‘The Shallows’ Director Jaume Collet-Serra Talks About Casting Blake Lively and Working with the Elements

By June 24, 2016

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has crafted an interesting career for himself out of making genre films over the years, whether it be his three collaborations with Liam Neeson in Non-Stop, Unknown, or Run All Night, or his underrated horror work with films like House of Wax or Orphan.

With The Shallows though, his new shark thriller starring Blake Lively and basically no one else (there is a surprisingly charming seagull actually), he may have made his best project to date, with a film that’s one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer this year.

I recently got the chance to sit down and speak with Collet-Serra about the movie as well, including what it was like shooting on location in the film, working with the elements, the lie he told Blake Lively before she signed on, and more. You can find our full conversation down below and make sure to read my review of The Shallows as well.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to shoot this movie. What was it like rehearsing and what was the preparation process like for it though? Especially when you’re shooting a majority of it on the water. 

It’s impossible to rehearse. It’s one of those things where you prefer, but when you read the script, it can be many things. Like in real life, this beach doesn’t exist, so in your head it can be whatever, so when you start going location scouting and looking at different beaches and things, you kind of start getting an idea of what can work, and what will be visually interesting. So one of the first decisions that I made was to try and find a beach with some kind of rock formation in the background, I didn’t want her to be against a clean horizon all the time. I wanted there to be reference to all around her, except for one part, so we would get a better sense of what we were looking at, so that was the first criteria was to find a beach that had that. Then it had to be a beach where there were waves so you could surf, but also had to be calm enough that you could shoot in, which is a contradiction. It there are waves then it’s not calm, if it’s calm then there are no waves. So that’s when you start doing all the trickery.

We ended up in a beautiful beach on this island between Australia and New Zealand, and yes it was beautiful, but it was also protected by nature, it was a bird nesting area, so there were also a lot of questions we had to go through and ask to make sure we weren’t impacting it at all. Once we got all of that cleared, we built our little rock platform and then after one day, the ocean destroyed it, you know? You are there and the ocean is like, ‘What are you doing here?’ it’s this powerful force of nature that destroyed everything, but we got enough and so we went to a studio and shot whatever else we could in the studio which wasn’t easy either. So back to the question, you plan, you plan, you plan, and then you get there and, especially in a film with a lot of nature, you shoot what you can or you go over budget and over schedule months and months and months like all of the other bigger movies do. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the money or the time to go over budget, so we just had roll with the punches, and then deliver something that was still good.

I really loved Blake Lively’s performance in the film as well. What made you want to cast her in the role, and did you have to convince or persuade her at all to do it? 

I didn’t have to talk her into it necessarily, but as an actor, she had concerns about how could she, not only carry a movie, but also carry a movie with nothing else around her, including actors or an environment really. She couldn’t just be on a set that looks great all the time. She’s in a blue screen environment with little tennis balls around her, or maybe a diver with a stupid little fin swimming around her, and she had to react to it. So a lot of it was being wet and in the environments all day, eight hours a day, with the makeup, the sun, and everything. So I told her it was going to be a lot of fun, and that was my lie! [Laughs] You know? It wasn’t fun, fun, it was work and it was very tough, especially with the stress of having to deliver the movie on time and the elements not cooperating made it very difficult because when we were actually rolling, she had to be great, right away. There wasn’t a lot of time to find the performance or to tweak things. We had a window then and she had to do it right away, and she was there, and she was great. 

I was really intrigued by how you chose to show her throughout, the way that you stuck closely to her in the beginning and then as she gets more and more hurt throughout you stay close still, and it just makes it all feel more brutal. Was there a specific decision process behind that technique? 

Yeah, there was a decision behind that. You know, it’s a point-of-view movie, and I said right away to her and to everybody very clearly early on that I was going to have a wide angle lens on her all the time. We were going to be close because the camera person has to be on that rock with her, and yeah there are some other shots along the way because you need to see other things, but my choice would be to show what she sees and how she reacts to it, from her point-of-view because that’s the movie. Of course, eventually it has to become bigger and action-y and cinematic, but that’s the fun part, that’s the resolution. That’s when we can bend the rules. But for the most part, you want to be there and you want to see things how she sees them. I broke that rule a couple of times with helicopter shots because in that moment you’re not seeing what she sees, but you’re seeing what she feels.

