I’ve always been fascinated by the process in which trashy Italian films were made in the 80s and early 90s. Sometimes shot with an English speaking lead surrounded by dubbed Italian actors, other times with an entirely English speaking cast and an Italian crew, Italian filmmakers did their best to convince their audience that they were watching home-grown American entertainment. But no matter how hard they tried, they could not stop their nationality from seeping through. And praise the exploitation movie gods that the Italian films of yesteryear retained their Italianness.
The most fascinating double act of Italian trash cinema is undoubtedly Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragrasso. These two infamous maniacs collaborated many times. This fruitful pairing gave us such entertaining works of genius as Hell of the Living Dead (1980), Rats: Night of Terror (1984), and Strike Commando (1987). And that’s only scratching the surface. Fragasso has become best known for “best worst movie”, Troll 2 (1990). While Mattei does not have any works to his name that reach the level of infamy of Troll 2, he most certainly produced films that match its lunacy, and none are more loony than Cruel Jaws (1995) — Mattei’s illegitimate tribute to Jaws.
I have become fascinated with the making of Cruel Jaws since seeing it. What was Mattei like as a director? Did the cast know what they were getting themselves into? How did the Italian production company think they could get away with making a shark film without a shark? And how did they think they could get away from pilfering footage and music so shamelessly from other films? (Even the score from Star Wars is “borrowed”.) Writing for Mondo Exploito is a lot of fun and has its perks. One of them is the connections that we’ve made with the people behind the productions of these amazing films. Jay Colligan, one of the stars of Mattei’s contribution to sharksploitation, left a friendly comment on my review of Cruel Jaws last week.
Jay played Tommy in Cruel Jaws. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll most certainly remember Tommy. He is one of the cool guy jocks. He spouts some wonderfully absurd lines of dialogue (“I’m the purser in charge of pussy!”) and delivers a performance that exudes enthusiasm making him a likeable presence in the film. Jay was kind enough to agree to grant us an be interview, sharing some fantastic tales of his adventure with Mattei and the Italian crew of Cruel Jaws.
Cruel Jaws was, I think, the second film I was fortunate enough to be cast in. I’d done some TV, another indie film, and a bunch of theater, but I was still green as grass in terms of working in film. Acting is acting, but film and theater certainly have some different mechanics to them. As for where I was in my career, I was a young hack then, now I’m an old hack who still keeps his hand in occasionally.
What was the audition process like?
I think it was a pretty standard audition process, in a hotel conference room in Miami, if I’m not mistaken. I don’t remember there being a callback, but there probably was one. My agent (who was terrific, and who’s still a friend) said, “Here’s the audition, here’s the time, here’s the location,” and off I went. If there were sides [note: sides are selections from the script, usually 3 or 4 pages, given to actors for them to read at the audition] ahead of time, they were just as hilarious as the script.
Can you tell me a bit about the shooting process? Was the crew entirely Italian?
I remember the shooting process being a blast. It was shot in the Florida Keys, and I was in a very nice hotel on Islamorada for the two or three days I was shooting there. The main location (Dag’s aquarium) was a place called “Theater of the Sea,” which I believe is still open. It’s a marine park built in an old rock quarry. So, rather than tanks, the dolphins, sharks, and sea lions were in lagoons or ponds which had been excavated. You could literally walk right up to the edge of the dolphin pool, for instance. At the time, they had a young dolphin who had just joined the ‘cast’ of their dolphin show, and the entire crew at Theater of the Sea just loved this guy. They kept talking about what a great personality he had, and how great he was with people. One morning, between shots, I was walking around the main dolphin pool by myself, and this particular dolphin swam up and rolled over on his side just under the surface to have a look at me, maybe see if I was anyone he knew. He looked at me, I looked at him, and he swam a big circle through his lagoon and came back to have another look at me. So, I waved at him. He rolled over a little more, and waved back at me with his flipper. No, I am not making that up. Full disclosure, they’re taught to wave as part of the show, but when I asked the trainers about it later, they said he just loves interacting with people, and just waved back for the fun of it. It was, without question, my favorite moment of the shoot.
I think about half the crew were folks Bruno brought over from Italy with him. I never heard Bruno speaking English, but his daughter worked very closely with him, and her English was good. There were plenty of Americans on the set, including two grips who were excellent, and who’s names I wish I could remember. I’ll have to go watch the credits.
Sounds like a fun shoot! How closely did you and the other actors follow the script? There’s an insane scene where two girls chant “dickbrain, dickbrain, dickbrain” at you. At any point, did you question the loony dialogue?
