Creature Feature Interviews
Mike MacLean (Dinocroc vs Supergator, Sharktopus, Piranhaconda)
Screenwriting is a very difficult field to get into and a common statistic thrown around is that 95% of writers never get to see their work on the big screen. But what are the chances of having 5 of your screenplays produced by the Syfy Channel and be the go-to guy for the legendary producer Roger Corman?
The odds of that happening are minuscule yet there is a man who can flaunt these credentials and his name is Mike MacLean. Over the past 5 years, Mr MacLean has had a tremendous impact on the Creature Feature world after writing such Syfy hits as Dinocroc vs Supergator, Sharktopus & Piranhaconda.
The remarkably down-to-Earth and hilarious Mr MacLean was even kind enough to answer a few questions for me about his movies, his writing habits and what he has coming up in the future. Anyone planning on penning the next Creature Feature goldmine will definitely want to read below:
I could blather on about my love of movies and how I dabbled in screenwriting during college, but ultimately I fell ass backwards into the film industry. I wrote a story called “McHenry’s Gift” which ended up being published in The Best American Mystery Stories (alongside Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, and Walter Mosley). Someone at Roger Corman’s office read it and shot me an email asking if I’d like to try screenwriting.
After penning a few scripts for Roger, Jim Wynorski asked if I’d do some rewrites on a screenplay he’d been working on. He already had investors lined up and was on a tight deadline. The script, Dinocroc vs. Supergator, had some great moments and good bones, but it was short. I had only three weeks to do some major revisions (I’m a full time teacher which means my writing time is limited to nights and weekends). One of my first questions for Jim, “Who can I kill?” Needless to say, I didn’t have much time for research, but I did watch both Supergator and Dinocroc. Later, I wrote scripts for the directors of both those films: Operation Rogue and Attack of the 50 foot Cheerleader.
Holy crap. My mind is blown. I never noticed that. What does it all mean? Seriously, ask Jim about the connection. If I recall, he named all the characters.
It was surreal. As a kid, I’d watched Kung Fu reruns everyday after school. And there he was, Kwai Chang Caine, swilling scotch and smoking cigars, just like I’d written in the script. Like I said, surreal.
I love when the sleazy movie producer gets chomped after teaching the bimbos how to do a horror flick scream. Very meta as the kids were saying five years ago. That was all Jim’s idea by the way. I riffed on it later in the Piranhaconda script.
Any film in the history of cinema can be improved by the addition of one thing and one thing only: KARATE! In the original script, Victoria goes all Chuck Norris on Paul in the hospital. I don’t think that flew with Jim’s shooting schedule.
Syfy contacted Roger with the idea. Everyone was pretty pleased with how DVS came out, so he threw the screenwriting job my way. Even over the phone, I could tell he was having trouble saying the title with a straight face.
Nope, sorry. Roger actually wanted to call it Octoshark. He thought Sharktopus was just too ridiculous. Syfy convinced him otherwise.
I had a little more time with Sharktopus, so I was able to do some basic research. I learned more about a shark’s ability to sense electrical currents which they use to hunt and navigate. This inspired the cybernetic control collar used to imprison Sharktopus. I also read numerous accounts of octopi crawling on land. One account describes a sneaky eight-legged bastard who would slip out of his aquarium, slither across a floor, crawl into another aquarium, fill his belly with fish, then slither back. I used this to justify Shartopus’ little strolls on land.
Sharktopus is likely the most sincere films in the history of cinema. You see the title and you know exactly what you’re in for–a half shark, half octopus chowing down on bikini babes. If you’re in the right frame of mind, it can be a ton of fun, especially if you watch with a pack of sarcastic friends and a few six packs. If you didn’t enjoy it, I humbly suggest you’re at the wrong party.
Yeah, that’s my favorite too. I give credit to Roger for coming up with that scene. There’s a reason he has been making movies for 60 years. Although, I believe I added the idea of the girl jumping twice. She’s like bait on a hook. It’s visually brilliant.
No, but only because there was massive buzz preceding the movie. One tweet from a Syfy executive caused an avalanche of internet chatter. Later, Craig Ferguson monologued for eight minutes, joking about Sharktopus and Roger Corman’s career. I wasn’t even finished with the script yet. Then Roger released the trailer at San Diego comicon which created an uproar. Jay Leno even used the bungee jumping clip for a gag on the Tonight Show. Other than Sharknado, no Syfy creature feature has ever raked in so much attention. It was crazy.
