‘The sooner you kill me, the happier I’ll be’: a VFX oral history of Samuel L. Jackson’s shocking ‘Deep Blue Sea’ departure

The making of a classic death scene.

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As on-screen deaths go, Samuel L. Jackson’s sudden mid-film send-off in Renny Harlin’s shark sci-fi horror Deep Blue Sea is an absolute killer (and Jackson has had a few).

Audiences watching the movie 20 years ago perhaps thought the actor was in for the long haul in the campy adventure, but were utterly surprised when Jackson’s character Russell Franklin – during a rousing speech – is picked off by one of the film’s smart sharks at the edge of a moon pool.

Visual effects studio Hammerhead Productions, working under production VFX supervisor Jeff Okun, built a digital shark and a Jackson digi-double for the scene. Here, on the 20th anniversary of the film, members of Hammerhead’s crew recall for befores & afters how they helped craft the shot, while Okun also shares several insights into the original scripting, shooting, editing and test screening of the sequence. (Also, I strongly recommend you ‘stay for the credits’ in this article).

‘Why don’t you just kill me?’

Jeff Okun (visual effects supervisor, Deep Blue Sea): When we got the script pages for this scene, it was seven pages of the worst dialogue you’ve ever heard in your life. And it was a monologue. At this point I’d done Long Kiss Goodnight, and Sphere, and this was the third in a row with Sam. So, we became friends. The night before, Sam called me up, and he goes, ‘Have you read this?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I did.’ And I go, ‘I’m going to really be interested in how you’re going to make this one work.’

He said, ‘You know, why don’t you just kill me?’ And I said ‘Hmm, yeah, I can kill you. I can kill you much earlier than the end of the seven pages.’

So, he starts at the back of the bay, and they cut to him and he says, ‘You think water’s fast? You haven’t seen ice.’ That was the line. And he has to walk from the back of the bay, around the moon pool and then forward to be right there where he gets eaten. So the game was, how do we get Sam there without it looking like he’s running? So, I told Sam, ‘Whenever you can get to the front, I will kill you.’

So, take one, Sam says, ‘Think water’s fast? Have you seen ice?’ And he starts pondering and walking, and then he looks up and he’s in the position, and he says, ‘There were seven of us on that mountain, and only five of us returned’, or whatever it was.

And Renny goes, ‘Cut, cut, cut.’ He goes, ‘Sam, you’ve got seven pages, you’ve got a long ways to go, you know? Don’t land there before the seventh page…’. Sam goes, ‘Yeah, okay fine.’ But he goes, ‘Renny, have you read this dialogue? I don’t want to say it.’

And Renny goes, ‘Yeah, but Sam you have to say it, because it’s the big scene. So you start back there, then you walk and talk very slowly. Then you’ll get there, and then it’ll be a big surprise.’ Sam goes, ‘Yeah, fine, all right’. So, take two, Sam goes, ‘You think water’s fast…’ And he jogs forward and he goes, ‘You haven’t seen ice.’ And he’s in the position and Renny says, ‘Cut, cut, cut.’

And they did this for, like, 20 takes, with Sam explaining to Renny that he thinks there’s no way to say this dialogue. So, I got involved after take two or three, and said, ‘Renny, Sam and I thought it’d be much cooler if he’s attacked before he says the speech, because the audience is thinking, ‘Oh, well, he’s the star, he’s got this big thing, and it’s just sort of like a National Lampoon joke and then the shark just wipes him out.’

And Renny goes, ‘What’s National Lampoon?’ I said, ‘It’s like the Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy goes to fight the big sword wielding guy, and he just pulls the gun and shoots him, instead of engaging.’ And Renny goes, ‘That won’t work.’ So, on and on it went, very contentious, in a kind way, between Sam and Renny.

I don’t think Sam ever got into position when Renny wanted him to. And after he left, I had a bunch of passes to do where I had a wire frame of a shark made out have metal, which we yanked up out of the water to create the perfect splash. And then we’d drop a big thing back into it, to make a ‘ka-thud’.

So, I finish up all my passes, and I get to the dining hall. And I bee-line it to Sam, and I go, ‘Sam, you know, we can kill you even before you’re at the end of the pool, if you’re happy.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I’m not happy. Just kill me. The sooner you kill me, the happier I’ll be.’

So, we get into post, and the editor pieced together a whole sequence so that the seven pages could be delivered. And since Sam never read all seven pages, we had somebody doing his voice, or we used over the shoulders or whatever. And I put together the shark attack and we tested the movie.

And it was one of the most exciting tests I’ve ever been at, because when the lights came on, it was deathly quiet. And some person sitting in the front row stood up, turned around, and yelled to the entire theatre, ‘Renny Harlin, you suck!’ And Renny was in the back row.

