Full disclosure: I co-wrote and co-directed Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws and am shamelessly promoting it through this post. This should be fairly obvious in the post itself, but I wanted my italicised disclaimer.
Storytelling in sequels is different to storytelling in original movies. All the rules of “ordinary” storytelling are present, but there are also demands and tropes unique to sequels that often make them not quite work as a discrete work. Sequels have to work as standalone stories, but they also have to satisfy (or on rare occasions, defy) expectations created by the previous film. There are a number of ways to accomplish all that, but generally speaking, it’s an awkward juggling act. Get the balance wrong, and you risk disappointing fans of the original or baffling newcomers - or both.
That delicate, bizarre balance was something my filmmaking partner Johnny Hall and I wanted to explore in writing and directing our feature Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws. It ended up, as most creative projects are, a fascinating process of discovery.
Ghost Shark 2 started out its life as a faux trailer back in 2010 (before the suspiciously similarly-titled and-themed SyFy movie was even a twinkle in Satan’s eye), shot over a weekend in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. We’d hatched the idea of Ghost Sharks - undead shark spirits who swim through any form of water, whether it be liquid, solid, or gaseous - a year earlier, but we determined that a Ghost Shark movie shot in a big city would have to be a sequel. Specifically, a sequel to a small-town original that never existed. After all, one duty of sequels is to up the scale in some way. For a faux trailer, that joke worked pretty well - it didn’t need to hold up narratively.
But then, off the back of some good press for the trailer, we set about writing a feature-length version: a sequel to nothing, driven by ambition and possibly foolishness. Immediately, we brainstormed tropes sequels sport that originals don’t, and tried to cram them into the film.
We decided early on that the film would emulate an American-produced, foreign-made sequel: all its main characters are American, but the setting, crew, and support cast are from New Zealand. The producers, we decided, were cheapasses, bankrupted after the first film (set in Texas) bombed, who shot the sequel in New Zealand to capitalise on its pliable employment laws and lack of strong unions. Conveniently, cheapness fed into the diminishing-returns model of low-budget sequels, not to mention our own miniscule resources.
The way sequels deal with characters and genre also informed Ghost Shark 2. Our movie is a “passing the torch” sequel, in that the two main characters from the nonexistent first film - Mayor Jack Broody and Lt.Cmdr Tony Palantine - become supporting characters, while a new character, ghost shark hunter Tom Logan, takes up the protagonist mantle. It’s a weird task, writing dialogue that plays as though it assumes audiences have seen the characters before, while acknowledging that nobody ever could have. We eventually used cliches as shorthand (in fact, the whole movie is constructed out of cliches), but it got even weirder introducing the “new” character, as the catchphrase-spouting heroes the “return” audience came to see got sidelined. The new character changed the film’s genre, too, from a more action-oriented “first” film to an overblown, melodramatic sequel about loss and guilt. The fact that we made a movie called Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws that’s a big emotional drama where all the main characters get to cry - and that we took it seriously - still makes me smile.
But the hardest thing about writing a fake sequel was that in order to tell the sequel’s story, we also kind of had to tell the fake first film’s story alongside it. We developed an elaborate backstory, written half as a production joke (Ghost Shark 1: Port Massacre would be a more exciting and explosive film than the more melancholy Ghost Shark 2 if it existed), but the tricky part was how to tell that story within the main story. Initially we tried to do it through subtle exposition, but through lacking experience and rushing the scripting process, we ended up with a massive infodump towards the start of the movie. We shot the infodump, and part of it’s still there, but in the edit, we discovered it sucked the energy out of the movie. That’s why reshoots are so great: in just a day of shooting, we could goose up a largish chunk of dialogue with a few silent flashback shots and make the whole sequence better.
The whole process was very difficult and probably a more ambitious challenge than is reasonable to bite off on a debut film. Did Johnny and I succeed at creating our sequel to nothing? I’ve no idea. I think we got some aspects right; maybe not others. It is what it is. We had fun, and the few people we’ve shown it to seem to get some enjoyment out of it too. We certainly learned a hell of a lot.
Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws will be released as a cheap, DRM-free, non-geoblocked, feature-laden HD download on July 1st, after five long years of toil, heartache, and creative problem-solving. I’ll be writing more about the process of making the movie as the release date marches closer; for now, help yourself to a pre-order at ghostshark2.com.