Chris Regina remembers his phone blowing up that night, each text and tweet taking the whole unexpected event to a new unprecedented extreme. Sharknado was unleashed with little fanfare, but it was taking America by storm.
"I got home late because I lived outside the city, and all of a sudden my phone just kept blowing up and people were texting me, saying you need to go on Twitter, there's something happening here," remembers Regina, who was serving as the head of SYFY's original films division at the time. "And so I turn it on and saw my gosh, the Twitter noise and the people that were commenting on it. Like Damon Lindelof is writing about how he wants to write the sequel! Why are all these celebrities making comments on this film? We never had gotten that kind of attention before."
In his nearly two decades at SYFY, Regina oversaw hundreds of original movies, dozens of which were made by and then in conjunction with The Asylum, a B-movie and mockbuster factory that emphasizes volume over production value or originality in its gonzo movies. And while they had a faithful niche audience of campy Saturday night movie enthusiasts, until that Thursday evening in August, none of the SYFY/Asylum productions had punctured that bubble, let alone been live-tweeted by the likes of Mia Farrow, Chuck Todd, Patton Oswalt, or ESPN.
But something about Sharknado just clicked with viewers that quiet summer night. When Sharknado touched down, it quickly entered the cultural zeitgeist; its broadcast was the subject of 5,000 tweets per minute and 369,000 overall that night. The social media buzz carried over into the next day's news cycle, turning Sharknado — a movie about tornadoes filled with killer sharks that ravage L.A. — into a full-blown phenomenon.
The numbers on the repeat airing, which SYFY rushed onto the schedule a week later, made it clear that Sharknado was a perfect storm that had staying power. All of a sudden SYFY had a new hit, and stars Ian Ziering and Tara Reid, who had long since faded from A-list relevance, were in-demand talk show guests.
Sharknado movies became a yearly tradition from then, as sequels became pop culture events stuffed with celebrity cameos, absurd gags, increasingly outrageous plot lines, and opportunistic product placement galore.
SYFY WIRE spoke with members of the cast, crew, and people behind the scenes at the network during its run to get the inside story of the insane cinematic journey.
Anthony C. Ferrante, director: The title came from myself and my occasional writing partner Jacob Hair. I had written a lot of scripts for SYFY, done a couple films as director. I was doing a lot of writing. One of the companies had us come up with a whole bunch of pitches. Then they'd take it to SYFY. I was the horror guy, so they'd come to me for the leprechaun, for the banshees, for the ghosts, stuff like that.
I was talking with Jake and I said, "I just want to give them some ridiculous titles that are outside of normal things I would do for them." One of them, I think, was Lavabird, and then I think that Zach said Sharknado. We both fell in love with that name immediately. It was pitched a couple of times, but nothing happened.
Then I wrote a script for SYFY, it was a leprechaun film. Not a Lionsgate Leprechaun film — on DVD, it was called Red Clover.
Regina: We couldn't get the rights from Lionsgate to do a Leprechaun movie, so we decided we're just going to do our own leprechaun movie, because a leprechaun is public domain.
Ferrante: In the script, I made a reference to a sharknado. Someone said, "They're trying to cover up the leprechaun," and the sheriff goes, "Yeah, we don't want to have what happened in that town over. Remember Sharknado? They never lived that down." At that point, someone at SYFY said, "We must make this movie."
Regina: I laughed, and I was working with another executive at the time and I was like, "Oh my god, that's a great line, we should make this into a movie." And the other executive said to me, "You're crazy, we're taking the line out of the script, and there's no way we'd make that into a film." And I was like, "No, we're definitely keeping the line in." And we did. I won that one. But I had trouble convincing people to make Sharkando as a movie because everyone thought it was just too ridiculous of a concept title.
Ferrante: I was a fan of the concept from day one.
Regina: I was already seeing eroding audiences on creature movies and disaster movies, which were really the two quadrants where were playing in for Saturday original films. So I was looking for ways to combine both audiences so that we could do above projections for these films. We did Arachnoquake, which had combined those things, and a couple of other ones that had just not broken out. And so I saw Sharknado and I was like, "Oh, it's a great title, because it's a tornado and a shark, and that's the two quadrants that I'm trying to combine." That's what I loved about it.
Thunder Levin, screenwriter: I had just written and directed a film called American Warships for Asylum, which they had been very happy with. So we were talking about what I was going to do next for them, and they asked me to write a movie called Shark Storm.
I thought, well do we really need another shark movie or another storm movie? I mean, haven't we seen that enough? And given the Asylum's penchant for playing it straight, it felt like we were going to be trying to make a movie that was beyond our means without acknowledging that it was beyond our means. And so I turned it down.
Regina: I kept bringing it up with my boss, Tom Vitale, every time we talked about new titles for movies. Then Asylum came in and pitched a movie called Shark Storm. It was about a beach that gets flooded and the sharks come into the lighthouses and the lifeguard building and some of the houses that are right along the shore, so you have an infestation of sharks. And everyone seemed to respond to it and I said, well, if we're gonna make it, let's just call it Sharknado.
Levin: A month later they come back to me and they say, forget about Shark Storm, we really want you to do Sharknado. And I said, what do sharks have to do with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? They said no, it's a tornado of sharks. I said, that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of, and as long as I can play it that way, I'm in.