So, we read the notes, and the studio came up with a pile of notes. And Renny was not happy, the issue being that Renny thought he was making a horror film, and what we had watched was very serious. And the studio, after looking at it, said, ‘This is not going to work as a horror film without re-shoots.’ So they asked the editor to recut it, and the editor refused.

So they brought in Frank Urioste to recut the movie, to make it funny; campy is what the mission was. And so I told Frank, I said, ‘You know, both Sam and I want to kill Sam as soon as possible, because this speech is ridiculous.’ And he goes, ‘How fast can you kill him?’ And I go, ‘I can kill him as soon as he gets into position.’ I said, ‘If you look at take one, he gets there pretty fast.’ I go, ‘Take two, still pretty fast.’ So Frank cut it, and I took it up to Hammerhead and said, ‘Here’s what we’re doing with it now.’ And they did it.

When we tested the movie – the new version of the movie – the audiences loved it. Sam being killed became the talked about scene, because it was so unexpected, and it was out of nowhere. Sam called me up and goes, ‘Best. Death. Ever.’ And he goes, ‘It is my favorite death.’

[Editor’s note: It was an audience test screening that also famously resulted in other changes being made to Deep Blue Sea. Until this point, the film ended with the main character Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows) surviving the shark frenzy, but test audiences thought she was really the villain of the film and should be killed off. With only a short time to go before theatrical release, a new ending was shot that saw the actress get eaten, while two other characters, Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) and Sherman ‘Preacher’ Dudley (LL Cool J), both survived and killed the shark. ILM came on board late in the game to deliver several CG shark shots for the new ending and other parts of the film, including for an underwater moment after Samuel L. Jackson’s character is taken which shows him being ripped apart by two sharks.]

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Snatched at the moon pool

Jamie Dickson (visual effects supervisor, Hammerhead Productions): The shot that we did where Sam gets hit from behind with the shark is maybe 72 frames long. It’s not much. It’s enough to see what’s going on and register, but I actually firmly believe that the power of that scene is the shot that follows that, where the camera reverses onto Thomas Jane and you just see this absolute look of horror and disbelief on his face. In the language of film, that’s a cue for what the audience is supposed to be feeling as well.

Rebecca Marie (visual effects supervisor, Hammerhead Productions): The goal was to completely surprise and shock the audience – ‘We didn’t see that coming!’ I can probably still quote the line that he says right before he gets eaten, because I heard it over and over again. I remember working on it, and working on it, and refining it so that the timing was right, and the splash was right. Everything had to work.

Thad Beier (technical effects supervisor, Hammerhead Productions): Rebecca and I went down to Rosarito, Mexico, which is where they had filmed Titanic. It was fascinating to see. They built an incredible amount of stuff for this movie. They built all that on-ocean stuff out on the coast, and inside there were many, many different rooms.

Rebecca Marie: There were a lot of challenges with that shot. The shark had to come up, it had to eat him, it had to get back down, and there was a lot of water interplay, and a digi-double of Samuel L. Jackson. There was just the timing of it to get it all to work, and have it be this shocking thing that happens. It was a complicated shot for sure, especially back then.

Jamie Dickson: They decided they would use the mechanical shark for all of the moments that had physical interaction with it, like bashing into things and doing whatever physical stuff it needed to do. Then, when it needed to perform something that the physical shark couldn’t, that’s when we would cut to the CG shark.

The shark attacks

Thad Beier: At the time, Hammerhead was really only just brand new, so I wrote all the tools that we did for everything we needed to make images. It was back when there weren’t a lot of tools you could easily buy, so I just had to build them all. For rendering content we used Pixar’s RenderMan, but for everything else I generated all the tools that we needed.

A screenshot of Hammerhead’s proprietary animation toolset UI, written by Thad Beier.

Jamie Dickson: This was a different era and the use of computer animation, obviously, than certainly we’re in now. That’s one of the reasons that we were happy that that scene was so short – we were just concerned that things wouldn’t hold up. I think they held up well enough at the time. I’m sure looking back on it now it’s definitely one of those moments that you can pick apart. It was weeks and weeks of work of noodling and tuning and modeling.

Thad Beier: On the shot, it’s a CG shark and a digi-double of Sam. It’s a very short shot, a two second shot, but it really had to be good and we probably spent weeks making that two second version of Sam look as perfect as possible. Some days we’d spend all day justto get his socks or his shoes to look right.

You know, we can break some laws of physics here.

