STACK chats with filmmaker Martin Wilson about his feature debut, Great White – an Australian shark-survivalist thriller with ample bite!

When Open Water reaffirmed our primal fear of sharks in 2003, it spawned a string of similar films that exploited those anxieties and, in turn, created a genre unto its own. Since then, the shark-survivalist thriller has been a staple of horror cinema, whereby stories are told simply, and often realistically, and the vast ocean is as much a character as the humans and finned aggressors.

Great White is the latest addition to the genre and the feature film debut of Perth-based director Martin Wilson. It’s a thrilling shark movie in the vein of Adrift and The Reef, and with a clear understanding that the film is not covering new territory, Wilson eagerly reveals some of his biggest influences to STACK.

“Of course the majority of filmmakers love Jaws, which is such a high benchmark and such a great movie for so many reasons,” he notes. “47 Meters Down, I enjoyed that, and I like The Shallows – I thought that was a great film, and very clever. The way she had to use her wits was some very smart scriptwriting and very well done.”

Director Martin Wilson and friend

Wilson’s own film tells the story of five people who find themselves stranded hundreds of miles from shore on an inflatable life raft, after their seaplane attempts an emergency landing and sinks. A Great White shark follows them as they drift with the current, before a second shark joins the hunt, doubling the suspense. Admittedly it’s a by-the-numbers story, but like all good entries in any specific genre, it exploits the tropes well and creates a tense and thrilling atmosphere.

When it came to putting his own stamp on the genre, Wilson had the help of several seasoned producers, whose collective credits include creature features like Black Water, Black Water Abyss and The Reef. With over 20 years as an award-winning commercial director, he explains why he chose a shark movie as his first feature.

“It came about through the producers, Michael Robinson and Neil Kingston, who knew me through commercials. So often you get your opportunities and big breaks through people you’ve formed relationships with, and who trust you after all these years. So after many false starts and many false dawns, which I’m sure many filmmakers can relate to, I finally got my opportunity and it happened to be a shark film. And I love genre movies; those are the type of movies I want to make.”

With shark attacks regularly making news headlines in Australia, does Wilson believe Aussies have a different response to these films, given our relationship with the creatures and their appetite for the local surf and turf?

“I think people enjoy them.” he offers. “They’re living vicariously through the characters, which is a lot of why people enjoy horror. I think because we’re surrounded by water and we’re so versed in growing up near and living in water, there’s a fascination with sharks. People enjoy the visceral nature of these movies.”

It’s not unusual for seafaring films of this type to be the product of movie magic, with supposed exterior scenes shot entirely inside sound stages. But Great White was predominantly filmed in open waters, where environmental conditions proved challenging indeed.

“Everyone knows the limitations and how hard it is when shooting in the elements and on the water,” says Wilson. “We had 25 days [to shoot] and you’ve got tides and you’ve got the wind, and rain, and you’ve got stingers in the water as well as other nasty things… There are so many complexities. A lot of it was on the water and there’s some stuff we shot in a large prawn farm dam on the Gold Coast – there’s so many locations that you’re dealing with, and then in the edit suite you’re just patching it all together.”

When it comes to showing too much shark or not enough, Wilson admits that it’s a fine line, and there was plenty of discussion about how far to take it in Great White.

“Ah,” he laughs “Sometimes when you finish the film you don’t know. But yeah, there always is, and you try to find that right balance. As filmmakers, you get so close to the material and it’s always tricky.”