By David Morgan-Brown
From Beatdom #14
“With each film that I’ve worked on, whether it’s produce or direct, I always like to just let the movie naturally unfurl through the production process,” says Frederick Reginald Coleman, founder and current president of Coleman Production Films. “And they always end up the same – schlocky, campy, terrible, but simultaneously entertaining and fun. Not many people make films like these.”
That much is true – it’s incredible that the haphazardly-produced works of Coleman’s company actually often make a profit, but these films have found their own cult audience. One of the many films Coleman is producing at the moment is Piranha Paradise 3: Terror from the Coast. The third in the series of gory, juvenile B-grade, (or even Z-grade) creature-feature horror films is helmed by director Andrew Wilson, who has made a number of art house short films and comical skit videos, but this is his debut feature film.
Wilson has aspirations to be the next Michelangelo Antonioni or Martin Scorsese, but he’ll have to deal with being the next Uwe Boll for now. “I’m using Piranha Paradise 3 as a stepping stone,” he admits. Coleman is a legend in the Hollywood business, but many people may not be aware of his influence. Take a look at the Best Director nominees for the Oscars in 2009 – all of those directors started off as protégés of Coleman, learning the ropes of filmmaking with his disposable, trashy films to go on and make some of the masterpieces of our time.
Situated before a large green screen are all the actors dressed in army gear somewhat resembling actual military outfits. The actors appear bored, but attentive to what their director has to tell them. Opposed to the dressed-up, made-up, bored-looking actors are the very active crew members behind the camera, dressed in casual gear; speaking orders between each other; turning switches on or off; and delicately skipping over the multiple wires on the ground. Controlling all of this is director Wilson, who some may claim is the main creative head of this production. He calls out to the working crew, “We need a stronger red light on Tony [actor] as well as a blonde [light] on the left middle part of the green-screen because it’s looking kinda fucked on the monitor.” Looking at the monitor, I see that the green screen has been replaced by a large CG background of multiple futuristic buildings (I didn’t know this was a sci-fi), but in the area Wilson was referring to, it does appear to look visually glitchy. “We’ve got forty-five minutes left, which means we have enough time to get these seven shots done, but not enough time to pack up.” He quietly comments to himself, “I’m in trouble.”
Wilson started his filmmaking career at nineteen years old working as a gaffer for a number of television projects at Hoffman’s House productions. This led to him working as a grip, best boy, and eventually assistant cameraman. It may have appeared as menial labour, but to Wilson it was incredibly exciting to contribute to a film in any process. “It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had,” he tells me. “And it was incredibly educational. It taught me what occurs on a film set and what to expect, and how to react on a job like that, and how each member of the crew has to work together to make the production successful. It was a real eye-opener, it set off the beginning of my life up ‘til now. It was loads of fun. Of course, I was new at the time, and very naive.” Wilson soon began directing children’s shows and reality programmes for the production company, all the while scribing his own screenplays that he hopes to be able to fund some day and bring to fruition. Wilson was given the directing job on Piranha Paradise 3 after the original director (who served as an assistant editor on Piranha Paradise 2), quit less than forty-eight hours before the first day of shooting. Wilson continued on with the production and made sure it was on time.
The screenplay for Piranha Paradise 3 was written by the experienced Reginald R. Christmas, who has approximately 270 screenplays under his belt (many of which were for Coleman productions), including numerous theatre plays and teleplays. “This,” says Christmas, holding up the script for Piranha Paradise 3, “is about story.” He retains a confidence in the script that Wilson may lack. “It’s not a masterpiece of a script, you know,” Wilson admits. “It’s not On the Waterfront or anything. But it’s serviceable, you know. It’s just kind of mindless entertainment. It does what it says on the package; it doesn’t set out to change the world.”