Ah, the script. There was an assistant director who spoke Italian, and who was a heck of a nice guy. He told us that the Italian producers were well aware of the translation issues, and that we should feel free to modify our lines to make more sense in English. In practice, I’m not sure it worked out as planned. What am I saying? Listen to that dialogue. Of course it didn’t work out as planned. That scene where those poor girls had to repeatedly yell “dickbrain” at me is the same one, I believe, where I have what I humbly consider to be the worst line ever written in the history of film. You’ll know it when you hear it.
We were constantly scratching our heads at some of the lines, but we were all pretty green, so none of us felt like we had anything like enough juice to put our foot down in terms of the dialogue. We were all just happy to have the gig, I think. I do remember one line I had to change a bit, when two characters were going off to be alone, and told us they were going swimming. My reply in the script was, “What swim and swim?” HUH?!
Haha! I kind of wish you had of said that line! I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Bruno Mattei (who sadly passed away in 2007) is quite the cult figure among fans of Euro horror and exploitation, and he’s very much beloved for his insane approach to filmmaking. What was he like to work with? What was your level of interaction with him and what was he like as a director?
I found out about Bruno’s awesome cult status long after the shoot, and it’s really pretty cool to be a teeny, tiny part of that odd little slice of film making. I remember the first time I saw just how many films he had made, and I was flabbergasted. We were around him all the time, but I don’t believe he spoke much English at all, and if he did, he wasn’t speaking it to us. He communicated to us through his daughter and the A.D. I mentioned earlier. The overall impression I got from Bruno was one of complete exasperation, and it was entirely understandable. I heard his budget was about $300,000 at the time, but I have no idea if that’s true, or if that included the underwater footage they’d bought, or how tightly they were pinching their pennies. Plus, to be honest, his entire cast was made up of actors who were either new, raw, inexperienced with film, untalented, utterly baffled, or any combination of the above. As a consequence, my enduring memory of Bruno was of him yelling at us in Italian.
I distinctly remember several of us standing around Bruno before a scene, as he gave our A.D./translator the blocking and direction for what we were about to shoot. It went on for some time, and Bruno clearly had definite ideas about what he wanted to happen. I think we, as actors, were all kind of excited, because surely, here was where the rubber met the road. Bruno was obviously fleshing out the sparse stage directions in the awkwardly translated script, and we were going to get some help. Bruno finished and walked away to get behind the camera, and the A.D. turned to us with what can only be described as a blank stare. He looked down at the script and back at us a few times, and then read us the stage directions. These were the same vague stage directions we had all read, and which, it seemed, Bruno had just heavily modified. Never mind, we thought, as Bruno called action. We did the scene with the stage directions from the script, and a few seconds in, there’s Bruno yelling cut, and coming out from behind the camera, yelling, “Que studpia, Tommy!” I don’t remember what happened after that, but we must have fixed it eventually. Looking back, it’s perfectly reasonable that they thought we were idiots.
I can certainly picture Mattei screaming and shouting his way through the making of the film! Did the Americans and Italians on set remain rather separate once the camera stopped rolling? What was the atmosphere on the shoot?
As I recall, the Italian crew and the U.S. crew mixed well enough at work, but I think the language barrier kept interaction to a minimum. The atmosphere was tense at times, but tense in a professional sense, and no more or less so than the other film or TV sets I’ve worked on. The exception to that was the day the producers gave us all money to go buy lunch instead of eating the food the Italian caterers had prepared, due, I believe, to the many complaints they had received about the catering. The caterers were so insulted that they refused to cook any more, and had to be coerced back to work. I don’t remember it being that bad, but nor was I gifted with a terribly discerning palate. I’m not sure how many bilingual English/Italian speakers were on the set, but then again, as a minor character, nobody had much of a reason to talk to me anyway. I was just having a good time hanging out with the other actors and the Americans on the crew.
Now that I think about it, however, I do remember some stories that seem to have arisen from the communication issues, besides Bruno yelling at us. At one point, the crew had set up a dolly shot on a dock. They had laid out the expensive chrome steel dolly tracks, and had the rubber-wheeled camera dolly all set up. The rubber wheels were squeaking on the dolly track, which interfered with the sound recording. This happens all the time, and even I, ignorant rookie actor that I was, knew the solution, which was talcum power on the rails. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a camera grip on a set who was more than a few steps away from a bottle of talc. For some reason, the two older (50s? 60s?) grips Bruno had brought from Italy thought they’d solve the problem by filling a bucket with salt water and pouring it on the expensive chrome steel dolly rails. Turns out there are very few things that are worse for chrome steel dolly rails than seawater. I thought the American grips’ heads were going to explode.
