Writer-director Jeffrey Grellman’s new film, Mermaid Down, will release Oct. 29. This is the second of three pieces for FANGORIA.com, in which he walks readers through the journey to get his film made. (Read the first here.)
kay, so I've got $85K to turn my now award-winning script into a full-length feature. First things first ... how am I going to build the mermaid tail? I had a lot of ideas. The sizzle reel forced me to utilize a snow shovel and painted car mats cut into the shape of a fin and tail but that would not suffice for a film that I intended to see the light of day. I made many monsters from latex and foam as a teenager with FANGORIA as a kind of a learner's manual, but there was no way I could build an entire mermaid tail in addition to the million other production details I had to do myself.
I suddenly remembered a couple of FX guys I had a meeting with several years prior when I was trying to get another film off the ground with one of those empty-promise producers that I had been dealing with for so many years. There was something different about these guys. They were down to earth, passionate ... and seemingly inspired by my wild ideas. They were no longer working at the company where I had originally met them, but they were still active and keeping busy in FX. Enter Monty Shook and Jack Edjourian. In no way, shape or form should I have asked them to join this truly independent project.
But alas, I cornered them and started foaming at the mouth with my enthusiasm, talking to them about how the tail should move like a shark or a crocodile instead of a dolphin so that the audience would have unconscious signals that this was not an actress in a mermaid suit. I said the tail should be twice as long as her legs and the fin should be torn up and shredded from her adventures and battles in the ocean over the years. Shockingly, they got really into the whole idea and embraced the low budget as an opportunity to be creative and try something different. I was fully aware then, and still am today, that it's a rarity to find talented artists with along, impressive history in movies who will do a project just for the love of the art. I can't begin to articulate what that meant to a guy like me, who had grown up idolizing FX artists. Turns out, sometimes it does pay to meet your heroes.
Watching them figure out how to build the tail was like stepping into FANGORIA magazine and hanging out with the masters.
Those were the moments I'll cherish for the rest of my life. The lack of money didn't stop them because they were creative to the core.
Silicone scales were ordered in bulk from a company who specializes in mermaid tail suits. A deal was made with the scale company to get it at a sizable discount because they were inspired by the idea of their scales being in a film and they responded to the sizzle reel with excitement. A large fin was beautifully sculpted out of clay and then used to create a mold for silicone. Animatronics were built for the interior of the fin so that it could writhe and curl like a squid's tentacle by way of cables extending from the tail to a trigger you could grip with your hand and squeeze to manipulate the fin. It took weeks of work: sculpting, building, pouring, drying, painting and then form-fitting the tail to our eponymous protagonist, Alexandra Bokova. An exact mold was made of her body so that the tail could be worn like it was an extension of her very being. I remember staring at old pictures of guys in the '70s and '80s with big beards and safety goggles, arc-welding something to rig an animatronic or optical compositing device - painting the crevices in a creature's face to accentuate the shadows and verisimilitude - and here I was,sipping coffee next to those same type of guys as they painted in the detail of the scales and making suggestions. Amazing.
However, despite the love for practical FX, I knew, as did these artists, that we still had an almost overwhelming challenge in creating an authentic feel on camera. CGI was just never in the cards, but audiences have become so sophisticated that I knew we couldn't get away with just a silicone tail like you could in the films I grew up with.
I also had to use the camera to bring the tail to life. I started designing my shots to always be doing something to fuse the image of the mermaid with an element from the environment that would evoke a visceral response from the audience. I smothered it in mud and leaves, wrapped it in the fishing boat's disgustingly textured net, and put the tail in water with buckets of dirt in order to evoke the feeling that it had surfaced from the depths of the sea.
One of the things Monty and Jack did that was so brilliant was to put weight into the massive fin so that it could flop around and react to gravity as though it had a powerful, internal musculature. This meant that I could pull it through the water and have it turn EXACTLY the way it would if she were a real mermaid, and I could slap the whole fin and tail down on the ground without it ever folding or doing anything to give away that it was prosthetic. It was truly remarkable that they were able to make that happen. It really felt like it was a giant, heavy fishtail. Another trick we implemented was to attach monofilament to the tail that extended out to poles held by some volunteers on set who would pull left when I called,"LEFT!" then pull right when I called, "RIGHT!" That gave us some cool shots of her swimming over the camera with a fully puppeteered tail, moving from side to side like a shark instead of the usual dolphin style of up and down. We were all dedicated to making it as real as possible. Alexandra even wore the tail for those shots and performed the stunt work herself despite knowing the camera could barely see her face in the murky water.
