On the Vancouver set of Peter Benchley’s Creature with a shark that can walk

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By Steve Newton

Back in 1997 I did a set-visit piece for Fangoria on the local filming of Peter Benchley’s Creature, a TV-movie based on theJaws author’s 1994 novel, White Shark

The sea-beast in question was not content just taking out swimmers in the ocean; it actually walked on land too.

Yeah, sounded pretty hokey to me too—even with the legendary Stan Winston designing the monster.

I haven’t seen it yet, and I’m in no rush to, but here’s a shortened version of the story that ran in the May 1998 issue of Fangoria, the one with Species II on the cover. Who can forget Species II?

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X-Files star David Duchovny caused a big stir in Vancouver several months back, when the local press had a feeding frenzy over his continent-wide slagging of the city’s climate on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. Supposedly, the rain was so constant here that Duchovny was pushing to have the series relocated to sunny L.A., and Vancouverites who had gotten used to seeing their town stand in for U.S. locations were perturbed about the threat to pack up and go.

If the steady precipitation is getting Duchovny down, he must feel especially low on the afternoon that Fango braves a typical fall downpour to visit the set of ABC’s Peter Benchley’s Creature in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. Yours truly is cold and soaked by the time he gains entrance into the massive Norco Studios, and can think only of tracking down the craft services table for a streaming cup of coffee.

Fortunately, whenever one discovers the on-set food stash, there’s usually an actor or two located nearby, and today is no exception. A few feet from the overflowing dishes of M&Ms and roasted almonds. 17-year-old Matthew Carey slouches in a director’s chair, wrapped in a winter coat to ward off the September chill. Obviously, the opportunity to film in these northern climes wasn’t what originally attracted him to the project.

“Basically, it was the fact that I heard it was gonna shoot either in St. Lucia or Australia,” quips the easily approachable teen actor about Creature‘s location work. “And I also heard that Craig T. Nelson was gonna be involved, so I figured it was a pretty decent project.”

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In Creature, based on Benchley’s novel White Shark and scheduled to air May 3-4, Carey plays Max Chase, who comes with his marine biologist mother (Big Trouble in Little China‘s Kim Cattrall) to the remote Caribbean island where his dad (Nelson) is conducting shark research. “They’ve been divorced for about 10 months,” explains Carey of his fictional folks, “so we’re gonna see if I’m gonna stay and live with him. Then all hell breaks loose, and I help save the day. And it’s cool because when Max first gets to the island, he’s kind of this shy little kid, but through all the events that take place he circulates into his own manhood, so to speak.”

Ah, those poignant coming-of-age angles sure are moving, but this ain’t no Stand By Me. As Creature‘s story goes, decades ago a top-secret genetic experiment involving sharks went terribly wrong on the island, resultng in an amphibious beast so deadly that it was ordered destroyed. The order wasn’t carried out, of course, and the creature is still lurking around, turning the island’s inhabitants into shark bait. So what Fango really wants is the lowdown on Creature‘s fright factor, especially given that monster master Stan Winson is making a rare venture into TV to create the aquatic terror.

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“The stuff we’re doing today is rather frightening,” offers Carey. The way Stan Winston has done the creature blows your mind. There was one part where it was hanging in a tree, and I was sitting there going, ‘Wait a second, this is a piece of rubber, why is it in a tree?’ But as soon as Stuart [director Stuart Gillard] says ‘action’ and they start working all the controls, it’s amazing what happens. I mean, it comes to life and you totally believe it.”

Before long, Nelson himself shows up to plunder the array of treats laid out in our vicinity. Unlike Carey, the potential attraction of filming in St. Lucia—or anywhere else sunny and warm—wasn’t what won him over to the project. As a matter of fact, for him there have been few Creature comforts involved with this shoot.

“It’s been a long haul, under some difficult circumstances,” reports the former star of TV’s Coach. “It seems like you’re wet 95 percent of the time on this damn thing, and after a while the constant submersion in water is so energy-draining, and it does get cold. When you spend 10 or 12 weeks doing that, it gets a little old.”

Certainly it can get chilly and bleak here in the Great White North, but what about St. Lucia? We’re talking sandy beaches, torquoise sea. It’s the Caribbean, man!

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“You never see it, first of all,” Nelson gripes. “All you’re doing is, you go to the set and you’re working. And if it’s on a boat, that sounds like a great deal, but they’re long days, and it’s very hot and humid. You’re not seeing much of the place at all; you’re really just out there shooting and begging for water—and some fruit, to hold off scurvy.”

Apart from his supporting turn in last year’s The Devil’s AdvocateCreature is Nelson’s first genre role since taking on the homebound ghosts in Tobe Hooper’s 1982 blockbuster Poltergeist. That film made people tiptoe warily around their TV sets, and Nelson figures that, “if it works,” Creature will keep people out of the water the same way Steven Spielberg’s Jaws did.

“But I think it goes even a little bit further than that,” he points out. “It delves into what science is getting into now. There are people doing some of this research right now, so that is is no longer science-fiction—it’s just science.”

Wandering around the Burnaby set, your fearless correspondent eventually comes across the titular creature, but it doesn’t even come close to giving this writer the willies. Matter of fact, it looks a helluva lot like a guy in a grayish rubber suit, with long arms ending in sharp claws and a shark head with a toothy mouth open wide for lunch.

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It looks less than threatening, hardly Stan Winston material, and in the midst of scribbling down notes, yours truly is directed to a corner of the buildng by one of the crew members, who fairly pleads that the “guy in a rubber suit” angle not be the focus of this piece. When the time comes to interview Gillard, Fango spills the beans about how hokey the monster looked just standing there, but the director doesn’t get the least bit defensive.

“It’s framing and lighting,” he says with a laugh. “That’s exactly the gag. Otherwise, it’s gonna look like that. You know, when you hear the premise about a shark that walks on land, you go, ‘Whoa, man, what’s this gonna look like?’ And that why I didn’t come aboard until I knew Stan Winston was involved. Given the history I have with the production company, I knew we’d have quality going in, but with the creature being the star, I really wanted to make sure that it was scary and not laughable, and I knew that with Stan we’d have something good. It’s probably a little combination of the Alien and Predator, and the seceret is how you shoot those things—what you don’t show.”

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The last word on the pros and cons of Creature go to Winston himself, whom Fango contacted on the set of his upcoming feature Small Soldiers. The burning question is how the FX wizard behind the Terminator and Jurassic Park films expects to make believable the idea of a sharklike creature attacking on land.

“What you don’t want to end up with is ‘guppy man,’ ” Winston says. “You don’t want it to be a fish with legs. So to come up with a design that balances out and looks right—that obviously has elements of shark and elements of humanity in it—is a difficult concept to attack. But we did so with fervor, and Crash—[FX supervisot] Mark McCreery—did a beautiful job of conceptualizing the character.

“And fortunately, more importantly than anything, they had a strong human cast, along with a good script and good direction. I’m looking forward to seeing a strong piece of work for a television movie. Since I haven’t seen it, I can only hope that I’m gonna be proud of it.”

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