, I wanted it to be a bigger part of the doc, but I wasn't able to. Then she just went off in that little thing that's in the movie that I love, and that's one of my favorite things in the movie. It's like, I love her describing that and it worked. She rules, Emily rules. That's all I'm going to say.

You bring up shark-men, was there part of you, given the fact that you were focusing on sharksploitation movies, that was upset that you didn't incorporate Street Sharks?

Yes, there was a lot. In front of me right now, I have boards with tons of index cards right now. It's my next two things I'm outlining, but it was all shark stuff and it was the history of sharks and all the subgenres and it bummed me out, that it's 90 years of history and being such a fanatic that I am, that was the hardest part, was when you had to start losing stuff. It was like, "Ah, there's just not enough time. I can't get to it." That was the hardest part.

And I'm not going to lie, it still haunts me to this day that there were things I couldn't get to because I'm such a fan and there was stuff we recorded, just couldn't get to it. But yeah, I wanted Street Sharks in it and I wanted stuff -- there was so much I wanted, but I had to just stick ... As we were moving along in post, and post was a fast thing, it was just like, whatever's working in the line, whatever's the most important needs to start going in. Trust me, there's a lot of stuff. I had a whole lot of stuff I wish I could have gotten to, but I just couldn't. 

Fingers crossed, once it breaks all the streaming numbers on Shudder, the demand for part two of Sharksploitation will allow you to explore that.

Volume two, I hope. 

You have so many incredible people in this documentary, is there someone that you were really, really hoping to get, that things, just timing or schedule or access, didn't work out?

There were a lot of people we wanted to get, but when you're doing a documentary, it's the timing, because people could be working on movies. There's people that might not be in state. It's very hard, catching, scheduling, and even getting in contact with people is very difficult, because unless you know someone and can get their personal email, if you go through their agents, you're never going to hear from them. It doesn't matter, like, "Hey, I have my letter. I did an Oscar-shortlist documentary. I'm not just some dude, and I respect cinema. I want to approach this with the amount of respect I did with Jodorowsky's Dune. I respect cinema and I'm not someone that wants to exploit. I just really want to tell and document stories." And it was very difficult.

I wish I could have had Spielberg because I didn't want to do a Jaws hate piece. That was the biggest thing, is I'm obsessed with Jaws. I love Jaws. Jaws is what inspired me to be a filmmaker, got me into the ocean. It got me into sharks, but you have to still touch on what it did. It's sharksploitation. You have to touch on it because I was terrified of sharks growing up. I still won't go in the ocean because of them, because of Jaws, but you have to touch on it. I really wanted him, just because I don't want to do it ... I would've loved to have heard his side. That was the one I wish I really could have got, but he's the biggest filmmaker in the world. He's one of the greatest filmmakers ever, and he made one of the greatest movies ever and he made it too f-cking good. He made it too damn good, that it freaked everybody out. If someone else made that movie, maybe we wouldn't have been so afraid of sharks. It was just that he is so f-cking good. 

When you watch these documentaries about the making of Jaws, they're so good in that, at every turn, you forget that the movie does actually get made, because they face so many disasters. You think it might as well be the Richard Stanley Island of Dr. Moreau documentary where it's like, "Oh, this is such a nightmare. This is going to be such a piece of garbage." And then you forget like, "Oh no, they completely pulled it off and Jaws is one of the greatest films of all time."

I like that movie, too, actually. I'm one of the rare people that like it. I remember I saw it, David Gregory's a f-cking phenomenal documentarian, and I remember when he premiered [Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau] at Beyond Fest, he's like, "Does anyone here even like the movie?" And I actually think I was the only one that raised my hand and I was embarrassed. I was like, "Oh, sh-t." 

It occupies a very specific space of mine in the '90s. This is coming from a guy who absolutely loves Congo, one of my favorite, most re-watched movies of all time. So there's definitely a soft spot for '90s schlock that are big-budget, summer, "this is going to be the next blockbuster" movies, but then it just completely misses the mark and is not quite Jurassic Park.

No, I hear you. I think we are wired differently. Before I could remember, I loved horror movies. My dad showed me Horror Express when I was a kid. I don't remember watching it, but it got me obsessed with horror films. So that's all I watched. My whole life of growing up watching constant horror films, I think I've always just been able to turn off my brain and accept movies for what they are. I think Yor, the Hunter from the Future was the first time I noticed a movie wasn't good.

