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Friday, August 13, 2021

‘Deep Blue Sea’: Screenwriter Duncan Kennedy Dives Deep into the Original Script for the 1999 Movie [Exclusive]

Welcome to Larval Ink, a recurring feature which will take a look at the earliest iterations of certain genre films as they existed in their early scripting stage, long before the transformation which significantly changed the original vision into its final form for the silver screen. Here, we will be chatting with the writers of these initial eggs to gain their unique insights into their screenplays and the finished films they would eventually metamorphose into, and all the painful phases in between.

With this installment, we’ll be delving into Duncan Kennedy’s Deep Blue Sea, the screenplay which became the Renny Harlin-directed 1999 action/horror film of the same name. Mr. Kennedy joins Bloody Disgusting here to detail his original screenplay and its inspirations, the various changes made by other writers throughout the development process, and his ultimate thoughts on the finished film.

Deep Blue Sea began when I was a kid in the 1980s and saw a dead shark attack victim on a beach in Queensland, Australia,” Mr. Kennedy begins, revealing part of the inspiration for the screenplay he would eventually write. “I remember it in great detail; limbs bitten off, police officer with pants rolled up pulling the pale body onto the beach. From this I got recurring nightmares of being chased in chest-deep flooded hallways – where I could move, but not fast enough – by sharks that were always one step ahead of me, inside my head.”

While that image would be nightmarish enough to fuel a watery tale of terror, Kennedy goes on to describe other incidents which would spur him on to write his shark-centric screenplay. “There were also concrete inspirations in the years just before I wrote DBS: staying on the Great Barrier Reef, my wife Rebecca and I had booked a dinghy to go to tiny Middle Island (just off Great Keppel resort) and everyone on the beach started screaming ‘Shark!’

“This huge shark came in close chasing fish in a feeding frenzy, its head visible above water. We didn’t want to lose our booking so we went out ten minutes later and halfway to the island it got rough and we almost capsized, that shark presumably under us somewhere. When we arrived, below us we saw eerie tunnels from this abandoned underwater observatory that reminded me of those nightmare hallways. Days later we stayed on a beef farm that used genetically modified growth hormone shots and they said it made the cattle more aggressive – and DBS was underway.”

For those unfamiliar with the 1999 film, Mr. Kennedy provides us with a detailed synopsis, pointing out that while there are major differences between his original screenplay and the film that was ultimately made, the basic storyline is essentially the same: “At a massive mid-ocean underwater lab owned by a pharmaceutical corporation, unethical genetic research is secretly being done on mako sharks to aid with human disease, and it has inadvertently made the sharks intelligent and aggressive. An opening scene attack involving one of the facility’s engineered sharks prompts an investigatory visit partly focused on a powerful corporate exec/owner who’s arrived for the first time for a bit of damage control. There’s a threat of the facility being permanently shut down.

“The chief scientist residing at the facility – whose research colleague isn’t in agreement with the ethically questionable research – keeps the genetic tampering a secret from most at the facility (only for it to be revealed much later to an outraged crew). At an informal gathering, a scientist makes a foreboding, drunken speech to a visitor about how ancient sharks are, and how they never get cancer or even sick. A ‘natural’ shark brought to the facility is killed by the group of altered sharks, demonstrating that they’re working cooperatively to the laconic outsider hero, who tells the female lead that they’re ‘hunting in a pack.’

The shark takes a bite in ‘Deep Blue Sea’

“A major storm blows in as they are trying to wrangle the sharks, led by a cocky shark wrangler working closely with a small team. We have set up the idea of serum being drawn from the biggest ‘alpha’ shark using a syringe, and the visuals of everyone assembled in a lab before a massive window where the alpha shark appears, and the hero swimming to the alpha shark’s pen at night inside an underwater mesh tunnel when sharks try to attack. A cunning shark attack makes a cable snap taut and pulls a vehicle off course, sending it careening into the facility creating a massive explosion. This is quickly followed by rapid flooding of the entire facility interior up to chest height, and the sharks enter. As the people trapped in flooded corridors and rooms desperately try to reach the surface, the sharks intelligently hunt them.