Wow. That is an insane solution to a squeaky dolly. Do you have any other funny on set stories?
There’s an explosion in the film, and shooting it involved myself and an actress standing behind a lead pipe clamped horizontally to a light stand, so that it ran parallel to the ground at about chest level, and wasn’t seen on camera. This pipe had a cap on one end, some slits cut in the top, and the other end attached to a portable propane tank. The idea was that flames could come up through the slits in the pipe, and we could stand a short-ish distance behind it, and they could film us though the flames from the opposite side. It sure looked like a pipe bomb to me, so I pulled one of the American grips aside, and asked him who had made it, since this was after the seawater-on-chrome incident. He assured me that he had made it and that it was safe. We had been directed to yell a bit, and then dive out of frame. I recall diving out of frame almost instantly to get away from the thing, however.
Haha! Yes, I think you’re only in frame with the flames for a split second! What are some fond memories from shooting Cruel Jaws?
Carter Collins played the main “cool kid” bad guy, and I believe every scene I shot was with Carter. He’s a great guy, and was a pleasure to work with. We had an extremely fun day shooting on a charter fishing boat out in Biscayne Bay. The charter captain was very nice to us, and told us all about fishing in and around Miami, and what sorts of things one might catch. While we were talking to the captain, Carter (forgive me, Carter!) revealed that he had a particular fear of sharks. Didn’t care for them one bit. One of the scenes inevitably involved throwing a big piece of beef on a monstrous hook into the bay in the hopes of attracting the monster shark. Having lived in Miami for a couple of years, I had heard that there were plenty of sharks in Biscayne Bay, so I asked the A.D., as politely as I could, that they perhaps consider shooting Carter in the water before they shot the scene of us throwing a gigantic piece of raw beef into the bay, in exactly the same spot where we were about to throw Carter into the bay. They declined. While Carter was basically chumming the water, and then swimming about, I was up on the flying bridge of the boat talking to the captain, who, while pointing to an area a few hundred feet from us, asked, “Do you think I should tell him about the 400lb Hammerhead I caught a few days ago right over there?” We decided not too. Carter, if you’re reading this, it wasn’t my fault!
Shooting at Theater of the Sea was a whole lot of fun as well. I got to feed sharks, get a kiss from a Sea Lion, and watch a baby dolphin learn to chase down live food. The staff there could not have been any nicer to us. A local bar (Was it the Hog’s Breath Saloon? I can’t remember…) happened to be having an anniversary party while we were shooting in Islamorada, and the staff at Theater of the Sea invited all of us. I think just about the entire crew went down, and it was, of course, a blast. I remember two local ladies turning up in what they obviously considered to be their Saturday Night best. A bunch of actors were hanging out together, and they walked (Sauntered? Sashayed?) over to us, and politely demanded to be pointed in the direction of the producers. We happily obliged. I believe they thought that this could very well be their big break, but between their outfits, the scale of the production, and the setting, it all looked more like a Kids in the Hall sketch. Still, good times.
Did you have much onset interaction with Richard Dew [note: Dew plays a Quint-like character who looks identical to Hulk Hogan]? Do you know if he happened to look exactly like Hulk Hogan purely by chance, or was he sculpted into this look by the hair and make up department?
I didn’t interact a whole lot with Richard, but I believe he was a paid Hulk Hogan impersonator at the time. He certainly wasn’t as big as the original Hogan, but the resemblance was remarkable.
Did you find it strange that there was no rubber shark on the set of Cruel Jaws? Was it difficult to react to a shark when missing what would seem to be such a vital prop?
I had heard they’d bought some of the underwater footage, particularly the opening. I remember the crew spray-painting a pair of white shorts to match those worn by a character in that footage. They were actually painting shorts to look like Jams from the eighties. Working without the shark actually wasn’t a big deal. It may have been tougher for the people who were actually eaten.
Have you remained in contact with any actors or crew from the film? Do you know if anyone seriously regrets making the film?
Unfortunately, I did not stay in touch with any of the other actors, although I did continue to see some of them at auditions and classes around Miami. I remember seeing one or two of them in print adds and such over the years. I hope no one has any regrets about their participation, because it really was fun.
When did you first see the finished product and what was your initial reaction? Have your feelings towards the film changed over the years?
