Just as the oceanographers and seamen in The Meg take their lives into their hands in a deep sea ocean trench – encountering a prehistoric shark scientists formally describe as “bloody humungous” – Flicks ventured out to the film’s West Auckland set back when shooting was taking place to interview stars Jason Statham, Ruby Rose, Cliff Curtis and director Jon Turtelaub.
Releasing August 16, and based on the bestselling novel, the film adaptation of The Meg languished in development hell for the best part of two decades. Luckily, the idea of a 30 metre-plus shark chowing down on people just doesn’t get old.
On arrival at Auckland Film Studios, media were quickly ushered to an enormous water tank, where – against a green screen backdrop – the bulk of the film’s stunts were being shot. As we watched divers and crew prepare for a stunt in which a ship comes off second best against the titular Megalodon we thought about implications of long days in the tank, something that we’d bring up later with the film’s director…
Having been told the tank holds something like 1.6-million litres, or maybe 2.6 million, Flicks could only wonder aloud how many minutes passed before the first joke about pissing in the tank happened – and how many times it’s happened since.
“Those divers are always sniggering, so…” Turtelaub replied with a laugh. “There’s a lot. I don’t know. There’s a lot going on, but I will say the clarity of the water was a lot better on day one.”
“We’re not all in there, pissing in the water. We are gracefully in a boat above the water, and doing nicely. And it is all recycled, not that there’s a lack of water in New Zealand. You certainly couldn’t fill a tank like that in Los Angeles, with the drought. So that’s a good reason to come here.”
When asked if he’d consulted with others about the technical aspects of shooting so much of a film on the water, the director answered in the affirmative. “I did. First of all, Jason’s done a ton and was very helpful in telling me how badly it was going to go: “It’s so hard. It’s horrible. It’s water. It’s a mess.” And he’s right. It’s tough. But I’ve talked with a lot of people, not just about shooting out in the water, but shooting in a tank, and what to do to make that look good, based on all the people who called and said, “Here’s what to do to make it look bad” So we’ve improved on it a lot”.
At this point attention quickly turned to Statham’s past as a competitive diver. “Well, it’s funny because when we reference my former years as a diver, everything that I did was above water”, Statham chuckled to an appreciative audience. “So people get confused. “Oh, he was a diver.” They seem to think that you’re naturally good underneath, which is not the case. But I learned to dive, scuba diving, years and years ago, for a movie I did with Luc Besson. And I had just gotten so addicted to it then. In fact, one of the first fascinations I had with the underwater world was watching The Big Blue. And I was sort of obsessed with the free divers, and how they could take a breath on the surface, and go six, seven, eight-hundred feet. I mean, to think that you could do 800 feet on a breath of air, it’s fascinating what we’re capable of. So, yeah, I’ve always been interested in the underwater world. And the fact that we’ve come to make a movie about something as fascinating as what lies down at the bottom of the ocean is a great thing because no one really knows what’s down there. It’s the only thing that we certainly do know that we don’t know about.”
For sure, the ocean floor is a fascinating environment. But being parochial Kiwis obsessed with how we’re perceived from afar, the opportunity to bring up Statham’s time in Auckland at the 1990 Commonwealth Games couldn’t slip past. Did coming back to New Zealand conjure fond memories, he was asked.
“Well, we were shoved in a village that they’ve created, with these little mobile homes”, the athletic actor recalled. “And they sort of wanted to keep a close eye on us because they probably knew what we’d get up to! We were sort of entrapped in this compound. So never really got to see much until we finished our competitions. And then the wheels sort of came off, and we found a wee pub in Auckland. And so I can’t remember a thing about it [laughs]. That was a long time ago, it was a lot of fun back then. And this time, I really get to experience going around and living like the locals do, or try to.”
If Statham wanted tips on life as a local, you’d think he could look no further then co-star Cliff Curtis, visibly enjoying being back home for the shoot during the hiatus of Fear the Walking Dead. So, he’s been playing tour guide? “No, I’m pretty antisocial,” Curtis laughs. “I’ve really been lax in terms of that. I have tried to coordinate some things, but I’m not always here. For five days a week, we work literally from 5am to roughly 7 or 9pm, and then I crash out. There are people that go out after that to have dinner. I don’t know how they do it. And then in the weekends I pretty much shoot home to Rotorua to see my family, so I’ve been a bit slack. I really need to try and pull something out of the hat before the end of the shoot.”
As with Fear the Walking Dead, Curtis finds himself continuing to buck the trend of his early Hollywood career, during which he seemed to play every single ethnicity apart from his own. On his character in The Meg being Māori, Curtis remarks “Yeah, it doesn’t happen often. But it’s happening with more frequency. “
“The big deal with this film for me was to stay at home, on my hiatus, so that was like a big, big drawcard for me. I don’t have that much to do in terms of my role in the movie, so it’s nice to have a gig back home and be a local, in a local setting.”
We couldn’t help but speculate if that local setting had helped him get into character on The Meg. Specifically, Flicks asked, did he spend much time at Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World preparing for the role?
“Over the years,” Curtis replied seriously, “I’ve done deep research into Kelly Tarlton’s, and —- no, not really.”
The backstory of the character didn’t come together there, just as you stood on the conveyer belt?
“No, I think it came together while I was daydreaming on set waiting for my line! I’d say he started off in a military background and then he got into engineering and moved into deep sea drilling, and from there sort of saw the devastation he was doing and ended up going to the conservation side of things. So he’s got a very broad spectrum of things. That doesn’t play at all in the movie, but I do get to drive a boat and a helicopter. And wear a baseball cap.”