“Various attacks play out: the hero hangs down to pull a fallen person up from the water, but just as they touch hands the person is nearly swallowed whole; a young crewmember who’s psychologically crumbling is calmed and given confidence by the hero, only to be brutally killed seconds later; a cocky seasoned adventurer we think will save the day is suddenly and spectacularly snatched/killed in front of everyone. People start out separated then come together to climb a flooded ladderwell, then use fire extinguishers rigged as decoys to escape a flooded wet entry and free-swim to the surface where they are stunned to find the facility largely destroyed.

“The smart sharks are also carrying out their plan to escape, the characters discussing the risk they represent should they reach popular beaches, leading to a final battle at the surface involving the last three remaining survivors. A fun ‘scaredy-cat’ character is snatched by the alpha shark, but gets free. Despite being wounded, he helps the male and female leads take out the alpha shark in a massive fireball before it can bash its way through mesh fence and escape.”

“I was in my mid 20s and DBS was my third screenplay,” Kennedy notes, diving into his process of writing the screenplay which would become Deep Blue Sea. “Treatment and screenplay took four weeks each, though I spent weeks talking to scientists at places including Mote Marine Lab covering shark physiology and (then scientifically new) squalamine/cancer research. They agreed to talk because I presented DBS’s sharks as man-made, unlike Jaws which demonized natural sharks. Treatment title was Deep Red, which became Deep Blue Sea once I finished the script.”

Duncan Kennedy – on flooded ‘DBS’ set

Once finished, Kennedy notes that it didn’t take a great deal of time before somebody snapped up his script. “I worked as a designer on movies just after USC film school, designing stuff like the Terminator brain chip and Cyberdyne lab [in T2]. On one job I met director Stephen Hopkins, later co-creator of 24. His producer Lloyd Segan helped get the script to Lucy Stille and Valarie Phillips at [talent agency] Paradigm and it sold to Warner Bros over other bidders about two months later.

“After a couple of years of development (it felt longer, but was in fact under three years – nothing in Hollywood development time), I got a call out of the blue that any action movie fan who came of age in the 1990s would have loved: director Renny Harlin calling to say he was excited to come on to direct DBS and that he really liked the notes I’d given the producers on the latest draft (I wasn’t the current writer at that time). Just before production, as a ‘good luck’ joke, I gave Renny a Jaws first day-of-filming 1974 shirt.

‘Jaws’ First-Day-of-Filming T-Shirt

“Despite WB telling everyone not to mention Jaws when DBS came out, DBS has funny connections to Jaws (beyond that obvious DBS license plate gag). Funniest one for me was a group of USC film school buddies and I went to see USC alum Matt Reeves’ first movie Pallbearer in Westwood the year after DBS sold. In the theater, we realized Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw were sitting in front of us, so our buddy Matt (now a major film editor) engaged Spielberg in conversation and said ‘Duncan here just sold a script for a shark movie that’s going to be up there with Jaws.’ Spielberg just smiled and said to me: ‘Good luck with that.’

So what happened during the development of the screenplay once it’d been picked up by Warner Brothers? “While some people saw DBS as Jurassic Park meets Jaws, there was a third influence that became more crucial during development: the Alien franchise. Very broadly, the final DBS film emulated Alien a bit more – isolated resident crew trapped within their home’s dark corridors picked off by creatures vs. the original DBS script emulating Jurassic Park more, where many characters are outsider visitors investigating this unfamiliar environment, and the miraculous illusion of scientific control of nature is shattered when creatures escape to the ‘human side.’ People get Alien as horror but ignore the fact that Jurassic Park is almost equally a horror film (in multiple ways, despite fan debate). Which is what even the DBS spec script was; just as much horror as the final film, and at its core a cautionary tale of science taken too far, betraying nature.

“I had intentionally avoided going too Alien due to the many ‘isolated crew hunted in dark corridors’ movies in the decade-plus after Aliens (some good, many not, some even set underwater – DeepStar Six, Leviathan, etc.) Yet the first notes from WB included the need to shift more action that had been on/in ocean water into dark corridors and make the facility’s interior much more the sole central focus. The facility itself grew into a sort of mega ocean space station – way larger, more sci-fi, in much deeper/darker ocean.