Those helicopter shots are pretty gorgeous too.

Right, and they’re more of an expression of how she feels, you know? It’s hard to do that alone point of view the whole time, because you want to go wide and see her being alone a few times as well. If you over-abuse that, where that’s all you’re doing in every scene though, then that stops meaning anything. So you have to use it very carefully. I’m proud of my movies though, I storyboard them all, I design everything, and I hope for the best. Then here I am talking to you [Laughs].

Nancy (Blake Lively) in Columbia Pictures'  THE SHALLOWS.

What I found really interesting about this as well, coming off of the 41st anniversary of Jaws as well, is that you show the shark in the movie fairly early on, rather than keeping it out of frame and a mystery like most other shark movies do. What motivated you to show it so quickly?

Well, when we as filmmakers decide not to show something, we can always give an explanation about how and why we designed it that way, but usually it’s a matter of the resources. Either Spielberg, his shark didn’t work it or broke down and didn’t look good, and so he chose to use that creatively to his advantage. In my movie though, I couldn’t afford many shark shots, cause they’re CGI and expensive. But at the same time, I need to show the shark early because I have a theory that you’ve gotta promise the audience early on what the movie is about because then if you do that, you can kinda take your time to build it up back again. Audiences these days they have ADD, they always want a quick taste, and then they give you the time and patience, but I think for me, it was very important to do that. The movie was not originally written that way either, and the shark wasn’t originally appearing until much later, but I felt that the audience needed to see it early and then take it away and not show it again for an even longer period of time than what was scripted. Cause once you introduce him in the middle of the movie, you have to keep showing it. 

I also really liked the way that you incorporated technology, visually and thematically, in the story. What was the process like that led you to that?

Well, you have to look at the tools that you have to tell the story, you know? When I did Non-Stop, like many years ago, I introduced using texts onscreen. Now here, I didn’t want to copy myself or all of the other people who are doing that now everywhere. But it was a tool, to get to know Nancy in the film. For me, if you meet a girl in a truck, there’s only so much interesting conversation she can have with a stranger. Instead of having that have the weight of exposition, I wanted the conversation with the stranger to be more fun, and have the phone be the exposition. Then make that the tool. Cause the first version of that scene would have become more like an interrogation to learn as much about her as possible, and what are the chances that we cut into that truck at the exact moment she’s being asked all of those questions? It make for a scene that’s very contrived. So this way we just did that.

For the second part of it, when she’s talking to her family, I really didn’t want to cut to them. I had the footage too, it’s just that if I’m cutting to her family in Texas, then it introduces the question of why I’m not cutting to there again throughout the film. If I offer that point-of-view, then when she doesn’t call them back or whatever, then I’m gonna want to know what they’re thinking, and then I’m cheating the audience. So if I don’t cut to them, then I still get to introduce them, without introducing their POV, and then that’s fair.

This is my last question as well, and it honestly might be a silly question, but when you’re building that rock that she survives on in the film, how much thought is put into the actual size and layout of that rock, so it’s big enough that the shark can’t attack her, but also not a mini-island at the same time?

Well, actually that was the first thing that we thought of and designed. It’s actually two rocks, side-by-side, with a little gap in between. So when I read the script, it was only one rock, but I knew that she would have to be able to go somewhere in the film at least. So we introduced the other rock as a way for her to have to hop back-to-back from during a specific sequence in the film. So this way it makes her active, and it creates a little barrier for the shark as well, and it becomes much more sort of interactive, than just one rock. That’s how things are actually too. Then when the water goes up, the rock becomes smaller as well, and when it comes down it becomes bigger. It’s actually a very interesting design and I’m really happy with how it turned out. 

The Shallows is in theatres everywhere now.

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Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable