John Gulager grew up on the backlots of Universal studios, where his father Clu (The Killers, Return of the Living Dead) worked as a contract player.
His early schooling in movie magic eventually paid off when he became a winning contestant on Project Greenlight. Gulager went on to work with writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton on three splatter-filled Feast movies, creating one of the most entertainingly disgusting franchises in film history.
The Feast crew has teamed up once again to create Piranha 3DD, the sequel to Alexandre Aja's reboot of the Roger Corman classic. We spoke with Gulager about the nuts and bolts of making a 3D movie that takes place mostly in the water, killing his father onscreen, and tossing piranha at David Hasselhoff's head.
(Gesturing toward large rubber piranha on table)Is this an actual prop from the film?
Yeah. The silicone gives a bounce to them. They're kind of heavy. There are also foamy ones, to fly through the air a bit more. I think one of these hit [David] Hasselhoff in the head. It was during a rehearsal. He was like, "Don't let it hit me in the head — hit me on the shoulder." I'm going (whispers), "Hit him in the head!" But the fellow throwing the fish wouldn't do it. He didn't want to hurt David.
He didn't want a Christian Bale situation on his hands.
Of course, the director is always like, "Hit him in the head!" Because it's going to look so much better. You can see how heavy these are though. It could have injured him.
I was wondering how much you used prosthetics as opposed to CGI. The fish looked fairly realistic in the close-ups.
We did use prosthetics, but in some scenes, we actually scanned the prosthetic. When we do the prosthetics, we can only do one or two fish at a time. We duplicate them, and we can put in extra fish or do second passes. Usually, we can only film one or two at a time, because it's Gary Tunnicliffe, the guy who did the effects, down there in a scuba outfit underwater.
So he's manipulating them with mechanical arms?
Some are on sticks, and he has a way to do it so the tails move back and forth. Some have wires to make the mouth open and close. It's a one- or two-man job. Sometimes he's above the water, and sometimes he's literally down there in the scuba stuff, which can create a little mayhem.
This was your first movie outside of the Feast franchise. How different was it than working on those films?
Well, it was most of the same people. The writers, a lot of the same producers; basically everyone. I think they had that in mind when they asked us to do it — that it would get done. It's definitely the biggest film that I've worked on.
Was there a learning curve to working in 3D for the first time?
There was. It was also slower to do, and then mixed with water and prosthetics… Something was always breaking. Whether it's the cameras, or the prosthetics aren't working, or the water's too cold. Those three things combine. We planned for part of it, but there's always things that you can't plan for, even if you plan for the unplannable.
This film seemed more lighthearted to me than Piranha 3D, which was comical, but also really nasty at times.
We were going for a bit more of an '80s kind of vibe. The '70s had a darkness to them. We'd come out of Watergate, the Vietnam war, that kind of thing. There was a grittiness to the whole era. When the '80s came, everything got a lot more lighthearted. The teen comedies, even if they were about losing your virginity, just weren't as dark. They were fun. We took that cue.
It was more Night of the Creeps, and less Last House on the Left.
Exactly. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing...
What first got you interested in B-movies and gore?
Well, you know, kids; we're always interested in gore. My dad would bring home monster movies. We'd project in 16mm, and everybody from the neighborhood would come over and watch them on the weekend. A lot of them were Universal horror movies, because he worked at Universal and he could get them from there. Some were from Disney, and some from a place called Films Incorporated, where you could get King Kong Vs. Godzilla and things of that nature. Those were the movies I liked growing up.
The gore thing is basically from putting on a show and shocking people. In high school, I had a photography class. I went to pick up my photos one day and couldn't find them anywhere. They were of this girl who had cut her wrists, and I had done it with makeup. They had taken the pictures and locked them away because they thought they were real. They weren't; it looked totally fake. I've always been into the gore, the spectacle.
I noticed that you tend to kill your father off in a lot of your movies.
Revenge. Well, in this [franchise], you kill the people that you don't expect to kill, and you try to keep the people alive that you expect to kill. But they're in the opening, so they get killed. Tradition. He's been killed in every movie [that I've made].
You've also dabbled in music and acting, in addition to directing. Which is the most fun?
I think acting is the most fun. You get a trailer, everybody pampers you, and people walk you to the set and give you great food. It's awesome! Then you try to struggle through your part, and everybody says, "Ooh, that was so wonderful!" whether it was or not. But I don't do it that much. I only do it when someone asks me.
(The publicist politely signals that it is time for the interview to end.)
Nooo! I didn't get to losing my virginity yet! I was working my way up to last year.