Andrew Tamandl (animator, Hammerhead Productions): On that shot, I specifically did the secondary animation on Sam and the shark after Thad had done the initial animation. I was very lucky because I’d just come off a little freelance job working on a National Geographic show about megalodons, which are giant prehistoric white pointer shark things. So I learned how to animate sharks, I knew everything about sharks.

Thad Beier: It was a really big shark and we were pretty far away, so Sam was pretty small. To see the difference in size between the shark and Jackson, that was a good thing, it really showed that difference. It made the shark look very scary because it was so big.

Andrew Tamandl: It was looking pretty good, and then I came on and just plus’d it, and then put the little rag-doll of Samuel L. Jackson in there. I put some more weight into it, and then we basically did the secondary of Samuel getting dragged around the floor then dragged in. I look at it now and it was so primitive, what we were doing, because I was just doing forward kinematics and just basic secondary.

How to make a shark eat Samuel L. Jackson

Jeff Okun: One thing that happened was we couldn’t figure out how a shark’s going to get a person in that position. So, the shark’s mouth opens down below. But if it comes up out of the water, he’d knock him over. Or he’d have to go way high, and then come down on top of him. Or he has to go sideways and grab him, and yank him out. And so we tried the sideways thing, and it was really much too slow.

I worked with Thad on the shot and I said, ‘You know, we can break some laws of physics here. Couldn’t we just be like a wrestling match – grab him and slam him down and slither back?’ So Thad did, and it was pretty good, but not good enough. It looked a little clownish. As I always say about the shark in this shot, it reminds me of the whale singing in the Disney cartoon, he’s just missing the ruffled little collar. And so we thought, how can we mask it? I go, ‘When the shark slams Sam Jackson down, I’d like to add a camera shake.’ So, we did that and that didn’t work.

And then I was, like, ‘Can we put a shadow in? Can we do this? Can we do that?’ I mean, we had to do something to make the shark not look like a cartoon. And so Thad did everything he could, but the last thing he did was blood hitting the lens, blood and water. And I loved that.

Thad Beier: That was one of the fun things that I did – and nobody had done this in the past. After the shark comes leaping out and biting Samuel Jackson, there’s a lot of water that comes out, and I had the water go onto, quote, ‘the camera.’ It’s all CG.

Jeff Okun: I took it back to the cutting room and Frank Urioste loved it, and we showed it to Renny, and Renny was okay with it. We showed it to the studio, they didn’t have a lot to say. But like I said, when we tested with the audience, it was very gratifying from a visual effects standpoint. Because rarely do you have audiences stand up and cheer. The test audience just went crazy, and in the comments it was the favorite part of the movie.

‘Excited that I was killing Samuel L. Jackson’

Andrew Tamandl: I’ve worked on stuff that I thought was going to be great, and it’s ended up being horrible. And I’ve worked on stuff that I thought was going to be horrible and it’s ended up being great. With Deep Blue Sea, I was very excited because it was my first feature film. I was excited to be working on it, excited that I was killing Samuel L. Jackson.

Jamie Dixon: Maybe it was destiny because we called the company Hammerhead, long before we did any sharks. Actually, Rebecca was the one behind that. We did the typical thing when you start a company and you have a list of 50 names and it’s like nah, nah, nah. Rebecca just said one time, ‘Well, what about Hammerhead?’ Everybody went, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ She’s always been a fan of sharks because they’re very aggressive. They’re not mean, they’re just hungry. They’re not doing it out of spite or badness or anything. They’re just eating.

Rebecca Marie: We did do several movies with sharks and marine life. We did the dolphins in Titanic, for instance. When we heard about Deep Blue Sea, we literally said that that we HAD to do that. I think we did a test shot to show Warner Bros. We said, ‘Look, we want to work on this movie. We’re Hammerhead! We want to work on this movie.’

Thad Beier: I think that’s why they had us work on it, because they saw the company name and went, ‘Well, they must love sharks!’ I’m not really kidding…

Stay for the credits

Jamie Dickson: We did this film at a time when Warner Bros. was being really stingy with credits. In fact, a number of artists didn’t make the cut, so to speak. So, we had the great idea that we would teach them a thing or two and we submitted the number of credits we were given but adding quoted middle names for everyone.

Well, as you may guess, they sent them back and said, ‘That’s not acceptable.’ Much to our surprise it was the quotation marks they objected to. So we removed them and that’s how they stand! Our IMDb listings are still to this day, ‘Jamie Dixon aka Jamie Greatwhite Dixon’ and ‘Rebecca Marie aka Rebecca Mako Marie’, et cetera!

This week at befores & afters is #vfxgeekoutweek. There’s a diverse set of stories tailor-made for VFX pros, aficionados and fans.

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