SHARKS, SEQUELS AND SHEMP-ING: An Interview With Jack Perez, Part 2

As Schlockmania’s review of Some Guy Who Kills People should reveal, this site is a big backer of Jack Perez.  If you’re not familiar with the name, check out the first part of this interview for the setup – then dig into part two because it’s a doozy.  Good stuff in this half of Schlockmania’s epic Q&A with Perez include the challenges of doing a direct to video sequel to Wild Things, what it’s like to work with Adam West, how one goes about directing a reality t.v. show, the story behind the internet-infamous Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus and, best of all, the story of how Perez ended up making the excellent Some Guy Who Kills People.  Strap yourselves in because this is one juicy read…

You ventured into direct-to-video sequel territory with Wild Things 2.  What are the challenges of directing a sequel at this budgetary level?  Did the studio mandate specific elements of content?

They wanted the movie to look as big as the original with a tenth of the budget.  And they wanted the three-way to be “hotter”.  Tall order.  But again, I was psyched at the opportunity to direct another movie, in yet another genre (erotic swamp thriller really) and impart as much atmosphere and mood as possible.  My one casting coup was suggesting Isaiah Washington as the insurance investigator who gets sucked into the girls’ con.  I had always admired his performances, particularly in Spike Lee’s CLOCKERS and saw this as an opportunity to work with another great actor.  I’d never seen an actor approach his work so thoughtfully – his script was literally filled with precise notations for every line and moment, detailing motivations and emotional beats.  He was a real pro and gave the movie a weight it would not have had otherwise.  We shot most of it LA, then went down to Florida to shoot gators and air boats, filming in the actual glades, which was pretty intense.  Some of the people in those swamps would just as soon kill you as look at you.  But for the key swamp scenes where a lot of the action goes down we used a private estate in Fort Lauderdale with a big lake, then art directed it to appear wilder than it was.  I even had KNB FX send down animatronic gators to cruise the surface of the water to tie-in with the actual gator footage.

The same year (2004), you also directed Monster Island, a fun tribute to old-school monster movies.  You also wrote the script.  How did you sell MTV on the concept and what was your favorite part about making the film.

I loved stop-motion animation,  Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen were my gods growing up – so I set out to make a valentine, ultimately convincing MTV that doing a monster show using this basically anachronistic FX method would be so vintage-looking that it would actually come across cool to younger audiences.  I don’t know if I actually believed that, but I wanted to get the movie made.  In retrospect, it was the wrong audience (hard core monster movie geeks don’t watch MTV, so many kids with no frame of reference saw it and didn’t get it). Still, it got made.  And I wound with a whole studio in Vancouver filled with miniature jungles, mountains, gorges and monsters, including stop-motion mutant Praying Mantises and Giant ants. Even a stop-motion Carmen Electra who gets carried off by a flying queen ant ala Rachel Welch in ONE MILLION YEARS BC, replete with cave-girl bikini!

Word has it you got on famously with Monster Island cast member Adam West.  What was it like working with this t.v. legend?

He was amazing.  I walked around with a grin on my face whenever he was on set.  And it was one of the few instances where I actually got the actor I had envisioned for the part.  Dream casting, really.  I just saw childhood hero Adam West as the whacked-out atomic scientist who comes in to help the kids save Carmen.  Fortunately, he liked the script and was available.  I had written him reams of nutty dialogue and he just attacked it and nailed it.  He also had a penchant for calling me “J.P.” on set, which is total old-school Hollywood lingo.  I was flattered beyond all measure.  One time my father visited the set and I heard him ask Adam, “How’s my boy doing?” Adam patted his on the back and said, “The kid’s gonna make it.” Too cool.

Shows and movies aren’t the only things you’ve directed for television: you also directed a season of the reality show, Temptation Island.  What kind of work does directing a reality show entail and what are your thoughts on reality t.v. in general?

