Shark! I reeled in a great interview this time everyone. It took some effort, but I got to sit down with Thunder Levin, the man, the myth, the screenwriter of Sharknado! A requirement was set for me to be able to do the interview, more on that in a minute.
First, yes. Thunder is his real name. His IMDB bio puts us all on notice not to ask about his name. Prior interviews have told me that he was born during a thunder storm, so his mother picked that name out of the sky. The short explanation he has given is “It was the 60’s.”
You all know Sharknado, it is the high concept movie which took the world by storm when it first aired on SYFY network, July 11th, 2013. The movie was an instant hit. Talk of it went viral thanks to fans and celebrities alike live tweeting about it. Sharknado spawned a total of six movies in the franchise, a documentary Sharknado: Feeding Frenzy and even a surprisingly funny and creative mockumentary, Sharknado: Heart of Sharkness.
While The Asylum have produced many movies before and since, it quickly became the house that Sharknado built. You only need one mega hit franchise like that after all. But Thunder has done much more than that. He is the writer-director of AE: Apocalypse Earth, and American Warships, which followed closely in the wake of the Battleship movie. Thunder also wrote 200 M.P.H. for The Asylum, a movie which brought up an interesting story during the interview.
I arrived early, that’s what you do if you’re about to meet a living legend. Besides, with Los Angeles traffic, you just never know how the tides will turn. I quickly walk over to a small indie coffee shop a block away. Now I have my iced coffee in hand, it’s going to be a great day! We were set to meet in the lobby of a high scale hotel, the kind of place with a lot of pretence. Their staff are dressed to the nines, in blazer jackets and the like, they waved me on. Good thing I wore my best T-shirt.
Toward the back of the lobby, right before you hit their in house restaurant, is a sofa in the corner. This should do I thought, as I jumble the big, solid, impractical pillows filling the sofa. A waiter quickly walks up and sets two menus on the coffee table. He motions toward the iced coffee I brought in.
Waiter “Unfortunately, no outside drinks allowed”
He quickly walks away. A passing glance at the menu, try the swordfish ravioli…. only 38 dollars. This is the lobby, not the restaurant, I ponder while I hide my iced coffee under the low table top. I’m not throwing this out. Iced coffee is a vice I cannot part with. I take the time to set up my audio recorder. Not a minute goes by until the whole scene proves to be wrong at this venue. Or perhaps it is I, who am wrong for it.
Chris: “Hello Sir. I’m Chris. How are you?”
This guy is not dressed like the waiter, he’s something else.
Chris points to my audio recorder, he does a bad job at pretending that it’s not why he approached me in the first place.
Chris: “Is that a recording device?”
Curt: “Yes. It’s just audio, for an interview. I’m waiting for my guest.”
Chris: “There are no interviews on property unless management approves it.”
It’s defining moments like this that make me want to unleash my inner Hunter S. Thompson.
Curt “Sweet Jesus, I’m a man of journalism. Now my guest will arrive shortly, he is a person of great importance. His words have stirred the public. Just let the man speak and we’ll be out of your way in no time. This story will be told!”
Then I could punctuate it by flipping this table, but that would reveal my iced coffee underneath, can’t have that. Cooler heads prevailed. I leaped up and started to pack my audio gear.
Chris: “If you would like to speak to management, you can ask if it’s okay.”
Curt: “I’ll wait on my guest for now. Out of respect for them, they set this up.”
Chris: “That’s up to you, if you talk with him now it will make a good first impression.”
I sit back on that decorative couch. He got my meaning and walked back to his bunker, or maybe on to the next interview to shake down. He wants to talk about making good first impressions, we writers can appreciate irony. If a sharknado hit, who would survive, me or Chris? Thankfully, I have way better questions than that planed. In fact, I had no choice but to have a whirlwind of strong questions at the ready.
Thunder requested that I ask a question that has not been answered in all of the interviews he has done over the years. Challenge accepted. It took three rounds of sending him questions before I came up with something original.
Soon enough, Thunder arrived. I explained the situation. It seems I have blown our cover, now the elite had no patience for a proletariat like me. We decide to walk to the coffee shop I was just at and conduct the interview there.
