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‘The Shallows’: Script to Screen

On Friday, June 24, The Shallows was pushed up to compete with Independence Day: Resurgence. The film was originally slated for the following Wednesday. This rescheduling was a relatively last-minute decision, but it worked in the film’s favor. It was the most critically praised film to be released that weekend, and it made decent money. The Shallows isn’t a runaway hit, but audiences seem to be enjoying it. It’s a good sign that shark cinema might still be swimming, not sinking.

But the film we saw that weekend underwent some surprising changes during its development. The sole credited screenwriter, Anthony Jaswinski, wrote the screenplay “on spec,” which means the whole project started with him. Back when Jaswinski first completed it, the script was called In The Deep. (Which, incidentally, is now the title of an upcoming shark movie starring Mandy Moore.) In The Deep won some acclaim the year of its completion when it ended up on 2014’s Annual Blacklist.

The Annual Blacklist compiles the year’s best unproduced screenplays, based on recommendations from over 600 production company and film financier executives. In September of 2014, Jaswinski’s spec script was bought by Sony and fast-tracked for production. It’s a damn good script: tight, but full of atmosphere and evocative language. But the script still had a long way to go before production, and many changes were made on its path to the screen. Let’s get into it, but BEWARE OF SPOILERS.

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The single biggest change is that the original script’s tone is much darker than The Shallows. The script opens with a montage of shark attack survivor interviews, then transitions to an opening that is similar to the film’s opening. Carlos’ young son walks on the beach, but he doesn’t find a GoPro. Instead, he finds the remains of “at least three” bodies and a woman’s severed leg. It’s obvious from the first pages of In The Deep that it was written to be R-rated. The script’s darkness also manifests itself in creepy hallucinations and dream sequences, some of which are very weird and metaphorical.

The second biggest change is that the final film, though relatively light on exposition, is much more fleshed out than the early script. If this previous draft had been brought to the screen unchanged, we would’ve seen a more challenging and skeletal film. In The Deep, as it was known two years ago, takes place over a slightly shorter period. Nancy (played in the film by Blake Lively) experiences fewer nights stranded in the early script, and there is no epilogue one year later. Nancy is also much more of a mystery, with no backstory revealed in her introductory truck ride scene.

The only bit of backstory we get in the script’s first act comes during a phone call. Between surfing sessions, Nancy speaks on the phone to her older brother, who we later learn is named David. We neither see nor hear David. In the film, this sequence was expanded into a longer video conferencing call to her sister and father, in which we see the other side of the call and get much more backstory about Nancy dropping out of med school after her mother passed away.

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Her mother’s death is present in the early script, but med school was not. We do learn that Nancy is having some difficulty graduating college (later revealed to be nursing school). After the phone call with David, Nancy smokes a joint. She drinks some Gatorade and eats some powdered doughnuts (the script calls it “surf sugar”). In the film, Nancy doesn’t smoke a joint or eat junk food — she eats an apple. It’s a small change, but Junk food and pot hews a bit closer to slasher movie tropes about what happens to careless young people. After her doughnuts, it’s almost dusk. She puts her phone away and heads back out to catch a few more waves. Her phone buzzes, but goes unanswered.

The film’s first attack sequence was shifted to earlier in the day, and that big trailer shot of the shark is not present. But the film’s first significant structural change happens right after Nancy is bitten. In the movie, Nancy swims to a dead whale and climbs up on the carcass. She then swims to a nearby rock, where she spends her first night. In the original script, however, Nancy swims to the buoy. I can see why this might’ve been changed — having Nancy go to the buoy first only to end up there again for the film’s climax doesn’t feel like backtracking.

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Notably missing from this section of the initial script are Steven Seagull and the wince-inducing scene where Nancy stitches her leg wound shut using her earrings and necklace. Instead, Nancy unsuccessfully uses the reflector from the buoy’s light to signal passing ships. A vicious rainstorm rolls in. The storm sticks around for most of the script, which makes the tone feel darker and the environment feel more hostile than the film’s sun-drenched paradise.

