Director Jon Turteltaub shapes a clever creature feature with ‘THE MEG’

The Megalodon in THE MEG. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

If you’ve ever wanted to see Jason Statham battle a 70-foot shark, well then, director Jon Turteltaub (NATIONAL TREASURE, WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING) has just the film for you. THE MEG had been trapped in development hell for more than two decades before it was finally brought to its current cinematic glory. And thank goodness it’s arrived!

Based on author Steve Alten’s best-selling novel, this is the story of one man’s crusade to redeem his reputation and save the world from a gargantuan predator. Part ecological cautionary tale, part homage to classic creature features, it’s a mega-fun, mega-intense, mega-entertaining Summer spectacular.

At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I sat down with the affable filmmaker and we discussed everything from maintaining tone, to whose character was originally a female, to Statham’s character finding confidence from an iconic Disney fish.

This project began at an entirely different studio – Disney – in 1997, which was in the middle of your time there. Were you attached back then? When did you come aboard?

I didn’t hear about it until 2016. I didn’t know it existed. When it came to my attention, there was a script and they were ready to go. They only needed a director and off we went. I was the beneficiary of years and years of other people’s work.

To me, this felt like it hearkens back to classic creature features. I don’t know if that’s how you approached it?

Absolutely. The key was to make a movie that had all the stuff that belonged in big monster movies without overdoing them, without trying to top them and having a sense of humor about them. Now, it’s hard to convince people that you want to have a sense of humor about things, but you’re not making fun of it. I think that’s the tone we were able to find, which is what makes the movie work. It delivers on its monster movie, but also delivers on a movie that knows it’s a monster movie.

There’s the fun of it all, of course, but there’s a deeper ecological message of nature getting revenge on dumb, harmful humans. Was that always there?

Yeah. That’s in the novel. We’re never going to stop exploring. We’re incapable as a species of not having curiosity. The question is, “What do we do with the things we find?” and “How do we learn to share instead of conquer?” The irony here is you discover something that was better left undiscovered and you don’t have a choice. You can’t co-exist. But in this case, you have to get rid of the Megalodon, not because he’s a threat to the people, but because he’s a threat to the oceans himself. We’ve evolved to have a Megalodon-free ocean and it’s a horribly invasive species.

There used to be a line, “We spent 50 years saving the whales and in one minute, we’ve just doomed them to extinction.” Nobody likes seeing bad things happen to whales. The other thing is being able to make an evil shark movie while making sure people know sharks aren’t evil. Sharks are in fact one of the most vital, important creatures for our own safety and survival. We kill far too many – a hundred million a year. It’s far too extraordinary a number to believe there’s any left. We’ve got to stop.

Speaking a little to that point, this was a Chinese co-financed production and they’re a large purveyor of shark fin soup…

It’s funny. The Chinese government is trying very hard to deliver a eco-friendly and eco-conscious ideas, but traditions have people eating shark fin soup. Officially, they’re trying very hard to get people to stop. They have made it illegal – shark finning is illegal.

There’s the line in there about illegal poachers…

Yeah. It’s just such an awful practice. They kill it just for one fin. All that meat is thrown away.

Jason Statham and Bingbing Li in THE MEG. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Was there debate as to when to show the Meg?

Always. A debate within myself, let alone within the script, let alone with all the voices who decide when. I actually would have waited longer if I had my druthers. But we’re in a different age. We realize now that in this world, people are probably going to see the shark before they ever go to the movie. People kept saying to me, “They’ve seen the shark forty times on the internet already. Why are you making them wait for something they already know?” I still think it’s better to wait.

We had to wait for it in JAWS.

And it’s not just JAWS.

…ALIEN…

ALIEN and every Hitchcock movie. It’s JURASSIC PARK. We forget how long it is until we see the first dinosaur. That’s what suspense is great at.

Was Suyin always in the script?

I’m trying to remember all the iterations I saw. That character was there. Rainn Wilson’s character was a female for a long time. [jokes] But there just aren’t enough roles for white men in Hollywood – he said sarcastically. So we were trying to help him out. The romance was always there.

She’s almost an equal hero to Jason Statham’s character. I would think that took a lot of balancing.

Her smarts and her courage are clear. She’s just as willing to do all the scary, dangerous stuff. And she has her secret weapon which is her oceanographic knowledge and biological knowledge. So the two of them are side by side battling the shark. She also has the Achilles heel of having family to look after, whereas the man only has to worry about himself. That’s coincidence. What makes for a great hero is all the things in the way of being heroic. When you have a daughter to save, you’re a horrible person if you don’t save your daughter. When it’s not your daughter, you can focus on the shark.

You represent the female gaze here as well. Was it a mandate, once Statham was cast, to have him take off his shirt?

No, it was hardly a mandate, but it was too good a scene not to do. I can’t promise that if we cast John Candy in that part the scene would’ve gone the same way.

Where did the reference to FINDING NEMO come from?

It came from my psychotic brain. I thought it was right that characters in movies go to the movies. If pop culture allows us to know certain things, why can’t characters in movies? It just felt right and awesome that a guy like Jason Statham would be finding his courage from Dory.

Do you approach a special effects-driven project like this any different than you do films that don’t require that sort of thing like WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING or LAST VEGAS?

Yes and no. Story-wise it’s the same, but time and resources-wise, it’s very different. You’re always struggling with resources, but character is everything in WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING and LAST VEGAS. Special effects better be awesome in a movie like THE MEG or you are going to be disappointing a lot of people. It’s part of the fun of some movies to see that huge epic visual party going on. People are smart and sophisticated and know what shitty looks like so you better give them something great to look at.

THE MEG opens on August 10.

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