Swarm of the Snakehead: Chewing What You Bit Off
Hey you guys, we’re circulating petitions, we’re making calls, we’re writing emails and tonight? We’re watching Swarm of the Snakehead. It’s an amazing B movie about what can happen when women get their act together to combat evil. It’s a movie that, full disclosure, my friend made in 2006. It's been hard to find but now Amazon carries it and you too can enjoy the esoteric musings about how a small northeastern town deals with an infestation of flesh eating fish.
In the opening, one of these ferocious fish attacks a woman as she drives along a road in Barrow Springs, MD. Unlike in a lot of horror films, this woman is no helpless shrinking violet. She fights back, pummeling the snakehead fish and stabbing it in the neck with a pencil while still driving. During the action a song plays on the radio; the lyrics are “I need a woman’s touch”.
The movie’s cheap as far as movies go but it achieves a lot. There’s great set pieces, great acting, and the late great Gunnar Hansen is in it. Watching it made me wonder what it takes to pull off a massive project with few resources - something a lot of us are taking on these days. It turns out it takes friends, family, time, and a massive toll. But it's worth it.
This weekend, read my interview with Seth Hurwitz, watch the movie he made, and kick some ass. <3
1. How did you come up with the idea for this movie? I mean, I know it’s based on the discovery of some snakeheads in Maryland but why did you make a movie about that in particular?
I first got involved with the project by answering a “Screenwriter Wanted” ad. I was hired to write a low budget horror film about snakehead fish in Maryland. I think Joel Denning (who co-directed the film and plays Emerson) and his friend Michael Mann (who plays Sheriff Dutton) came up with the idea of making a snakehead horror film. Frank and I eventually ended up buying Joel out and taking over production.
The one note I remember from our first script meeting was Joel said I needed to include roles for his two daughters for logistical parenting reasons. Maggie and Lizzy were were preternaturally smart and funny and their characters turned out to be the heart of the film.
2. Who’s the better actor, your mom or your dad?
My mom did a solid job in a non-speaking role as a party guest at Mr. Big’s house, but my dad was brilliant as Diver Barry. A lot of his best stuff isn’t the movie, unfortunately. Most of the film we shot during scenes with the Mayor was damaged and unrecoverable. Frank and I are still kicking around the idea of a loose sequel called “Claws” about a giant blue crab attacking Ocean City, Maryland. Diver Barry would have to somehow come back for that one, maybe just as a head since the rest of him was devoured by snakeheads.
3. How did you get Leatherface on board?
Frank knew a friend of Gunnar Hansen’s who lived on the Eastern Shore. Frank found out Gunnar was coming for a visit and came up with the idea of doing a Quint from Jaws scene with Gunnar as Quint. Frank and I wrote the scene and Gunnar loved it. We could only afford his rate for one day but Gunnar was generous with his time and absolutely amazing to work with. He stayed all of one day so we could get what we needed. We were nervous and probably overshot the scene but we wanted to get everything right. We took him out to a late dinner that night and he told us great stories about his career. The next morning he even came back for some pickups. He was a lovely guy. Very smart and witty and so not at all like the characters he usually portrays. He's a published poet. His scene with Frank is one of my favorites in the film. They kept cracking each other up. I know Frank kept in touch with him over the years. We were heartbroken to hear about his death.
4. Tell me about all the logistics: Namely, how did you get funded? How did you get actors? How did you get everyone else on board? If you only answer one question, I would like it to be this one please. If you can give me 1,000 words would be great.
Every shoot on Swarm was challenging. Swarm wasn’t my first screenplay, but I had never been involved in production before. So I had no idea, for example, that shooting in the woods at night means lots of lights requiring multiple generators which need to be far enough away from the actors not to ruin the audio. I just didn’t know. So shooting Swarm was a real learning experience for me. Did I mention we were shooting on 16mm film without monitors so we couldn’t see what we had until we got the footage back from Fotokem in California?
It was largely self- and family- and friend-funded. Some of the actors worked for points in the film. We got a lot of local support. People were almost always happy to help and let us use their marina/house/boat/mansion to make our movie. A few distributors offered us advances but they always came with conditions about casting (one distributor wanted George Hamilton for the role of Delhey) and another wanted nudity and sex scenes. I like George Hamilton and nudity in general, but we didn’t think either fit the film we wanted to make.
We never had enough money. Most of the cast was from the Baltimore area but we were shooting two hours away on the Eastern Shore. I wrote the script without thinking about keeping the number of locations to a minimum, so we were constantly on the move and a lot of our time was spent setting up and breaking down. We guerrilla shot some of it – showing up at a location without permission and trying to finish before we got kicked out. We filmed in crazy locations (a two-hundred-year-old mansion without electricity, a marina during business hours, we put a steadicam operator on a speedboat) and in all kinds of weather (on a beach during an electrical storm, in winter with our actors in shorts and t-shirts). Sometimes crew showed up, sometimes Frank Lama, Bruce Geisert (our mad genius Director of Photography), and I were doing all the lighting, audio, and everything else. I could go on and on.