The film’s other shark attack sequences made their way to the screen mostly unchanged, except for the gore. When the drunk man dies, the film shows him dragging himself up the beach while his severed lower half trails behind him. This moment is not in the script, but the script makes up for it by having Nancy find the surfer’s severed head still in the GoPro helmet.

While on the buoy, Nancy has her first dream sequence. In the dream, Nancy rides in a Ferris wheel. Next to her sits the “eerily blurred” form of her sick mother. When Nancy’s car comes to the top, the Ferris wheel stops, and her mother disappears. Nancy’s dead mother reappears throughout the script, as Nancy becomes more and more delirious. It’s pretty freaky, and I’d love to see a version of the film with these dreams and hallucinations included.

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After the dream, we are introduced to the script’s star seagull, whom Nancy calls Sid. Sid floats on the water near her surfboard. Nancy, feeling the effects of blood loss, decides to swim for the board, but the shark attacks. Sid the seagull is nipped during the attack. Nancy is unable to make it to shore, so she lands on the rock. Aside from a few more creepy dreams and hallucinations, the script progresses much like the film at this point.

In the climactic sequence, Nancy swims back to the buoy and finds the flare gun. But here’s where the climactic sequence changes quite drastically: In the box with the flare gun, Nancy also finds two inflatable life vests. She ties them to a loose ladder to make a raft. The shark attacks the buoy, causing the metal structure to collapse and twist. In an homage to 127 Hours, Nancy’s leg is pinned in the gnarled metal of the buoy. She realizes she’ll have to let the shark amputate her leg at the knee if she wants a chance at survival.

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After letting the beast rip her leg off, Nancy catches a wave on her raft. The shark gives chase, so Nancy ignites the slick of rotting whale oil. Scorched by the flames, the shark slams into her raft and suddenly we find ourselves back in the opening sequence. Carlos’ young son sees the mangled bodies and Nancy’s tattooed leg. He then sees Nancy, floating on her raft near the shore.

Carlos and his young son pull the barely-alive Nancy out of the surf and into the bed of their pickup truck. The script then shows us the other side of her phone conversation with her brother, David. David lives within viewing distance of a Galveston beach-side amusement park on a pier, complete with a familiar Ferris wheel. Later, still in flashback, David sifts through some beach photos Nancy e-mailed to him. In one photo, he spots the shark’s dorsal fin. He calls Nancy’s phone to warn her. It’s the call she misses earlier in the film.

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Back in the pickup truck, Nancy is fading. In a vision, she rides the Ferris wheel alone. The Ferris wheel stops at the bottom, and the guard rail lifts. She’s free to walk off if she wants. A female form stands silhouetted next to Nancy. It stays a moment but disappears. Nancy still sits there, a tear on her face. The script implies that the Ferris wheel starts to turn again. Nancy’s not ready to get off just yet. THE END.

Now, I’ve heard some criticism of the film’s climax, in which Nancy detaches the heavy chain from the buoy and rides it to the bottom. The shark impales itself upon the sharp spikes of rebar that jut out from the buoy’s anchor. The early script’s climax is slightly more logical but more ambiguous — we don’t know if she killed the shark. In defense of the film’s sillier climax: sometimes it’s better to sacrifice intellectual/logical satisfaction for dramatic satisfaction. You have to pump the movie up artificially to get that big victory our protagonist deserves.

So aside from some modified sequences, In The Deep survived mostly intact (just like its heroine). The tone, however, had to change quite a lot to ensure the film would be PG-13, which means it couldn’t be too dark or austere. That also means that The Shallows isn’t as cerebral or strange as it was originally conceived to be. Luckily, the film still turned out okay, despite the changes to Jaswinski’s earlier draft. Thanks to him and the filmmakers behind The Shallows, we got an original and rousing shark story that pleased audiences and critics alike.


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