Ferrante: I was working at Asylum and that movie popped up. I'm not the guy that they would have immediately thought of since I was the horror guy, but Asylum said, "No, we want Anthony to make this movie." And that's how I got it.
Levin: I don't know if anybody really wants to admit this at this point, but nobody cared about this movie. I mean, maybe Chris Regina had a warm spot in his heart for the idea. I was just writing this on my own. I had a lot of fun with it. I turned it in to Asylum. And despite what they had said, Asylum's notes came back basically cutting out every funny bit in the movie and in big capital letters at the head of the notes, it said, "This is not a f***ing comedy."
Regina: Even Asylum at the time was like, "We don't like that title, you guys can use that title domestically, but internationally we're going to go out with some different titles — we're going to call it Shark Storm." And I was like "OK, you can call it whatever you want."
Levin: They sent it off to SYFY, and SYFY's notes basically boiled down to "This should be funnier." So I had my brief moment of "I told you so" and then I went back and put funny stuff back in.
Ferrante: I think the hardest part about it was that they had a hard time casting the movie because they were saying, "Hey, do you want to be in Sharknado?" And so they changed the title when they started sending offers to Dark Skies.
It was still a tough sell, even with the secret front name, because the script still had tornadoes flinging CGI sharks across the L.A. metro area.
Ferrante: I think they made an offer to every single person in a certain category and beyond for the lead role of Fin. Steve Guttenberg was offered. Off-the-beaten-track people, like Dave Foley was offered it. I didn't think that was ever really going to happen. But one person that came super-close was Crispin Glover. The producers said, "You have to get on the phone with Crispin, he might be interested."
It was an interesting conversation, and I'd interviewed him before when I was a journalist. He's a really nice guy, but he definitely is very quirky, and the first thing he says to me is, "I don't understand, why do you want me for this role?" I mean, he's never probably been offered an action hero role before.
And then he goes, "I want to play Fin like he has some kind of brain injury or something." I was like, "I don't think it's the producers are going to go for that." He kept going on and on, but he kept coming back to "I just don't understand." I was in San Pedro and we were location scouting, and the connection got lost and we never heard from him again.
Ultimately, they sent the script to the agent of Ian Ziering, the actor best known for starring in the prime-time soap opera Beverly Hills 90210, which had gone off the air over a decade prior.
Ziering: There were a lot of holes in the script that were left to be filled by visual effects. And knowing that this was going to be shot on a micro-budget, I couldn't see how they'd have the money necessary to provide quality content. I didn't know the production studio, I didn't know the director, so I had my doubts. I only did this at the behest of my wife, because she was pregnant with our second baby and I had to do it to provide.
The actor was working predominantly as a dancer at Chippendales in Las Vegas, which meant his income as an actor was minimal. That put his family's SAG health insurance in jeopardy.
Ziering: You have to make so much every year or two to qualify for the insurance, and this movie just put me into that zone.
Ferrante: When they said Ian Ziering for Fin, it was like well, yeah, obviously! It was the most "duh" moment ever. Of course he should be playing Fin. It was like he was born to play this role. There was just no doubt in my mind that this is the guy. And then I went to Jerry's Deli in Studio City to meet him for the first time, and we hit it off and we were off to the races. He would be the man to do the job.
Ziering: I have a very strong sense of professionalism, and they hired me to do this job, so there was no half-assing it. I was never going to phone this in. I always try my best at whatever I do, and I had an eye to try to elevate the material any chance that I could. I related to a sense of family, the fact that Fin's an ordinary man who goes to extraordinary lengths to keep his family safe and protected.
But as I was shooting the first one, I was just hoping that the check would clear. That's where my head was at.
Casting the female lead was not quite as hard. Or at least the actress they landed on was less apprehensive about taking the role.
Tara Reid: The first Sharknado I read, it was just so silly. That night I went out to dinner with my friends, and I was telling them about it and they loved it. They were like "Tara, you have to do this. It's epic, it's so funny. There's nothing like it." So the next day I called my agent and, "You know what? Let's just do it." And it turned out to be a blessing. Who knew?
Already displeased about their predicament on Dark Skies, things felt real dire when Ziering and his co-stars finally found out about the movie's real name.
Ferrante: There was a day, it was like the third day of shooting, where we were in the hardware store set. All the actors called me in the back room, and I describe it like in Frankenstein, where all the villagers had torches and pitchforks. And they're going, "We heard that this thing might be called Sharknado!"
And I was like, "Uh... where did you hear that?" And they're like, "No, they've got to call it something else! Call it Dark Skies!" And it was so funny. They were just panicked. I always knew that they were going to call it Sharknado. I had to minimize the fallout, and I remember specifically telling them, "Look, they change the names all the time, but if this movie is called Sharknado, it will be a good thing."
Ziering: We all thought it was terrible. That's when I got on the phone with my agent to see if he get me off this movie or remove my name from the credits. But once you sign on, that was the end of that. So I was just kind of bummed out knowing that they were going to call this Sharknado. I just thought it was so dumb.
Ferrante: The one person who really got it was [co-star] John Heard, he felt that there were something special — he was in it because he wanted to do something fun and cool.
Regina: Ian thought this was going to ruin his career, but he finally was convinced that no one was going to see the film.
The film shot over the course of 18 days in Los Angeles. It packed in a lot of locations across the city, and when he got back to Vegas, Ziering did his best to forget the project.
