Everybody loves a good shark movie. Heck, everybody seems to love a merely adequate shark movie nowadays. Even rock stupid shark movies are able to find an audience. But a GREAT shark movie? That’s a thing of beauty.
Johannes Roberts has directed, arguably, a great shark movie with 47 Meters Down. The film stars Mandy Moore and Claire Holt as sisters who, while on vacation in Mexico, find their “swimming with sharks” tourist experience going catastrophically wrong. The majority of the film is spent with the two young woman at the bottom of the ocean, trapped in a cage, surrounded by giant, carnivorous monsters with razor-sharp teeth, and no way to escape without getting air bubbles in their brains.
It’s one of the intense situations in which you could possibly find yourself. Johannes Roberts uses it as the engine for a great suspense thriller, filled with horrifying imagery of killer sharks and their seemingly infinite aquatic environment. He also builds and builds to one of the most shocking finales of the year, in an ending that’s going to leave everybody talking once the credits role.
Of course, when I got Johannes Roberts on the phone – after he’d already spent a long day shooting the sequel The Strangers 2 – we had to talk about that ending. But before we got into spoiler territory we talked about why 47 Meters Down feels like no other shark movie before it, and why the earlier versions of the screenplay – which featured even more characters stuck underwater – never quite worked.
Crave: Why do you think we keep coming back to shark movies? What do you think the appeal is?
Johannes Roberts: I think it’s definitely that sharks are the closest thing to real monsters, you know? They’re the coolest. It’s why we love them as kids. They’re the dinosaurs of the deep. It just sort of appeals to our primal fear of something coming out of the darkness of the deep, something you can’t reason with. I think it sort of fits into all those very primal fears that we have.
I imagine it must present a particular challenge to you, trying to come up with ways to film sharks and present them as antagonists in your story, that haven’t been done before. Can you tell me about your philosophy on how to make sharks look terrifying?
Actually, do you know what? The whole concept was really more about… the thing I had always thought, which is why we went and did the movie, is no one had gone underwater. No one had brought me into the shark’s world. So in fact it was great. I always felt like anything I did had not really been done before, you know? To spend the whole movie underwater, we could get the sharks to do anything. I was just like, “Fuck, this is great! This is what I want to see in an underwater movie.” Normally it’s just like people bobbing on the surface and you see a fin and then they get pulled under.
So I really had a whole fresh palette to work with, and I think that’s probably why the movie is, for the moment, connecting with people. That hadn’t been done before, really.
One thing you capture really well is the intimacy. It’s a two-person story for so much of it, but then every once in a while you remind us of just how vast and dark the ocean is.
Can you tell me about that contrast? Because I think that’s something that really makes the film work.
The vastness of the ocean and the ability get lost in it, completely disorientating, comes out of… I mean, I did this movie because I’m a diver. A lot of this comes in a sense from experience, you can particularly see where Mandy’s getting lost, it’s just going out into the blue and you don’t know what’s up, down, and it’s just endless. It’s a very frightening thing. I’ve sort of done that, with guides, who have taken me off into the blue so you don’t know, a sort of feeling… no way to place yourself. I just felt that I really wanted to try and capture that, that feeling of just being completely disorientated, deep, deep, deep underwater.
And then the sort of close intimacy of the two characters, yeah, that was a really interesting one. You know, when we came up with the concept – or I came up with the concept – it was like, okay, this is great. It’s a very simple concept and people really engaged with it. And then when Ernest [Riera] and I tried to turn it into a script it kept becoming… like, a body count movie with sharks chomping away. You know, it was silly. It was a weird thing. We just couldn’t get it right. Initially we had like four or five people in the cage, and then we just came up with the idea of bringing it down to the two sisters.
And the intimacy of that came very much after watching Touching the Void, the mountaineering movie, and just seeing how actually it is about those two characters, and that’s what makes it so very terrifying, and their survival journey. You could even take the sharks out of it and it is a very terrifying movie. It’s a very terrifying situation to be in, and it’s about those two and how they deal with it. Yeah, it was quite a challenge to get it to work but I think it really paid off.
I admired the way you structured this. As the movie began I got this impression that we were on a sort of amusement park ride, like when you’re over at Universal Studios and it’s like “Welcome to Jurassic Park!”
“We’re going to go on a nice ride and everything’s going to be fine,” but you know it’s going to go horribly wrong. You’re building suspense that way. Is that intentional?
Yeah, it is. You’re going on a sort of journey to Hell, and things just get worse and worse. Yeah, I guess it is a rollercoaster in that sense. It’s a very lean movie, you know.
— SPOILERS AHEAD! —
It feels like the film could end in one of three places.
What sort of conversations did you have with that? Were you tempted to go with any of the other possible endings?
Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, I had a lot of battles. I had to fight quite hard to do keep that ending, the way we finish it. It’s possible a ballsy way to go. But yeah, I think there were various different ideas along the time, but then I think once Ernest and I hit on the way we took it, it was just like, yeah… it suddenly became so obvious. That’s the way it has to go. Yeah, we really fought with it, fought for it, and yeah.
Were you ever tempted to leave it with Mandy Moore just dead on the bottom of the ocean, after the reveal?
Yes. Yes, I did a version of that, in fact. Shot that with a camera just leaving her, dead, and that was so bleak! I kind of liked it but it was so bleak that we actually [had] give it some upbeat.
A part of me expected there to be some sort of punchline shot, where at the end, it just cuts to her back her apartment and she’s got a million locks on the door and never goes outside again.
[Laughs.] Let’s hope that’s the beginning of 48 Meters Down.
I have to ask, and I know you can’t tell me much about it, but I’m curious why you’re so excited to do The Strangers 2. It seems like a tricky project considering the enigma was such a part of the appeal of the first one.
Yeah, it’s an interesting one. I love the first one. I think it’s a super cool movie. It’s really smartly put together and I think Brian [Bertino] did a really good job of creating a really oddly paced movie. In a good way. You know, people have played with the whole mask thing since then, they haven’t really done that sort of pacing, and set it in a drama, or the feel the first one had. It’s quite a peculiar movie in a really good way.
So it’s a great opportunity to try something a little different, for me. There’s a real grounded drama. It has elements of stuff I’ve done before, like 47 [Meters Down], but you really buy into this family and the journey they’re going through before everything goes horribly wrong. It’s been great to be working with Christina [Hendricks] and the other kids, Bailee [Madison] and Lewis [Pullman], and Martin Henderson. It’s been really, really amazing fun this last week.
But yeah, and then it was a great script and it just had a lot of different elements that I really always wanted to tackle. We play with the truck a lot in this one, and that’s kind of fun. It has a slight Christine feel to it. That’s kind of cool.
The truck, you said?
Yeah, you know, The Strangers’ truck in the first one. That plays quite an iconic role in this.
The Top 20 Scariest Vacation Movies Ever:
Top Photo: Entertainment Studios
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.