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Exclusive: Thunder Levin on Writing Sharknado: The 4th Awakens, Premiering Tonight

Thunder LevinTonight Syfy premieres the fourth installment of its hit franchise series, Sharknado the 4th Awakens. Over the years the campy films from The Asylum have gotten more and more popular.

Recently Thunder Levin, writer of the films, talked to Jamie Ruby of SciFi Vision in an exclusive interview about the movie.




SCIFI VISION: How did you originally come up with the idea for Sharknado?

Thunder LevinTHUNDER LEVIN: I can’t take credit for the idea for the word. It was actually a line of dialog in another movie. Our director, Anthony Ferrante, had co-written a movie called Leprechaun’s Revenge, or Red Clover, depending on where you see it. And there was a line of dialog in there. There’s this town where the hero is under attack from leprechauns or something, and they just throw out this throwaway line about "I hope our town doesn’t go the way of that other town. They never recovered after the Sharknado hit." That was it. It was just that line and it went by.

Syfy said, "We’ve got to make that movie; we’ve got to make Sharknado." And at the same time The Asylum production company had a movie they wanted me to write and direct called Shark Storm, which I had actually turned down, because you know it was just going to be a straight low-budget action movie about sharks in a storm, and I felt like we’d kind of seen that.

And so I was trying to come up with something else to do to with them. And then like a month later, apparently they’d had their meeting with Syfy and decided to combine their projects. And so they came back to me and said, "Forget Shark Storm, it’s Sharknado." Of course I said, "What do sharks have to do with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?" when I heard "Sharknado," but no no no, "a tornado of sharks." I’m like, "That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of, and as long as I can play it that way, then definitely I’m in." They said, "We recognize that something called Sharknado has to be played at least a little for laughs."

Then once I was sure everybody was on the same page, as far as the tone, it was great fun. And then it was pretty much up to me to come up with a story and characters that would explain this bizarre phenomenon.

And so I can’t take credit for the idea of a "Sharknado," but Fin (Ian Ziering), Nova (Cassie Scerbo), and April (Tara Reid) and so forth, those are basically my characters.

No one expected the films to become such a massive hit. Can you talk about when you first realized how big it was becoming?

The main realization was that first night that it premiered on Syfy when Twitter blew up and celebrities started tweeting about it, and then everybody. We were supposed to be doing a live tweet along with the broadcast, but you couldn’t get a word in edgewise, because every time you hit refresh, there were a thousand more tweets waiting for you. And that was really bizarre and surreal.

Now a few days before that, there started to be a few hints. I think it aired July 8th or 9th, and after the July 4th weekend, a couple of different friends told me that they had been at parties for July 4th and that people had been talking about Sharknado, just from the commercial from the trailers. And I was like, "They have? That’s strange and interesting."

And I’d done a couple of interviews. I did a really fun interview with io9 where they asked me very serious questions about Sharknado, and I came up with very overly serious answers, and that was lot of fun. And I think that contributed to it.

But really it was that night. Mia Farrow I think was the first celebrity to actually tweet about it, and it just sort of took off, and it was surreal.

At one point that night, I found myself trading tweets with Damon Lindelof, the producer of LOST. And he was joking about he was going to write the sequel to Sharknado and have it finished before Sharknado was off the air. And I said, "Well, I hope you’ll let me work on it, and I think really it should be a prequel only not quite." You know, because he is the one who turned Prometheus from a straight prequel of Alien into a not quite prequel. So he said, "Touché."

So that was all incredible fun, and you know, it’s never really stopped since that night. I mean, that was the most surreal night of my life. So it all pretty much happened in the span of a few hours there.

And then the next morning we were on the cover of the New York Post, and that weekend I was shooting a segment for Good Morning America. So it’s been sort of a whirlwind ever since.

Sharknado: The 4th AwakensI know from hearing from other people involved in the show that a lot of the celebrities have asked to be in the films. Who was someone that you got that surprised you the most, and who were you most excited about?

I guess maybe Judd Hirsch, in the second one. Having an actor of his caliber in in a movie like this was really just awesome and amazing. And then we had Robert Klein show up for one day as the mayor of New York in the second one. That was probably the surprising amazing ones. Mark Cuban, that was a last minute thing in the third movie, and he was great. He was very presidential. I guess those were the big awesome surprises.