Ziering: I was talking to the press every day at Chippendales, and when they asked me what else was coming down the pike, I wouldn't tell them anything. I didn't want anybody to know that I did this movie.
Why he wouldn't want people to know he spent two weeks in L.A. cutting up CGI sharks with a chainsaw is hard to fathom, but he was able to keep it a secret — for a while.
Levin was directing another movie at the time, so he didn't know what kind of changes were made to his script until much later. He was a fan of the final product, but one part threw him off.
Levin: I didn't know what the hell was going on, because Anthony had invented a whole new opening. Everything that happens on the ship, on the fishing shark finning boat, he invented, because my opening had one shot on a Mexican fishing vessel where the captain is caught in the hurricane. He sees a big wave about to wash over ship. And when he looks up at this wave, it's filled with sharks. And he says, "Voy a necesitar un barco más grande," which is Spanish for "I'm gonna need a bigger boat." Then the wave washes over the ship and it capsizes. But on a budget like this, Anthony couldn't justify renting a boat and putting a whole crew to get this one shot.
Meanwhile, after a quick post-production period, the July premiere date drew closer.
Regina: One of the really interesting experiments we did was that we did not launch this film on a Saturday night. I credit [then-network president] Dave Howe, who was really pressuring us at the time to experiment off of Saturday nights. He said you need to move to other nights and experiment if you want to have any chance of these movies really catching and doing better ratings.
So we did it on a weeknight, and it was right around Shark Week, and [PR exec] Gary Morgenstein was really impactful at the time about going out there and pitching the title to some press. And he got some coverage and pickup about it, and it started to get a little bit of a buzz before it actually launched.
Morgenstein: I got a feature at the New York Daily News. The TV editor, Don Kaplan, loved it. I said, "Do you want to see a screener?" He said no. I said, "Well, here's a log line" and he said, "That's all I need." I told him, "I have some pictures but they're pretty bad," and he says, "Well, give me one." All he cared about was the title.
Ferrante: I did a little grassroots thing. I created the Facebook page and I put up a video, we got the Asylum trailer up. My editor Chris Conlee, who came in for a couple of days to help out when we were in a bind, he was at a 7-Eleven two days before the movie aired, and he called me and he said, "The people in line were talking about Sharknado." And I was like "Yeah, right, Chris, give me a freaking break. No one's in 7-Eleven talking about my little movie."
It's impossible to confirm what happened in an L.A.-area convenience store five years ago, but clearly something was brewing ahead of the movie's premiere. It was a quiet Thursday night in July when the movie finally aired, and for some reason, a couple of channel-surfing celebrities decided to stop their channel surfing on the crazy microbudget flick.
They watched as shark-filled tornadoes bore down on the beaches and cheap backlots of Los Angeles, as Ziering and Reid and co-star Cassie Scerbo (as a waitress named Nova) began alternatingly fleeing for their lives and killing sharks with chainsaws and bombs shot out of helicopters. And they loved it.
Morgenstein: Twitter wasn't what it is now. We didn't realize how important it was and didn't know how to use it. What fueled something to pop, no one was really sure, even to this day. The name was ridiculous, and suddenly Mia Farrow is tweeting that she's with Philip Roth watching Sharknado. Wait, what? The American American Red Cross says "If you're in a Sharknado…" Wait, what?!
Soon enough, celebrities and Twitter influencers were live-tweeting the movie, and tangentially adjacent brands, from the Red Cross to the NHL's San Jose Sharks, got in on the action. For people on Twitter — or at least media types — it felt like the entire universe was watching Sharknado. Olivia Wilde, Patton Oswalt, the National Weather Service (which issued an "official" advisory), and the late Cory Monteith (who died the next day) also tweeted about it.
Ferrante: I went over to a friend's house with my family, and we were watching the East Coast feed. I'm sitting there live-tweeting and doing some sort of interview chat that a friend of mine wanted me to do. All of a sudden, all these tweets were cycling like nobody's business, and I'm trying to keep up and respond. And someone else had a iPad there and they were saying, "Mia Farrow is tweeting! Damon Lindelof!" And then Judah Friedlander wrote my favorite tweet, saying, "I directed Sharknado under the pseudonym Anthony C. Ferrante." That's how Judah got cast in the next movie.
After it was over, knowing the trajectory of these things and being a journalist and understanding the anomaly that this was, I said to my family and the friends that something happened. I don't know what just happened, but something happened here.
Fueled by the high-profile attention, the airing peaked at 5,000 tweets about Sharknado a minute, totaling 387,000 social mentions, according to a network release the next day.
Ziering: I was on stage at Chippendales, and when I got backstage, my phone had alerted itself into a dead battery. I never once went to work without a fully charged battery, because I keep my phone available to me. When I got off stage, my phone was dead. When I got it back up, I saw there were like 300 text messages and hundreds of phone calls, people were trying to reach me through every social media platform.
I started listening to the messages, and seeing what it was all about, I was pleasantly surprised. Much to my surprise, it was all positive about how amazing Sharknado was. I was like, "Oh my God, are they watching the same movie that I made?"
Reid: I was in Mexico when the movie came out. We did no press for it. I got this phone call saying, "Oh my God, can you believe what's happening?" I literally thought there was an earthquake in L.A. It sounded really serious. Then they say Sharknado is getting like a million tweets per minute. We did no press, I didn't know it was coming out that week. It was ridiculous.
