The story so far: Following the release of Jaws, legendary exploitation-movie producer Roger Corman hired fledgling director Joe Dante to direct a rip-off movie about small, killer fish. The result was 1978’s gore-drenched, but tongue-in-cheek Piranha, which cost less than $1m to make and grossed around $14m in the U.S. alone.
The huge success of the original Piranha came as a surprise to Roger Corman. “Piranha achieved astonishing results,” says the producer. “These low-budget exploitation films can very often get a big gross the first week, but then fall away. Piranha did not fall away. It held, two and three weeks, against major studio competition.” Unfortunately for Corman, his deal with Piranha executive producers Chako van Leeuwen and Jeff Schechtman meant the pair were free to seek financing elsewhere for the film’s inevitable sequel. “I had just a one-picture deal,” says Corman. “I wasn’t able to participate in the other ones.”
The box office triumph of Piranha was even more impressive given the movie was very late to the Jaws rip-off party. Piranha was released three years after Spielberg’s film, and, in commercial terms, actually rode the marketing coattails of Jaws 2, which came out around the same time. Over the previous couple of years, movie audiences had been treated—if that’s the right word—to the sight of onscreen characters being terrorized by a variety of animals including a killer whale (1977’s Orca), a bear (1976’s Grizzly), tarantulas (1977’s Kingdom of the Spiders, penned by original Piranha scribe Richard Robinson), and even worms (1976’s Squirm). “I thought it was very late to do a Jaws rip-off,” admits Joe Dante. “There was a bunch of movies like Piranha.”
Yet another Jaws-inspired film was 1977’s Tentacles, which featured Henry Fonda, Shelley Winters, John Huston, and a giant octopus. The movie was made by an Italy-based producer-director named Ovidio Assonitis. The filmmaker had previously directed the 1974 supernatural horror movie Beyond the Door, a film that prompted Warner Bros. to file suit for copyright infringement because of its alleged similarity to The Exorcist. Assonitis claims the suit was ultimately resolved when he promised not to make a sequel to Beyond the Door and Warners entered an agreement that the producer oversee three movies for the company. One of those films would be Piranha II: The Spawning.
“We were looking to get a sequel to Piranha made,” says Jeff Schechtman. “Ovidio Assonitis said he wanted to finance it. I was very skeptical, but he put his money where his mouth was.” According to Assonitis, “Warner Brothers asked me if I was interested to produce the piece. My reply was yes, on condition that I could basically take over the whole operation, and do it myself.” Assonitis says the studio’s main stipulation was that this time, the fish in the movie should be airborne. “It was not really credible,” says the producer-director. “But they wanted, badly, the flying fish. They wanted to have piranha coming out of the sea.”
The original director of Piranha II was Miller Drake. Drake was yet another Corman graduate who had labored alongside Joe Dante in the New World trailer department—and had essayed the role of “First Mutant” in Dante’s directorial debut, Hollywood Boulevard—before becoming Corman’s de facto head of postproduction. “Jeff Schechtman said, ‘Would you like to direct this movie?’ and I said, ‘Sure,’” recalls Drake. “We met with Ovidio Assonitis and he said fine.” Drake set to work developing a script with writer Charles H. Eglee, who would later collaborate with James Cameron on the TV show Dark Angel. Miller’s intention was that Piranha II should hinge upon Kevin McCarthy’s scientist from Piranha, even though he had seemingly perished in the first movie. “I pitched this idea of bringing Kevin McCarthy back, all chewed up and mutilated from the previous movie,” says Drake. “He was on an abandoned oil rig and he was developing these flying piranhas out there to get revenge, or whatever. I think we were going to bring Barbara Steele back and have him kill her by smashing her head through a fish tank.”
To assist with the movie’s makeup, Drake approached special-effects legend-in-the-making Rob Bottin, who had done a small amount of work on the original Piranha and would go on to oversee the phenomenal creature effects on John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic The Thing. “Getting Rob at that time, because he was just up-and-coming, would have been a real coup,” says Drake. “He was a pretty talented kid, and he would have really brought something.” Before Bottin could weave his prosthetic magic, Assonitis removed Drake from the movie. “In the beginning, the package that I got from Chako and Jeff included also this director,” says Assonitis. “But I didn’t like him. I didn’t think he was right for the movie.” Miller Drake remembers things somewhat differently. “It was one of those things that kept going on forever,” he says. “We waited and waited. Then finally we had some big meeting in a hotel. Schechtman was with me, and we’re meeting with Ovidio. It was basically, ‘Are we going to do this movie or not? I’ve got Bottin and I’m going to lose him.’ And, you know, [Assonitis] is hemming and hawing, and it got a little heated up there. I got a call from Schectman about two days later. He said, ‘Come by, I want to talk to you.’ And I went to his office and he said, ‘Look, Ovidio is kind of upset about the other night, so you’re off the picture.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine.’” Assonitis decided to replace Drake with James Cameron.
