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‘Primeval’: what a croc

I missed Primeval when it showed up, briefly, in theaters back in January — I was busy with catching up in all the Oscar wannabes, and hell, we all know how awful January movies are, right?

But you know what? Primeval’s pretty interesting. I had a chance to see the film — which arrives on DVD on Tuesday, June 12 [order from Amazon] — during a unique kind of press conference that I predict will become very popular with studios, talent, and press alike: a virtual one. On Tuesday of this week, journalists from all over the Net “gathered” at a Buena Vista Home Entertainment Web site to watch a streaming version of the film and then, about halfway through, we started e-chatting with director Michael Katleman about his experience making the movie.
As monster/horror flicks go, Primeval is its own intriguing creature, inspired by the true story of a real man-eating crocodile named Gustave who has killed up to 300 people over the last century(!) or so in Burundi. Now, there’s no question that the movie is primarily about scaring the hell out you — Jaws “was a huge influence and inspiration,” says Katleman — but instead of taking the tongue-in-cheek black comedy route of most recent monster flicks, Katleman, working from a script by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, injects some true-to-life drama about a local warlord who’s a far bigger menace to the hapless locals, and to the American news team that’s arrived to hunt down the croc, than Gustave is. Beautifully shot in South Africa by Edward J. Pei, the movie has overtones of science documentaries as well as far more dramatic films like Blood Diamond and The Constant Gardener.

“Our film is to be taken far less serious,” Katleman insists. “We touch on the political climate in Africa, but it really was meant to be a fun, scary ride.” And it is. Gustave is perhaps not the most realistic reptile ever thrown up on the screen, as Katleman admits. “We started out trying to stick to the actual movements that crocodiles make. But, at the end of the day, I just wanted it to be cool, so if it didn’t look cool, we changed it. When you look at the real Gustave, he is sort of big and fat. I tried to make a scarier version of this killing machine.” The big croc is a terrifying monster from which escape is nigh impossible — even out of the water. (Sharks don’t have legs. Crocs do. *shudder*)

Making his feature film debut, Katleman — a TV director who has contributed to series from Quantum Leap and The X-Files to Gilmore Girls and Everwood — joked with us about Primeval star Dominic Purcell’s appartent contractual obligation never to button his shirt as well as the actor’s insistence on doing his own stunts regardless of actual injury; he revealed that star Orlando Jones improvised much of his dialogue. But the most interesting aspects of our conversation covered the technical challenges of making the film.

The visual FX, for instance, were “100 percent CG, 0 percent practical… We started out with an animatronic croc, in hopes of shooting as much with it as possible. But once we got the animatronic in the water in Africa, it just didn’t look that scary or believable, so we made a last minute change to not use it at all. CGI won out. It was far more flexible, and gave me a lot more latitude in editing to manipulate the crocodile, and make it scarier and more aggressive.”

As for the film’s impressive sound, Katleman says, “We looked at the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park as a template” for some sound FX, with “the perfect crocodile sound” eventually mixing “elephant, crocodile, snake and probably some horn thrown in for fun.” What about the overall sound mix? “The sound was very tricky, and in the end, I’m incredibly happy with it. When you are doing a film like this, you have to decide if you are going to creep the audience out with very little sound, making it very tense, or do you hit them with a barrage of sound, and make them jump by the sheer volume. You must create peaks and valleys with the sound, where the audience will experience a bit of sensory overload.”

Working on a tight schedule presented challenges of its own. Katleman says he’s pleased with the finished film, but “I’ll be honest, I would tweak everything more,” he says. “I don’t think you’re ever satisfied that you’ve spent enough time on everything. The reality is, it’s a race against the clock. The one thing I would point to first would be the crocodile. I think [FX house] Luma did a fantastic job creating this in the short amount of time that they had, but I would have liked to have seen more personality in its eyes, I would have liked to enhance the movement and made it more aggressive, and in the original conception, I had envisioned Gustave-vision, which I just ran out of time and couldn’t develop to my satisfaction. So, I ended up cutting it from the film.”

The movie faced another uphill battle after it was completed: it was lumbered with an unusual marketing campaign that positioned the villain of the film as a “serial killer.” “I wasn’t crazy about it,” says Katleman of that decision. “In a film like this, the croc is the star, and I think that the fans of films of this genre want to know going into it that they are going to see a killer croc movie. Unfortunately, it caused a lot of frustration with the fans, and at the end of the day, they felt deceived.”

Well, now the word is out: Gustave is a giant croc.

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