Obliterating the Rules, Bleeding Budgets and Running and Gunning on Location in New York

It's back! Syfy's shark-infested waterspout of a TV movie, Sharknado, was an instant cult classic and social-media phenomenon when it aired last summer. The franchise returns July 30 to the cable channel—and simultaneously in more than 80 countries—in an overstuffed, chainsaw-slicing sequel. Sharknado 2: The Second Oneagain produced by L.A.'s Asylum Entertainment, reunites stars Ian Ziering and Tara Reid and brings director Anthony C. Ferrante back behind the camera with DP Ben Demaree. In round two, which jumps coasts to New York, the pop culture cameos are nearly as fast and furious as the finned menaces. Violet-haired Kelly Osborne is a stewardess, Andy Dick is a cop and Judd Hirsch drives a taxi, to name only a few of the A-to-D-list celebrity drop-ins spread across the new movie. Ferrante spoke with StudioDaily about the crazy, exhilarating thrill of shooting a unique VFX- and landmark-laden project with blockbuster ambitions in Manhattan on a TV-movie budget.

If you're at San Diego Comic-Con, Ferrante and members of the cast will be screening clips and discussing the movie at 7:15 tonight, July 24.

StudioDaily: The first Sharknado blew across TV and Twitter with a ridiculously fun mix of elements from disaster, horror, sci-fi, and action films, leavened by strong hits of situational comedy. How do you begin to define the sequel?

Anthony C. Ferrante: The first time, we were really trying to make a fun disaster movie so we kept things playful. But I wanted to see how far we could push it. I really wanted to make a $200 million movie on a tiny, tiny budget. Sharknado was always meant to be entertainment; I'd never call it a horror film, even though IMDb does. But because we shot these two in such close proximity—unlike most theatrical tentpoles, where you have two years between them—it kind of feels like we were still making the first movie. Sure, we took it to a point in the last one where Ian [Ziering] gets swallowed by a shark and survives, but that allowed us to have even more fun going into the second movie. There are no more rules. We basically blew them up at the end of the last movie, and that allowed us to amp it up that much more. A big part of that is approval. Because all those elements went over so well in the first movie, everybody across the board was a little more willing to let us do more of that. When I made the first one, I honestly knew it was a weird movie that no one was going to get. Maybe stoners would rediscover it in five years and embrace it, if we were lucky. It's incredibly entertaining in a lot of different ways, but at its core, it's one weird hybrid of so many different types of genres. But Twitter changed all that and, as a result, we got the mainstream. They all loved our weird little movie, even internationally. That's lightning in a bottle.

Did that also mean you had a slightly bigger budget this time—and a more relaxed schedule?

This one had an 18-day shoot, just like the first, so that didn't change. We had a little bit more money heading into the sequel because we knew we were shooting in New York and that's expensive, plus we used many more prominent locations and had a much bigger cast. But at the end of the day, we still had to make a big, huge-looking movie with basically the craft services budget for one day on Transformers.

What did you do on set to squeeze the most out of such a tight budget?

During the first movie, we had a lot of tricks. We actually were trying to avoid shooting the skies as much as possible so we didn't have to kill ourselves with the visual effects. But it's a movie about bad weather in Los Angeles, so that was very difficult. On this one, we had to have weather in New York, especially after what New York went through weather-wise recently. So this movie was all about shooting up and embracing the bad weather and the city. We want to show those big buildings. But we had the same limitations and problems as we did in the first film. We didn't suddenly have 80 cameras on set. It was still pretty much the same setup. We had a little bit more support, though. When you're making a movie called Sharknado, no one wants to be involved in it because they think you're completely high. They don't want to have anything to do with it. Once it blew up, it was suddenly, 'You're shooting Sharknado 2? Hey, how do we help?' The only way we got to shoot in the heart of Times Square was to shoot no more than two hours with an eight-person crew. So I said, 'Sure!' A bigger studio and director might say it couldn't be done without a crew of 50, but if you're giving me two hours in that prime location with only eight people, I'll make it happen. We brought our DP, AC, PA, our producer, sound and our four actors. We luckily weren't mobbed. Since Ian and Tara weren't in that scene, we ran under the radar.

The film was shot primarily on Red. What other cameras did you have on set?

Ninety-five percent was captured on Red, but there were a few green-screen days when it was much easier to pull out the Blackmagic Cinema Camera [EF moount] to get an extra shot or two, especially to get closeups to give to the visual effects guys at Asylum. We used the BMCC to shoot tight on a chain, and it was perfect to have around the set to shoot elements for VFX. We were able to get some really nice stuff. In fact, there was one day when we had turned off the lights on the green screen and my DP said, 'Hey, why don't we just shoot the chain with natural light without the green screen?' And we did. It integrated perfectly into the movie. It was compact and light, we could bring it with us as we moved from location to location and could easily do things on the fly as they came up.

Your actors battle a lot of flying CG sharks. How much time did you have with the green screen during production?

We had two stationary green screen days, plus we had a portable green screen that we ended up doing one shot on. Still, we had to really grab our plate shots when we could, then turn around and do stock shots. You do whatever you can in the limited amount of time to make the movie happen. We don't have $200 million, so we had to think like outsiders. You're like Rocky: this scrappy, scrawny guy that has to build up your muscles and fight Apollo Creed. You have to find a way to get what you need. We already did more than we could humanly do in the first movie and we went above and beyond the budget. On the second one, we had to do all the same things with the same resources and in New York, which complicates it, but we did it. We had to double the craziness we did on the first movie.

