Diving Deep With 'Sharknado's Thunder Levin

After writing the script for the first Sharknado movie, Thunder Levin (pictured) was the obvious choice to pen the second installment of the Syfy Network pop culture phenomenon, Sharknado 2: The Second One. Levin, a seasoned writer and director – he helmed the tongue-in-cheek Mutant Vampire Zombies From the Hood as well as the more mainstream science fiction film AE: Apocalypse Earth—took some time to speak with Multichannel News senior finance editor Mike Farrell about his most recent Syfy epic. An edited transcript follows.   

MCN: You had a lot of success with the first movie. Were you a little bit nervous in taking on the second one? How do you top Sharknado 1?

Thunder Levin: There was a great sense of responsibility to live up to that because now we have this high bar we have to clear as far as the reaction the first movie had gotten. We wanted to make sure we delivered more of what the fans were going to want. When you approach something like this, the challenge was finding the same balance we found in the first one – sort of in between parody and playing it straight. Making sure we had that same balance to make it fun and funny and also have a story that would hold somebody’s interest and maintain excitement and lots of sharks.

The first movie, nobody expected anything of it – they said write us a movie called Sharknado about a tornado full of sharks and I went off and I did my thing. I got a few notes but mostly I was left alone. On this one, everybody was watching. Everyone wanted to make sure it was the absolute best thing it could be and would live up to the first one and would be a success. There were a lot of eyes on it. I never had any concern that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’ve been doing this for awhile.

When you’re doing something like this, it’s just a matter of letting yourself go and having fun with it. I had as much fun writing it as I hope people will have watching it, that’s sort of the whole point.

 The director Anthony Ferrante, I’ve seen him in interviews and he’s said it seems like the script was written by an 11-year-old.  I hope what he meant by that is that it was written by a professional like an 11-year-old and indeed that is what you have to do. It requires all the dramatic structure and character development of a serious movie, just with more of a light-hearted sense of fun. And in a more straight forward action film where you would get to a point where you would say this isn’t believable anymore, we actually do that. You just go right on past that and keep on going.

MCN: The way these movies are structured, you have to continuously raise the bar on the action. Since that bar was pretty high in the first movie, was there ever a worry that you could get too crazy?

TL: As long as we didn’t start parodying ourselves I don’t think we could get too crazy. The fact that this film was set in New York allowed it to be bigger. There are these iconic landmarks in New York, there are the iconic elements of life like taxis and subways and hot dog carts, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, all these things that are globally known. So just moving it to New York upped the bar significantly anyhow.

We had an idea for the opening that will sort of knock people on their butts and we’ll just go from there.

Before I even started writing, we had a big throw-your-shark-ideas-in-a-hat kind of thing. What would you like to see sharks do? What kind of shark gags should we include in this? Everybody was coming up with ideas. It really was just a matter of let’s have fun with this; let’s go big or go home. And nobody was about to go home.

MCN:  You also have some directing experience, so that gives you a sense of what you can and can’t do.

TL: Absolutely. But I ignored all that. One of the ongoing jokes around the office as we were writing the script for the first movie was there was no way we could possibly do what we were writing on the budget we had.  And we just kind of ignored that. The approach was, it’s called Sharknado, we’ve got to be crazy about this. You can’t call something Sharknado and have it all take place inside one house.

So Anthony had this script dumped on him that really no sensible filmmaker could have ever consider possible with the budget he had. The first time we met – we didn’t meet until the first film was shot. We met when we were both editing our respective films sharing an editing suite, and he walked in and I didn’t know who he was. He said ‘you wrote Sharknado,’ and I said yeah, and he said ‘I want to punch you. I said, OK why. He said ‘I directed it. I said , Oh, well go ahead, I can understand.

When it came time to do the sequel, we took the same approach -- let’s just go for it. And when it comes time to actually make it we’ll deal with it, we’ll make the best we can of it.  Because part of what the audience seemed to tune into on the first one is that we were hugely overreaching and we were doing stuff that should have had a $100 million budget and clearly we didn’t. That lack of budget, that cheesiness, whatever you want to call it, is what endeared the film to people. We figured, why screw with a proven formula.

MCN: Is there anything in the second movie that didn’t get in that you wished did? I remember reading an interview with you after the first movie where you said you wanted a scene where the sharks caught fire and they said they couldn’t do that.