More challenges came out of the script's demands. This was a house-of-horrors style film with things lurking beneath the floors and surprises around every corner like an old Mario Bava film. One of the sets required a flooded basement beneath the mental home. Well, there are no basements in LA, and I couldn't afford water tanks and sound stages, so I had to think outside the box. I came up with the idea of completely disguising a swimming pool. I rigged up a few old, dilapidated walls to line the sides of the pool and then layered the bottom of the pool with a large, black tarp to cover every inch of the signature blue pool tile. Then we shot warm light through the boards with a fogger, making an atmospheric, basement feel, and then we just threw anything we could find that would FLOAT onto the pool water so that it looked like a flooded basement where boxes and random pieces of wood were floating on the surface. There wasn't even a roof over the pool; I couldn't afford that so I just said, ‘We'll shoot it at night and the black sky will look like a black roof!’ It all came together really well.
Then there was the problem of gunfire, which had to be carefully thought out in advance because I couldn't afford pyrotechnics. So,when we needed barrel fire coming from the antique Tommy gun used by the villain toward the end of the film, that was simply done with hairspray and a lighter like the old after-school trick - and it looks great. Additionally problematic was nearly every other effect in the movie! They all had to be solved with the simplest of solutions. To make it look like the villain shoots a taser, we attached the wire to a wall and had someone off screen yank it through a secret hole in the back of the taser; when played in reverse, it appears as though the wire is flying out of the gun toward the camera.
To create the illusion of a fisherman being stabbed in the back with an ax, I glued a dummy ax onto a board with straps that I just made out of a piece of wood, a couple ofscrews and some backpack straps; the fisherman wore this under his costume with the ax sticking out of a hole in the back of his coat. Then I filmed him jutting forward and turning, revealing the ax in his back (which was always there to begin with).
A more elegant effect, but still simple in design, was used when the mermaid sprays black ink from her mouth like a squid. It's designed as a joke because she's not underwater so the defense mechanism isn't quite as effective as she would have hoped. Monty (FX) figured out how to get the perfect ink spray without any heavy machinery or complications. He simply drilled about eight or nine little holes in the end of a Super Soaker and then when she opens her mouth, the Super Soaker, (on the other side of her face, hidden from camera) sprays the ink.
The creative challenge that felt the most daunting to me was the sinking of the villain's yacht at the end of the film. I blended a few different techniques. We built a U-shaped set: just three walls that matched the interior of the real boat we had rented for two days. I propped that on the edge of a pool and put a drop cloth over the surface of the water to mimic the floor of the boat. Then I pushed down on the “floor” to make it look like water was flooding in. This was great because I could control the amount of water and could also make it look as if it was violently lapping against the camera lens. To give the illusion of the boat sinking, I lowered the set into the pool as the actors incrementally lowered themselves into the water.
Lastly, I found a large-scale model that matched the yacht. I think it was meant for yacht owners to display on their desk or something, but I hung it in my tiny studio apartment and draped a big black curtain behind it. Then I projected rippling water onto the boat as though it were reflecting the surface above. I filmed it with a 4K GoPro because the lens is so wide, which helped sell the miniature. Lastly, I added bubbles that I bought from stock footage and put them over the boat at half transparency and the illusion was complete; juxtaposing the interior of the boat and the exterior made the effects really work.
After so many nearly impossible goals were complete and the film was in the can, I thought the hardest part was behind me …but I was about to step into the daunting challenge of finding distribution for a movie with a weird concept and no movie stars. This was the sword of Damocles hanging over me. Somewhere between a finished movie and no one on earth gives a damn.
Jeffrey Grellman was raised in Belgium for the first seven years of his life before moving to California where he began winning awards for his creative writing at an early age. He studied special effects, film books and classical music throughout his entire youth, even breaking into every film school he could in order to sit in on classes. He worked professionally for a short time as a voice artist for radio ads and video games as he continued to pursue writing and directing films. His award-winning screenplay for Mermaid Down was featured in Filmmaker Magazine. The film became his first feature and is being released on multiple VOD platforms, Redbox, Walmart and TV despite a budget of only $85K.