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Interview with Josh Stolberg (Piranha 3D)

While known to horror fans for his work on the remakes of Piranha and The House on Sorority Row, writer and filmmaker Josh Stolberg started out on television writing episodes for the the small screen spinoff of the children’s fantasy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. This was soon followed by Sabrina, the Animated Series and Avatar: The Last Airbender, before making his directorial debut in 2005 with the comedy Kids in America.

He remained in this genre for his next script Good Luck Chuck, a romantic tale starring Dane Cook and Jessica Alba but in 2009 he teamed up with Pete Goldfinger, whom he had previously worked with on the Avatar and Phantom Investigators shows, to write Sorority Row, an update of a 1983 slasher classic which had told of a group of sorority sisters playing a prank on their overbearing house mother.

Following the release of Sorority Row, Stolberg and Goldfinger joined forces once again for another remake, this time adding tongue-in-cheek and T&A to a reworking of the Joe Dante cult classic Piranha. Directed in 3D by Alexandre Aja, best known for his breakthrough thriller Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance), Piranha is set to become the summer hit of 2010.

Josh discusses his early experiences in the industry, writing horror remakes and his love of comedy.

To date you have directed three feature films, with your most recent being the upcoming Conception. These are notable for being far removed from the horror you have been most associated with, was this a conscious decision and how did you come to be involved in the horror genre to begin with?

I’d describe myself as a comedy writer by trade. Comedy got me my first agent, it was my biggest spec sale, a script called Passion of the Ark which put me in my first studio bidding war, and there was Good Luck Chuck, my first studio movie that was released. But as a fan, I’m a horror junkie. I grew up on horror films. Most writers my age say that Star Wars was the thing that got them hooked into movie-making. For me, it was Halloween. That movie scared the bejeezus out of me and I loved every minute of it. My DVD collection is overwhelmingly horror; from the classics like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby to some of the extreme horror films, like Martyrs and Audition, all the way to the cheesy ones like The Blob and Slumber Party Massacre.

I just saw that a Blu-Ray edition of Humanoids from the Deep came out today and I already ordered it. That movie was actually the first horror movie I ever saw. I was like nine and I remember spending the night at my friend’s house — Steve Birtwistle who, by the way, I named one of the characters in Piranha after, but the name got changed in the rewriting process, but it’s still Christopher Lloyd’s character, the owner of the Lake Victoria Pet Emporium. Anyway, I spent the night at Steve’s house and we’d go to bed at 9pm or whatever his mom told us to do, and then we’d set the alarm clock for like 2am and wake up and watch R-rated movies on HBO. Humanoids from the Deep played one night and I remember getting blown away by the gore. It was crazy, especially for a nine-year-old to watch a pregnant woman’s stomach explode out a monster. It scarred me for life, in a good way. Anyway, I love horror. It’s so pure and simple. And it operates on such visceral level. It makes you really feel things.

It’s funny, because Conception, the film I just wrote and directed couldn’t be more different from Piranha 3D. It’s a small character piece. More of an art-house movie. About relationships and love and sex. In Piranha, the boobs are all for exploitation. In Conception, most of the boobs are for breastfeeding babies.

Over the years you have worked in numerous capacities on such shows as Weird Science and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. How did you make the transition to writing and directing?

When I first moved out to Los Angeles, I became a producer’s assistant on a show called Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. It was an amazing learning experience. Because I was the executive producer’s errand boy, when I was done washing cars and picking up dry cleaning, I had an all-access pass anywhere I wanted to go on the set. I spent a ton of time in the writer’s room, and since that time, the writers on the show went on to much bigger things. My boss, the showrunner, was Clyde Phillips, who was later the showrunner on Dexter. Tom Spezialy was one of the writers, who went on to run Desperate Housewives and produced Reaper. I sat on the sidelines and studied the directors like Rob Bowman, who did The X-Files.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was my first professional writing gig. It was right after film school (I went to USC). I had just signed with an agent and two weeks later I was writing on Honey. It’s not like I said, ‘Boy, writing on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is a dream come true, I can die happy now.’ But again, it was a fantastic learning experience. I was actually getting paid to write and working with some great people. During the hiatus, I wrote a feature that was optioned by a small company, so I was able to leave Honey for greener pastures. Over the next few years I started selling specs and pitches in different genres. And because I work with a couple different writing partners – including Pete Goldfinger, who I wrote Piranha 3D with – I’m able to bounce around in different genres.