Ferrante got in his car to go watch the West Coast screening with some of his crew members. On the way, he got a call from BuzzFeed — he wasn't sure how the reporter got his number — and the attention continued throughout the night.
Ferrante: We were watching the movie with the crew, and I found out that CNN wanted to talk to me the next morning, and then suddenly I had all these requests for interviews on Friday to talk about it.
For all the messages and tweets, the ratings weren't actually all that great — the film averaged 1.39 million viewers, a bit below the usual SYFY original movie.
Regina: It wasn't like the rating was all that great, and it wasn't that I ever believed that the movie would be a hit. It was all social buzz that propelled it.
That's the big asterisk here. Because for some reason, the buzz didn't die down, and it fueled a sensation that stretched far beyond the first night.
Morgenstein: The morning after it aired, I go to a friend's house to borrow a suitcase, because I was going to Comic-Con. And she says, "Oh, Sharknado was just on The Today Show." And I said, what? And then they do a second segment, so there I am, watching them talk about Sharknado. Then I got to the office, and that was the busiest day of my entire public relations life.
I got to work, and my phone did not stop. It's a good thing I didn't have to go to the bathroom a lot. People had to give me meals. And for the first time ever, I couldn't cover all the interviews. I had to farm it out to people.
Reid: I got on the plane to come home and the stewardess says, "Oh my god, I loved you in Sharknado." I was like, what? I thought they were going to say American Pie or something. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger and it started to become this cult thing... I thought that no one would see it and we'd just walk away.
Levin: I called David Latt at Asylum the next morning and I said, "Everybody's talking about a sequel to this. If there is a sequel, I hope you're going to come to me first to write it." Because no Asylum contract ever contemplates a sequel. I had no guarantee, because they never make sequels. And he said, "Don't worry, this is all going to blow over by tomorrow. There's not going to be a sequel. It's not gonna happen."
It's still somewhat inexplicable, but people could not get enough Sharknado. And it wasn't just entertainment websites — The Hollywood Reporter quickly interviewed Ferrante and others, for example — and talk shows that got swept up in the Sharknado.
Morgenstein: My favorite recollection of that first day was that Nightline called and said they wanted to do a piece on Sharknado. And I said, "Wait a second. There's just been a military coup in Egypt, don't you think you should focus on that?" And they said no no, we want Sharknado. So I said all right, fine. And we will off to the races for literally three years.
Regina: We quickly got it on the air and re-aired it the next week, and it grew. And a third airing grew even more.
The second airing drew 1.9 million viewers, and then, two weeks after Sharknado first hit the air, a third showing topped 2 million viewers, by far the largest audience for an original movie repeat in SYFY history.
Ziering: I caught it on the second airing and I was like, oh my gosh, this really isn't as bad as I thought it would be. It was kind of fun. And I got it. I understood what people dug about it. You know, just a ridiculous movie where no one winks at the camera as they're screaming and there are sharks flying out of the sky and they're running for their lives.
It was clear that this was not a dying fad. It made Ziering and Reid relevant again, shined a light on Asylum, and even helped Levin get a publicist and agent.
Levin: I gotta be honest, I was terrified, because I've been in this business a long time trying to make my mark, and it hadn't really happened. And so clearly this was my opportunity, and I felt like if I didn't do this now, the career I had always planned to have was always going to be not quite there.
I get a message from my cousin, who used to do PR for Nike, and she says, "What are you doing to take advantage of this?" And I said, "Well, I'm doing a couple of interviews, but I'm really nervous that I'm not going to be able to take full advantage of it." And she said, "Well, you got to get a publicist."
And I said, "Yeah, but I don't have the money to pay a publicist, they're very expensive." And she said, "Why don't you go on Twitter and say something like 'Broke writer of Sharknado needs publicist now?'" And so that's exactly what I did. And like half an hour later, this guy named Danny Deraney, who runs Deraney PR, contacted me, he said friends had seen my tweet and sent it to him and he would love to work with me on a commission basis.
Morgenstein: In meetings, people would usually roll their eyes when I talked about the movies. And suddenly it became, "What are we gonna do, what are we going to do?" And Comic-Con was coming up, so it was completely frantic. We had to do something. So the plans were put together. We'd gather the talent to do street campaigns, and then we had more shark movies the following month.
Regina: We super-scrambled to get chewed-out surf boards and create a SWAT team that would roam the streets, chanting "Sharknado! Sharknado!" It was about propelling the momentum that we kept alive for a year, because we quickly greenlit Sharknado 2.
Morgenstein: There was no one who turned up their nose except for one show. We could never get Jimmy Fallon to do anything. I don't know why, I would be the first person to be humble and say that I somehow failed. We pitched them Ian Ziering, because he was dancing at Chippendale in Vegas and Jimmy loves to dance, some kind of Chippendales dance with someone dressed up as a shark. No, they didn't like that either.
Ferrante: We didn't think when we're making it that there was going to be a sequel. We joked that, "Oh, the sequel will be called Sharknadosaurus, and the tornado will be so powerful it will take them back to prehistoric times." That was the joke. We had to be careful, because every time we said something, it became reality. Like, "Oh, we should do White House Down with sharks." And then, of course, we're doing that for the third one.