The story of how, and why, Cameron was hired to direct Piranha II has passed into movie lore. In fact, it is the most famous chapter of the sequel’s production. According to that tale, a pair of anonymous Piranha II producers in search of a cheap filmmaker dropped by the L.A. set of the Corman-produced sci-fi/horror movie Galaxy of Terror, on which Cameron was working as second-unit director. “I had to do a scene where a severed arm is consumed by worms or maggots,” Cameron, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told ABC’s World News Tonight in 1998. “And we get all ready to do it and it’s like ‘OK, cue the worms.’ They just didn’t do anything. They were unmotivated. And so I’m desperate, it’s my first show as a director and I’m blowing it.” The inventive Cameron decided to get the maggots “motivated” by running an exposed electrical cable under the fake arm and telling his electrician to put in the plug when he called, “Action.” According to Cameron, “These producers come walking up behind me to watch me work, and I am sitting there and I go, ‘OK, roll camera, and, action.’ And the worms come to life and they’re crawling around. And I say, ‘OK, that’s good, and cut.’ And they stop. And [the producers] are very impressed by this, you know? They scale it up in their mind. ‘If he can do that with worms, what can he do with actors?’”
The story of how Cameron got a performance from the maggots was recently confirmed by Galaxy of Terror actress Taaffe O’Connell, who recalled the tale for a making-of doc included on the recent Shout! Factory DVD rerelease of the film. “When they originally shot that scene, they couldn’t get the maggots to move…. The maggots were just sitting there. So James Cameron got the idea to shock the maggots. And that’s how they started squirming. He was amazing.”
But did Cameron’s inventiveness lead directly to the Piranha II gig? Jeff Schechtman says, “No.” “[That’s] not quite how the story went at all,” laughs the producer. “We started pre-preproduction with a different director, Miller Drake. But it became clear that he and Assonitis were not going to get along. Jim was involved in the picture doing some art direction and, even back then, was very, very impressive. He and Assonitis spent some time together, I had encouraged that. And the decision got made—let’s make him the director.” Miller Drake says that he was the one who hired Cameron to work on the movie’s effects after getting to know him when the Canadian was working on Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars. “I brought him onto the picture myself,” says Drake. “Then, a couple of days [after Drake left Piranha II] Jim said, ‘Could I buy you a drink? I want to talk to you about something.’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So we went over to this bar and he said, ‘Look, I’ve just been offered the chance to direct the picture. Do you have any problems with that?’ And I said, ‘No, go for it.’”
Drake says that he harbors no ill feelings toward Cameron—”It’s never been a problem”—and has worked as visual-effects editor on a number of the director’s films, including The Abyss and Terminator 2. There must have been times in the course of making Piranha II when Cameron wished that Drake had dissuaded him from taking the movie, and in 1986 the director would tell the Los Angeles Times that he “was warned by a lot of people that Piranha II would be a bad experience. But it looked like a shot so I took it.” Cameron seems to have hidden his misgivings from Ovidio Assonitis. “When I asked him if he was ready to direct the movie, he was extremely happy,” says the producer, “because he really wanted to do it badly.”
In the end, Kevin McCarthy’s scientist did not return from the grave in the Piranha sequel. Apart from the titular monsters’ new flying abilities and the movie’s Jamaican setting, the plot of Piranha II would essentially repeat the dramatic elements of the first movie: tourists and teeth, babes and blood. Lance Henriksen was cast as a Chief Brody-esque cop, and TV actress Tricia O’Neil essayed the role of a plucky scuba instructor. Models Carole Davis and Connie Lynn Hadden supplied the bikini-clad eye candy.
Henriksen says the production, which was based in Ocho Rios, was an underfinanced affair. “All they had for my costume was some chinos from Sears Roebuck, ill-fitting at that,” he remembers. “I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ Jim and I went to have a coffee, and a waiter walked by and he had a blue stripe down the side of his pants and blue epaulets on his shoulders. I bought them off him for $75.” If Henriksen’s costume wasn’t real enough for the actor, then one of the locations was all too real for Carole Davis, who found herself shooting in an operational morgue. “There were dead people there,” she says. “It was awful.” Another scene Davis recalls filming with a shudder was her death at the hands, or rather the teeth, of flying piranhas. “The so-called ‘flying fish’ are ripping out my esophagus,” says the model-turned-actress, who would later appear on Sex and the City and Veronica Mars. “But the piranhas weren’t flying, they were attached to sticks. These people are standing just out of frame pumping fake blood through this prosthetic esophagus, and there’s a local guy shoving this very hard plastic fish at me. I was bruised for a month. This is so far from Avatar.” Maybe so. But according to Davis, it was clear even then that James Cameron was a talent. “You could tell this guy was a real filmmaker,” she says. “He was very serious and concerned that everything looked fantastic.” Lance Henriksen also remembers the future Avatar auteur as someone desperate to make his debut movie as good as possible. “The thing is that Jim, being the kind of guy he is—as history shows–did the very best job that he could do,” says the actor. “He spent a lot of his time in his room making more fish. Rubber fish! He worked his heart out, because this was his first film.”
