October 4, 2016
The Shallows is a disappearing breed – the mid-budget Hollywood hit. Made for $17 million and grossing $118 million worldwide, it is the kind of efficient thriller that studios were once able to crank out on the regular. But now in the age of branded universe nine-figure blockbusters it is treated as an anomaly, and entertainment reporters have dutifully sought reasons for The Shallows’ success, whether in Blake Lively’s social media numbers (11.6 million Instagram followers!) or savvy marketing partnerships with Buzzfeed et al. One compelling argument, via Scott Mendelson’s prescient preview at Forbes, is that ” in a summer filled with sequels and franchise installments, The Shallows looks and feels outright revolutionary by virtue of its small scale and (comparatively) small stakes. It’s about Blake Lively, who gets attacked by a shark while surfing and must fight to survive. That’s it. No world-building, no sequel set-up, no planet-in-peril finale, no Easter eggs.” It is a film that can be taken on its own terms, anchored by an intense central performance from Lively in a film hammered together by Hollywood’s premier genre problem-solver Jaume Collet-Serra. With financial and production limitations, the most heinous shark violence occurs off-screen, registered by Lively’s expressively weathered reaction shots, implying horrors beyond imagining.
Producers Lynn Harris and Matti Leshem formed Weimaraner Republic Pictures in 2014, and they told Anne Thompson of Indiewire that they wanted to “produce high-concept movies on modest budgets, aimed at the under-served women’s audience.” They were attracted to Anthony Jawinski’s script In the Deep, which had a relentless female protagonist, and the buzz of being selected for the 2014 Black List of best unproduced screenplays. The story, re-worked with Collet-Serra, follows lapsed med student Nancy on a trip to an isolated Mexican beach, a tribute to her late mother who traveled to that spot when she was pregnant with Nancy. After a day of surfing with a few locals, she is attacked by a Great White shark and stranded on a rock. The shark circles between her and the shore, cutting off any chance of her escape. Nancy will have to use all of her education and ingenuity to sneak her way past the beast.
Once they secured Blake Lively and her legions of advertiser-friendly fans, funding was assured from Sony. Harris and Leshem then sought a director, and were determined to land the unheralded but productive Collet-Serra. He told former Sony executive Michael De Luca he wanted to take on the job, ““Because I don’t know how to make it. I cannot figure it out.”
Collet-Serra approaches films as puzzles to be solved. He told Little White Lies that “I keep getting interested in movies that have challenges and I think that genre films usually have challenges in them – a concept that’s interesting but difficult to explain to the audience. I like to work within certain limitations and find creative solutions to the problems I’ve been given.” In Orphan he crafted a shockingly serious horror film from the story of a child who turned out to be an Estonian midget sociopath. With his Liam Neeson trilogy, he wrought tension out of the enclosed space of an airplane (Non Stop), devised visual strategies to depict amnesia (Unknown), and sought new ways to shoot New York City (he found rarely used locations all around Queens in Run All Night).
With The Shallows Collet-Serra is again confronted with a single location, but under treacherous shooting conditions – both on the beaches of Australia’s Lord Howe Island (standing in for Mexico) and in a Hollywood studio tank. Shooting on the water provides endless headaches, whether it’s the unpredictable weather or the impossibility of setting up a tripod. Collet-Serra and his team, including regular DP Flaviano Martinez Labio (Unknown and Non-Stop) and production manager Sharon Miller (House of Wax) anchored camera rigs with cement to gain some stability. The main visual motif of the movie is a shot set at the ocean water level, the camera bopping above and below depending on the waves. It is the dividing line between human and animal domains. Collet-Serra and his sound editor Tobias Poppe cut out the non-diegetic EDM music when the camera dips underwater, further underlining the border.
The geography is simple, Nancy is safe above, and in mortal danger below. In the initial attack on Nancy the shark is unseen, but she is shown struggling underwater as the frame fills with red. This is the most brightly colored of Collet-Serra’s projects, as he embraces the summery locale – there is the bright blood red but also the electric tangerine of Nancy bikini top and the intense blue-green of the ocean. Nancy is the one soaking up the idyllic pre-shark atmosphere, her hair already rough and tangled with salt water as she readies herself to surf the isolated beach. Though she is something of an adventurer, she is also controlled and logical – all her beach gear is bagged and identified with label maker print-outs. A sketch is provided of her home life – a scamp of a sister and a concerned Dad who urges her to go back to med school. She dropped out after the death of her mother from cancer – thinking the profession had failed her one too many times.
These family talks happen on FaceTime, and Collet-Serra superimposes these screens next to Nancy as she strolls down the beach. It is a way to avoid cutting back and forth between locations, as one of the keys of the film is how thoroughly Fort Howe’s geography becomes part of the narrative. Collet-Serra experimented with texting in Non-Stop, placing texts as on-screen bubbles next to his leads, and here he is continuing that attempt to streamline. The less he has to cut into phone close-ups, the more he can pay attention to locations and his actors’ faces. And it is Blake Lively’s face that carries this film. She trained hard for the role, and is a believable surfer, but the whole film rides on her ability to convey fear as well as thought – since the movie is all about how to survive to the next lowering of the tide. And since the shark is entirely a CG creation, she has nothing to play off of the entire film aside from an injured seagull who becomes her inadvertent companion. Lively turns out to be a commanding presence, and whether she is gritting through self-sewn stitches, improvising with a live bird, or reacting to off-screen chaos, she brings a quiet strength to the part. It would have been easy (and fun) to overact, plashing about like a kid in the tub, but Lively proceeds as if her life is on the line. All of the thrilling action mechanics that Collet-Serra orchestrates to end the film – a shark chase to the bottom of the ocean – would have been a dampened squib if Lively wasn’t there to light the fire.