TL: Yeah, they did decide that, didn’t they. There’s no telling what could happen. In the first one, other than that there was no specific thing that was cut out, there were things that were reduced, things that were not as grand as we ought have hoped for. The biggest trick in both these films has been the level of flooding, The whole point of these things is that both cities are supposed to be flooded and there is only so much you can do without building city streets in giant swimming pools that you can actually flood. So the flooding is never quite as great as I might hope for. But we make up for it in other areas and we do what we can do. The level of production is part of what made the film endearing. We were trying to do these insane, ridiculous things on a shoe-string budget.

MCN: You have budget restraints in these types of movies but you also have time restraints

TL: Absolutely. This film was shot in 18 days just like the first one

MCN: So anything like weather or someone not showing up on time can throw things out of whack. Did you have to do a lot of rewrites or redo scenes because it was too cold out or anything like that?

TL: That was actually one of the biggest things going on. We shot this film, which is supposed to take place in the summer, in New York at the end of February and the beginning of March and this was one of the worst winters in memory for the East Coast. There was one day we were shooting it was 5 degrees. We had days that were clear sunshine and then snow and then back to clear sunshine again. But Sharknados are freak weather patterns so naturally they’re going to bring freak weather with them, and we just worked that in.

It makes perfect sense when you think about it. There was a joke during the writing process that if anyone used the word logic they had to put a quarter n a jar.

MCN: When you were writing the first movie, I’m assuming you didn’t know who the cast would be.

TL: Right. Not at all.

MCN: But in the second one you knew who you would be working with. Did that give you a little more insight or did it have the opposite effect – you’d really like the character to do this, but you can’t have Steve from 902010 do that.

TL: The answer to all of that is yes.  The first one we had no idea who any of these people would be, so in writing Fin [Shepard] the hero, it was basically me; what would I do if I were in this insane situation. And that’s how I wrote it, When I came to the second one, I couldn’t do that anymore because I knew what Fin was, I knew what he looked like, how he behaved, so I was writing for Ian’s interpretation of that character. Fortunately, I think he did a fabulous job, When I saw the first one, Ian was an eye-opener for me because knew him only from 90210, and he knocked my socks off. He played it so straight with the right level of commitment, but the right level of glee. He really redefined himself as an action hero. I was really thrilled with his performance in the first one. I knew what he could do and I built on that. He’s got one moment in the film that’s just a thing of beauty for me, where he’s giving this very moving speech -- we call it the Braveheart speech.  I had to know that he could do that and I did. I was able to really run with that moment. When we shot it in New York and I saw him do this, to see it come to life after only being in my head, it sent chills down my spine. It was wonderful.

An interesting thing happened with April [Wexler], Tara’s [Reid] character. In the first movie I had actually written her character a bit more sympathetic than she ended up being in the movie. That was a decision that Anthony [Ferrante] and Tara made as they were making the film, that she got a little harsher. So that was a situation where I had to write a sequel to the film that was made, not write a sequel to the script that I wrote the first time.

And then there was accounting for all the cameos. I had to write a whole plethora of roles that could be played by a celebrity doing a one-day cameo.

MCN: Was that fun to do?

TL: It was fun. We’d sit around and imagine who would be playing the part. Then your imagination runs wild. I wrote a scene specifically for George Clooney and Brad Pitt, but somehow I guessed that wouldn’t happen.

MCN: Syfy’s already said they’re going to do Sharknado 3. Are you negotiating with them?

TL: We have not had any official conversations on that subject yet. We’re just trying to get through this one now.

MCN: I’m guessing it would be of interest to you.

TL: The idea of wrapping up the trilogy and going even bigger and better than this one is of course intriguing, but we’ll have to wait and see what they have in mind.

MCN: With so many more eyes on the second movie, were you overrun by people making suggestions and offering notes on the script?

TL: The thing I got the most inquiries about was how are you going to top the moment where Fin chainsaws his way out of the shark. All through the story process I had a vague idea of where I needed to get to for that moment, but I really didn’t know what that moment would be. And everybody kept asking ‘what’s the moment’ and I would say I don’t know but I’ll know it before I get there. I think I made people nervous when I said that. I think I got to about page 10 in the script when I figured out what the moment would have to be.  I called up Anthony [Ferrante] the director and I told him what I had in mind and he loved it.

But topping it, I’m not sure that is the right word. It had to be a really cool, fascinating, fun, funny, exciting moment that hopefully you don’t see coming. It’s different from what we did in the first one. It’s not like he’s just going to bust his way out of an even bigger shark – that was one thing I was determined not to do. I think we have a good moment and I think people will like it, that’s the way I feel about the whole film. I think we’ve got the spirit of fun and ridiculousness from the first one. People who loved the first one are going to love this one and people who hated the first one are going to rip this one apart just the same. But that’s part of the fun of this thing.