The second Sharknado movie was announced less than a week after that first frenzied night. The question of how they'd top the chaos in L.A. loomed large.
Regina: We were dead set on shooting in New York. We knew it had to be in New York. We just felt that that was the place to go, even though it was crazy to do a low-budget movie that we definitely didn't have the budget to do in New York.
Ferrante: The first movie was so hard to put together, because it was what I like to call a parking lot movie. We were shooting a disaster movie in a parking lot, and we couldn't shoot up to the sky because it would have cost us digital effects shots that we couldn't afford. And so we had to be very careful and very strategic in everything we did. And then when we got to New York we could shoot up into the sky. It was like glorious, and the heavens opened up and we have this movie that looked huge.
Regina: I think the strategy we [landed on] was putting tons of cameos in there, really leaning into the tongue-in-cheek humor. The intention was never to make these movies funny. We were always kind of winking at the audience. We knew that we had struggles with production value, because we didn't have the money to really make the movies at the ambition that it could have been.
Ziering and Reid, the two known actors who survived the original movie, were much more excited about returning. But the popularity of the first Sharknado did not mean they were immediately able to cash in.
Ziering: Having babies at home, I couldn't really press [on pay] too much. I still felt that they could replace me. So yeah, there were incremental bumps, but this is a TV movie, this is not a major motion picture blockbuster. This is not Mission: Impossible. It's not even The Meg, which was $150 million. They probably spent less than $1 million on the first Sharknado.
More star power was brought in to supplement the Sharknado stalwarts. Mark McGrath — best known as the lead singer of the '90s band Sugar Ray — came in to play Ziering's brother-in-law. Vivica Fox was hired to portray a past flame, a role that was greenlit after the network opted not to bring Scerbo back for the sequel. The entire cast of The Today Show had significant cameos, as did other TV hosts.
Regina: We went to ABC to get Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan in there, because at the time we couldn't get some of the talk shows that we wanted from NBC. They were not making themselves available.
NBC Universal has an internal initiative called Symphony, which facilitates cross-promotion between different networks. Regina figured he could use the spirit of that idea to help pack the movies with that top-level talent.
Regina: We called it organic Symphony, and we could engage every network and every show to the best of our potential and feature someone in it, whether it was someone from E! News or somebody from the Golf Channel. Then we would give them that little piece of Sharknado for them to drop exclusively to their audience in exchange for them giving us free promotion.
Perhaps the most notable cameo was Robert Hays, the pilot from the zany comedy classic Airplane, who appeared at the beginning of the sequel as the pilot of FIn and April's plane.
Levin: We had people in mind, and the question was, would we be able to get them, like the pilot and the copilot of the plane? I wrote it to be William Shatner and John Lithgow. Because they had both been the stars of the two versions of the Twilight Zone story we were spoofing. But they both turned us down.
Ferrante: I was in New York, and my family was there and we were watching the Airplane! movies, and my wife turned to me and goes, "You should get Robert Hays to play the pilot."
So I called producer David Latt and told him, and he was like, "No no no, we can't do that. It will make it too jokey. And I was like, 'No, we *must* hire Robert Hays to play the pilot!' And finally he goes, 'Oh, okay, but you've got to promise me — we can't make any Airplane! references.'"
I said OK, but I had my fingers crossed. And so we got him, and we made references to Airplane! when he shows up at the beginning of Sharknado 2.
The movie is set throughout the city, which is of course under attack from a fleet of sharknados. Much of the action was concentrated in midtown Manhattan and Citi Field in Queens, home of the New York Mets.
Regina: We were open to any stadium and any team, but the Yankees wouldn't do it, and other sports teams weren't interested. But the Mets were open to it. That's how we ended up with the Mets.
Levin: We'd gone into this hoping to get to use Yankee Stadium and have Derek Jeter play a ballplayer who saves a little fan by hitting a shark for a home run. And not only could we not get Derek Jeter, the Yankees wanted nothing to do with us. I'm a lifelong Yankee fan, so it really, really stung.
Morgenstein: The Mets were cool. They said come and destroy Citi Field, we'd love to have you. So we show up. It's February and it's about 15 degrees. There are scenes of people in the stands, and the original call was to dress as if you were going to a game in the summer. And people were turning blue. You had to keep running people in and out because they would pass from the cold.
Ziering: There was something called the Polar Vortex that was taking place in New York City at the time. The temperatures were in the high teens, and so it made it really challenging. There were moments where my face would literally freeze. I couldn't articulate, couldn't get my lips to move fluidly enough to say words properly.
Other major cameos included Judd Hirsch as a taxi driver and Richard Kind as the most unlikely former Major League All-Star of all time.
Ferrante: Richard was one of those weird things where I got a call at 11 o'clock the night before saying, "We got Richard Kind, he wants to be in the movie." I'm like, "Really?" So we had to write something for him. We don't get any sleep on these movies, so I was really tired. I was prepping the next day and I called Thunder, but he was asleep. I knew what I wanted to do with the baseball thing, so I called a buddy of mine in L.A. and said "Look, I need some help. I need someone to sketch this out for me for tomorrow, because I just don't have the bandwidth."
The rest of the shoot was more pleasant, with a higher degree of professionalism for the production about killer flying sharks overwhelming the city.