I mean, there’ve been dozens and dozens of great cameos. David Hasselhoff of course. That wasn’t really a surprise; we sort of knew that was happening for a while.

You know, some of the surprises have been the ones that didn’t make it. Daniel Radcliffe said very publicly that he wanted to be in Sharknado 3, but then when the time came, he couldn’t do it. That was disappointing. So that was a surprise in the other direction.

That would have been really cool.

Yeah, because I’d written a whole part for him that ended up being cut way down and played by a professional wrestler [as] the ride attendant on the roller coaster at universal. Originally it was a much different part and he was like a custodian and had a broom. We were going to do this whole thing with the broom and teasing that he could fly on it or something once the Sharknado sucked him up. That was an opportunity missed.

Is there anybody for a cameo or otherwise who youd like to maybe have in the next movie besides him?

Well, I’ve been saying since the beginning, that I wish we could get Harrison Ford, and I know Anthony wanted Bill Murray in the last one, and we couldn’t get him. But the one that keeps alluding us that we keep talking about, and we keep thinking it will happen and then it doesn’t, which would in many ways be the most appropriate cameo possible in a Sharknado movie, is Bruce Campbell. There’s a scene in this movie, where Fin buys a chainsaw in a store, and that scene was actually written for Bruce Campbell. We thought he was going to be able to do it, and then he couldn’t, and so we revised it for other people. But the idea of Bruce Campbell selling him a chainsaw and then saying, “Hey, you want me to show you how to use that?” and then Fin says “Nah, I think I’ve got it,” that just tickles my funny bone. So I’m hoping someday we’ll get Groovy Bruce in a Sharknado.

I know that the director has had cameos in the films, have you been in them?

Yes, I was in the second and third one. The second one actually I have two different cameos. I’m walking up the stairs at City Field when Fin Shepard runs past me, and then I’m in the panicking crowd in the subway. And then in the third one, I have an actual moment. I’m a reporter named Mr. Benchley who tries to ask Fin a question and he sort of ignores me and walks away, and that was my idea. Because that’s how writers get treated in Hollywood. [laughs]

When you went to make the fourth film, obviously things have changed and gotten bigger, and this one has a lot of other things like different ‘nados in it too, but can you talk about things you did do when you were writing it to make it bigger and better than last time?

That’s always the challenge, to get bigger and better, especially considering they went into space last time. There has been some talk about going international, but then the decision was made that that should wait for at least one more movie, if there is another movie. And so the question was, “How are we going to get bigger while staying in this country?”

And so one of the approaches was to basically use the whole country, and one of the ideas was to have different kinds of ‘nados, so we have a Cownado and a Sandnado and a Bouldernado, and kind of what have you. So that was one of the main things.

And then the other was to have this idea that the Sharknados have been gone for a while and Fin was just trying to live a normal life and raise his boy and was being dragged back into it, now that this was all happening again. And so in a way, it’s a bit more of a science fiction film than the ones in the past have been; we’ve started introducing some high-tech stuff, and in the end, it becomes sort-of more of a superhero movie too.

Sharknado: The 4th AwakensSo, there were a lot of different ways we looked at it to try and make it bigger. And really, this one is the craziest of the bunch. The story and the characters take a bit of a backseat to just the off-the wall nuttiness, and it just sort of never stops. So, we’ll see how people like that, like ‘is that better, or do you want more character?’ I would imagine with a movie like Sharknado, real character development is not the first thing on people’s minds. [laughs]

Yeah, I agree, I wrote about that in my review, because you dont need that, but I felt like the whole thing was like they didnt stop at all. It was something like less than ten minutes in that all the action and craziness started, and it just kept going, and I liked it like that.

Yeah, that whole sequence in Las Vegas [in the beginning] was one of the things that Anthony and I were most excited about; we’d been talking about that. Really, before we even knew what the story was going to be, we knew we wanted to do this Las Vegas sequence. And the idea of a pirate ship sailing down a flooded Las Vegas strip was just the greatest thing I’d ever heard of.

And you know, it was actually going to be even bigger. In the script there’s a whole sequence with Ian swinging through the rigging, fighting sharks, sort of Errol Flynn style from the old swashbuckler movies, but they weren’t really able to do that.