Talk of baseball caps swings us around nicely to Curtis’ co-star Ruby Rose. Appearing in what’s one of many action-heavy Hollywood pics in a relatively short space of time, she took pains to differentiate the look of her character from those she plays in xXx, John Wick, and Resident Evil sequels. “I just wanted her to look different to the other three characters that I just played back-to-back,” the Aussie explained, “and I kind of got this from a mixture of Angelina Jolie in Gone In Sixty Seconds and Hackers. My character reminds me of her in Hackers in a way because you don’t really know why she’s just so good at that one particular thing, hacking. She’s kind of manic, but she’s definitely very focused. Like a little rat. Just kind of obsessing over things.”
One of the things Rose found herself having to obsess over a bit is pretty common in this sort of action film – a ton of mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook. On managing to recite scientific words not normally in an actor’s dialect, Rose explained “When you have six or seven people in a room and doing over the shoulder shots and you’re getting close-ups and then another close up and one of just your eyeball, you say it so many times it just becomes letters in a row next to other letters.”
“Because we can have this conversation for 12 hours and know what it means, but when you’re saying things that you never learned about and are kind of unusual, you start to think, “Does that make any sense? What did I say? Was I even speaking?” But me and Cliff have all experienced days where it’s almost 12 hours on one sort of long monologue type of situation and everyone’s reactions and we start so strong. We’re just sprinting through it and then we forget we’ve got to do a marathon. By then we’re just like, “And a shark – something to do with a shark and water. I think it was cold water.” It’s quite fun. It’s very funny.”
To be fair, and accurately depict the job of acting on The Meg as being a little more difficult than saying a line correctly, things got a little dicey for Rose during the shoot, despite all elaborate safety preparations and precautions. “A few people get wet a couple of times and end up in the water and then there’s this little bit where Rainn Wilson just has one thing to do”, Rose recalls. “One job, Rainn. If you’re listening. I know you are fine in the office, but you had one job and that one job was to help me get out of that very cold situation.”
“I think Jon thought that I was acting. I was acting for a while then I really needed them to throw something for me to get out of the water. And he was just like, “Just hold. Oh, this is great. This is amazing. Oh, this is fantastic.” And so I’m just thinking, “It’s not fantastic. I’m actually, I’m sinking.” And then Rainn kind of looked at me like, “I feel like you’re either acting really good or I really should help you now.” And then I screamed “Help,” but I did it in my American accent in character because I thought if this looks amazing, I still want it. You know what I mean? And so because I screamed help in my American accent, I feel like everyone went. “Oh, no. She’s good.” Then suddenly it was like, “Oh, oh, okay,” and they got me out and it was fine. But then I was kind of a little bit sick for a couple of hours and then I did it again.”
“We worked out a safe word. It’s ‘Ruby’ because you can’t say anything longer than that when you’re choking water. You can’t sort of say, “Excuse me, by the way, I’m actually having some trouble now.” You can’t say “help” or “drowning”. And then if I say ‘Ruby’, it means Ruby personally is drowning. Jaxx [her character] is fine, but Ruby needs to get out of the water now so that’s what it is.”
Meanwhile, Curtis was dealing with some terrifying moments of his own, while in front of the green screen. “I’m imagining what angle the camera’s at, how big my nose is going to be,” he laughs when we ask what’s going through his head when imagining what else will eventually be on screen with him. “It’s really tight, it’s really, really tight doing green screen acting. We’ve got pretty much entire sets made up of green screen, so you’re very lost a lot of the time trying to understand where you are physically, and in relationship to what. So it’s very bizarre. Especially when you’ve got eight other people trying to do it simultaneously. It’s like, “Well look at the orange piece of tape – imagine that orange piece of tape moving over there. It’s a squid. Now it’s a giant megalodon”. It’s very tough, I find it very challenging.”
It sounds like a very expensive, very green drama school in a way, Flicks says.
“Yeah, it is. It’s very much like drama school exercises, it feels very much like that. You know, it’s not like anything’s real. There’s nothing you can literally hold onto or touch. So that’s very, very challenging. And yeah like drama school, those awkward exercises… I remember the most bizarre exercise I had was in a pantomime class where they said we had some shopping, and we came out of the shopping, and we slip and bump, and there’s some soap falls out of the shopping, and it falls into a fountain, and we have to fish it out [laughs]. I hated it, and now I should have focused on that class much more, because now I’d be able to be much better at imagining an imaginary megalodon shark.”
What else has been going on apart from imagining giant prehistoric sharks, Curtis is asked. “I have been challenging people at chess,” he replies – to absolutely no-one’s surprise after his role in The Dark Horse. “Rainn’s a pretty good player, and Statham reckons he likes to play a bit of chess but only on a board, not on a tablet, so hasn’t played yet”.
So, who’s number one? “Rainn was definitely number one, but I’ve kind of improved and now we’re sort of neck and neck. I crushed him about a week ago, but he’s going to come back online, and we’ve yet to see Statham step up to the board. I think he’s sussing out to see the level of players around him.”
“Oh, my God.” said Rose later. “Please. This movie could’ve been done in a month, but instead everyone’s going, “Yes!” I’m like, “What? What? What?” “I just won.” I’m like, “Again? Chess? We’re still doing this? ” It started on day three. We’re now on day 50 and now everyone’s playing chess and I’m just like, “I can’t believe people.” And now also I can’t play because they’re all really good because they’ve had so long and I don’t want to lose. So I’m like, “I’m just not that into it.” And I’m going to go home and watch YouTube, how to win chess. But they love their chess those boys. My goodness.”
“Cliff started like the underdog and Rainn’s like the chess master and now the table’s have… see, now I’m invested in this bloody chess!”