Ziering: It was a union crew that we worked with in New York City, so that kind of raised the bar quite a bit. And then shooting, we were able to block off part of Broadway at 53rd Street. We would never have been able to do that in the first Sharknado. We didn't have the budget or the credibility to do that.
Ferrante: The challenge for the New York one was that we were wildly over budget. We had to deal with unions in New York, and the unions thought we were making a hundred-million-dollar movie. Mainly because we were so foolish in the sense of taking a guerrilla filmmaking approach. We were like, "Yeah, let's shoot at the Empire State Building. Let's go shoot at Rock Center." Big-time theatrical movies that shoot in New York don't shoot at those locations because they're so expensive. We didn't know better.
In the first movie, Fin and April are divorced; by the start of the second, they're remarried and back in love. Much of the second movie sees April stuck in the hospital, her hand having been chomped off by a shark.
Reid: In Sharknado, it's mostly so crazy and not real in so many ways, but that was a real scene. I end up in the hospital, and I'm hanging on for my life. Then she gets drunk, plays with a little kid, and that's where I think April started turning around as a character. She gets stronger and stronger, and now I'm at the end, she turns out to be a superhero. How cool is that? I'm like Wonder Woman.
The investment in locations and crew, whether it was intentional or not, paid off. The movie averaged a whopping 3.9 million viewers when it premiered in 2014, proving that the sensation had not died down.
Regina: We wouldn't greenlight the next movie until the previous movie launched. So it was literally Sharknado 24/7, because the day after the Sharknado ratings came in, we'd all take a few days off, and then the next Monday we would say, "Okay, on to working on the next one."
And that meant more and more Sharknado movies.
Regina: We would brainstorm and reverse-engineer a lot of it on a whiteboard in my office. I remember the Russian doll, the shark within a shark within a shark that we did, we came up with that there. We would come up with ideas for openings, we would just write them all on the board. And then we started to get to a point where we started creating Excel spreadsheets for different categories. We'd write cameos and then we would list them out. Meta homages, we would pick the movies we wanted to make an homage to, whether it was Indiana Jones or Terminator 2 or Marvel movies, and we would write scenes specifically for the meta elements that we wanted in there.
Ziering: That was where I was able to be helpful, in bringing possibilities and cameo artists. It got to the point very quickly where I didn't have to bring everybody because everyone was asking to be on. Tori Spelling came to me, and she wound up in Sharknado 6. I'd gone out to the other cast from 90210, but schedules would not allow for it. But they all loved the movie franchise themselves.
After saving L.A. and New York, SYFY and the Asylum had to up the ante. And in the same way they mapped out jokes and cameos, locations were also carefully plotted.
Regina: We would pick iconic locations that we would want to do for where we'd set the next one. We would look at, from a research point of view, where the movie did well, and also iconic landscapes that we thought would be the most interesting. Like, "Let's go do D.C." And when we got the access to Universal Studios to shoot in Florida, we decided to set it there because of stages. And, quite honestly, issues with unions.
The third movie, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No, upped the ante with the cameos by bringing in political figures, including former Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Regina: Democrats didn't want to be in the film. We ended up with all Republicans because they were the only ones that actually were okay with being in Sharknado. Which is really strange, because from a strategic point of view, we're super red state, most of the content that I did there was all red state. Way before the Trump election and everyone getting that kind of clarity coming out of postmortem research that they did. It was always sort of the secret sauce of my program strategy.
Incidentally, Donald Trump was originally asked to play the president of the United States. Trump wound up pulling out of the role — it was played by Mark Cuban — but media reports at the time that suggested his withdrawal was due to his own real political ambitions were misguided.
Regina: He agreed to do it, but we had to shoot him in New York. He wouldn't come to L.A. All those scenes were shot in L.A. We talked about the costs and what we would have to sacrifice creatively to have Donald Trump shot in New York and what those scenes would look like. The scenes with Cuban sliding through the White House, shooting and all that, we wouldn't have been able to do.
So it would have been truncating all those scenes and more, just having a president as a figurehead who so just happened to be Donald Trump. It would have gone without the action scenes, because they would have been just quick pickups on green screen or a really simple stage build. So we just decided it wasn't worth it.
The movie's biggest political cameo came in the form of Ann Coulter, who played Cuban's vice president.
Ferrante: She seemed interested, and then she called me to talk to me one day and said, "What do you want to do with this?" I said, "I just want to have fun. I don't want this thing to be anything political."
Before we were shooting the scene, I was rehearsing some lines with her and she turned me and goes, "Why would I say this? I think she would do this." And I told her why, and she went back and forth with me for about five minutes until finally she goes, "Okay, okay." And I think to myself, did I just make Ann Coulter back down? Is that a first?
Regina: The mistake we made with Coulter, which was clearly a rush in the actual shooting and availability, was her not getting eaten by a shark. The joke was really that we're gonna get all these politicians and then we're going to have them eaten by sharks, and the audience is gonna love that. I think it would've been even more fun, for both sides, to have her eaten. The Republicans would love that she's in the film, and Democrats would love that she got chomped.
By the end of the movie, the battle heads to space. We meet Fin's father, a former astronaut, who is of course played by David Hasselhoff. The goal is to destroy the storm from space, using some Reagan-era technology and Fin's energy-beam chainsaw. It is incredibly stupid, as is Sharknado's wont.
