Truth be told, Ian Ziering really didn’t want to make Sharknado, last year’s Syfy movie in which he leads a group of people terrorized by a freak hurricane that causes a waterspout to scoop up sharks and deposit them in Los Angeles. But the Beverly Hills, 90210 alum needed the job to quality for Screen Actors Guild health insurance for his family, so he signed on.
While the actor insists he was “fully committed” to the role after that, he nonetheless spent its July 11 premiere last year nonchalantly focusing on his gig performing with the Chippendales in Las Vegas. By the time he returned to his dressing room, his career had skyrocketed. “I come offstage, and there’s 60 text messages and 25 phone calls, and a few thousand Google Alerts,” Ziering recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘What the fuck?” As I look at my phone, it’s continuing, like a ticker tape machine. And I realize, ‘This movie has caught fire!’”
And now, he hopes, it’s about to happen again. Sharknado 2: The Second One, which premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Syfy, finds Fin (Ziering) and ex-wife April (Tara Reid) facing another once-in-a-lifetime shark-filled weather system, this time in New York City. Fin, Syfy’s version of reluctant hero John McClane, must again take matters—and inevitably, a chainsaw—into his own hands.
Like the first film, Sharknado 2 manages to be both completely ridiculous yet irresistible, thanks to the same perfect storm of absurd acting (welcome, Mark McGrath!), cheesy special effects, OMG WTF dialogue (“Let’s go show them what it means to be a New Yorker. Let’s go kill some sharks!”) and audacious death scenes (involving the most entertaining land sharks since Saturday Night Live) that turned the first one into a spontaneous social media phenomenon. Also, it should be said, there are also more-clever-than-you’d-expect odes to Airplane, Twilight Zone, Taxi (the Judd Hirsch series, not the Jimmy Fallon film) and, of course, Jaws.
It’s hard to recall a time when Sharknado wasn’t a craptastic part of the pop culture lexicon, but when the project was first pitched to screenwriter Thunder Levin, he misheard it as SharkNATO. “I said, ‘What do sharks have to do with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?’” recalls Levin. After listening to the idea, “I said, ‘This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. As long as I can do it that way, I’d love to do it.’” Director Anthony C. Ferrante, meanwhile, had worked on previous Syfy movies as a writer (Scream of the Banshee, Leprechaun’s Revenge) and director (Headless Horseman). “I wanted to see if I could break the model: with the same budget and the same schedule, how much stuff could I cram into the movie?” he says.
Still, when Sharknado debuted last July 11, there was little to suggest it would fare much differently than Syfy’s other signature schlocky original films like Sharktopus, Piranhaconda, or Mega Python vs. Gatoroid. Ferrante live-tweeted the premiere at Syfy’s request, but “basically I thought I would almost be alone,” he says. It soon became apparent that he had company—lots of it. “I would do the refresh on Twitter and try to respond to people. And then I couldn’t keep up with it. I was going, ‘Okay, this is weird.’ And then someone had an iPad and they were going, ‘Mia Farrow just tweeted about your movie! The Red Cross is talking about Sharknado preparedness!’ It just kept going, and I’d never seen that many tweets before.”
At its height, people were sending out 5,000 tweets per minute about the movie, including celebs like Farrow (“Omg omg OMG #sharknado”) and Damon Lindelof, who gleefully announced, “I am going to write the Sharknado sequel and I am going to do it before Sharknado is over.” Improbably, Sharknado had become the social media version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “After it was over, I knew something had happened,” says Ferrrante. “I just didn't know what.”
He soon realized. While that premiere showing generated 1.4 million viewers, which was below average for Syfy movies, the Sharknado buzz kept growing. A second airing six days later drew 1.9 million, while 2.1 million flocked to a third airing a week after that, making it the most-watched encore original movie in Syfy history. The film also cemented its Rocky Horror status with a limited late-night theatrical run.
“It was this snowball effect,” says Tara Reid. “Normally you do the movie, and then you do the press and then the movie comes out, and that’s it. This was all the opposite: there was no press, and then the movie came out and went huge, and then we did all the press afterwards. It just doesn’t work like that.”
A sequel was inevitable, and Syfy announced it would be set in New York City. Despite Lindelof’s tweets, Levin returned to write Sharknado 2, and tried to strike a balance between giving audiences more of what they loved (and loved to hate) about the first film—but with a twist. “That was the most interesting challenge: making sure we maintained the same balance between real action and suspense and excitement with the ridiculous humor, without straying into farce,” he says.
Ferrante, who also returned as director, was given a bit more to work with than his roughly $1.5 million budget on the first movie, but an identical 18-day shooting schedule. With much of that additional budget eaten up by the costs of shooting in New York and using union crews, he ended up scrambling to make ends meet just as much as he did on Sharknado. “The last day of shooting, we shot on a ferry heading out to Liberty Island, we shot at Liberty Island, we shot on a ferry coming back from Liberty Island, we shot on Wall Street, we shot a bicycle chase and we shot Benjy [Bronk]’s scene and we shot an effect of [spoiler redacted] with her face ripped off. That was a 12-hour day,” says Ferrante. “Michael Bay has 100 days and $200 million; we don't. We have their craft service budget for one day.”
It didn’t help that Sharknado 2 was shooting in January during one of the most brutal New York City winters in years. “We lost some of those 18 days because of the snowstorms. You couldn’t even walk on the streets,” says Reid. “I just remember going, ‘Wow, we’re never going to make it on time.’ Somehow we pulled it off, which was a miracle. We were just doing scenes like, ‘OK, I got it, action, boom!’ It was like guerilla filmmaking.”