Perfect! I grab my coffee from under the table, this will help me blend in with the locals. It was there, on the back patio of a corner coffee shop, where I sat with Thunder and hopefully brought the lightning. Did I? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Curt Wiser: As I said in the intro, you wanted me to come up with a question you have not been asked before. I respect that, the question is, when did you become sick of hearing the same questions over and over again?
Thunder Levin: Probably the day before you contacted me. I’ve done a lot of interviews in the last six years. The questions were always the same, how did you come up with this idea? How did you get started? The fact that anybody wants to hear what I have to say at all, is very flattering. But after six years of answering the same questions over and over again, it starts to get a little boring.
(I will do all I can to make this not boring I thought, as I pressed on with the next question.)
CW: In your research for writing, what is the most interesting fact you’ve learned?
TL: I was researching space elevators recently, it seems like we could almost build one with the technology we have now.
CW: Where do you go to find out about space elevators? NASA?
TL: The internet, I just Googled “Space Elevator.” It was NASA related, there was also a documentary made a couple of years ago about it. There was a venture capitalist who tried to build one and now the Japanese are doing experiments to figure out how to build one. They’re starting with a tiny one that they just launched into orbit a year ago.
(I used my trusty Google machine to look up space elevator, so you fine people don’t have to. It is said to be a proposed type of planet to space transportation system, which uses a form of cable extending through space and down to Earth.)
TL: So I’ve put a space elevator in a script I’m shopping around now, it’s called Star Child. It’s Panic Room, meets Die Hard…. on a space ship.
CW: As part of research, what is the most interesting experience you have had?
TL: I was working on a script about, military working dogs. I spent months interviewing dog handlers in the Army and Navy Seals. The things these dogs can do, is pretty amazing. The various trainers, had very different processes. One of these guys was a real macho gung-ho guy, and all he really cared about was raising these dogs with really high prey drive.
He felt these dogs would have to be restricted to military use, you wouldn’t want to retire them as pets. And there was another guy who was like, “That’s bull $*it!”
A movie called Megan Leavey came out, about this. I felt like it probably didn’t make sense to pursue the project anymore.
(Megan Leavey is a 2017 Bio-Pic based on the true story of a Marine who bravely served in the Iraq war with her military dog at her side. Actor Kate Mara stars, and the real life Megan Leavey has a role in the film.)
CW: For me, it would probably be that an elephant is the animal with the longest pregnancy term, it is 22 to 24 months.
(This gives me a fun piece of trivia when I run into a pregnant woman…. or a pregnant elephant. I have learned more interesting things over the years for sure, but that would be the best one related to research.)
CW: Movies are now loved because, despite best efforts, they have charming flaws. They have become Cult Classics. What is your favorite of this type of movie?
TL: I don’t really have one. The terrible truth about me is I’m not a big fan of B-Movies. There are oddball movies that I like, but things that are “So bad they’re good,” I’ve never really had the patience for them.
CW: Okay, your favorite oddball movie then.
TL: The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension. That’s a movie that’s just so off the wall. There’s a moment in there where they’re rescuing the heroine from the clutches of the alien leader played by John Lithgow.
There’s this immense Rube Goldberg contraption that’s going to kill the girl, and after they rescue her, they notice a watermelon, in the middle of this machine. One of them asks “What’s the watermelon for? Then the other guy says “I’ll tell you later.” It’s never brought up again. That just warms my heart, these utterly, silly, ridiculous things, it’s just a great movie.
CW: These oddball movies are so popular, that they have inspired Documentaries like Sharknado: Feeding Frenzy, Best Worst Movie, even that Mock-umentary Sharknado: Heart Of Sharkness –
(This immediately elicits laughter from Thunder, and sends us down this path, a path I’m glad we went down.)
CW: Have you seen that? Heart Of Sharkness?
TL: I won’t watch that to be honest with you.
CW: There is at least one element I know you would like about it. The character who is the director in the movie, is this self-centered, auteur type, and the writer, is this guy called Daniel. The director keeps calling him writer. He keeps having to remind the gentleman, I have a name, it’s Daniel.
