INTERVIEW: Great White director Martin Wilson

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water after the global shutdown, along comes Great White to instil the fear that nowhere is safe! Except from the comforts of your living room, of course.

As the Australian-shot shark thriller prepares for its local release, our own Peter Gray chatted with the film’s director, Martin Wilson, to discuss its production, the gameness of its cast, and why it took 20 years for him to make a movie.

I have a big affection for the “creature feature”, and especially the shark-related sub-genre, and I think Jaws is always the film we link to that, but I appreciated that this film was more about survival and isolation. Was that the intention in setting this film apart?

Absolutely, Peter. We didn’t have all the trimmings of a much bigger budgeted film, so, for me, it was all about how could we layer it with nuances and intricacies between the characters. Their histories, their wants and desires…we had so much time with them (on the raft) so I had to try and use that and the sense of isolation was a key thing above and beyond the shark. It’s all about “what would you do on the raft?”

You shot here in Queensland. Did you look at many other locations?

We were always looking at Queensland because we wanted that tropical Northern Queensland feel, that sense of a big, grand scope that that part of the world gives you. It was a perfect location for us, and I wanted to really show that beauty of the water. You want to go for a dip, but also what lurks underneath. The mystery of the deep is what I found fascinating. I didn’t want the sharks to be the villains, I wanted them to almost be archangels of the sea. We have those moments where you see (the character of) Joji throw his plastic bottle into the sea…things like that that show a point of difference.

When it came to the sharks, how much was CGI, how much was practical, and how much was stock footage?

I would say it’s a balance of all three. It’s seeing what you can make work and what you can afford. It’s a balance of all three throughout.

This is your feature film debut. You have worked 20+ years in the industry though so how daunting was it coming onto something as big as this?

When it’s your first feature (you come on thinking) ignorance is bliss. It’s taken me so long so I didn’t even think and just went “I have to do this”. That helps get you through the fear of it all. It was a tough, gruelling shoot (though), it was 25 days, but you just have to front up every day and try to be on point. I just ate a lot of lollies to keep my blood sugar up.

How did the project come about for you? What was it about this that made you want to go after it as your directorial debut?

The big challenge to face was getting a feature as a first-time filmmaker. No one wants to give you that opportunity because the risk is so high, so you need all the planets to align…and that has taken 20 years because every time I’d get close, something would happen. (Producers) Michael Robertson and Neal Kingston, who have known me for 20-odd years through TV commercials, and I’ve built a rapport with, had trust in me and were willing to give me that opportunity. Having the script from Michael Boughen come through to them (too)…it just comes from those blessed encounters with people that seemingly happen over night but don’t.

Is this the type of film you envisioned as your first?

I didn’t know it was going to be a shark film, but I’m very keen to do genre films. That’s where I’d like to take my next projects. They’re all creature feature-type ones, I really love those types of films. My favourite movies growing up were The Thing and Alien, the original Fright Night…as a kid growing up in the 80’s I was always drawn to wanting to make a genre film.

Katrina Bowden is your leading lady. I actually had a few gym sessions with her here in Brisbane during her down time. She’s so lovely and grounded. With a predominantly Australasian cast, how did she become involved with the production?

We wanted an American lead for the North American markets. Through Ben Parkinson, the casting director out of Brisbane, we went and searched out people in America, and Katrina was at the top of the list. She’d done these type of films before and was interested in the script. Katrina was an absolute trooper. I agree with you, she’s very grounded. It’s not easy coming to another country and being thrown into these elements. We have a very unique environment here in the water, so you needed the cast to be extremely dedicated to jumping into the water and be involved in the action. You’ve got the feeling of claustrophobia, having to hold your breath, prolonged time in the cold water…that takes a lot of guts and grit. I take my hat off to all the actors involved.

How much of it was filmed out in the open and how much was contained to a set? It looks incredibly vast on screen.

A lot of it was out in the open. We wanted that visceral feel, that sense of danger that you’re never going to escape this. The only thing around you is vast amount of water with no land in sight. If you pulled the curtain back you would see we were standing in knee-deep water with a raft around. But you’d never know that!

It is a beautiful film to look at. When it came to the elements, and as you said the cast are all throwing themselves into the action, how much stunt work did they perform themselves?

I would say a good 80-90% of it is them. They pulled a Tom Cruise on us. There were obviously some stunt doubles and we were very mindful of that, and didn’t want to make it obvious, but it was mostly (the cast). They just embraced the project and the characters.

Great White will be available to buy on all major digital platforms from June 30th, 2021. It will be available to rent or buy on DVD, Blu-ray and digital from July 7th. Our thanks to Martin Wilson, Universal Pictures and NIXCo.

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