Well, folks, it was bound to happen at some point. I called in a few favors, pulled some strings, greased some palms, and stopped just short of blackmail to land our first-ever interview here at moviegasm.
But I must say it was worth it, because I got the chance to chat with director Michael Katleman, who made one of the most interesting monster movies in years with his feature directorial debut Primeval.You’re probably familiar with Katleman’s television work as a director and producer on Reunion, Tru Calling, and Point Pleasant. He decided to make the jump to features for a remarkably serious, thematically resonant movie about a killer crocodile in Africa and the news crew sent to document its capture. If those notions seem mutually exclusive, then you definitely have to check the film out (it’s available on DVD) to appreciate the skill with which he weaves those elements together.
One of the most interesting things about the movie is that the crocodile itself is based on an actual croc named Gustav in Burundi. “The crocodile, from my understanding, is up to a hundred years old, anywhere from eighty to a hundred, and it’s killed over three hundred people. That’s pretty extraordinary right there.” Although most of the story is fictionalized, many of the elements relating to Gustav are actually drawn from a National Geographic documentary. “What I liked about it was this thing is alive and it’s really out there, and you look at it, obviously we made it bigger and badder than the real Gustav out there. But when you look at Jaws, Lake Placid, those things, they’re all fictional, they’re these beasts that don’t really exist, you know. I think once I started reading all these articles about Gustav, and I saw the National Geographic documentary, you look at this thing and you go: this thing is out there, man. This thing is crazy. And so it’s great inspiration for a monster because it’s real.”
Another element of the film that lends some reality is Katleman’s decision to film on location in South Africa. “It was an incredible experience, because it’s such a beautiful place, so you could just turn the camera on and point, and for the most part you’d just get extraordinary vistas and landscapes.” Of course, it wasn’t all sunsets and puppy dogs out there. “It was really difficult, the filming part, just because you’re out in the jungle, and you’re working around rhinos and snakes and all kinds of other animals. ” Still, one of Katleman’s favorite shots in the film (and mine) depicts a crocodile cage being carried by a procession of locals down to the river. It’s an aerial shot, and it makes exquisite use of the landscape. Says Katleman, “It’s funny, the location I found for them to put the cage down… I went to great lengths to find a place that hadn’t been troubled by humans, so it was a nature reserve. We had to boat everything in, we’re on a tight schedule, and I just wanted to make everything look good. But I will not forget seeing all those boats going up river, realizing that we’re boating into a location… you just get this pit in your stomach, going ‘oh my God what are we going to do’… Waterworld came to mind.”
One of the advantages to a movie like this is that the crocodile is, in many ways, the star, and it frees the film from having to cast a Tom Cruise or… well, maybe not Cruise. Shia LaBeouf? Anyway, it frees up the casting, and Katleman made some inspired choices. First was Prison Break‘s Dominic Purcell as Tim Manfrey, a serious journalist who feels the crocodile story is beneath him. “He just seemed like a good action hero. He had a good grasp of the character, and his energy was phenomenal.” Purcell does make a credible hero in the film, bringing a little old-school Schwarzenegger stoicism to the part. I’m curious to see what he does with his next feature role in Joel Schumacher’s supernatural thriller Town Creek (you Schumacher bashers keep quiet; Falling Down, Lost Boys, and Tigerland are enough to keep me hopeful that he’s got another good one in him).
Katleman’s second inspired choice was Orlando Jones as Manfrey’s cameraman, Steven. I’ve always liked Jones (come on… Office Space?), and he is both very funny and surprisingly touching in his relationship with a young African kid he befriends. “Being on set with Orlando was a riot, because you had no idea what would come out of his mouth. I’d say ‘Action!’, and it’d be like ‘what?’. But it was great because he would just go for it, and sometimes it was way better and sometimes what was in the script was better, but the process was great.”
Finally, I had to ask about the great Jurgen Prochnow. The more astute movie fanatics might know this already, or anyone who read the bottom five of my top ten movies, but Prochnow has a special place in moviegasm lore. Not for Das Boot, Dune, or The English Patient, but because his great performance in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness provided yours truly with his pseudonym. In Primeval, he is exceptional as a Quint-like crocodile hunter with a personal grudge against Gustav. “Jurgen was fantastic. He is a true professional. From a director’s perspective he was just a pleasure to work with, because he understood what you wanted and he would do everything in his power to give it to you. And he had a tough part. Again, he’s out there in the middle of the night in Africa and that’s hard to do. It really is. But I would work with him again in a heartbeat.”
Bottom line, folks, check out Primeval. Put it on your Netflix que and bump it right up to the top. Because the really extraordinary thing that Katleman does with the film is abandon the self-referential, tongue-in-cheek humor that plagues movies like Lake Placid and Deep Blue Sea, and instead takes an intelligent and serious approach to the story. He and writers John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (who also wrote David Fincher’s The Game, by the by) are able to thematically connect Gustav to the political strife in Africa, and really connect with the people that are the innocent bystanders in it all. “When I was doing location surveys, I saw a guy out there (in the river)… he had built an oar with sticks and two trashcan tops… paddling on his knees through the water, but the water was filled with crocs. You’re just going, man, this poor guy, this guy is just trying to feed and his family, and he’s an inch above the water, and at any moment a croc could come up… it doesn’t even have to be the size of Gustav, this thing could be four feet and take him down. Just grab him, pull him under, and he’s gonna drown. It gives you a tremendous amount of respect for what people in different areas need to go through for survival, you know? We just go down to Vons.”
And just so I don’t mislead you into thinking that this is The Constant Gardener or something, I’ll leave with this final thought: ” That said, I want it to be a roller coaster ride. I want people to sit there and watch the screen and have a blast and have the sh*t scared out of them.” It’s a tough trick to balance thematic complexity with a roller coaster ride, but I tell you, Katleman does it admirably with Primeval. Check it out.