(Thunder Levin laughs even louder than before upon hearing this.)
TL: You see the backstory to that Mock-umentary, the way it started, was that they wanted to do a reality show, about the making of Sharknado 2. They didn’t want to pay us to appear in it. Their attitude was, “well, you’re doing the work to make this movie, we’ll just follow you around with cameras.” We’re like, “Yeah, but you’re going to make money off of it right?”
So neither Anthony [the director] or I, wanted to do the reality show, and they already put some work into it I guess. Since they’ve been thinking about doing a documentary, they went ahead and made one. They made a Mock-umentary.
CW: That was a good tangent. To continue the question, Cult Classic movies like that have even led to Bio-pics like The Disaster Artist or Dolemite Is My Name, what do you think explains this phenomenon?
TL: That’s an interesting question.
CW: Well thanks, I try.
TL: Who knows? It may be something about the times we’re living in. And it’s not just the documentaries, it’s the B-Movies, and it’s starting to spread into big budget Hollywood films. What was that storm movie?…..
TL: Geostorm was one, then there was something else like it a few months before.
(My guess is the movie “2020”, but I am not sure which movie he is thinking of.)
TL: Then of course there was San Andreas. You know San Andreas is just Sharknado with a bigger budget. In fact, San Andreas is less scientifically accurate than Sharknado is.
CW: Do you feel this phenomenon is going to wane at all? Or is it here to stay?
TL: I think it’s going to grow a bit more, and then it’ll wane. All this stuff comes in cycles. Look at the movies in the 60’s and 70’s, early 70’s before Star Wars. Movies were very serious back then, it seems even the Comedies had to be socially relevant.
Then along came Star Wars, and it blew everybody’s mind and it just occurred to everyone that movies can just be fun. That was a revelation for me. It makes me think maybe the studios learned the wrong lesson from Star Wars. And they started thinking having meaning, and real depth of human emotion should be avoided. And I don’t think that’s the case. But, it’s important to have some movies that are just fun.
CW: In the late 80’s you worked as a still photographer on three movies for the legendary film producer Roger Corman. What lessons have you learned from working on those sets?
TL: All of them. The truth is, I learned more from working on those Corman films and from watching Blade Runner over and over again, than I did in four years at Film School.
To make movies at that level, you have to be clever. Roger Corman was very clever at making inexpensive films. It was my first experience on a professional set, and because I was a still photographer I was in a position to learn. If you’re a P.A. [Production Assistant] You’re busy doing whatever they tell you to do.
As a still photographer you’re basically standing in the most important places, watching the most important stuff. You’re seeing how everybody works together, you’re seeing how a crew functions. You’re seeing how they are able to make movies quickly and inexpensively, and it’s your job to pay attention to all of it.
Roger would have rules that the Directors and Cinematographers had to follow. Like, you never lay dolly track for only one shot, unless you can shoot multiple set ups, you can’t put that track down. You were not allowed to do more than three takes of anything. If you couldn’t get it in three takes you’re probably making it too complicated. If you can make good films that way, you can certainly make quality studio films, but the reverse is not necessarily true.
CW: It’s really interesting hearing how on Big Bad Mama II, they had these period cars [cars from the 1930’s] and they would paint the front and side one color, then the back and other side a different color. That way they could make it look like they had two different cars in separate scenes.
TL: Sometimes things like that will come back and bite you on the ass. On 200 M.P.H., the first film that I wrote for The Asylum, they called me half way through the shoot. I wasn’t on set for this one, I just wrote it, someone else was making it.
They called me and said “The hero car has been stolen! Can you do something in the script to explain why the car changes?” I said, “Are you shooting in script order?” “Of course not, nobody shoots in script order,” they replied. Then I said, “So you want me to explain why a car keeps changing back and forth, from one car to another? I don’t know how to do that.”
And how that happened, was they found a guy who had this cool, tricked out car and chose to use that. So when it got stolen, it was impossible to match it. But if you rent a car from a professional place, you get multiple versions of the same car to use for different things.
