Killer fish jumping through the screen, the return of Richard Dreyfuss— Piranha 3D has it all. Jacob Bernstein talks to star Jerry O’Connell about losing his manhood for the film and playing Joe Francis.
The Aug. 20 opening of Piranha 3D is hotly anticipated by loads of gore-loving horror-movie buffs. It’ll offer the chance to see scores of highly digitized prehistoric fish causing massive amounts of death and destruction, as well as mark the return of Richard Dreyfuss, who hasn’t appeared in a film about aquatic mayhem since Jaws. But perhaps nothing will spark quite as much insane screaming from audiences as the sight of actor Jerry O’Connell’s penis as it comes flying at them after being bitten off by one of these carnivorous creatures.
And all O’Connell can say when asked about it—actually, when he brings it up all on his own—is that his piece is really much, much bigger in real life. “We shot the film at Lake Havasu,” O’Connell says, “which is a manmade lake that the Colorado River runs into. The water’s, like, 60 degrees. That’s, like, really cold. So any images of my penis that have been captured, well, it’s freezing water. It’s not my best light. It’s not my best angle. If it had been humid, you would see it differently.”
“I get to play Joe Francis!” Jerry O’Connell practically screams through the telephone. “Oh, wait. For legal reasons I’m supposed to say, ‘I play someone loosely based on Joe Francis.’”
Welcome to this year’s most revolting 3-D romp. Directed by Alexandre Aja, the French auteur of such high-minded fare as The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D is this year’s remake of the old Roger Corman-Joe Dante movie of the same name.
In case you haven’t heard of the original, it’s a ridiculously fun, totally stupid B-movie from 1978 that is something between a parody and a plagiarism of Jaws, with just a minor twist: hundreds of killer fish instead of one. Piranha was also John Sayles’ first screenplay, the one he did before going on to become something of an indie god with Lone Star and Passion Fish. Then came the sequel (insert laugh here), Piranha II: The Spawning, the feature film directorial debut of James Cameron, though the future brain behind Titanic and Avatar might not want it remembered that his career began this way. (He’s frequently referred to The Terminator, released three years later, as his “first film.”) On Rotten Tomatoes, Piranha II garnered positive reviews from just 8 percent of sampled critics.
O’Connell doesn’t care that the original wasn’t exactly Oscar-worthy. “I went to NYU film school,” he says. “I’m a big Corman fan, I love Joe Dante, I heard Richard Dreyfuss was on board. I was, like, ‘Get me this fucking script now!’”
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Sound like someone you’ve heard of?
“I get to play Joe Francis!” O’Connell practically screams through the telephone. “Oh, wait. For legal reasons I’m supposed to say, ‘I play someone loosely based on Joe Francis.’ I play Derek Jones, who owns Wild Wild Girls, which is loosely based—loosely!—on Girls Gone Wild.”
O’Connell didn’t get to interview Francis before filming began, but the actor says it’s probably for the best. “You know, it’s funny,” says O’Connell. “I heard that he was very upset I didn’t call him before this film. But I’m a father of two little girls. I’m married. I live in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He was upset that I didn’t call him or talk to him or do research with him, but how am I going to be able to follow this guy around? How am I going to do that? How am I going to convince my wife of that? It’s just not going to happen.”
So he watched a slew of infomercials, “possibly, just possibly” downloaded some content from the Internet, and came to the conclusion that the Francis he was seeing on his computer screen probably bears a strong resemblance to the man himself. “I’m going to guess he is who he is in these infomercials,” O’Connell says. “It’s him coming down in helicopters that say Girls Gone Wild. It’s really, really disgusting.” In fact, O’Connell doesn’t understand why people would watch, given Francis’ habit of inserting himself into the action. “If you’re going to rent a porno movie, what do you want to see this guy in it for?” Plus, he says, talking to Francis when the movie was in its R&D stage might not have even possible. As he notes: “I think he was in prison at the time.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.