‘DBS’ Underwater Facility Layout – sketch by Duncan Kennedy

“Visually I’d seen DBS as divided maybe 50% facility interiors, and 25% each on-the-water and under-the-water exteriors. To anchor this new visual concept of sharks in ‘our world’ of rooms and interiors but flooded, to me it also still needed settings an average person associates with sharks: on/in/next to glistening, inviting ocean water with something lurking out of sight. My concern was this new development direction might be visually monotonous – dark facility interior scenes were awesome (I’d created plenty already), but not 80-90% of the time. And would DBS feel fresh in the context of so many creatures-in-dark-corridors megastation movies at the time? This direction was partly driven by budget/practicality issues of filming on the ocean that Jaws made infamous that were reconfirmed with over-budget Waterworld (and to some a degree Titanic, even if ironically DBS in the end shot at that film’s Mexico studio, not on ocean). But sharks made it feel somehow more real world, less sci-fi … fresh. So I shifted it in the Alien direction in locales initially, but which also inevitably drove characters to be changed in that direction also under later writers – i.e., newcomer visitors were changed out for facility-based staff as the leads, hunted in their own home.”

And what of those later writers? The finished film is credited to Kennedy, alongside married screenwriting team Donna and Wayne Powers (The Italian Job). However, as Kennedy notes, there were far more writers brought aboard at various points to take a pass at Deep Blue Sea. “I did three rewrites for WB in the eight months after the spec sale and was then followed by a series of writers/teams,” Kennedy notes. “Beyond Donna and Wayne, ‘Team DBS’ included Charlie Mitchell (Blood Diamond), Michael Frost Beckner (Cutthroat Island, Spy Game), major TV writer Simon Barry, Love and a .45 writer/director Carty Talkington (under a most-awesome pseudonym ‘Clem Savage’). Then major polishes were done by DBS producer (and acclaimed writer) Akiva Goldsman, who I was even more excited about being onboard than Renny. All of these writers made contributions that are identifiable in the final film. Writer/director Simon Kinberg was widely credited with a rewrite for many years, but I never saw that (possibly fabled) draft.

“While development overall stuck within the basic story framework seen in my original drafts, there were two interesting exceptions: Michael Frost Beckner developed a quite radically different rescue storyline, and Clem Savage introduced a significant corporate espionage subplot, both of which ended up being cut under later writers who restored the original basic framework.

Duncan Kennedy and producer Alan Riche on the studio lot in Rosarito Beach, Mexico (aka, the ‘Titanic’ studio)

“Even after I was no longer the current writer, I remained tangentially involved creatively throughout development because I was sent most new drafts by producers Alan Riche and Tony Ludwig. They were classic Hollywood producers – savvy and dogged, funny and sage, people everyone knew and liked. I couldn’t have imagined being treated better by producers on a big studio movie. I usually wrote up detailed (four to five pages) notes/ideas on each draft. It was one of these sets of notes Renny had read before he called that first time to say he agreed with my notes. Maybe surprisingly, I felt like my input was really valued from start to finish and I’d periodically see ideas I’d suggested pop up in a subsequent draft.

“Closer to production I helped to brainstorm ideas for sequences that weren’t working, sometimes even doing sketches or storyboards, as well as later stuff like teaser poster/marketing concepts. Even the week of release I had conversations with Akiva Goldsman about marketing ideas, [including] interviews with L.A. beachgoers asking ‘Have you seen DBS?’ for TV spots. In retrospect, maybe trying for a little more of that beach/ocean visual alongside DBS ad imagery.

‘DBS’ Poster Concepts by Duncan Kennedy

So how much of Kennedy’s original screenplay was altered by the various writers, and how much of his work is represented in the finished film? “It‘s very different on multiple levels. But also in a more generalized sense… not that different.” It’s here that Mr. Kennedy reveals that the basic storyline between his screenplay and the ’99 film is essentially the same. However, some significant changes happened with the various characters populating the story.

“Confusingly, probably 3/4s of my original character names lasted from spec script all the way to the finished film, so this makes it complex and quite confusing to describe how in some cases original characters evolved into quite different movie characters with the same names, but some still with combinations of a few core aspects and story function from those original characters. Characters were split about 50/50 between all-new and hybridized combinations of original characters. Two examples are hybridized McAlester (Saffron Burrows) and all-new Preacher (LL Cool J).