(After this interview I watched 200 M.P.H. to solve the mystery of the changing car. I even followed up with Thunder afterword, and here is how it resulted in the final edit of the movie.)
(In the movie, Jaz Martin plays our hero Rick, a character oddly similar to the Paul Walker role in The Fast And The Furious. For the first 23 minutes of the movie we see Rick driving a white sports car. Then after the wheels are set in motion for Rick to have a high stakes race with the bad guy, Rick says they need to upgrade his car in time for the race. All still the white car at that point. Then we are treated to a quick scene with the two friend characters at a scrap yard saying they are looking for a Mazda RX-7. They say they found one over there, but we never see that car in the scene.)
(From then on our hero Rick drives and works on a green RX-7. The implication is they chose to gear up this other car, without explaining why. The way they chose to handle not having the RX-7 in other later scenes seems to be shooting close ups facing the interior of the car, so you basically only see the windshield and car seats of a car that would not match. In other scenes, during the race, the car is entirely visual effects. So in my opinion, they did a decent job working around a mix matched car, but watching 200 M.P.H knowing Thunder Levin’s side of things adds a whole new level to it.)
CW: Since you are also a Writer-Director how do you feel about writing scripts that become directed by someone else?
TL: That’s a tricky thing for me. Because everything I write, I see it in my head as I write it. And I think about how I would make it. The first one I wrote and didn’t direct was 200 M.P.H. I visited the set one day, and the director was doing everything wrong, and by wrong I mean not the way I saw it in my head. I’m sure it was perfectly fine what he was doing.
So I realized, I just didn’t want to come back to set anymore. I had to divorce myself from it. Once the script was done and out the door for production, that had to be the end of it for me. When we did Sharknado 2, because it had become this big thing, Anthony C. Ferrante [The Director] and I were sort of working together from the beginning. We had bull sessions, what is this movie going to be about? And it became a more collaborative process to get the basic story line down. So then Sharknado 2 became much closer to how I saw it when I wrote it, then the previous two movies that I wrote but didn’t direct.
As long as our conversations were private, and I wasn’t telling him what to do in front of cast and crew, [Anthony] was very receptive to my ideas. So that became a great experience, because the thing about directing…. is it’s so all encompassing, right?
(Yes it is.)
I’ve always said, that there’s nothing a human being could do, short of going to war, that’s more all involving than directing a feature film. Your every thought, 24 hours a day, from beginning to end, is focused on this one thing. And you’re working 16 hours plus, everyday. So on Sharknado 2, it was the first time I had some creative fulfillment, but I didn’t have any of the stress.
(A quick backstory to lead into this next question. The Sharknado franchise has a long list of celebrities cast for cameos and a much longer roster of people who passed on it. Especially for the first film because who would have thought some movie called “Sharknado” would become a cultural icon. Certainly not Steve Guttenberg, who is one of the actors said to have turned down the lead role of Fin.)
CW: When the first Sharknado became a phenomenon, and celebrities were tweeting about it. If you could pick one celebrity who tweeted about it that could have been in Sharknado 2, who would you pick?
TL: That was so frustrating, because so many celebrities tweeted that they wanted to be in it, then actually, none of them would do it. The most frustrating one, I guess was Daniel Radcliffe. Cuz he made a big thing about wanting to be in it. Then when it came time, he just went radio silent. He was going to play a janitor with a broom.
(Thunder mimes flying around on a broom, Harry Potter style. I laugh at the thought.)
And he was going to rescue people off of the roller coaster with his broom. The biggest disappointment in terms of cameos wasn’t someone who tweeted about it. That was someone who we asked to be in it who turned it down, and that was William Shatner.
(Yes, the William Shatner. He is probably best known for starring in Kingdom Of The Spiders and as an author of many Sci-Fi novels…. I guess he’s done a few other things.)
And that really killed me, because Star Trek was a big influence for me growing up. So having William Shatner speaking my dialogue would have been great.
CW: In the first Sharknado, the Nova character has a speech which is a reference to Jaws. This speech was said to have been longer in the script, what was cut from it, and are you happy with how it turned out in the final edit?
TL: Yes and no. In the early draft of the script, it was line for line Quint’s speech from Jaws. I just transformed it to this little girl on this fishing boat with her Grand Father.