And you had to do it during one of the coldest New York winters on record. How did that affect your shoot?

Oh man. When we shot the first film in L.A. it was always sunny. We're trying to shoot a weather disaster movie and we can't get any rain! We had three rain days total, and that included during the six months we went back for pick-up shots after principal photography with the hope of rain. We can't shoot this way, we can't show that because it's a visual effect—it was always about this strategic way of avoiding things. The big challenge on these shows is you're doing things it would take regular film crews weeks to accomplish. The last day of shooting, we shot on Liberty Island, we shot on the ferry going out and back, we shot on Wall Street, we shot a bike chase, we shot a scene with one of our cameo actors and then we shot a makeup effect on the sidewalk. We did that in a single 12-hour day. Most directors would push any one of those setups to another day, but we didn't have 75 days. The upside is when you shoot like that, it's like a shot of adrenaline, you're just running and gunning it. You have to make magic happen. If you get hung up on whether or not you have the right gear or location or resources, you won't get anywhere.

Did you ever fall back on stock footage in a crunch?

No, we never try to do that. Stock is only used as a last resort. We obviously didn't have the budget for a helicopter, so we'll use it for things like that. And you do have to use it sometimes for plate shots. We had a lot of stock on the first movie but on this one we have much, much less. We were able to get everything we needed. We had the bad weather and that helped us out so much.

How many effects shots are in the sequel?

We did over 500 VFX shots in less than two months. Sasha Burrow supervised the VFX on set and Emile Edwin Smith back at Asylum. Mark Quod supervised post. We were actually picking effects shots in place before you had a raw cut of the movie because you have no time. We shot this one in February and delivered it in June. I dare any studio to try to do the amount of stuff we did in that time and with that level of care and quality. Not everything is going to be perfect. But there are amazing shots in this movie because the team at Asylum is so great. We work really well together and we all understand what Sharknado is. We all want it to be fantastic.

What most surprised you about shooting in New York?

My previous three films before Sharknado were horror films shot in one location. You're stuck in a hospital and you make something spooky happen. But Syfy wanted us to shoot in New York, so we immediately got excited about the new toys we'd get to play with, relieved we didn't have to shoot in Canada and pretend it was real. The biggest set of toys is New York itself. I'd never shot there and I've never been there for that long a time before. I was like a kid in a candy store. Studios typically expect to turn on the money hose, but you give me a little bit and I'm just grateful to work with the resources and within the limitations. Imagine what I could do with a $50 million budget.

You packed a lot in with a lot less.

We tried to incorporate all the landmarks, which is something you don't see very often, even in New York location shoots. Maybe others who shoot here all the time are just too used to it. I'm used to L.A., but I really fell in love with New York. Everyone was fantastic and generous to a fault. We never thought we'd be able to shoot on the subway, but the MTA made it happen. In New York, when the shit hits the fan, everybody comes together. I wanted to reflect that in the film. We even sum it up with an original song about the Big Apple at the end. We couldn't afford the rights to "New York, New York," but this new song works even better.

You favorite scene?

I really love the opening of the movie. It's 12 minutes of complete popcorn and fun and contains what you'd put in the end of a normal movie. And we have a great ending on top of that.

Did you follow the live tweets when Sharknado premiered last summer?

Absolutely. I was tweeting that night. I had a blast. It was the most fun I've ever had. I thought I'd go online and I'd have 10 people telling me I suck while I posted commentary from time to time about what it took to make the movie. Instead, you couldn't keep up with the tweets!

As a filmmaker, all you want is for people to watch your movie. If they love it or hate it, that's how they feel about it. You can have a movie that everybody loves but only 200 people see. I'd rather have the world know what I've done, even if it's divisive, because at least people are talking about it and at least it meant something to them.

The first movie gave a jolt of respectability—and new offers—to many in your cast as well.

Everybody got a lot of juice from the first movie. We all benefited, including everyone at Syfy and Asylum, and Thunder Levin, the screenwriter, and every single member of the cast. It's rare that a movie like this is a unilateral benefit to all. It's usually a break-out actor, or writer, or director. Everbody got the attention they deserved, and that to me is the biggest accomplishment. 

Were all of the cameos written into the original script?

After the first movie, everybody wanted to be a part of it. We originally had one-liners in the script that we'd earmark for somebody, but when we started to hear from different actors and personalities who wanted to be in the film, we decided to write something specific for each of them. Robert Klein was hired as the mayor, for example, and I thought, 'I can't let Robert Klein have just one line in the entire thing. This guy can sell the phonebook and make it hilarious. We've got to play to his strengths.' I think I wrote something extra the night before and on set I was throwing him additional lines. That's pretty much how it worked: we'd figure out who we had the day before the shoot and figured out what we could do to integrate them even more into the story.

What can we expect in Sharknado 3?

We're still setting up the second one for DVD and Blu-ray, so we're not really there yet. We're in the idea discussion phase, but no one's been hired. We really want to see how people respond to this one. Then we'll make sure we give them what they want.