One of the things that we really always run into, and it’s sort of baked into the process, is that I’m writing scripts for a one hundred to two hundred million dollar film, and then we’re making these films for a million bucks, and there just isn’t the time or the wherewithal to do whatever I write. So I go on with these grandiose visions, and then we always have to find a way to kind of do that, and what the low budget version of that is going to be. But of course, I think that’s part of the charm of it. It was that low-budget cheesiness that I think that endeared people to the first one, and it just kept going.

Which reminds me, I was curious if this one had a bigger budget. Granted, I saw a rough cut, so all the effects weren’t one hundred percent complete, but I know that with some of effects it seemed to me like you had a bigger budget, at least from what I thought. Things like the effects that aren’t supposed to stand out, like the train. Did you have more money, or was it that youve done this so long that youve found new ways to do things cheaper?

Yes, I think we’re getting the hang of it, and our effects department is getting better. I mean, they’re still doing it in a month, and there are ten people, whereas a Hollywood studio film would take a year with five hundred people, so they’re never going to be at that level, but they’re certainly getting better. But really, the budget has not increased. The budget for the second one was bigger than any of the others, because it was very expensive to shoot on the streets of New York. But really we’ve been pretty close to the budget of the first one. Not that they actually share the budget, but from what I understand, our budgets have been pretty much steady.

Speaking of the special effects when it comes to storms, I have a sort of odd question. I had mentioned it to Anthony on Twitter, and he didn’t seem to think it was, but you wrote the script so I figured I’d ask you as well. There is this one scene where a certain landmark is shown being destroyed, was that a shout out to the Syfy series Defiance, or am I just reaching? It may just be because I’m a fan.

Sharknado: The 4th AwakensI don’t think that’s an intentional reference, but when Syfy says we want to see these things and they give us a list, the arch is in there, so maybe they did that have in mind. But I wasn’t thinking that when we were putting it together. Who knows? I don’t think it’s an intentional reference, although I’m sure the folks at Syfy wouldn’t mind if you thought of Defiance when you saw that. I enjoyed Defiance, I thought it was a good show.

Im curious how many people will tweet about it.

What was the hardest scene to make happen, to film? You talked about the ship scene, but was there anything else that you put in the script that was hard to pull off?

I guess the stuff inside the house as it’s flying in the tornado. That was a bigger sequence in my head than how it finally looks in the film. You know, you’ve got people on wires and you’ve got smoke; that was probably one of the harder ones to pull off. In the script Nova, well actually it wasn’t Nova anymore, it was Gemini (Masiela Lusha) hanging on to the pluming underneath the house and trying to claw her way into the door, and then Fin and his son are holding on to her and trying to pull her in through the opening. That was a bigger scene, and from what I’ve seen of what they did on set, because I’ve seen some of the behind the scenes on that, that took a lot of time and a lot of work just to get what they have. So that was probably one of the harder scenes.

And Las Vegas and the ship. With these movies, they’re all hard scenes, because we’re trying to shoot them in fifteen days. These are blockbusters. If a studio was doing this they would be taking four months to shoot this stuff and we’re doing it in fifteen days. So everything is hard. I mean just showing a character walking down the street in the time you have to set it up is hard.

Where did you actually physically film the movie?

A lot of it was actually shot in a place called Sable Ranch, just outside of L.A. that was destroyed in a fire a couple of days ago. There was a big wildfire out here in Santa Clarita, and that house and a lot of the other places where we shot Sharknado 4 were burned down a few days ago. It’s really kind of sad. So a lot of it was shot there, and they did a little pick-up shooting at Niagara Falls. Of course there was some in New York for the Today Show people, but most of it was actually shot around LA. It’s funny, because it’s the movie where we’ve gone to the most different places, but we’ve actually had the fewest shooting locations. [laughs] Sort of movie magic for you.

Do you have a favorite scene? It could be from any of the Sharknado movies; it doesnt have to be from this one.

I have three, and if I have to pick one of those three, it’s from the second movie, when Fin is standing on top of the fire truck, giving his inspirational speech. I had so much fun writing that speech. We talked about for a long time, and then I just sort of wrote it in one go, and what I wrote in that very first draft made it all the way to the finished film. And when we were shooting it on the streets of New York, we had maybe twenty extras gathered around watching him, that were actually ours, but by the time we shot it, there was hundreds and hundreds, maybe a thousand, people on the streets of New York, who had gathered around to watch and started cheering as he was giving his speech. It was really kind of a surreal moment, and so that’s always stuck with me.