CW: That would make it longer.
TL: But really it was like a page and a half. The Producers looked at it and said what the F___ are you doing! We can’t do this. So through each draft, it got shorter and shorter. No, I would have preferred they did the whole thing, I think it would have been hilarious.
CW: In that case I have to ask. Kevin Smith did exactly that, a different version of the Jaws speech in Chasing Amy, have you seen that?
TL: I’ve seen Chasing Amy twice, but I guess it slipped my memory.
CW: Yeah it’s the scene in the bar, where it’s the four of them talking. There was even paintings on the wall with just a blue color to mimic the ocean outside of the windows from that scene in Jaws.
TL: I’ll have to watch that again…. because I like that movie.
CW: I hear you’re writing a Novel that has a dark Thriller tone. Tell us more about that and what led to this transition as a novelist?
TL: Well, I know that’s in my bio….. but I’ve been stuck on chapter two for about four years now. So I don’t know if I’m actually writing a novel or not. It’s a Thriller, it’s sort of a spy, special ops kind of thing. And I started writing it as an experiment, to see if I could write a story without knowing ahead of time where it goes.
I’d always heard that’s how Tom Clancy did it. He just had the vaguest idea of what it was about, he’d just start writing and see what happens. So I started doing that, and I have a really good beginning. I really like the first two chapters of this book. But I got to the point when the screenwriter in me is saying, okay you’re at the point when you have to start setting up things that will pay off. But that would require me knowing how it ends and I’ve never quite figured out what that is.
And I started writing that right when Sharknado blew up, so I just got real busy. And every once in a while, I’d go back to it, and the truth is I could keep going. Because I like the character, and I like the situation he’s in. I’d like to finish it someday. I’ve enjoyed writing prose.
CW: If you could design any piece of merch that does not exist based on one of your movies, what would it be?
TL: Well there’s some very disturbed adult products I might make from Mutant Vampire Zombies from the ‘Hood! One of the characters gets his…. private parts bitten off by a zombie. So the severed member, would be funny, if you could actually market that. I don’t know…. all the things I can think of, are things that would instantly result in lawsuits.
CW: That’s good enough, I’ll just go with the Zomb-Dildo. We can go with that one.
(I could have gone my whole life and never expected that I would say the word “Zomb-Dildo.” But hey, these things happen. Perhaps Thunder didn’t want to be remembered for the Zomb-Dildo outbreak of 2025, which is sure to come, so he thought about more merch items.)
TL: You know – No…. I have an answer, I have an answer. In my film AE, the female lead is this humanoid character who’s skin is naturally camouflaged. So a body suit, with her camouflaged skin, because we had to paint it on. It took us eight hours, then she had to live in it for a week at a time.
CW: If you could be re-incarnated as any animal, what would you be?
TL: A dragon. So I could fly, breath fire and be king of all I survey.
CW: What if it had to be a non-fictitious animal?
TL: Then an eagle, for the same reasons.
CW: Fire breathing eagle.
TL: Sure, why not?
CW: And just think if you were a bald eagle, you’d be protected.
TL: Yeah, that would be my choice I’d be a bald eagle.
CW: Is there a question you always wish you were asked in these Q and A’s? Now is your chance to answer it.
TL: I don’t know, I just always hoped to get into conversations about movies. I mean nobody really analyzes Sharknado, bit by bit. People have tried to analyze how it became what it became. But nobody has wanted to sit down with one of my films and say, “Okay, why’d you do this?” “Why’d you do that?” “How did this happen?”
And I’ve read so many interviews with Spielberg, and Cameron and all these guys, where people have gone into their movies, gotten into the nitty gritty. And people never talk like that about Sharknado and nobody cares about my other films enough to bother.
CW: Well I care.
(There you have it. My interview with Thunder Levin. And if you are wondering how I did with my challenge, coming up with a question he has not had in a published interview before. I asked him at the end which ones I asked he hasn’t been asked before? “All of them,” Thunder replied.)
Curt Wiser is an author and writer/director of the suspense movie Cam-Girl.