I was like, "Wow. I get now why people are saying this isn't a good movie." And I think that's why a lot of people can't believe like, "You watch Asylum movies? You watch these Wild Eye Releasing shark movies? They're not good and the effects aren't good." But I was like, I don't know, my brain is wired that I can just enjoy them without judging certain things about them. Maybe I'm lucky that I could withstand just enjoying things that other people can't. And also, they're getting made for a reason. People are watching them. But I don't know, I think just from an early age, I always just can handle stuff. I saw Congo opening weekend, I thought it was pretty cool. There was some dark sh-t in that movie. 

Back to sharks, you had this passion for sharks your whole entire life, you make this movie about sharks, covering myths and science and conservation and exploitation. Do you think the process of making this movie has changed your relationship with sharks at all? Whether it be you're even burnt out on sharks, you love them even more, you're seeing them through a different lens?

I got way more sensitive towards sharks, working on it, to the point ... Since I started making this documentary, I can't go fishing anymore. I used to love fishing. I stopped eating fish, I stopped eating meat while working on this documentary. I'll never be able to fish again. I could never take a fish and put a hook in its mouth and throw it in the ocean. 

The first time I ever saw a shark, I was seasick fishing and I threw up on it, actually. I took an edible, I shouldn't have done that. And I think that's what made me really nauseous. Then I threw up when I saw -- everyone was like, "There's a shark," and I was vomiting overboard so I couldn't even experience it very well.

There's some violence towards sharks in the doc and we trimmed a lot of it out because it's just ... I can't watch Shark Week anymore because I can't watch sharks being tagged. It affects me. When I see a shark getting pulled out of the water onto a boat and then getting tagged, I can't watch it. I'm very sensitive towards them after making this documentary. I still won't really go in the ocean because I'm terrified, but that's the thing, man: it's their home. 

But yeah, I love sharks. I'm way more sensitive towards them since I've done this documentary. They've made me way more sensitive towards them. 

I don't want to totally put you on the spot to name your top five, top 10 shark movies, but generally speaking, just as a fan of shark movies, are you more of a fan of 6-Headed Shark Attack, more a fan of the sharksploitation or, when you are watching a movie and it's something like Open Water or The Shallows or 47 Meters Down, where they stick to the more genuine, realistic shark behavior? Which side of that spectrum do you connect with more?

During the process of this movie, it's not a public list, but I tried to start making a list on Letterboxd of all the shark movies I'm watching and how I feel about them. I only got up to around 60 shark movies, because there's over 200 shark movies. I made an Excel sheet when I was working on this movie and I counted.

Let me see ... Yeah, there's over 200 shark movies. Maybe close to 250, actually. It's weird, it's all over the map. Everyone's favorite shark movie is Jaws. I get it. 

It's definitely Deep Blue Sea. I love The Last Shark, I love The Shallows, I love 47 Meters Down. I love that movie that came out last year, Shark Bait. I love Red Water, I love Ghost Shark, and I like the first Sharknado, I think that movie's great.

I like them all, to be honest. The thing I miss is when Sharknado was on the SYFY channel and, every year, a new Sharknado came out, SYFY did a Sharknado Week. Every night was a new shark movie premiere, and that's where I noticed Misty Talley, who's in the movie. I reached out to her immediately after I saw Mississippi River Sharks. I was like, "This movie's a blast," and I reached out to her and she's in the doc.

Planet of the Sharks, I saw in there, which was Waterworld with sharks. I like them all, to be honest. I liked Cocaine Shark, I think Mark Polonia did this really fun f-cking movie. There's like a dope voiceover through it. I'll watch them all, dude. To be honest, I'll watch any shark movie. I don't enjoy them, I just love them. 

But I am hyped as f-ck for Meg 2. And when you said, "Am I burnt out?" I think the moment I finished the movie, I was burnt out. And then Black Demon came out and I had to watch it, and now I'm like, "All right, now I got to start watching a couple other ones I hadn't watched the first few months." But I'm hyped for Meg 2, I'm so hyped. I think I was burned out for maybe a couple of months, but now I'm back in it. 

I don't love the original The Meg, but just the fact that this is Ben Wheatley doing The Meg, just the fact that Ben Wheatley has a budget. In the Earth was the last movie he made, and I'm sure this budget is, no exaggeration, 200 times more than what he had on In the Earth.

Dude, he is a phenomenal filmmaker. He almost did Tomb Raider, I think. I'm so happy he did The Meg because Tomb Raider didn't end up coming out anyway. But at least we're getting him doing The Meg. I keep forgetting he did it, and that's another bonus to it. But, besides, another freaking [Jason] Statham movie, I'm f-cking hyped. F-cking Statham here, man. Expendables Four and Fast X and The Meg

Sharksploitation debuts on Shudder on July 21st.

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