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Creature Feature

The Tybee Bomb produces terrifying tentacles in a new film made in, about and by Savannah.  With jellyfish season bearing down on the Coastal Empire, Annabelle Carr goes behind the green screen.

It’s impossible to talk to writer Pat Longstreth and director Rob McLean and not walk away with a list of movies to watch.  I might actually check out Hobo With a Shotgun, the Rutger Hauer vehicle that, I’m told, “lives up to its name.”  Its colorfully campy violence, Rob explains, is similar to the esthetic and attitude of his and Pat’s new short film, Hellyfish.

Rob McLean directs the cast of Hellyfish on Tybee Beach. Photograph by Bob Jones.

“We generally just tell people that Hellyfish is Jaws meets Shaun of the Dead,” Rob says.  “We borrowed many of our camera angles and stock characters from monster movies and beach horror.”

What’s not to love?  But even if you’re not a fan of either genre, you’re likely to know someone in the Hellyfish cast or crew.

“We cast and filmed everything locally,” Pat tells me.  “I mean, the sea captain really is one—Captain Gary Hill from Bull River Dolphin Tours.  And we found some really talented young actors, like Abraham and Liberty Lebos.”  Muse Arts’ muse JinHi Soucy Rand looks intriguingly unrecognizable in her character makeup as “Wise Fisherwoman” in early film stills.

Hellyfish writer-producer Pat Longstreth sets a scene. Photograph by Bob Jones.

But of course, it’s Pat’s storyline that first captured my attention: radioactive jellyfish wreak havoc on Tybee Island.  If you’ve ever had a perfect August beach day ruined by one of those squishy little devils, you understand my interest.

“I find jellyfish fascinating,” Pat agrees.  “They’re beautiful but dangerous.  I respect them as predators.  They’ve evolved little over time, but they’re still able to survive and inflict crippling pain on the rest of us.  It’s about time someone did a horror movie about jellyfish.”

But Pat got the idea for Hellyfish from history, not marine biology.

“My dad called me up after watching a History Channel special about the Tybee Bomb,” Pat recalls, referring to the Mark 15 hydrogen bomb that was lost in Wassaw Sound in 1958 after a mid-air collision between two military planes.  “It was the first time I’d heard of the bomb.  I sat on the beach, and this story started coming together in my mind.”

Although the infamous bomb remains disarmed and self-contained by all accounts, in Pat’s storyline it’s responsible for a Godzilla-like reaction that leads to the jelly-based “drowning, squishing, dismemberment and electrocution” of many familiar Savannah characters.

Movie-making magic: shooting against a green screen to allow CGI effects of radioactive jellyfish to be added later.

The actors did all their own stunts, which meant Lillian McCotter—who plays a set of triplets and thus appears more than any other actor in the film—had to overcome a crippling fear of real-life sea creatures.

“As luck would have it, we did most of our filming during horseshoe crab mating season, so there was a lot of excitement,” Pat laughs.  “At one point, we were filming, and this giant horseshoe crab started sneaking up on Lily.”

But the biggest danger of the film may have been the overconsumption of cheesy puffs, when extra/underwater cameraman Mehmet Caglayan’s dismemberment scene required him to stuff his face with the extruded orange snacks for take after take.  (Pat and Rob worked with Mehmet on the National Geographic Savannah Ocean Exchange.)

The actual dismemberment—as well as the giant jellyfish that crushes the Tybee Pier—had to happen in digital effects, which Pat now designs for a living in L.A.

“We even brewed a digital storm to create a sense of foreboding in the sky,” Rob recalls, emphasizing that every aspect of the project was intentional.  Jaws fans will even recognize some pointed allusions to the original 1975 movie.

A harrowing scene from Hellyfish.

Filmed over 15 days in September and January, the 14-minute film will double as a pitch for a feature-length version.  But for now, the labor of love is an entry in the 2013 South by Southwest festival, the sensory smorgasbord of cutting-edge music, film and interactive media that takes place every March in Austin, Texas.

Savannahians who contributed to the movie’s Kickstarter fund are already reaping their benefits, including T-shirts, action figures and—for the right donation—their very own “kill scenes” featuring donors being creatively slaughtered by a digital jellyfish.

“We couldn’t have made this film without the people of Savannah,” Pat tells me.  “And our partnership with Meddin Studios and SCAD got us more than $100,000 in equipment for free.”  The result is a film whose production values far outweigh its budget.

Meanwhile, Pat and Rob are noticing a disturbing new trend that might make their film more relevant than they imagined.

“Jellyfish are causing problems all over the world as their migration patterns are changing,” Pat observes.  “They’ve been clogging filtration systems at power plants, in some cases forcing them to shut down.”  The proliferation of jellyfish, which scientists ascribe to climate change and rising sea temperatures, is also disrupting the food chain by robbing small fish of their food supply and poisoning the catch of Japanese fishermen.

So far, here in Savannah, they just hurt like heck.

But Hellyfish might be closer then we think.

Here’s a sneak peek of that massive, gelatinous monster tearing up Tybee Island this summer.

 

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