There was at least one person connected to Piranha II who wasn’t thrilled with Cameron carrying on as director, and he was the only one who mattered: Ovidio Assonitis. After a couple of weeks, the producer fired Cameron and set about finishing the film himself. Last year, Cameron alleged on 60 Minutes that “the producer wanted to take over the movie and direct it himself, especially the scenes with Penthouse pinups. It was extremely sleazy.” Assonitis furiously denies this accusation. “That was absolutely wrong,” he says. “It’s not my style. And besides, I don’t need to do this just to get laid.” Carole Davis confirms the producer’s account. “Ovidio was a gentleman,” she says. “He was never out of line.”
Assonitis himself says that he fired Cameron because “he did a lot of terrible, stupid things that are typical of a person that has not the experience.” Pressed to give an example, the producer recalls that when Cameron failed to get a close-up of an actress, he and his crew sailed off the next day to secure the shot. “He took the whole crew on an incredible cruise trying to get under a cloud to reproduce the lighting,” says Assonitis. “We had to spend the whole day running after the cloud on several kinds of boats.” The producer also says that after two weeks of shooting the film was “heavily over budget.”
Jeff Schechtman, on the other hand, paints Assonitis as the villain of the piece, describing him as “a major pain in the ass” who “fancied himself as a director.” However, Schechtman agrees that the principal reason for Cameron’s firing was budgetary. “Jim was trying to do a good job,” says Schechtman. “He was very dedicated, very committed. And the Italians were concerned about budget. It was a clash of very strong personalities. At the end of the day, Assonitis was writing the checks.”
One of the scenes Assonitis filmed after sacking Cameron was a major set-piece in which characters gather on a beach at night to await an annual fish spawning, only to have hungry piranhas fly from the water and start attacking them. “Assonitis took over this film, just when they’re getting ready to do the big shot of the spawning,” says Carole Davis. “The scene was really the last laugh for Jim Cameron. Because Assonitis speaks in a thick Italian accent and he’s screaming in broken English. He’s telling these Jamaicans he wants them to say this thing. And he goes, ‘Alright-ah. Every-body-ah! You’re all-ah gonna say, ‘We wanna da feeesh! We wanna da feeesh!’ So you’ve got these Jamaicans, who speak in their own patois, going, ‘Heeer vonova heeer.’ You don’t even know what they’re saying. They didn’t know what they were saying. It was so funny.”
Once shooting was over, Assonitis agreed Cameron could assist with the editing of the film back in Rome. According to legend, Cameron would break into the editing suite at night and recut the footage to his own liking. Cameron recently denied to a Canadian TV interviewer that he had done this—but in a way that suggested he had. “That would have been a crime, had I done that,” he declared. “[But] somebody might have broken in and reedited the film.” Assonitis says the director did attempt to reedit the film. “He was basically breaking the door of my office at night, that’s true,” he says. “He admit it to me.”
Eventually, Cameron returned to the States and held a screening of Piranha II for the man probably best placed to judge the film, and empathize with his traumatic experience—Piranha director Joe Dante. “I told him I thought he’d done a terrific job with his section of the movie,” says Dante. “I mean, what are you going to do with a flying-piranha movie? There’s only so much you can do with it.”
Piranha II does have its boosters, including Eli Roth. “I’m a big fan of both movies,” says the Hostel director and Piranha 3D actor. “I actually rewatched Piranha II recently, and there’s a shocking amount of ‘T&A’ in it, especially for a James Cameron film. You don’t really associate that with James Cameron movies. There’s plenty of boobs, right from the opening scene. Very well done, though.” Regardless, the film was a box office disappointment. Jeff Schechtman says that while Piranha II got “some kind of release” in the U.S. and “got out there internationally a little bit,” the movie was not a commercial success. Although Ovidio Assonitis recalls that he “made some money” on the venture, he regards the film as essentially a failure, the blame for which he places firmly at the door of James Cameron. “I always told him, Jim, I would like to make a movie with you in two, three movies,” says the Italian. “But not now. Because you are totally inexperienced.”
Needless to say, Cameron did not work with Assonitis again, and “two, three movies” later he was well on his way to establishing himself as one of the preeminent filmmakers of our time thanks to the success of Terminator and Aliens (which actually was the second movie Cameron directed after Piranha II). And while the director may not look back fondly on Piranha II, it was during his stint in Rome that he had a dream that would inspire so much of his subsequent success. “In March, 1981, I lay in bed in a cheap hotel room in Rome with a high fever,” he would recall in an essay he penned for the 1992 Terminator Collection video box set. “I had been fired from my first directing job, a ruinous production about flying piranha backed by an Italian horror film-producer, and I was pissed off at the world, isolated and alienated in a city where I could speak to no one. I dreamed (or nightmared) about machines with glowing red eyes who walked among us like men, bent on turning the course of history to their own cold purposes. From this dream came the idea for a movie which was called ‘Terminator’ in my mind even before a single word of the story was written down.… Eleven years after my fever dream in Rome, I should kiss the feet of the scumbags who were responsible for me being in that dark and depressing state of mind.”