Levin: I went through all the Sharknado movies trying to maintain that everything that happened was at least theoretically possible, even if it was incredibly unlikely, right up until the sharks in space at the end of the third movie. Even the sharks in space, what I had written was that they were blown up into orbit along with vast quantities of water. So what I had written was the sharks were each going to be floating around in orbit in these globules of water.
So we'd see these spheres of water, and there would be sharks in them when some of them crashed into the cargo bay of the shuttle, so it would flood with water and the sharks would be in water, and then we'd still make a limited amount of sense. I guess the effects department just couldn't manage that, or they decided that it just wasn't practical.
It was Anthony's idea to put Hasselhoff on the moon, and I was actually fighting that a little bit, because there was no way he could get from Earth to the moon in the amount of time we had. And they were saying, "Stop being logical," because it was gonna be a great visual. So once we were doing sharks in space, I figured, okay, I'll go with it.
Reid: I gave birth in outer space to a baby in the stomach of a shark. And I'm like, how are we going to top that? And then when she gets hurt and her dad fixes her, she's half-robot, half-human, half-wires. But she still had her mental health together and knew what she needed to do.
That's jumping ahead to the fourth movie, which reveals that April's own scientist father turns her into a cyborg of sorts in order to save her life. That flick borrows some trappings of Star Wars, from the opening crawl and aesthetic to the basis for its very cheap title, The Fourth Awakens.
They had to pull a stunt like that, because despite the new locations and big names, the third Sharknado failed to live up to the ratings of the second film, and the surprisingly positive critical reviews of the first two did not translate to this third one. This despite the social media campaign to determine April's fate.
Levin says the instructions became more specific with every movie, especially as the films became self-parodies. The network did research to learn what people liked the most and wanted to see in a new installment, and rarely was character development on the list.
Levin: As each movie went along, our marching orders became more specific. By the fourth one, they were giving us specific instructions. It had to be called The Fourth Awakens. It had to start with a Star Wars crawl. It had to take place in Las Vegas. They wanted there to have been no sharknados in years. They wanted some sort of weather control, but they didn't want anything shot into the sharknados. They didn't want laser beams or anything. It was really weird, to be honest. They were sending specific and conflicting requirements.
The stakes continued to rise for SYFY with each film; hence the tighter control. There were all kinds of ancillary and marketing opportunities, including a big in-store presence at Subway restaurants (and a cameo for Jared Fogle, awkward in hindsight). And along with pushing their TV and theme park properties, Comcast, NBCU's parent company, tried to push their cable packages and offerings, with not infrequent mentions of XFinity products.
Regina: Quite honestly, the most ridiculous ones were Comcast, because having a giant Comcast sign in the movie felt so heavy-handed. And audiences called us out on it.
As for the story, the instructions to focus less on character and more on big, insane action sequences and outrageous stunts. At this point in the series, April is pregnant, and her water obviously breaks so that she gives birth when she's literally inside a shark in space.
Levin: If you ask people watching a Sharknado movie, "Are you watching it for the character development or for the crazy shark kills or for the cameos?", obviously half the people are going to say for the crazy shark kills and half the people are gonna say for the cameos. Nobody's going to say for character development, that's not why you want your Sharknado. But that is why you keep watching a Sharknado.
The Fourth Awakens starts in Las Vegas, where a Shepard family reunion is taking place. The movie zoomed five years forward, to a period of meteorological normalcy after an Elon Musk-like figure claims to have found a way to stop sharknados before they cause any damage.
And so, of course, the sharknados start to hit with technology-defying fury, their assault conveniently focused on a Sharknado-themed hotel opened by the brash Musk figure.
As Las Vegas is destroyed, they begin a road trip back east, driving through Texas en route to Kansas, where Fin has a farm called April's Acres. Initially, this was to be the site of a major twist in the love triangle that never was. Levin wanted to introduce a long-awaited romantic relationship between Fin and Nova, who openly pined for him in the first movie.
Levin: Nova would move in to Fin's house help raise their child, and eventually she and Fin would start to have feelings for each other. And it would start to become mutual, and then the house would be flying through the tornado in Kansas halfway through the movie, and she's trapped on the outside, and Fin finally pulls her in and saves her life, and they would kiss and it would be this culmination of the whole unrequited love.
And in the very next scene, the house crashes to the ground, the door bursts open and there's a fully alive and well and bionic April. And what does that do to Finn as a character? What is this emotional rollercoaster he's been on?
That idea got scratched, but the cameos come fast and furious, typified by Carrot Top showing up as an angry Uber driver almost immediately. Things get very meta right away, with Shepard waving off an offer to be a part-time host at Chippendales. Wayne Newton pops up to sing a bar of the Sharknado theme; this is the perfect location for the franchise's gimmick of recycling from the pop-culture archive.
Regina: The one cameo I regret was that we never got Rob Gronkowski, who by the way was like the longest one we kept chasing over and over again. He wanted to be in Sharknado, and after so many of them, we could just never get the schedule together for him. We always wanted him spiking a shark.
Cameos and thrills were important. The story, less so.
Levin: For the fourth one, I actually had a concept that would make it make sense, which was all these sharks were blown up into orbit at the end of the third movie.
