Australian shark attack flick ‘Great White’ hopes to take bite out of U.S. box office

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with 'Great White' director Martin Wilson

In 1975, Steven Spielberg created an iconic summer blockbuster with “Jaws,” sparking numerous sequels and imitations from “Open Water” to “Sharknado” to “The Meg.”

This Friday, fans of the shark attack genre can chomp into “Great White” in theaters and on demand, marking the feature directorial debut of Australian filmmaker Martin Wilson.

“This is a survival thriller, man versus nature,” Wilson told WTOP. “A tourist group goes out on a sea plane, which looks like a normal adventure out to these beautiful tropical islands in the north of Australia. Things turn bad when a shark turns up, so it becomes a survival thriller with five people stranded on a raft drifting in the middle of the ocean.”

Wilson says he grew up loving monster movies as a kid.

“Growing up as a kid in the ’80s it was all those visceral creature features that really got me excited like ‘The Thing,’ ‘Alien,’ ‘Fright Night’ and of course ‘Jaws,'” Wilson said. “All of those suspense-oriented films is what gets me out of bed. I love that stuff. It really lights my fire. To have an opportunity to unleash your dreams as a filmmaker is really exciting.”

He says the Australian setting distinguishes it from others in the genre.

“There’s been such a long and very strong history of great movies, of course led by ‘Jaws,’ which is the high-water mark,” Wilson said. “We weren’t trying to do ‘Jaws.’ … A point of difference is that we’re showcasing the beautiful, beguiling tropical waters of Northern Australia. You’ve got the rugged coastline, you’ve got this beautiful emerald water.”

He’s also inserted social commentary as to why nature is lashing out.

“What has mankind done to the environment?” Wilson said. “What have we done to the ocean with pollutants and climate change? How has that affected creatures that live in the ocean? You don’t want the cliché monster shark just eating people. You want depth and nuance, so the sharks are acting out of what has happened to their feeding environment.”

Shooting a feature film in the water over 25 days is immensely challenging.

“You’re in the elements,” Wilson said. “You can’t control the weather. You have the tides, crazy winds in Australia, the brutal sun. … You have all the stingers, the jellyfish. … Then, just when you think you are safe in a controlled tank environment, you have the element of claustrophobia … holding your breath, you have actors surrounded by divers.”

How are the actual sharks created?

“We were using a combination of stock footage, an animatronic shark called Brenda, and some CGI,” Wilson said. “‘Jaws’ had Bruce, which was named after Spielberg’s lawyer, and we had Brenda, which I think is Bruce’s girlfriend but not related to any lawyer.”

He hopes that his modest $5 million movie will play a small part in attracting the eye of Hollywood, which is increasingly interested in filming in Perth off western Australia.

“COVID hasn’t had the same effect as internationally, particularly in Perth,” Wilson said. “The government is investing in a $100 million studio in a port called Fremantle. … Marvel and the bigger studios are looking to Australia because we speak the same language, we’re easy to work with, and there are so many opportunities, landscape and crew wise.”

“Great White” is available in theaters, on-demand and digital this Friday.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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