I actually directed the first 2 seasons, though you wouldn’t know it cause I used my cats’ names in the credits.  At the time, early in my career, I was afraid I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a film director if it was widely known that I had directed reality.  Now I don’t think it really matters.  Everyone does everything/anything to get by.  Temptation Island was a great exercise in learning how to set and direct multi-cam.  There were times when I was guiding up to seven cameras and a crane, giving direction over headphones, changing compositions, cueing camera movements.  It was like directing football or a live concert.  It really taught me how to use a jib creatively, and have employed those techniques ever since on all my subsequent features.  Recently I was asked by a friend to direct a live event given by the Dalai Lama, and I was able to crack open that box of tools again.  It’s a pretty cool thing to know, like a second language.  In general,  I don’t watch much reality TV anymore.  Except for WHALE WARS, which is really the only substantive show out there, and one that genuinely matters –  the possibilities have been wasted, like with much of regular television.

Another occasional sidegig for you is 2nd unit directing, a role you’ve filled on films such as Like Mike and Bottoms Up.  What are the benefits and challenges of directing 2nd unit as opposed to directing 1st unit?

My first pro gig was directing second unit on the HERCULES mows.  I learned how professional crews operated, set politics and how to deal with dept heads.  The main benefit is that it’s generally all cool action stuff.  Sam Raimi used to say that once he moved onto bigger shows, where second unit is always delegated to someone else – he didn’t have as much fun. “You guys get to do all the cool shit, and I’m stuck here with actors talking on a bench!”  I did my first big car chase in LIKE MIKE, which my friend John Schultz directed, and another chase in BOTTOMS UP, as a favor to my friend Erik McArthur, who directed.  I also did the latter so I could direct Paris Hilton, the star of the movie.  Not because I was a fan, but because of the absurdity.  She really is who she appears to be!  The challenges are that the sequences are usually big action set pieces with stunts and a lot of moving parts.  But that’s also the fun, and the fact that you’re coming in to execute specific scenes, and not responsible for the success of the entire picture, which is always the main unit director’s burden.

You’re also in the unique company of directors who have worked for The Asylum, the infamous blockbuster cash-in (mockbuster?) company on the films 666: The Child and the cult favorite, Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus.  Beyond working on super-low budgets, what kind of challenges did you face working for the Asylum?

The challenges working with the Asylum were mainly that they were pure businessmen who rarely demonstrated any love for the medium or the genres in which they worked. Roger Corman loved movies, appreciated good work even if we was not able to generate it all of the time.  These guys were just trying to get something into a box and sell it as cheaply as possible.  And it shows.  Also when you pay actors and crew squat, you should at least try to be nice to them, treat them like human beings.  On the two movies I made for them, they didn’t.  And when MEGA SHARK became a huge financial success, they never acknowledged my contribution. I never got offered any of the sequels, any kind of bonus, nothing. Not cool.

It’s worth mentioning that you used pseudonyms on both of your Asylum gigs – “Jake Johnson” on 666 and “Ace Hannah” on Mega Shark.  How did you choose the pseudonyms and why did you use them?

I knew going in that my cuts would never be honored.  That they’d re-edit them into God knows what.  Which they did spectacularly on MEGA SHARK, adding ten minutes of random pauses to pad time, ridiculous inserts, re-using FX shots ad infinitum – that thing plays like a porno now!  I can’t say a movie is “mine” if my cut is dismantled.  That’s the whole point of directing in the first place – trying to get what’s in your head on screen.  That makes control of the edit essential.  So I used fake names.  For 666, I wasn’t very imaginative with my pseudonym, but for MEGA SHARK I used a character name Burt Lancaster refers to in VERA CRUZ, Robert Aldrich’s great “super-western” of the 50s.  It’s my favorite movie, and the name “Ace Hannah” sounds so broad and ridiculous, I guess it fit my situation at the time.

Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus became unusually popular, breaking out of the b-movie ranks into mainstream notoriety.  How do you feel about this phenomenon and what has it done for your career?