As for directing, it’s always been a love of mine, ever since my undergraduate theater days. I love working with actors, which is why most of my directing work is more focused on character pieces. It’s also a lot easier to find financing for an indie rather than a big-budget special effects movie. The movie I just directed is called Conception and it follows nine couples in the moments leading up to conceiving. And it has an amazing cast including Moon Bloodgood (Terminator Salvation), Julie Bowen (Modern Family), Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights), Gregory Smith (Rookie Blues), David Arquette, Alan Tudyk, Jonathan Silverman and the list goes on. All fantastic actors.

Having previously written Sorority Row, are you concerned that you may now get typecast for writing remakes and what are your thoughts on the current state of Hollywood, with regards to so many reboots being produced?

As for the typecast question, I’m not too concerned. When someone looks on IMDb and sees my credits, they get a false idea of who I am as a writer. Sure, I wrote Piranha 3D and Sorority Row, but I’ve also sold a dozen very different kinds of projects in Hollywood. I have a big special effects comedy that Todd Phillips is directing called Man-Witch at Warner Bros. I wrote a script called Passion of the Ark, an original spec script that sold in a bidding war to Sony, that was eventually rewritten into the sequel of Bruce Almighty. I co-wrote a period piece comedy that we sold to Steven Spielberg. I’ve got films like Conception and Kids in America that I wrote and directed. I’ve adapted several books into movies that are in different stages of development at studios. I’ve written four different TV pilots, and will probably be working on another two this season. I have a new horror movie I wrote with Pete that’s getting made later this year, an original idea. Then there’s Good Luck Chuck and several other comedies I’ve written. Typecasting isn’t really an issue for me.

As for remakes and reboots, I think they’re here to stay. It’s great when a movie like Inception comes along and shows people that original ideas CAN work in Hollywood. But remakes are the easiest projects to get over the net at the studios. You have to keep in mind that the people writing the checks at the studios want to minimize risk. Audience awareness is incredibly important to them. Branding, selling toys, cross promotion, product placement, anything to increase the chances of getting higher grosses. For every Sex and the City 2 that is underwhelming at the box office, there is a Karate Kid reboot that body-slams the weekend.

I’ve said this before, but one of the huge misnomers about writers is that we have all just run out of original ideas. We love original ideas. I fucking loved Inception. I wish I had written it. But the sad truth is that, because of the risk, studios usually don’t want to take the chance. Hell, I’ve written four horror scripts. Piranha and Sorority Row got made. The other two original scripts, they aren’t based on something else, are still sitting on my shelf. That said, this is why I try to make the remakes and reboots as creatively different as possible. The original Piranha was a terrific movie. It doesn’t need to be told again. When Pete and I sat down to figure out what our take was, we didn’t watch the movie and try to copy it. We thought about what would be OUR version of a fun killer fish popcorn movie.

How much inspiration did you draw from Joe Dante’s original Piranha and what kind of instructions were you given by the studio with regards to how to adapt the story?

As I said before, I love the original Piranha. And I’m a huge Joe Dante fan. And John Sayles is a hero of mine. City of Hope. Lone Star. Passion Fish. For a writer like me who loves complex characters and meaty relationships, John Sayles is a genius. So what’s the use in rewriting him. All it’s going to do is depress you. I mean, you can never be that good. We had no marching orders from the studio. We actually wrote the first draft as a spec script that had nothing to do with the original. Funny enough, if I hadn’t have seen the Pamela Lee Anderson sex tape, I don’t think Piranha would exist right now. I remember thinking how much fun Lake Havasu looked. Pete and I started thinking about how much fun it would be to do a horror film set on the lake during Spring Break. And it’s not like you can put sharks in the lake. So we chose Piranhas. After the first draft, Pete and I did a few more incorporating some ‘studio’ notes. But we were off the project long before Alex Aja was brought in to direct. Our job was to write a screenplay that would find a talented director, and being a huge fan of Alex, I couldn’t be happier with the result.

