The so-called "Frankenfish" caused quite a stir when they were discovered in Crofton in 2002, but that was nothing compared to the havoc the snakeheads wreak in the comedy-horror "Swarm of the Snakehead."
Like the real-life creatures, the fish in the movie are able to walk on land. But they also possess more of a murderous streak, and it's up to the citizens of a fictional Maryland town to save the day. Shot over two years on the Eastern Shore, and featuring a largely local cast and crew, "Swarm" recently had a screening at The Charles Theatre in Baltimore.
baltimoresun.com: Where did you come up with the idea for the story? Were you in town when the snakeheads were in the news, or was it something you just heard about?
Seth Hurwitz: I was in Maryland when the snakehead fish were found in Crofton, but the first producer on "Swarm," Joel C. Denning, was the person who saw in the discovery the makings of a horror film. While we were still shooting "Swarm," two other snakehead films came out, so I guess Joel was onto something. When I got involved I was pretty sure it shouldn't be a straight horror film about fish that walk on land. If you've seen those other two films I think you'll agree comedy was the way to go.
baltimoresun.com: What is your background and how did that play into the making of this particular movie?
Hurwitz: I've been writing since I was a kid, but my formal training is mostly as a poet. I have an Master's of Fine Art in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and completed most of the coursework for a Ph.D. in Poetry and Fiction at the University of Houston. Not the most straightforward path to becoming a producer and screenwriter! But I've always loved movies and I've been writing screenplays for about 10 years --n ot just writing scripts, but studying films and screenwriting. I learned a lot from reading scripts by David Twohy, Joss Whedon, Ernest Lehman, Shane Black, Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and many others. I also try to watch at least three or four films a week.
baltimoresun.com: When did you do the filming, and what were the main locations? Are there any landmarks locals should be on the lookout for?
Hurwitz: "Swarm of the Snakehead" was shot primarily in Easton and Oxford. My writing and producing partner Frank Lama was living in Easton when he read the script, and he knew where to find every location
-- from the ultra-modern waterfront mansion of Mr. Big to the 1960s-era lab of Dr. Emerson. And not only did Frank know where to shoot, he was able to convince people to let us in!
We started shooting in late 2003, and because "Swarm" was independently financed and because of the scope of the film -- special effects shots, stunts, multiple locations, a large ensemble cast -- it took over two years to complete principal photography. The Oxford Community Center graciously allowed us to shoot the Fish-Off massacre in their main auditorium, and Mayor Appleyard's climactic battle with her snakehead nemesis was shot in the men's room of the OCC. It took us hours to clean up the fake blood.
baltimoresun.com: Tell me about the cast. Were they mostly local actors?
Hurwitz: Most of the cast is local and they really are all so talented. Dakota Fanning has nothing on Margaret Denning! Jamie Linck O'Brien, as you might expect from the current Miss Teen USA Maryland, practically glowed even before we turned the lights on her. Lisa Burdette, who played Mayor Janice Appleyard, is gorgeous, funny and, as you see on more than one occasion in "Swarm," has one hell of a right hook. Frank, as professional fisherman and TV host Darrel Delhey, would make me laugh on set just by raising an eyebrow. He said he was channeling fellow Canadian William Shatner.
Frank, who also co-directed the film, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an actor's director. When an actor needed help he was there with direction, but he also allowed the actors the space to be creative and take risks. I really can't overstate how important those performances are to the success of the film.
We brought in our "name," Gunnar Hansen, for one day of shooting, which was all our budget would allow. We faxed Gunnar his pages and he loved the idea of spoofing Robert Shaw's Quint character in "Jaws." I expected to be a little terrified by Leatherface in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," but when Gunnar showed up to shoot he was incredibly kind, gracious and very funny. Did you know he's written a book of poems?
baltimoresun.com: In addition, there was more local flavor with some of the music. Tell me about the bands featured and how you chose the music?