Honestly, it feels great. I have a self-deprecating sense of humor, and you’ll catch me cracking jokes about my scripts from time to time. But in truth, I’m proud of these movies, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to write them. I’m really happy fans out there get some giggles out of them.
Jim had a great title thanks to a writer named J Brad Wilke, but Roger suggested that I write the script since I had a bit more experience.
It was another one of those surreal moments hearing Michael Madson act out my dialogue. I’m a huge movie nerd and Tarantino was a major inspiration to me. Needless to say, I was crazy-excited that Mr. Blonde was featured in a movie I had written.
Piranhaconda is a low budget, horror movie production which follows a low budget, horror movie production. Was there a degree of self-awareness for getting actresses with limited range hired purely because they look great in a bikini to play actresses with limited range who were hired purely because they look great in a bikini?
Low budget actors get a bad rap. Sure, some have limited range and get hired for their looks, but you could say that about Hollywood in general. I’m not on set, but I’d guess most of the actors are doing the best they can under very difficult conditions. As far as the main cast of Pirahnaconda is concerned, I think they knew exactly what they were doing.
My favourite moment is the following exchange: “It’s like an unholy union between a piranha and an anaconda.” “You mean a Piranhaconda?” “I can’t believe you just said that.” What’s your favourite moment in the film?
That’s my favorite scene too. I unabashedly loved that line. But I have a strange, dry sense of humor, so I wasn’t sure audiences would get the joke. Also, it’s a good example of how collaborative films are. I pictured the line being delivered in a very flat, casual tone. But Michael Swan said it with such weight and gravitas. He made the line so much better than I imagined.
Syfy has some specific rules regarding its creature features. The two most important are… 1) Show the monster within the first five minutes. 2) Show some hardcore monster havoc at least every ten minutes after. These rules have one simple goal in mind: keep the viewer from flipping the channel.
Unless you’re banging out free verse poetry, everything type of writing has its own restrictive conventions. You can look at them as roadblocks or as opportunities to be more creative. Sometimes a formula rule can force you to think outside the box. You ask yourself, what can I do differently within these parameters? How can I twist the story and still be true to the genre? It sounds like a paradox, but writing within formula is strangely freeing.
You always have to keep budget in mind. Always. The problem is, writers simply don’t know how much things cost. A simple dialogue scene set in a busy police office–the type of scene we as viewers take for granted–could cost astronomically more than destroying an entire city with an alien death ray. A few times, Roger said that I shouldn’t worry too much about budget on the first draft, because that may inhibit creativity. We then could scale back as needed on the second and third drafts. Even so, if you jump into a low budget script thinking you are writing the next Transformers, you’re doomed.
You have to understand, I’m from Tempe Arizona, not Hollywood. So working with a film legend like Roger Corman has been an amazing experience. I’ve learned so much from Roger, and I’m honored and grateful that he has given me this opportunity. That’s a damn good perk. The closest thing to a downside would be the tight writing schedule. You always wish you had more time to punch up a script. On the other hand, there is something thrilling about being under the deadline gun.
I’ll take Stan Lee’s sage advice and refuse to answer that question.
Run! And if you’re a pretty girl, for the love of God, cover up. These monsters seem to have an appetite for bikini clad women.
Here’s the secret in two easy steps. #1 Butt in seat. #2 Hit the keys.
Also, don’t be a dick. In other words, listen more than you talk. If you’re busy pontificating about cinema and whining about how you could do better than a filmmaker, you’re going to miss something important.
I try desperately to bring up Sharktopus in casual conversation. Surprisingly, it aint’ easy.
Syfy seems to play my movies quite often, especially Sharktopus. There is not enough time in the day to watch one every time they air. But I’ll catch a few minutes of them from time to time.
Of course, there will always be internet critics who will bash your work. I try not to let them bother me. Few of them have any understanding of the industry, and it shows in their reviews. And lately most confuse snark and sarcasm for thoughtful film criticism. There are some good critics out there, who are passionate about movies and don’t try to make every review about themselves. While I respect their efforts, I really don’t understand the drive to publicly criticize someone else’s work. Sharing something you loved, that I get. But why waste time and energy tearing down others? Why not create something of your own instead? (Being a PAID critic is another story. If someone wants to pay me to watch movies all day, I’m available!)
In a heartbeat. They’re a blast.
Last year saw the release of Operation Rogue, a military action flick I wrote staring Mark Dacascos. This year, I make my leap into comic books, a medium I’ve loved since I was six years old. I can’t reveal too many details at this time. But I’m writing several issues for independent comic book icon Brian Pulido, creator of Lady Death and Evil Ernie. It’s a childhood dream come true.