Director Martin Wilson on Shooting His Australian Shark Horror ‘Great White’ in Just 25 Days

Back in May, we were delighted to review Martin Wilson‘s directing debut Great White, starring Katrina Bowden (Tucker and Dale vs Evil), which made waves in the aquatic creature feature sub-genre.

Since its release, the movie has sunk its teeth into audiences around the world. We were delighted to catch up with Martin to discuss the hype circling his first ever flick, shot in only 25 days.

Emily: Thank you so much for taking the time to join us. I understand that Great White is your debut film?

Martin: Yes it is. It’s been just many years of toiling away, and finally I had the opportunity to make a feature film. I think it’s really hard for directors. I don’t think anyone trusts you until you finally do one and then you’re in that “club”, I suppose, and people will trust you a bit more. I guess it’s just persistence until you get a chance and you go from there. So yes, it is my first one and I was really excited about it and threw everything I could at it.

Emily: It’s already had such an incredible reaction and it hasn’t been out long!

Martin: Yeah, I think it started on the 17th May in the UK and it got to number one on the iTunes Charts in horror, which is cool!

Emily: Did you intend for it to be part of the horror niche?

Martin: I like genre films. Some of my favourite films are The Thing from 1982 and the first Fright Night, but I also like Westerns and war films. I just really like genre films, and so although this is a shark film, I treated it like a thriller or drama with some action in it. So, the horror elements were sharp and shocking, but it wasn’t set out to be a pure horror movie like The Exorcist or something like that. I certainly wouldn’t shy away from wanting to do that in my other films that are in that area.

Emily: So what drew you to this particular shark movie? What was your first reaction to the script?

Martin: I think my first reaction was about the locations and how these people were trapped on the raft. I knew we could compound the sense of isolation within that visually. The script had those elements and I could work with that and create a great deal of tension. There was a vast amount of ocean with a small raft that is sinking, and these stalking sharks, and I thought visually that was an area we could do something really interesting with.

Emily: What were the logistics you had to face? Did COVID interfere with the production?

Martin: That’s a good question! We were so lucky we finished shooting at the end of November 2019, we hadn’t even heard about the coronavirus yet! I spent 2020 editing it and doing all the posts so I was very blessed that I had something to do. The only thing was, when we were doing all the editing I was doing it from Perth. The colour-grading and visual effects were done in Brisbane and the sound design was done in Melbourne. So I couldn’t actually go there and sit in the room, which is the ideal thing, so it’s an interesting process to do that all via Zoom. I learnt something from that, but I guess that was my biggest COVID restriction. But hey, I was just grateful to have made a film!

Emily: In terms of the nitty gritty, there are some incredible underwater shots and some very creative deaths! 

Martin: All of the cast were great sports about it! It’s quite a physically demanding shoot. When you get water involved, my goodness, and we only had 25 days to do it in!

Emily: 25 days??

Martin: Oh yes! I still don’t know how we did it. Once the elements get involved, like the wind and the rain, you really lose time, so you just have to be so efficient. The cast were great sports about it, as you have you to use certain techniques to pull them down into the water. It is so demanding. Some of the actors could actually suck themselves down without even a stunt harness, which is extremely impressive!

Shooting in the water was the toughest thing because of the elements, and then we’d also be shooting in a tank, or a big prawn farm, or out in the ocean in Australia with the actual potential dangers that are lurking out there! Films are like a patchwork quilt. You’re using so many different locations and techniques and then eventually in the edit suite you’re trying to put them all together and make sure it feels like its one seamless piece. It’s interesting how it all comes together.

Emily: Do you have a particular favourite shot or scene in the film, something that really stuck with you?

Martin: That is an excellent question. No one has asked me that, that’s really cool! I think my favourite scene is when Kaz goes into the water to retrieve the paddle. I like the fun and the suspense of this scene, and all the low water shots, as she is swimming slowly and delicately and dangerously to the paddle. Then getting the paddle and coming back, everyone’s faces, the tension rising and then finally the thing comes to the surface and the chase is on. I think that’s my favourite scene.

Emily: So you have a career in film spanning 25 years?

Martin: Yeah, mostly I’ve been doing TV commercials in Australia, building my experience and learning filmmaking. Every shoot you do, whether it’s one TV commercial or a 25-day shoot, I’m always thinking “Oh my gosh, I could have been better”, or “Next time, I’ll learn this”. It just blows me away… The craft to movie-making is just endless.

Emily: So what do you think makes Great White stand out from all of its predecessors?

Martin: Well, it’s a tough one because there’s an extremely high bar set by the movie Jaws. It’s like setting yourself up to fail, but obviously I didn’t want to do that! I guess I was trying to showcase the Australian landscape as the beautiful yet dangerous place that it is. The water is so beguiling, so rich and luscious, yet lurking under the surface is a really deadly, ruthless monster. So I was trying to get that sense of landscape, and at the same time making sure that the character had nuances to each of them. They weren’t just fodder to be killed, they were genuine people. I was trying to tease out their characteristics to add a bit more gravitas to the movie and some subtle mixes of the environment. So there were some subtle social elements that I wanted to come out.

Also, there was a lot of night shooting, which isn’t in many shark films. The danger of it at night, my god, it’s so bloody scary!

Emily: That’s a great point about the characters. It’s not violence for the sake of violence.

