Within the on-set Piranha FX trailer utilized by Nicotero, Jake Garber, Mike McCarty and Carey Jones one finds corpses and sundry body parts in various stages of consumption - chewed up by the film's titular fish which will be created practically by KNB and CGI visual effects supervisor Derek Wentworth's crew. "In my 500 homages to Jaws in the movie, we even created Chrissie's arm for one of the body parts," Nicotero grins handing this writer a faux female arm, wounds vibrant and fresh. He's wearing a Land of the Dead shirt, an out of the norm day for him. He says he's been wearing Amity Island and Jaws t-shirts during the production.
I'm dropping in on Nicotero on a June afternoon in Arizona where Aja is nearing the end of his production schedule. Things haven't slowed down any here for KNB. Out of the estimated 40-day shoot, Nicotero tells me they've had probably ten free days. He echoes a sentiment that I've heard bandied about the set quite a bit: Piranha 3-D is an ambitious feat for the budget they have to work with. One scene alone called for 97 hours of non-stop prep work and execution.
"We had a week and a half of people being decimated," Nicotero says incredulously, describing what is sure to be Aja's piece de resistance: An estimated 500-extra massacre in which the prehistoric piranha go on a feeding frenzy. "It's a sequence we call the D-Day sequence where they're bringing all of the survivors up onto the beach and the camera is going through and finding people with their limbs chewed up. Just hunks of raw meat! We used a couple of surfers who were amputees and we put chewed up legs on them. The nice thing about Alex is he just lets us go. He knows this movie is about the gore and, when you get to that point in the script when the piranhas start attacking, it has to feel like complete insanity and mayhem."
To capture the carnage, KNB had eight weeks preparation time to test new techniques and gags for realism. Nicotero grabs a slab of flesh on a nearby table. For the life of me, I can't identify what part of the body it came from, but it looks like the piece of gristle I left on a plate at the end of a recent BBQ in the backyard. "We came up with different ways of using silicone, different textures so it dangles. It looks like a butcher shop," he punctuates this by flicking a sheer end of the pale skin then turns to a corpse we cannot identify. Literally. Half of this poor soul's face has been picked off. "These are some of the best fake bodies we've ever done. Kevin Wasner, he came up with this great technique to layer the bone and the musculature and add that fat layer in so it's not just scooped away foam. Once we established the look we liked, we had an assembly line of guys going in adding not just bone but more textures on top of it."
The assembly line technique also applied to the massacre's injured extras, a process that recalled Nicotero's days readying the zombies for George Romero's Land of the Dead. "You do all of the zombies, then you go on set and do all of the gags. This one, you do all of the bites and the victims, then you get on set and you do all of the gags which take a little time. We had a crew doing 60 to 70 make-ups a day plus gags and we had to paint a lot of the blood on with tattoo color so it wouldn't wash off in the water. We had bodies and body parts everywhere."
Aja and Nicotero found themselves referencing this video, amongst other research photos and YouTube discoveries, at the outset of production. The real shark attack caught on camera set the bar for what needed to be achieved in KNB's kill gags. "What happens is the blood starts pouring in the water, they grab the guy and pick him up. The second they lift him out of the water, the blood gushes like a f**kin' water fountain. Aja thought we needed to differentiate the blood in the water versus the blood out of the water. The first test we ever did was at KNB with one of my guys where we made a full silicone leg with blood tubes in it and we actually green screened out his real leg. We had a couple of guys carrying him around in the water. Alex said if we can maintain that level of detail on all of these gags in the massacre, we're going to have a great scene."
"Right when we were shooting the D-Day scene," he continues, "we have water blood and dressing blood. The water blood has that bright '70s feel to it so it reads in the water. I would run along the shoreline dumping blood in and when they yelled action, the blood would just wash up on the shore. It looked like the entire lake was covered."
So much blood was spilled in Lake Havasu - where most of the lensing took place - it crept across the lake to where families frolicked. They didn't seem to mind though ("Kids are playing in bloody water!" Nicotero laughs); they even showed amiable curiosity when the KNB team unloaded bodies and parts from their boat to the dock at the end of the day.
As for the lil' buggers inflicting all of the damage, Nicotero pulls out a maquette of one of the film's fish, conceived by Cloverfield monster designer Neville Page. "The first thing Joe Dante said when I told him we were doing this was, 'Oh, you're shooting with hand puppets? Shoot it at eight frames? Man, you get a lot of mileage out of that!' Yes, Joe, we're going to have puppets." Head-on, the piranha I'm looking at is fearsome, almost dragon-like with a bony plate situated between its eyes and just above the mouth. The tale resembles - slightly - that of a coelacanth and the scales are painted with a blue hue. On either side spring two feelers which Nicotero explains "will be a lot thinner and wispy. The majority of the fish stuff is going to be CGI. What we provided were the hand puppets and the scannable maquettes."
What gets this Jaws fan palpably revved up is not just the viscera he gets to spill but the company he has gotten to keep. Nicotero owns up to doing a little "geeking out" alongside Aja when it came time for Richard Dreyfuss to do his cameo.
"F**kin' unbelievable," he says. "They changed his name in the script to Matt. Ironically, when they started casting, they were cc'ing me on the cast wish list. When the cast list for cameos came out, they wanted Shatner, Sam Elliott, Billy Bob Thornton, everybody they wanted to play that character. At the bottom it said, 'Richard Dreyfuss unavailable due to scheduling.' That night I had dinner with a friend of mine who said, 'Guess who I represent?' Richard Dreyfuss." Aja put in his request again, and as it turned out, the actor's schedule was free during the time they needed him. "He gives me a little credit for getting Dreyfuss. The first day on set, when you hear his voice, and he's in that character, Alex and I just started freaking out."
"Eli Roth was also here because he has a part in it as the host of the wet t-shirt contest," the KNB EFX head adds. "He was great on stage with these two super-soakers soaking down all of these chicks in Wild, Wild Girls t-shirts. Eli said, 'I should never be around this much boobs and blood in my life ever.'"
Piranha 3-D may be work for the KNB fellas, but they seem to be having the time of their lives with an unbeatable equation. Says Nicotero, "If I was 20 years old, this would be the greatest movie I ever worked on because it's just gore and hot women and 3-D and monsters. How much more fun can you get?" You'll see their work and more when Piranha 3-D opens in theaters on March 19th.
Click here for an on-set interview with director Alex Aja!
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