At first it drove me crazy that the one film I had the least control of, the piece that was most rushed, least finessed and most fucked with was the film that EVERYONE knew about it.  It was like a bad joke.  But the fact was it was popular.  And being associated with anything popular in this business is good, something to trade on.  When I was being considered for SOME GUY, the co-producers looking for a replacement for Landis saw that popularity as a positive for them.  Just the association.  They hadn’t even seen the movie,  but I mattered a little more because of it. Thankfully writer Ryan Levin watched my other work first.  Strangely, MEGA SHARK helped get me teaching jobs!  I had always wanted to teach film, and when I began soliciting universities the movie was all over the web – tons of students knew about it; so that made me very “current”.  Thankfully I made SOME GUY soon thereafter, and I was able to prove that  I wasn’t the 21st Century’s answer to Ed Wood.

Most recently, you directed the excellent festival favorite Some Guy Who Kills People.  How did you get involved with this unusual genre-bending production?

SOME GUY was a beautiful script that came along at exactly the right time.  I felt I hadn’t made anything personal or substantive in a long time and I was severely depressed.  Perhaps if I had gotten rich off MEGA SHARK I would have been less bummed; but I was up to neck in debt, could barely make the rent and was now known for a dopey monster movie that played like a porno – not at all what I had set out to be. But then I got lucky.  My manager just happened to know one of the co-producers  socially, heard they were looking for a director to replace Landis and suggested me.  When I read it my heart leapt.  It was not only exactly the kind I movie I had longed to make, but it felt immediate and personal. I drew up a bunch of storyboards, came up with an overall directorial approach, then basically begged Ryan and his team to let me do it.  I pitched them HARD.  In the end,  it became a path to redemption.  It didn’t get me out of debt, but it saved my soul.

(note: the next questions and their answers are bunched together because Mr. Perez answered them in one lovely, flowing piece of text)

The script for Some Guy Who Kills People incorporates a number of styles – drama, comedy, social commentary, even a dash of slasher movie – yet manages to keep a tonal consistency.  How did you pull that off and which of these elements was your favorite?

You also put together a very impressive cast for Some Guy, including Kevin Corrigan, Lucy Davis, Barry Bostwick and Karen Black – and they offer up a variety of styles to fit different needs of the story.  How did you assemble such a roster of talent and what did you have to do as a director to properly calibrate this range of acting styles?

The mix of tones was one of the great things about Ryan’s script.  It was alternately funny, scary and true to life.  It never commented on what it was doing, it just was.  That felt authentic to me.  Not some concocted gimmick, but a genuine view of the world, which I share.  So it wasn’t that big a deal managing a tonal consistency, so much as it was being truthful about each moment, whatever it was, as it occurred.  I basically saw the whole world as a real one, with real characters I believed in.  Some eccentric, some frightening, some bitter, some depressed.  That’s the actual world to me – a crazy mess.

The cast we secured was definitely a dream cast.  Kevin I had known for years, and had always wanted to do a movie together.  He was the first actor I approached and he was as psyched about the script as I was.  So were the other actors, as Barry, Karen and Lucy all came in to audition!  Ryan and I were fans and couldn’t believe our luck.

If anything, I just made sure I didn’t hit any note too hard.  I didn’t want to push moments.  The dialogue was already funny. There was no reason to “play” it funny, or add goofy music or light it “like a comedy”.  I shot it like a drama, because again, these were real people to me.  The only area I went more “theatrical” with was the murder sequences.  I felt if the kills were too realistic, that vibe would resonate throughout the film and hurt the lighter moments.  So I played the kills more broadly – still gory, but a little over the top.  I finally got to do a full-on decapitation by machete – in a drive-in  no less!

As is the custom at Schlockmania, the final word is left to you.  What would you like to say to the schlock-loving populace?

One of us, one of us…

2 Replies to “SHARKS, SEQUELS AND SHEMP-ING: An Interview With Jack Perez, Part 2”

  1. I’m curious about one of Perez’s aka’s. If memory serves me correctly, there is a running narrative by baddie Burt Lancaster in the 1954 movie Vera Cruz where he says variations of “Ace Hannah always taught me to…blah blah blah…till I killed him.” Is this where Jack Perez got that pseudonym? Just askin’.

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