When it comes to shark movies, the shadow of a certain Steven Spielberg film looms so ominously over the waters that other filmmakers have shied away from the subject matter. There are plenty of sharks in films but relatively few films that are entirely about sharks. This is what makes Jaume Collet-Serra's new feature The Shallows so unusual. It's a story about a young woman (played by Gossip Girl's Blake Lively) stranded off shore as a great white prowls around her, waiting to gobble her up.
Collet-Serra is best known for his thrillers (Non-Stop and Run All Night) with Liam Neeson, The Shallows is the most pared down film he has made. "The fewer resources you have, the more creative you have to get - and that fuels my mojo," Collet-Serra says about the attraction of the project.
The Shallows is very different from Jaws and yet has some of its same primal qualities. There's no Robert Shaw spinning grim yarns about US navy sailors being eaten alive, no grim-faced Roy Scheider trying to keep the beaches safe and no Richard Dreyfuss showing off his expertise about sharks. There is just Blake Lively in a bikini and wet suit, trying to keep out of the mouth of the beast. This is a survival story.
"Even though in concept, it is a very simple movie, it is highly complex to keep the feeling we are in the ocean," the director says.
Anyone who has been on a tour of Universal Studios theme park and seen the Jaws attraction will realise that, actually, the mechanical shark wasn't very lifelike. It's the idea of the shark that frightens the tourists as much as the shark itself. In today's digital era, Collet-Serra was able to make his great white seem much more realistic. Even so, the shark is used relatively sparsely. This means that when we finally see it in its full-toothed glory, it has all the more impact.
The director was all too aware that the film could have seemed voyeuristic and even sexist. The point about The Shallows, though, is that Blake Lively's character refuses to be the victim. A medical school student still getting over the death of her mother, she's not there to be gawped at in her bikini but is resourceful and courageous.
"I think audiences are maturing. I don't think selling sex or sexiness is a huge draw any more," says Collet-Serra. "You need something more than that. We had a bit of fun at the beginning when she is getting ready with the closer to the skin type shots but once she has been bitten and is danger, it becomes another movie. We were very conscious not to ever cross that line of bad taste. If she is already in jeopardy, we don't want ever to take advantage visually of that situation ... as a director and a human being, you just want to treat that other human with respect."
Jaws has been criticised for demonising sharks. After all, the great white isn't the embodiment of evil that the film suggested. It simply behaves according to its nature. However, Collet-Serra makes it clear that The Shallows is a horror flick, not an eco-documentary.
"I can differentiate between what happens in a movie and what happens in reality. I can watch a documentary and feel very sorry about what happens to the sharks or any other creature."
The Shallows, he explains, is a human story. Blake Lively's antagonist could equally well be a dinosaur or an alien or a storm, "or another human being". The drama comes from her fight to survive.
On his own scuba diving trips, the director has experienced first-hand what it is like to feel "the fear of being under the water and not knowing what is around me and feeling very vulnerable. Whether it is with sharks or any other creature, when I am not in my element, I am very uncomfortable - that's also why I am a director who makes movies that are about expressing fear".
His own pet terror is flying, but that didn't stop him from making Non-Stop with Liam Neeson as the hero aboard a plane with a bomb on it.
When The Shallows was shooting off the coast of Australia, there were a number of real-life stories about shark attacks. "I think 2015 was the year for shark attacks. That is probably to do with global warming. You have more people in the water and more sharks getting close to the shore. It just happens."
Yes, the movie was as much a feat of endurance for the director and crew as for Blake Lively's long-suffering character. The weather changed constantly. The water changed colour - difficult for continuity - and there were troubles with the tides. "Everything was just a logistical nightmare," the director remembers.
"Sharks are a very difficult thing to do. They are so powerful and big and scary," Collet-Serra says. "It's cool to have a shark theme, but try to do 100 shots of a shark, that is very hard not to repeat yourself and to create a memorable character, one that people remember. Jaws is a masterpiece and set the bar very high. A lot of people have tended to do variations on it. For us, we tried to do something that was fresh, simple, realistic - and enjoyable for a new generation."
The director sounds relieved now to be back on firmer ground, making a more conventional thriller with Liam Neeson. The Ballymena actor is now in his mid-60s but, like Blake Lively, is still apparently doing his own stunts. "I've just been on set with him for 12 hours and now he is training for the fights," says Collet-Serra. "He's like a little kid. He loves every minute of it. You have to love it. It takes a lot of physical toll and sacrifice to get it right."
From the Jaws sequels to Bait 3D, Open Water, The Reef and The Deep Blue Sea, there have been several other shark-themed movies since Spielberg unleashed his great white terror in 1975. Nonetheless, Jaws itself is invariably the first title anybody remembers when shark films are mentioned. The Shallows won't eclipse it, but at least it is bound to add to the conversation.