Martin: Ah thank you, yes! Did you have a favourite shot in the movie?

Emily: So my favourite shot in the movie was when they were on land and they discovered the dead body! It was just their faces, the utter sense of impending doom! The body had also been there for a while… Was that a real person??

Martin: Yes! So you can easily spend 20K on a prosthetic body, but we put a real actor in there. We blued him all up and that works a lot better, you can’t fake that. The poor actor was in the cold sand. I take my hat off to him. I’m glad you like that scene. It’s more authentic for the tension and the impending doom, as you said.

Emily: So Tom, one of the founders of Vampire Squid, really loved your underwater shots.

Martin: Oh, I can tell him a lot about those! So we shot in an aviation tank. That’s where they teach people, if a helicopter goes down in the ocean, how to swim out and so forth. So we shot a lot in four to five days in this aviation tank, which is only (and we hope we did enough to disguise it) two metres deep, if you can believe that! They built an amazing set in there, and we did a lot of shooting in that, and it was just insane. We had this massive animatronic shark in the middle of it.

Emily: I was going to ask about that! So was it all animatronics or was there some CGI?

Martin: Yes, so that was an animatronic shark in there. There was Bruce in Jaws, so we called this one Brenda, for some reason… So, we had Brenda in there, and there were six guys doing all the mechanics of that one, and then there was the CGI one in there too. Again, there was this patchwork quilt of the real ocean and then the prawn farm, and then the underwater stuff, and then the aviation tank, and then the ocean! Eventually, bit by bit over 2020, it came together, but we were trying to piece it all together with not a lot of time.

Emily: The patience you have is unmeasured. You managed to balance your first film, in 25 days, manage everyone’s health and safety, whilst being creative, manage the editing, and all through a pandemic!

Martin: Yeah, you’re so right, ha-ha. There’s always a solution, and to me that is directing. It’s like, oh my gosh, you weren’t expecting it to happen, it’s happened, now how do you solve it? Then you’re thinking, oh my gosh, what are we going to do here, we have don’t have the shots yet and we have to move on.

It is all about health and safety and crews, and making sure everyone is OK. The bigger your crew, the harder it is to move and keep moving, and then there’s all the logistics and the structures of that, the rules and regulations. If you’re on a student movie you can just plough on, but not on a movie like this.

Emily: Have you personally has any close encounters with any sharks?

Martin: There have been quite a few attacks here recently. One up north, a guy got his arm bitten, and there’s been stuff in New South Wales. Personally, me? No, thank god. They’re in the waters, but I don’t tend to go too far out these days, let’s just say that. My family are always like “DON’T GO OUT IN THE WATER TOO FAR!” They stand by the shore and yell “YOU’RE GOING TOO FAR, DAD!” So I’m very careful.

Emily: Yes, fair, can you imagine the irony! Were there any behind-the-scenes moments, like bloopers? Something that you can look back and laugh at now?

Martin: Hmm, I don’t know if I can talk about stuff! Ha-ha! There was an incident with the plane – it didn’t have an engine in it, and it has to sink in the movie, as you know. So, it sunk when it wasn’t supposed to sink and all the actors had to jump off it!

Emily: Was the plane one of your biggest challenges?

Martin: Oh yes, a massive challenge! We were shooting on an island and the plane had to be towed there, plus the issues of tides and rough weather – the plane could have been ripped apart by the elements! It was a massive challenge carting that plane to the various locations. It was so claustrophobic inside the plane! They found it sitting in someone’s farm somewhere. It was completely rat-infested, but they took it and painted it and installed seats! It was incredible.

Emily: Where’s the shark now?

Martin: I don’t know. Brenda is convalescing, but I don’t know where they’ve taken her – hanger 51 somewhere!

Emily: What was your favourite death to direct?

Martin: Ah, I think Jo’s death was definitely a hallmark. He gets a breach death and then he comes up and dies a second time. Each time I see that I still quite enjoy that, and it’s there for people to get a bit of a kick out of. It’s just one of those little scenes that people are expecting in a shark film, I guess. I’ve had other reviews saying it’s predictable, but it delivers on its predictability, so that’s just the way it goes.

Emily: So what’s next for you?

Martin: Well, I have a couple of films. I’ll say one is a bit like Dog Soldiers meets The Thing, all set in an advanced military jet, 30,000 feet in the air – imagine Werewolves on a Plane.

Then I’ve got one surrounding the legends of big cats that roam wild in the Australian bush. In Australian WW2, we had the US military come here, and they used to have mascots. So, when they left, the legend has it that they let them go in the Aussie bush. Another legend is there were circus accidents and they got out. My story is a bit like Stand By Me crossed with the The Ghost in the Darkness. A bunch of kids go into the Australian forest searching for the existence of this big cat, because it supposedly took the main character’s brother.

So they’re the two I have big hopes for. They’re currently sitting with producers and are definitely in that creature feature world I seem to be going down. I think there is a lot of scope and market for that, and people like it. I can’t wait to get back out there and practise again and improve on what I did last time, maybe with a bigger budget and longer days, who knows! Every time, there are different types of challenges, but I’m really looking forward to that and not having to shoot on the ocean!

We would like to thank Martin Wilson for speaking to us about his film Great White, and we look forward to seeing what he has in store for us in the near future. Check out the trailer below!


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