I join Wilson and crew members for another shoot on the coast of Monkey Mia in Western Australia, (apparently portraying the coastlines of Costa Rica), where bikini-clad women with model-esque physiques have water splashed over them for one shot, then blood for the next shot. I even saw one actress with prosthetic piranhas covering each of her nipples. “There’s too much wind here,” Wilson barks at the crew members. “Oh, but we’ll have rain in less than a few hours. Do we have protection for this equipment?” None of the crew members or cast seems to be concerned with continuity on this production. They seem more concerned with finishing each shot as quickly and as effortlessly as possible.
Two and a half weeks later, at the wrap party in executive producer Dan Castle’s house, Wilson is finally introduced to Frederick R. Coleman, and the two men talk extensively about movies, movie-making, and movie-viewing for a few hours. Here are a few gems of dialogue from their conversation (I’ll let you guess who said what):
“But you shouldn’t even try and guess. A filmmaker is a human being like any audience member, so they should make what they feel is right and there’ll be people that will get it.”
“You can never anticipate the audience’s reaction. You just have to guess.”
“If a film has not even one thing to teach me, if there’s nothing in it that’s true or real, then it’s not a worthwhile film.”
“The producer can have as much creative freedom over the film as he likes, but not the executive producers.”
“There are people out there – they either grow up to be serial killers or executive producers.”
“I’m normally not interested in genre films; they’re too limited to their restrictions of conventions. Each individual film should follow only the rules it sets for itself.”
“I think you have to have a certain sort of arrogance to be able to create art.”
“You can’t be too cautious or pessimistic; you have to be very optimistic and enduring. Films are created in the vacuum of chaos.”
The two men both have an infatuation with the medium, more so than any other art form, and share a similar love for the viewing and experiencing of films. But it’s obvious to me that both men come at making films from different angles. Coleman began his film-making career opposite the way Wilson did. His first film was a low-budget examination of family life and was critically acclaimed by the few people who saw it. Coleman received a $250,000 grant to make his sophomore flick. But losing interest in his script, and let down by the movie-making business on his debut film, he decided to sacrifice his artistry in exchange for commercial success. And it worked. He used the grant to make four $50,000 low-budget flicks, each one ended up quadrupling its budget in ticket sales. Coleman was given more and more money to make cheap films that did not make back a lot of money but usually made back their budget several times over. From here on in, Coleman established his empire of being an incredibly prolific film-maker whose films rarely failed to make a profit.
The production for Piranha Paradise 3 wraps up, and three weeks later premieres at the Cannington Cinemas, where over two dozen Coleman produced flicks have previously been shown. Most of the key crew and cast members are there, and the rest of the audience is packed with young hipsters who look like they have enough expendable income to spare fifteen dollars on some post-ironic love-hate affair with another so-bad-it’s-good Coleman production.
The lights dim and the chatter of the audience dies down, they are almost entirely silent by the time the movie begins. The back of their heads remain dark, but their faces are lit up by the luminance of the screen. During the feature’s 78 minute long running-time, there are plenty of snorts and guffaws, laughter in the wrong places, yells of joy as another character lays out another inane bit of dialogue (some rowdy audience members shout back responses to the screen). Wilson doesn’t seem as enthusiastic about the film as some of Coleman’s fans; he appears uncomfortable and itching to walk out of his own film.
Once the film’s first showing is over, a number of fans stay behind to congratulate Coleman, Wilson, and the other cast and crew on what they just saw. Despite Wilson’s reservation regarding his own creation, he seems rather chuffed to have such positive reactions to his film. “It sure is nice to be recognised, especially positively, and it’s why I want to make films,” he comments to me once all of the audience have left. “But I’d rather it’d be for something that I was proud to have attached to my name.”
Like Coleman’s other apprentices, Wilson could be the next hot director in the Hollywood biz, he could be an award-winning visionary in the next decade, or he could be a house-hold name for art house aficionados. But whatever classic piece of works he goes on to create, his debut feature film will always be Piranha Paradise 3, and he will always have Coleman and the world of B-movie (and Z-movie) entertainment to thank for whatever successes he has in his career.