So they're just spinning around in orbit, absorbing radiation. I had this whole concept as to why sharknados would have stopped. There are no sharks left in the ocean, they're in space absorbing radiation, so when their orbit started to degrade and they start plummeting to earth, they start creating sharknados just from their own vortexes of coming down and being highly radioactive.
That idea was a no-go, and after the fourth film, Levin ultimately decided to leave the franchise to pursue other opportunities. And while the ratings slipped again, SYFY decided to commission a fifth film. And instead of going to space, they upped the ante by going international.
Ferrante: We decided, "Okay, can we go to five different countries as part of a caravan in a way and make this work? Can we do something that's crazy and really succeed in doing something that studios wouldn't be able to do?" We needed some place like Bulgaria to do a lot of the complicated stuff that would cost a lot of money. So we did that, and then basically said, "We have to do England, Italy, Japan, and Australia."
They went explicitly political for this one; the tagline was "Make America Bait Again." But mostly, it was an insane trip through the world propelled by a wormhole connected to an ancient artifact found by Nova, who was left out of the second movie but returned as a badass shark fighter in the third. The plot was concocted by a writer named Scotty Mullen, who took over for Levin.
The whole thing was increasingly crazy, but the locations added a sense of gravitas, as shooting on location in New York did for the second movie.
Ferrante: We had a small group that traveled from place to place to place, and we picked up production services from the individual countries. We were shooting in front of Parliament Square, we were shooting at Tower Bridge, we had that for like half a day. We didn't have cop cars and all that other stuff. They gave us a permit and we had to block traffic to get what we needed.
Reviews were more positive, with the sense that, ironically, it began to focus a bit more on its characters. Levin looks back on some of his ideas for the direction of the franchise, not so much with wistfulness or regret but affection for the characters he created. He wanted Fin and Nova to get together, a long-awaited union that would be interrupted by bionic April's return. He also had ideas for a three-part ending to the franchise.
Levin: It was a second trilogy for five through seven, and mine was pretty similar to what they've done in the last two. I did a global Sharknado for number five, with a cliffhanger at the end that would reveal that sharks were alien. Sharks had been aliens all along. And the cliffhanger was that the sharks were the advanced force of an alien invasion. And so number six was going to be an alien invasion movie with sharks. Then number seven would be time travel where we would go back to the very first Sharknado, which is what wiped out the dinosaurs. It turns out it wasn't an asteroid after all, it was the sharks arriving on Earth that killed all the dinosaurs.
Ferrante: I never wanted to explain the monster because I always felt like when you knew about Freddy and Jason and stuff like that, it takes away from the magic. And on the first movie, people immediately said, "Oh, sharks can't exist in tornadoes." And then I immediately came up with, and this became the rule going forward, "It's not shark, it's not a tornado, it's a sharknado and the rules are whatever we want them to be."
The sixth Sharknado film is about time travel, but more than that, focused on buttoning up the whole insane five-year experiment.
Levin: The idea of Fin wandering the wasteland with April's head in a hobo sack on a stick in the fifth one was just terrific. I thought that was just perfect. So is doing this time-travel thing and getting to revisit everything and bring back the characters we love. It's a terrible shame that John Heard passed away and they couldn't bring him back. But I'm looking forward to seeing what they've done.
Ferrante: We don't have to worry about whether or not we're coming back next year. We don't have to worry about making a big impact and everybody in the world has to see this. We had cliffhangers in practically every film. This was an opportunity to say we're going to put an end to the franchise and put a button on it. They may decide to do something later with the IP, and they probably are going to do things with it down the road. But this story that we started in Sharknado ends in the last scene of Sharknado 6. There is a definitive end to this story dealing with the Shepard family.
Sharknado will have different legacies for different people. Audiences will remember it as a bizarre moment in time, the perfect storm of silliness and the height of meme and nostalgia culture. SYFY got a shot in the arm for years from its success. And the players involved all have been working to convert the unexpected spotlight into second acts.
Ziering: There's been several other opportunities have come out of this for me. What's been really exciting in the last couple of years has been working on producing a film, another science fiction film that we're going into production on. I pitched the people at SYFY a story that they greenlit, so we're off to the races.
Levin: I've gotten a lot of meetings that I wouldn't have gotten beforehand. I'm a lot better known. I can call up a company that I want to talk to or pitch a movie to and say "I'm the writer of Sharknado" and they'll talk to me. I haven't gotten the TV series sold yet, but we've gotten some interest. I haven't gotten a big-budget feature sold yet, but I've gotten some interest, and some things brewing now that might pan out in the next few months.
Regina now works at Netflix, where he is the director, global television, content acquisition. Much of his programming over the last year has been inspired not by the story in Sharknado, but the lessons he learned from it.
Regina: I learned a couple of things. From a data and research point of view, I used to go through all of the focus groups that we did. We did focus groups for every show, whether it was a success or a failure. There's so much to learn from them. I could kind of Moneyball development, I do that still today with all my programming, because there are attributes you can imbue in programming to customize for your audience that give the show a better chance of succeeding.
And there is the amazing aspect of social. Learning how rare and precious a live event is. It wasn't a film, it becomes a live event with all of the social aspects of it. Dealing in the linear space, I think you have to attack programming as appointment TV. Once you decide to make passive entertainment and say "This is a slow-burn show," I think you're almost dead in the water, it's become such an uphill battle to do that.
The Last Sharknado: It's About Time airs on Sunday, August 19, at 8PM.