“In my drafts, McAlester was a likable, passionate female marine biologist researcher who arrives at the facility to figure out what’s going on there, and Whitlock was the scientist who secretly conducted the unethical/illegal genetic work on the sharks in the search for a human disease cure and has kept it secret even from people at the facility. The Powers made McAlester a visiting Huntington’s disease specialist (with a touching, relatable backstory regarding her father’s illness and her own ‘coin flip’ chances of getting the disease). Charlie Mitchell changed McAlester back to a marine biologist and, fundamentally, combined McAlester and Whitlock into one character (the Whitlock name shifted to her research colleague, played by Stellan Skarsgård), but kept the Powers’ family disease backstory.

“That key contribution from the Powers had the effect of making the unethical work more sympathetic, though obviously not 100%: early test audiences disliked McAlester, demanded she die, and the ending was changed. These changes obviously led to massive flow-on character changes, but this hybrid character still retained minor aspects from my drafts: just as McAlester does, Whitlock stopped someone from killing an altered shark even after they’d proven deadly, and also returned to quarters to retrieve research data and gets a scare from a ‘fake shark’ (preserved shark body with parts removed in my drafts, shark anatomy model with parts removed in movie) only to be attacked by a real shark moments later in a creator-vs-created face-off, losing the data. But no, he didn’t strip to his underwear like the movie chief scientist did!”

The Red Tag Alpha Shark hunts – early ‘Deep Blue Sea’ script pages by Duncan Kennedy

And what of the all-new character, Preacher? “Simon Barry created a funny Jamaican chef named ‘Winston’, who in two scenes battles sharks in his own kitchen using his utensils. This character was cut in a subsequent draft, then resurrected by the Powers who hugely expanded him, also adding a pet bird, the self-videoed farewell and the trapped-in-oven idea to create his trademark kitchen scene. Charlie Mitchell then took the blue collar, somewhat foul-mouthed guy the Powers played him as and replaced him with the more ‘fastidious fellow’ type seen in the film. Finally, Akiva Goldsman introduced the aspect of Preacher questioning his faith/ex preacher (an on-point homage to Gene Hackman’s priest yelling at God in The Poseidon Adventure) and a relapsing alcoholic, though there was an alcoholic crewmember back in an early Frost Beckner draft.

“A small handful of Preacher’s activities did derive from Kerns, the comic relief ‘sacredy-cat’ in my first drafts, who climbs up a shelf then hides in a closet to get away from a pursuing shark, which is killed (though by the hero) in a fiery explosion via ignited paint thinner on the water surface. And just like Preacher, after Kerns swims from the wet entry to the surface with the heroes (the moment in the movie where LL Cool J says the Lord’s Prayer), he was attacked/dragged by the alpha shark but manages to escape injured. Despite incoherent rambling from blood loss, he helps the male and female leads kill the alpha shark at the climax, though getting to the ‘blow up the shark’ moment differently (my climax involved a sunken boat, the Powers’ a crashed seaplane, the final filmed sequence was a Powers/Mitchell/Goldsman ‘DBS team’ effort where Preacher originally died).”

Red Tag’s Demise – storyboard by Duncan Kennedy

In addition to these character changes, Mr. Kennedy details the development of three major moments in the story and how they changed from writer to writer, the first being what is arguably the film’s biggest surprise – the death of presumed lead Russell Franklin, played by Samuel L. Jackson. “In my first draft, ‘Conrad’ was a capable adventurer who has experience in past scary situations. Later, after disaster has struck, it seems like he’s about to save the day, but he dies spectacularly in a sudden shock attack in front of everyone. Also in my first draft, villain ‘Brock’ was the somewhat arrogant ‘suit’ exec/owner who arrives at the facility for the first time to do some damage control after the opening attack. Largely through Charlie Mitchell, these two characters were combined to become Samuel L. Jackson’s Franklin, a capable adventurer who has experience in past scary situations who seems like he can save the day, but is also an arrogant corporate executive/owner there for the first time. And he of course dies spectacularly in a sudden shock attack in front of everyone just as we think he’s about to save the day.