Post-production was a whole new mountain to climb. It turned out a lot of the audio we got on location was bad to the point of being unusable. Kevin Hill at Studio Unknown in Catonsville, Maryland ended up sound designing and ADRing almost the whole thing. He saved the film.
Everyone who worked on the film really did it as a labor of love. We paid everyone, but not nearly what they deserved. And (almost) everyone exceeded our expectations. Stephen Tolin created the blood effects, snakehead puppets and animatronics. We had a team of SFX artists from LA to Berlin and used a render farm in Colorado. Tom Alonso wrote the incredible score and called in some favors to bring in musicians from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. We worked with 310 Studios in Burbank to sub clip and organize all the footage. I was able to get a bunch of artists that I love to contribute to the soundtrack. It takes so many talented people to make even a little film like ours.
[editor's note: only 523 words but whatever, I'll take it]
5. What message are you trying to send with this movie?
Like a lot of creature films, there’s an environmentalist message about not messing with nature. Dr. Emerson is trying to weaponize snakehead fish for the U.S. military to use in Vietnam, so there’s an anti-war element – chickens coming home to roost and all that.
6. If not answered in the above question, tell me about the portrayal of women and men in this movie. The women are all so competent whereas most of the men are horribly incompetent cowards. Is this movie an antidote to the common formula of women being depicted as weak victims in the horror genre? Also, if that is true, why is Frank Lama on the cover of the movie? Is that part of the joke?
Frank says Swarm is a feminist horror film. I’m not sure that’s correct, but it’s true that the women characters in the film are smarter and braver than the men. Men created the problem and women have to solve it. Rigg Kennedy, who played Dr. Emerson, was very interested in the idea of male and female energies. Rigg is a terrific LA actor whose done everything from episodes of Six Million Dollar Man to Slumber Party Massacre and Beetleborgs. You might have seen him a few years ago in The Michael Jackson Trial TV series as Defense Attorney Thomas Mesereau.
As a writer, I really lucked out in the casting. Maggie and Lizzy Denning, Jamie Linck O’Brien, Lisa Burdette are all smart, strong, confident people. The writing wouldn’t have worked without the actors inhabiting the roles the way they did.
Yes, that’s right! The cover is a bit of an inside joke. It refers to the film Delhey describes to the baby snakehead in which he is the hero and the star. You might be the first person who’s noticed that!
7. Is this movie a love letter to Baltimore? Like how Woody Allen writes all those almost-exactly-alike movies about how much he loves New York? But more interesting and with less glorification of pedophilia? Is it like that?
I hope so. It’s set on Maryland’s Eastern Shore but the Emerson family is from Baltimore. I wanted them to seem very out of place in Barrow Springs. Emerson grew up in Barrow Springs but he’s a Baltimorean. The kids even more so. Suddenly they’re transplanted into the wacky small town and it’s destabilizing for them and the townspeople.
8. Do you want to know who my favorite character is?
Yes, I really do.
[editor's note: it's Petey, a plucky goldfish who sacrifices himself for the greater good]
9. OMG, tell me everything about Frank A. Lama! How is he so good at being Bruce Campbell but hotter? I saw an interview with him. Is he seriously like that in real life?
Frank auditioned for the role of Daryl Delhey and killed it. He was brilliant from day one. He’s just a great and very versatile actor. He’s done a lot of theater – everything from Shakespeare to musicals to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, although he’s probably best known for playing Detective Peters in the “Fear of Clowns” films. He’s an actor and subsequently an actor’s director. He shaped every performance in the film.
As a producer, he made the film possible. He talked us into almost every location and held everything together when things seemed impossible. He’s just a great guy. He grew up in a small fishing town (population 300) in Canada. He played football through college, was a nationally ranked biathlete, hunts moose, lived in Japan, is a pretty good sketch artist, and does amazing celebrity impressions. He carried the film on his back.
Frank is also constantly generating movie pitches. He’s got dozens of fantastic movies plots in his head. We’re working on a few now and hopefully we’ll find some money. Next time you’re in town we’ll all go out to dinner and he can tell you stories about being Vince Vaughn’s lighting stand-in on Wedding Crashers.
[editor's note: swooon!]
10. What was the hardest part about making this movie?
It was a really difficult project and it went on forever – four years of production and another two for post. Frank got divorced and we both went broke and had mental breakdowns. I’m not kidding. It took both of us years to recover from making this film. It was really hard on everyone. But for some reason almost everyone stuck it out and helped us limp across the finish line.
11. What was the funnest part of making the movie?
The cast and crew (with very few exceptions) are amazing people. Even when it was difficult and frustrating it was an amazing feeling to be making a movie. I spent a lot of early mornings and late nights in out of the way spots on the Eastern Shore of Maryland which is truly beautiful. Yes, it kind of destroyed my life, it was mentally and physically grueling and some days were truly nightmarish, but on balance it was the most fun thing I’ve ever done. I hope I get to make another one (with someone else’s money).
Editor: There you have it folks. Give it a watch. Hope you like it <3