Hurwitz: When I grew up in Maryland I thought the three biggest bands in the world were the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Crack The Sky. "Swarm's" soundtrack is a mix of some of my favorite bands and artists, and many of them happen to be from here. People probably remember the Ravyns as a fantastic Baltimore band from the 1980s that had their song "Raised on the Radio" featured on the "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" soundtrack. Former Ravyn Kyf Brewer was excited about "Swarm" and allowed us to use his song "Love or Suicide." Tony Sciuto was kind of a legend when I was growing up and he's still in Baltimore writing and recording great music. I tracked down Louie Maistros, formerly of local '80s favorite "The Last Picture Show," to New Orleans where he runs a record and voodoo shop to ask for permission to use one of his songs in the film. I also really lucked out meeting our composer, Tom Alonso. In addition to being an immensely gifted composer, Tom played keyboard in the Baltimore band Bootcamp in the early 1980s and was able to talk Tim Camp into letting us use some Bootcamp songs. And when I called people like Kyf and Tony, they all felt more comfortable knowing that "Tommy" was scoring the film. Lots of people know the Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star" was the first video on MTV, but there were also Bootcamp videos on MTV's first broadcast day.
baltimoresun.com: How would you describe the movie -- is it a comedy, a horror, a little of both?
Hurwitz: For me, "Swarm" is a horror film the way "Caddyshack" is a golf film. I mean, first and foremost "Swarm of the Snakehead" is a comedy -- a comedy with fish that spit acid and tear people's legs off.
baltimoresun.com: You recently had a screening at The Charles Theatre. How did that go?
Hurwitz: It went really well! I spent a solitary year editing the film at my house and another six months at Studio Unknown working with sound designer Kevin Hill. So that's a year and a half of my life spent in dark rooms in front of computers. Then a few days after we finish the mix I'm watching "Swarm" on a big screen at The Charles and at the end of the film 400 people stand up and cheer! It was an amazing, and weird, feeling. It had been starting to seem like "Swarm" was my private hobby.
baltimoresun.com: Tell me about the experience making this movie, especially being in Maryland for the filming.
Hurwitz: The experience of making the film is a book! Seriously! I'm working on a book about the whole process from script to distribution deal called "How Thailand Paid for Film School." But the short version is that it was crazy, stressful, physically difficult, mentally exhausting and so much fun. Of course, it's hugely collaborative and so it's kind of art as a team sport. I was lucky to have a very good team.
Maryland is a great place to shoot a film. You've got mountains, ocean, farms, forest, cities and small towns. When you watch "Swarm" you see the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I don't know how you'd try to replicate that somewhere else. I'm pretty sure the Bruce Boxleitner snakehead film was shot in Canada! Come on!
Compared to L.A. or New York, Maryland is inexpensive, and people here are genuinely excited about helping you make your film. There are also tons of talented people here, not just actors, and aside from getting our film processed and telecined at Fotokem in Burbank and some computer effects we had done in L.A., all of the technicians we used on "Swarm" are local. And I don't mean D.C., I mean Baltimore.
baltimoresun.com: Where will people be able to see this movie?
Hurwitz: We've been talking to distributors for a while, but now that the film is finished we'll be getting down to brass tacks. It will certainly be available in Blockbuster and Hollywood Video and Netflix. We'll be talking to the Sci Fi Channel. We're also working on some kind of limited theatrical run and maybe a college tour.
baltimoresun.com: Do you have plans for a sequel or any other Maryland-centric movies?
Maybe "Revenge of the Steamed Crabs"?
Hurwitz: Close! Frank and I have been kicking around the idea of a "Jaws"-inspired comedy called "Claws!" Instead of a giant shark, we'd have a massive blue crab attack a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Eventually we'd like to do a sequel to "Swarm of the Snakehead," kind of "Creature of the Black Lagoon" meets "Teen Wolf." The working title is "Swarm of the Snakehead 2: I Was A Teenage Snakehead."
'Swarm of the Snakehead'
Q&A with Seth Hurwitz, writer and producer of the Maryland-filmed comedy
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