The moment that evolved onto Samuel L. Jackson’s ‘DBS’ death – early script pages by Duncan Kennedy

“Clem Savage shifted my outdoor attack scene (it occurred on a floating platform everyone is assembled on) to within the facility: a shark rising up out of the wet-entry pool. In my first draft, two major characters give long/corny monologues (hey, it was the mid-1990s…) – one a Cliffhanger-esque ‘I couldn’t save them…’ guilt backstory speech about a mass casualty event and what nature can take from you, the other about whether nature should be admired or feared. Whether my cornball speeches inspired the movie monologue or not, I don’t know.” The monologue, Kennedy notes, mostly belongs to Akiva Goldsman, who created Franklin’s backstory. “Samuel L. Jackson struggled with it on-set, and later it got cut way-short by VFX supervisor Jeff Okun’s brilliant suggestion … to have the death much earlier than planned. So Okun’s idea was a pretty key factor in elevating this moment to what it is.”

The moment that evolved into Jacqueline McKenzie’s ‘DBS’ death – early script pages by Duncan Kennedy

Another major sequence is the film’s first major post-prologue setpiece, featuring Stellan Skarsgård’s Whitlock losing his arm to the film’s alpha shark in the lab, getting attacked on his gurney while being hoisted up onto a rescue chopper (which is then pulled into the facility, causing a massive explosion), and eventually launched through the lab window by a shark, beginning the flooding of the facility. “In my early drafts, the ‘alpha shark’ is brought into a lab holding area so that a syringe can be inserted to draw serum from it, and the shark then suddenly attacks before it can be killed with a shotgun. Also in my earlier drafts, there is a scene where the shark intelligently uses a steel cabinet as a tool to crack, then shatter a massive lab window to get to people inside as they watch on incredulously. In terms of how the facility floods in my first drafts, sharks intelligently attack a boat with a caged diver dangling from a towed cable, causing the then out-of-control boat’s cable to snap taut and explode into the facility.

Red Tag Attacks – storyboard by Duncan Kennedy

“Michael Frost Beckner, followed by Clem Savage, was responsible for grouping these elements together and also expanding them into the singular extended sequence seen in the film: bringing in the alpha shark for biopsy, finding the basis for a cure, shark coming to life and mauling someone (Beckner had multiple sharks attacking multiple extras, Savage restored it to my version of one big shark attacking one person). In terms of flooding, Beckner changed my boat into a helicopter (the way it was in my treatment, but during my rewrites WB execs felt a chopper crash was too expensive), though he kept the diver in the cage, dangled from a chopper instead, which evolved into an injured man dangling on the gurney from the chopper.

“The chopper in Beckner’s drafts was in the context of a very different rescue plotline mentioned earlier. Savage’s drafts centered on a corporate espionage subplot, so his chopper was flown by corporate thieves. Significant differences removed when the Powers majorly reshaped the sequence into the final version. But Savage had restored the chopper crash being linked to the flooding of the facility (it was wrecked before the crash in Beckner’s draft), and created that central visual of shark using man/metal stretcher to shatter a massive lab window, and that this event actually begins the flooding.

“The Powers also restored Beckner’s rescue chopper, having it arrive to pick up the man injured in the lab attack, and they made the key change to have Stellan’s Whitlock (by then evolved into McAlester’s colleague) be the victim losing an arm. Which to me is the coolest, most shocking attack in the movie, beyond Samuel L.’s death. The way the Powers wrote the beat-by-beat progression of this sequence and Renny’s direction of it was pitch perfect.”

Yet another standout setpiece in the film occurs in the facility’s ladderwell, which finds Thomas Jane’s heroic Carter hanging upside down from a ladder to save Jacqueline McKenzie’s Janice, who is ultimately eaten by one of the film’s vicious sharks. “In terms of the hero Carter featured in this sequence – in my drafts, Conrad was a cocky cowboy-at-sea (a younger Quint from Jaws meets Crocodile Dundee) who arrives with his small team to round up sharks. ‘Tyler’ was the brooding, laconic co-lead (along with marine biologist McAlester) – a hero with a tragic past who arrives to investigate what’s going on at the facility, but keeps to himself. Frost Beckner changed Conrad into a shark wrangler on-staff at the facility, then Clem Savage elevated this Conrad to sole lead/hero, incorporating Tyler’s brooding laconic hero with a tragic past who keeps to himself. The Powers dialed Conrad back to co-lead (along with visiting disease specialist McAlester), and kept his tragic backstory but made him a fun life-of-the-party (shark-lawyer jokes, co-eds and shark-bitten surfboard in his quarters) before Mitchell later returned him to brooding loner. He was renamed ‘Carter’ in a Powers polish just before production and given an ex-con past.