When it was finished, there was a small “premier party” for Cruel Jaws somewhere on South Beach. I don’t think any of us were exactly expecting Citizen Kane, and boy, we were right. We were mostly young, hungry, inexperienced, aspiring actors, so we all probably harbored some hope that this would somehow, some way lead to the next gig. Still, it was a fun party. We were all given DVD copies of the movie, and I’m pretty sure mine is still in the shrink wrap. Somewhere.
Are you aware of the legal troubles Cruel Jaws faced in North America? Was it frustrating knowing that the film wasn’t properly released in the States?
I heard about the legal issues afterwards, that Universal had basically banned any mention of the film in any context under pain of death. However, I have a cousin who is an engineer for a major automobile manufacturer, and she worked in Germany for many years. As she was packing to come back to the States, she had the TV on for background noise. She was walking past, and there I was, speaking German. It was a translated version of Cruel Jaws on some German TV channel. I know nothing about German TV, but they must’ve been pretty desperate for programming. I’ve heard rumors that it was marketed as Jaws 5 in Europe, which, of course, explains Universal’s ire. However, if it made it to some European TV stations, perhaps they made some money from it. Hope so.
I actually have a dubbed Japanese VHS release of Cruel Jaws (you can hear yourself speaking Japanese!), so it may have made a bit of cash there too. For you personally, what has the aftermath of Cruel Jaws? Is it something you share with family and friends? Or is it kept a secret?
This interview constitutes almost the entire aftermath of Cruel Jaws for me. Sorry, that’s not entirely true… I was certainly paid, and that means my agent was paid, and that is always good for a young actor’s career. It was non-union, of course, so I wasn’t paid much, but I didn’t need much at the time, and it was one heck of a fun experience. Also, as dubious as it was, it was still a film credit on the resume, which is also a terrific thing for a young actor. It was a great experience, and I don’t regret it one bit. I hope I learned a little about filmmaking, and was a little better in the next thing I did. Heck, it would’ve been tough to be worse. I did have one funny experience, probably within a year or two of making Cruel Jaws. I was in the Miami Airport, and there was a stunning girl at the departure gate. She gave me a funny look, and said, “This is going to sound weird, but were you in Cruel Jaws?” I instantly assumed I was Cary Grant, and tried in vain to be cool as I told her why, yes, I was in Cruel Jaws. Turns out it was Carter’s lovely girlfriend. I mean, really, who the hell else would’ve seen it?
As far as friends and family are concerned, I have never encouraged anyone who knows I was in it to see Cruel Jaws. I think a few of them have seen it, but that’s their fault, not mine. I also think the whole thing is on YouTube now, but again, if you watch it, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Now, if Cruel Jaws had fulfilled my dream for it, and been on MST3K, I’d be shouting about it from the rooftops.
Have you heard of the documentary Best Worst Movie? It follows the cult that surrounds Troll 2, a great bad movie by Bruno Mattei’s colleague Claudio Fragasso. Production wise, it seems a similar situation to Cruel Jaws. An actress from Troll 2 featured in the documentary complains that Troll 2 seriously hampered her acting career. Casting directors would apparently look up her credits and see Troll 2 listed and then not hire her. Did you have any experiences similar to this post-Cruel Jaws?
Dave, I have not heard of Best Worst Movie, but it sounds like a hoot. I’d like to see it just for the insight into how movies like this get made. I mean, everybody has to know what the hell is going on while they’re making the thing, right? They see the dailies, they know there’s stuff that they are decidedly not going to be able to “fix in post.” As for the actress who said that Troll 2 ruined her career, I would say that if you look at some of the horrendous films which starred really successful actors (Michael Caine springs to mind), I think it’s awfully difficult to blame a whole career on one bad film. There are countless reasons actors don’t get cast, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that one. Anything’s possible, though.
That’s true — though the reputation of Troll 2 is a decidedly powerful thing. What are you up to these days? I noticed on your IMDB that your last listed credit is Golfballs! from 1999. Are you still pursing acting?
Speaking of not being cast, I did some theater in NYC after Miami, and stopped trying to work professionally many years ago. I don’t regret being an actor for one second, as the skills one learns as an actor are valuable in almost any other profession. I was able to work as an agent and in casting as well, so I had great opportunities to learn about the business, and it’s fun to see folks I acted with being successful in TV and film. I’m in finance now, and I am ridiculously fortunate to be in the city where I attended college. I’ve done a few shows at the university with my theater professor from more than twenty years ago. I have done, and continue to do, some sports broadcasting and ring announcing as well, neither of which I think I could be doing without the acting training and experience. Couldn’t have written a better script.