Getting back to the idea of remakes and reboots, as Alex has been arguing, this is not really a remake. The studio acquired the rights to a title and that’s what they are using. As a matter of fact, before the credit was determined by the Writer’s Guild, they compared the final shooting script with the original film and decided that, credit-wise, it wasn’t a remake. There isn’t a character or a scene or a plot point that’s the same. Which is why John Sayles’ name isn’t on the film; not that he’d want it to be on, I’m just explaining how it went down. Sure, we have piranha in the film, but arguing that it makes a remake of Dante’s Piranha is like saying that Deep Blue Sea is a remake of Jaws. Or that Independence Day is a remake of the original War of the Worlds because they are both about alien invasions.

Did you do any research on piranhas prior to writing the script and how much more savage than the real-life fish are the ones in your movie?

We did a little research. Not much. Let’s be real; if the audience is dissecting whether or not we have a scientifically accurate depiction of piranha, we’re completely fucked. This is a movie about fun, naked, crazy, bloody, drunken, flesh-eating chaos.

Did you include any in-jokes to either Dante’s movie or James Cameron’s sequel, Piranha II: The Spawning?

Not in the original script. Again, we were trying to break away and make this story our own. I think I remember reading a few in-jokes in later drafts but I don’t remember if they found their way into the film. As with most Hollywood movies, the studio hired a bunch of different writers to take a pass at our script. Alex and his producing partner Gregory did some great work on it as well. At the end of the day though, after all the drafts, it was a relief to see that our story and characters were all still there.

Did either yourself or your co-writer, Pete Goldfinger, have any input in the casting of the film and were any characters written with specific actors in mind?

It’s very rare for a writer to have casting input. Especially with the evolution of this particular project. There were literally years between our last involvement on the project, and the time it was cast. Even on the films that I’ve been on set for, or have been the ONLY writer on, I rarely have any real say in the casting. Generally, the only time a writer will have casting input is if they attach an actor themselves before they shop their script around. Or if they get attached as a producer. But, usually, once a script is purchased by the studio, the writer isn’t involved in casting. I should add that the film had an amazing casting director named Alyssa Weisberg and I thought she did a terrific job on the movie. I love our cast.

Were you present on the set during the shoot and was director Alexandre Aja open to suggestions from the writers?

I Love Alex as a director and I’m thrilled he decided to direct the film. I think that being a writer himself, it just wasn’t something he was interested in. We came out to the set for a couple of days to hang out, meet the cast, etc. Some directors want the writers there. Some don’t. And you have to respect that. On Sorority Row, we were there on set from the first read-through, throughout rehearsals, all the way through production and even into post where we were writing ADR lines for the film. But for Piranha, Aja and Gregory had taken the final pass on our script, plus he was directing. It was fun to see him in action though.

Do you feel that the casting of Richard Dreyfuss was an intentional homage to Jaws, which Dante’s Piranha had originally spoofed?

It was most definitely intentional. It was a tip of the hat to the original. After seeing the scene, I don’t think there will be any doubt in anyone’s mind.

Piranha 3D

Piranha 3D

Is it true that Chuck Russell was first hired as director and can his influence be found anywhere in the movie?

Chuck was the first director hired on. And he did an extensive rewrite on the script. He made it a Chuck Russell movie. The truth is that if he had made the movie he wanted to make, it would have been very different. So different that I don’t think we would have gotten writing credit on the film. There was definitely some great stuff in his draft (for instance, if I’m not mistaken, the idea of the underwater cavern was his). But for some reason the timing and budget just never seemed to work out. When Alex was chosen to direct after Chuck fell out, he decided to go back to the original draft of the script that I wrote with Pete.

Due to various delays, Piranha 3D is set for release in August. How would you compare writing for 3D to your previous scripts and were you concerned that the current 3D cycle could have run its course by the time your movie was released?

Having written the script many years ago, we never thought that it would be adapted to 3D. That was something that Alex brought to the table when he stepped in to direct. But when you’re writing an action movie, the goal is to make it as visually interesting as you can. So it wasn’t a huge leap to take to think about it in 3D. But I think Alex is going to take it to a whole other level.

Do you have any horror or fantasy projects lined up for the foreseeable future and could you imagine returning to a Sorority Row or Piranha sequel?

There are a few projects bouncing around that I’m really excited about. An original horror spec that Pete I wrote last year is looking like it’s going to get made in Bali in a few months. As far as a sequel to Piranha, I think that all depends on how the film does. As much as I loved the world of Sorority Row, I’m not sure that its box office returns warrant a sequel, although Pete and I came up with a story that we love. But we’ll just have to wait and see about Piranha.

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