“In terms of what occurs in this sequence, my first draft had a setpiece involving escaping characters traversing a stretched cable up on the ocean surface as sharks circle below. At its climax, hero Tyler leans down to pull up someone who’s fallen into the water, only for a shark to lunge up and almost swallow that person whole just as they touch hands (hanging Thomas Jane and doomed Jacqueline McKenzie in the movie). My first draft scene preceding this had characters desperately climbing a flooding ladderwell with sharks below. In my first studio rewrite, the cable sequence was moved indoors, then Frost Beckner and Savage combined these ladderwell and cable sequences into a single vertical shaft (dubbed ‘Aquavator’) sequence. Here, the escaping characters traverse a just-fallen ladder (horizontal above the water) instead of a cable, but with the same climactic moment.”

Scott Dies – early ‘Deep Blue Sea’ script page by Duncan Kennedy

Beyond these altered sequences, Kennedy reveals two scenes which he calls the two most “Bloody Disgusting” ideas that didn’t make the film. “Donna and Wayne Powers created the idea that Janice was pregnant with Whitlock’s child – so Dad loses his arm and is then slammed through the lab window, then Mom gets half swallowed whole, the shark gruesomely biting down on her pregnant torso. And I had a ‘kill room’ scene, which was where a late-story attack victim (originally Kerns, later Preacher) was attacked and passes out, then comes-to injured and realizes the shark has taken him to a flooded room where the sharks have been storing victims for later consumption. Hieronymus Bosch, bodies-in-Hell imagery. So we see the gruesome dead bodies of previous attack victims, characters he and we recognize, in water that was described as ‘grape colored’, but he manages to escape.”

Duncan Kennedy at the ‘DBS’ red carpet premiere

Earning over $160 million worldwide on its $60 million budget, Deep Blue Sea was surely a success, if not a blockbuster. “Warranted or not, at the time of DBS’s release I felt the decision to steer just a little closer to Alien in multiple ways somewhat limited the film from breaking out even bigger at the box office. Smart sharks in ‘our world’ made the movie fresh, but being a little too Alien-esque overall maybe held it back.”

In closing out this discussion, Mr. Kennedy offers up his final thoughts on the film and its differences from his original vision. “There were obviously things I disagreed with in the final version, but seeing DBS assembled for the first time as a filmed movie was pretty surreal. It was very much the movie I’d envisioned in terms of the visuals, the world, the story journey and the audience experience. That being said, it was unclear whether some aspects of the completed film were intentional, ‘in on the joke’ genre satire or just accidentally campy – sinking teddy bears, sharks swimming backwards, sharks with apparent engineering knowledge, some at-times sketchy dialogue and logic, etc. Given the recuts after issues with the first cut, it was obviously a bit of both, but strangely I came away feeling that aspect actually ended up as one of the movie’s strengths. At times you can’t tell if it’s playing it straight or winking at you, or both, and that mixture actually makes it more entertaining.

Duncan Kennedy and a Burbank ‘DBS’ billboard

“The movie also has beautiful imagery at times, which was used well in a brilliant DBS teaser set to ‘Amazing Grace’ that’s up there with the best teaser trailers I’ve ever seen. And while somewhat primitive 1990s CGI shots often come up in criticism of DBS, this ignores a ton of chillingly realistic shark shots using Walt Conti’s animatronic sharks (robots whose raw speed and power scared the crap out of me up-close with them on-set), and even some pretty decent CGI in places, not to mention outstanding production design.

“I had dinner with the other credited writers Donna and Wayne Powers in the weeks before DBS premiered, and we shared our various DBS war stories and had a lot of laughs. To share that moment in time with these people who were the other major creative force behind DBS was both cool and memorable.”

Very special thanks to Duncan Kennedy for his time and insights.

Behind-the-scenes pics, storyboards and script pages courtesy of Duncan Kennedy.

Duncan Kennedy today


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