Even though they were filming in the dead of winter, Syfy had insisted that the film be set in summer. “But they also said, we want you to use all the bad weather as a plot point, so run with it,” says Ferrante. “And that was completely liberating because we didn’t have hide that there’s snow there. So it was worked into the plot, like at Citi Field. Every single shot at Citi Field happened in one day. It was sunny, it was cloudy, it was raining, it was completely covered in snow, and then by the end of the day it was gone. So we just used that, and that was the great thing about having someone like Al Roker as the expert or the Weather Channel with Stephanie Abrams, where you got the voice of reason in there.”
In addition to battling the elements, Ferrante also had to adjust on the fly to incorporate the various eleventh-hour celeb cameos the production had landed, including Kelly Osbourne, Kelly Ripa, Michael Strahan, 30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander, Billy Ray Cyrus and Shark Tank’s Daymond John. “I wanted to give them something special, so suddenly we would be writing something the night before to incorporate,” says Ferrante.
But in the case of Matt Lauer and Al Roker’s scenes, what was initially planned as a cameo became much more than that. Both men ended up appearing in multiple scenes throughout the film, as they track the storm’s progression. “We thought, let’s write a bunch of stuff and let them tell some exposition for us, so we don’t have to waste a visual effect shot. We’ll probably use one of them,” says Ferrante, who had been told there was no way the duo would have time to do nine pages of material that had been written. “But we put it in the prompter and they would just rattle it off. It was so good and their chemistry was so good, it was like, why not use it?”
In fact, Lauer even ended up with a character arc of his own, involving his reluctance to utter the word “sharknado.” “He was the best actor in the world with that. He just nailed it,” says Ferrante. “I love that Matt Lauer has an arc in our movie where he comes around and accepts the word ‘sharknado,’ and then kills a shark.”
While it took Ferrante some time to fully process why Sharknado had turned into a pop culture phenomenon, he understands now “people are responding on a myriad of different levels,” he says. “There’s people that want it to be so bad it’s good. There’s people that just want to hate it. There’s people that want rough edges and there’s people that just want to be entertained. There’s kids that are 10 or 11 that just like the movie because it’s silly. I think the clear defining factor of why Sharknado worked for so many people is that it didn’t take itself seriously and it was fun. Especially in a summer when all those movies were depressing, like Man of Steel. People just wanted a movie where they could turn their brains off. I find it funny where everybody gets so upset that sharks in tornadoes can’t happen. It’s like yeah, but robots don’t destroy Los Angeles and zombies don’t need people’s brains, but we love those anyway and we accept it, so why can’t there be a sharknado? I also think it was very hard for people to accept that they liked a movie called Sharknado. And that's fine.”
The cast and crew also bristle whenever someone describes Sharknado as “campy,” insisting that one of the secrets to its success is that everyone involved is playing it straight. “That’s the brilliance of Anthony, because he made sure that there was never a moment where anybody would break the fourth wall. No one’s feeling better than this material. No one’s winking, like, ‘Hey, we both know…’ We took it all seriously,” says Ziering, who has now embraced the franchise to the point where he refers to the films as “S1” and “S2.” “If you put yourself in that situation, it’s lethal, and there’s really nothing funny about this. So even the most ridiculous lines have to be said earnestly. But if you step outside and you’re watching, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, did he just say there are flaming sharks flying out of the air? It sounds ridiculous!’”
Adds Ferrante, “The magic to the movie is that you have everybody play it straight, unless they’re intentional comic relief like Judd Hirsch or Judah. If everybody’s taking it seriously, that’s where it’s funny. And the fact that Matt Lauer gives a war cry before he kills the shark, and he does it with conviction, that’s just gold.”
When it came to Sharknado 2’s ending, everyone involved struggled with how to top the most iconic moment of the first Sharknado: Ian Ziering getting swallowed whole by a shark, and then chainsawing his way out of its belly. “It’s a moment in cinematic time that is never going to be beaten,” says Ziering. Which is why coming up with a suitable finale “was the hardest thing we did,” says Ferrante, who had thought the runaway Ferris wheel, not the chainsaw, would be the most memorable image from the first film. “Finally we said, instead of just one sharknado moment, let's have many and let the audience decide if we achieved it. That last 10 minutes of the movie is pretty nuts. It’s got enough endings for at least three Syfy movies.”
But will viewers respond to the sequel on Wednesday night, or will they decide that the phenomenon has already jumped the sharknado? “It’s one of those things that I don’t know if you can re-create again,” admits Reid of the first film’s raucous reception. Ferrante is cautiously optimistic (“I think there’s going to be an audience, but I don’t know what it’s going to be and I don’t like to jinx it,” he says), while Syfy is so confident that it has already greenlit a third Sharknado.
Ziering, still basking in his Sharknado career boost (among other things, it led to him appearing on the next edition of the NBC competition show that rhymes with Zelebrity Opprentice), hopes that Sharknado 3 takes a cue from its international success and travels abroad. “There are plenty of iconographic images in other coastal cities: There’s Spain, France, Italy, London, Australia, Asia…there’s a lot of places to go,” he says. “And if [Syfy President] Dave Howe has his way, this will turn into a summer event and we’ll get to all of them sooner or later!”
Much sooner, if Levin has any say: “I think the one-city Sharknado dynamic, once you’ve done New York, is done. The third one needs to go bigger. I think it needs to be a global Sharkpocalypse!”