I Wanted to Be the Next Steven Spielberg. Instead, I Wrote ‘Sharknado’
When your silliest piece of work is your greatest success
Thunder Levin wrote Sharknado, the made-for-TV movie that became an instant cult classic when it premiered on Syfy on July 11, 2013. Its unlikely success led to him writing the scripts for both of the sequels, Sharknado 2: The Second One, and 2015's Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!
It was the most surreal night of my life.
The filmmakers had arranged a viewing party for the 9 p.m. West Coast screening, but we had nothing planned for the East Coast airing three hours earlier.
So I stayed home and live tweeted the East Coast broadcast. It was just me and my dog Ripley (named after Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien, of course). I had done the same thing for another Syfy Channel film I wrote and directed, American Warships, a “mockbuster” of the action movie Battleship. Based on that experience, I figured a few hundred people would tweet about the film — half of them asking how Sharknado was made, the other half telling me how bad it sucked.
That night was my first time seeing the finished film so I spent the first half-hour thinking, Wait a minute! That’s not what I wrote! What the hell have they done to my movie? It looked so much grander in my head. But that’s what happens when you spend $1 million on a $100 million script.
Then something strange happened: Tweets started coming in by the thousands per minute.
Even celebrities were talking about the movie. Super fanboy and Star Trek star Wil Wheaton tweeted about it a bunch:
So did Patton Oswalt:
Mia Farrow, too:
The “holy shit” moment was when I started trading tweets with Damon Lindelof, the showrunner for Lost and the writer for Prometheus, about collaborating on a Sharknado sequel.
I have no idea what sparked it. No one does. If you knew what made Sharknado the phenomenon it was, you’d be the most in-demand marketing genius in Hollywood. I was just hoping it wouldn’t be awful and that people on Twitter wouldn’t say nasty things to us.
Of course, it turned out to be the exact opposite. Time magazine even called the movie “genius.” By the end of the night my inbox was filled with media requests. I was so busy responding to them I didn’t even make it to the viewing party.
Within 24 hours, I had done interviews with CNN, HuffPost Live and The Today Show in Australia. And on Sunday — three days after the movie first aired — I recorded an interview for Good Morning America.
My foremost thought was I need to milk this for all its worth. The first step was to parlay the press attention into getting an agent. Sure enough, an agent from Gersh — a relatively small, but prestigious talent agency — contacted me while I was in the CNN green room. He had a request, though: He wanted to read the original Sharknado script before meeting me; he needed to make sure I was in on the joke and hadn’t written it as a serious disaster film.
Which I definitely had not. The company that made Sharknado, The Asylum, is notorious for taking its films seriously. So when they edited my first draft of Sharknado, they removed all of the jokes and Jaws references. Syfy read it and said, “This is good, but it needs to be funnier,” at which point all the humor went back in.
Satisfied, the agent met with me a couple of days later. Instead of me having to sell myself, he pitched me on how great Gersh was. We signed that day.
I’m still far from rich, though.
Yes, Sharknado was successful. But that doesn’t mean money has poured in.
I haven’t bought a new house.
I haven’t even bought a new car.
I was paid only a few thousand dollars for the first script. Luckily, the pay has increased with each sequel, and if we make Sharknado 4, I’ll be able to afford my dream car — a Corvette.
Besides the money, though, Sharknado has been the wild ride I imagined when I first moved to Hollywood in 1986. I was 21 years old and planning to become the next Steven Spielberg or James Cameron. It didn’t go so well. My scripts received just enough interest to keep me from quitting, but not enough to break through. Tequila Blues, a movie I wrote about two women on the run from a Mexican drug lord who killed their boyfriends, was optioned three times but never made. Another one, Brother, a dystopian drama about a cop who has to hunt down his own brother, got some attention but it quickly petered out.
At one point, I made corporate films for a company that sold toupees, just to get by.
Eventually, I resorted to writing sci-fi knockoffs for The Asylum.
After barely scraping by for nearly 30 years, I had started giving up hope I would ever achieve any kind of fame. Then came Sharknado.
My new agent has landed me some great meetings with producers who never would have taken me seriously before Sharknado. They’re interested in a couple ideas I have for TV shows — one’s a campy sci-fi series a la Sharknado, the other’s a serious apocalypse-type thing. Nothing has been greenlit, but talks are ongoing.
My dream is to make this epic, six-hour sci-fi trilogy. It’s called 2176, and it took me three years to write. All I’ll say about it is that it’s based on historic events, and that everyone I’ve ever pitched it to has said, “That’s the greatest idea I’ve ever heard.”
One producer told me it was the next Star Wars. He showed it to all the heavy hitters — Cameron, Spielberg, Ridley Scott. George Clooney, who I always wanted to play the lead, saw it. Unfortunately, their reactions were all the same: “We’ll never get this made. It’s too big and expensive for an original idea. It needs to be based on a comic, video game or novel.”
But I haven’t stopped trying. I know what the first line of my obituary is going to be, and I’m doing everything I can to change it.
— As told to John McDermott
John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL. He previously wrote about Millennials who pop Adderall to find passion in their work.