Sharknado: The 4th AwakensDid they keep that in the final version? I’m not sure if that’s something they have to get releases signed for.

No, that’s there, because what you do is you put signs up on the sidewalks, saying “film is being shot here, and if you walk through this area, you may appear, and you grant your permission for your [image to be shown].” It’s sort of a general sort of thing. I mean, TV and films do that all the time when they’re shooting in public. There’s really no way to avoid it if you do a shot on a busy street in New York City. There are going to be millions of people literally in the background. There’s no way to sort of get them all [get everyone’s permission].

And then, of course, the other moment is the iconic moment at the end of the first movie, where Fin dives into the shark and cuts his way out, because that’s another thing I just thought of and put into the script, and it just stayed there all the way through. And it turned out almost exactly the way I imagined it. So those are my two favorite moments.

These films have a lot of campiness and silliness, although of course the actors play it straight. Did you feel you still needed to strike a balance with that or have you reached a point where anything goes?

To be honest, this one has changed more than any of the others between the script and the movie. So it is a different balance this time around. There is more craziness and less character than we have done in the past, and we have to see how the audience responds to that, because it is a different balance. And so we’ll see. It could well be that we’re at the point now where we have established these characters, we know who they are, we know what their stories are, and we don’t need to spend as much time on them.

At the same time there’s the other argument that the characters are the heart of it, and that’s what separates Sharknado from some of the other B movies that don’t get this kind of attention. So it’ll be interesting to see what the fans have to say when this one comes out. I’m looking forward to being part of that discussion.

This movie has a lot of pop culture references. Do you have a favorite?

That was actually a mandate; Syfy wanted more pop culture references. The funny thing is, in the very first movie I had put in a lot more pop culture references, and I was told to take them out. [laughs] How things have changed.

But yes, there are two. I love the scene with David Hasselhoff and Ryan Newman, Gilbert and Claudia, where she’s confusing Star Wars and Star Trek, and he’s telling her, “Obviously we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of movies to see.”

And then I really like the moment when April says “I’ll be back” before she walks out the door, because Tara delivers it so deadpan. She’s not trying to do Arnold Schwarzenegger, she just says it, “I’ll be back”, and walks out the door. But in the context, for me it’s just hilarious. The fact that she doesn’t make a big deal out of it really just appealed to me somehow.

Do you know if there is going to be a fifth film yet?

There’s been no official announcement. Basically Syfy takes these one movie at a time, and I guess they’ll see what the ratings are like, and they’ll see what the response is, and they’ll decide. But from the fan response online already, I’m imagining that it will be moving forward again. It’s hard to imagine the response or the ratings being anything less than they have been in the past.

Sharknado: The 4th AwakensLast year they announced right after it aired, because they had the whole April Lives/April Dies campaign thing.

Right. It was part of the last shot of the film that there was going to be another one, because we knew we were doing the cliffhanger and the vote. So that was baked into it.

This time the last shot of the film sort of implies that the story will continue, but we will have to wait and see. Certainly I hope so. I have stories for three more movies that I’ve talked to them about. So far each of the movies has been pretty much standalone as far as how we’ve developed them. I thought it would be cool to have an arc that covers several movies and keeps the story going. We’ll see what happens.

Do you have anything else you want to promote besides, Sharknado, that you want me to add in?

Interestingly enough, I have a science fiction epic project of mine that I’ve been working on for twenty years now really, called 2176, which is finally going to see the light of day it looks like, as a comic book...That’s sort of my passion project. I’ve been working on it since 1990 trying to get it going, and we haven’t made it as a feature or TV series yet. I don’t know, hopefully someday, but we’re going to start off as a comic book.

So I’m very excited about that. We haven’t signed all the paperwork yet, so we can’t make the official announcement. But I’m looking forward to that a lot.

And I’m working on a couple of things; a TV series project, and this little indie film, that I was hoping to be able to announce by now, but the deals aren’t quite finished yet, so probably sometime in the next several weeks , we’ll have some announcements about those two.

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