Interview: THE MEG's Steve Alten

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Next week, one of the biggest shark movies in history will make its theatrical debut here in North America. You've probably guessed that I'm talking about The Meg, starring Jason Statham and Li Bingbing. This Fin Flick explores what happens when a giant prehistoric shark comes to the surface after spending millions of years trapped in the uncharted depths of the Pacific ocean. The film is based on a novel by author Steve Alten, who published Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror in 1997. The book became a New York Times Bestseller, and Alten is still writing sequels. Listen to the interview below to hear Steve talk about his novels, the blockbuster film adaptation, and the future of the Meg franchise.

T: So I understand you grew up in Philadelphia. What brought you down to the South Florida area?

S: Well, it's warm down here! So I eventually gravitated down here. I moved down here about 30 years ago. I had owned a water treatment company up in Delaware. I sold it to a partner and opened up a smaller one in Fort Lauderdale. And that eventually shut down. And I found myself, after going through 10 straight years of college, earning a bachelor's, master's and doctorate degree in education, working for myself selling water treatment systems door-to-door. And it was a pretty miserable life. And I was looking to do something — anything else.

T: When did Meg enter the picture?

S: In August of 1995, 22 years ago, I picked up a Time magazine article and there was a story on the Mariana Trench: the deepest part of the ocean. And when I was younger, I had loved reading stories about sharks. And there was always a mention of a prehistoric shark called a Megalodon and I remembered reading about it and uh thought "boy, this might be a neat place for that shark to be." And so I went to the library and did about three weeks worth of research and found that it was feasible and decided that I was going to become an author.

T: So it was the Megalodon that kind of sparked your first interest in writing fiction?

S: It was, yes. And because I had a job in the evenings, I basically had to work on the book from 10:00 at night till 3:00 in the morning and on weekends. And I did that for six months. Then I took out the manuscript and was able to get a literary agent interested — Ken Atchity in Los Angeles. Ken felt the manuscript would make a good book, but it needed a lot of editing. And in order to pay for editing fees, I wound up selling one of my cars.

We worked on the book together for about six months. And on Friday the 13th in September 1996, I went to work. At the time I was working as the general manager of a wholesale meat company. I found that family that was running the company, uh, no longer needed me and fired me. I went home with virtually no money in the bank. My wife was upset, and I said: "honey, this is the best thing that could happen because now I can start a second book!" And she about threw a frying pan at my head! Four days later, Meg went out to the six big publishing houses in New York and garnered a two-book deal. And we were off and running.

T: Did you have any interest in marine science before you heard about the Meg?

S: Not from an academic standpoint, but from a literary standpoint I did.

T: I read Meg when it hit paperback in the late 90s and I was hooked. I was about 13 years old at the time and definitely grew up a shark kid. So I was at that perfect age for it. And there was definitely a push among all of my kid friends to read it. There were a few books at the time that kind of sparked our interest in prehistoric marine biology. There was one called Extinct by Charles Wilson. I read it, and then a couple weeks later I think I found Meg in paperback.

S: Yeah, they came out about the same time. But I guess you're a Meg-head!

T: I am for sure. I've been for quite a long time. Actually, the co-host of Fin Flicks is Drew Dietsch, with whom I think you've been in contact before.

S: Yes, Drew was a character in one of the books!

T: Yep, in Primal Waters! I just reread Meg for the first time in a few years, just to brush up. I was struck by just how much the book seemed to be a perfect action blockbuster for that late '90s era. Back when people were still making movies like Deep Blue Sea or Deep Rising. You know, these big R-rated action horror movies with big practical effects. And now the book has been out there for 20 years. And the movie has been in development for pretty much just as long. And in that 20 years, we've got blockbusters evolving, changing greatly, the market shifting and changing a whole bunch. How did Meg have to evolve to be a blockbuster in 2018?

S: Well, the first dramatic rights were optioned back in '96, to Hollywood Pictures. And they went through two subpar scripts. Then the president of Hollywood Pictures lost his job. So the incoming president put Meg in reversion, back to me. And then nothing happened until about 2004, when a friend of mine, Nick Nunziata (creator of CHUD.com) took the book to two of his friends: director Guillermo del Toro, and Lloyd Levin, the producer of Hellboy.

They really wanted to get involved. And they optioned it from me for about a dollar, just to get it going. Then they had me write a script. They added Jan de Bont, the director, to the package. Jan and I worked on the script together. And they took that package in 2004-2005 to New Line, optioned it, and then they brought in the new screenwriter Shane Salerno. He basically ignored all the source material and wrote his own story, which was really bad. He basically tried to write Moby Dick with a Megalodon. And uh, that was not a good situation. Plus, New Line undersold the foreign rights, so they couldn't get co-financing for a deal.

So after two years of horrible relationships with that team, that eventually dissolved. And they reverted the rights back to me. And I basically met with producer Belle Avery, a friend of mine who really loved the source material. She and I wrote a script together, and she took that out. And over the next eight years, she brought in the money independently and got the project going again. So there's a hero of the story: Belle Avery is the dramatic rights hero. She brought in Gravity Pictures of China, and they funded the movie. And they took that package to Warner Brothers.

T: Was this before or after Eli Roth was on the project for a while?

S: That was before. Eli was attached as director after we brought it to Warner.

T: So now with the release imminent worldwide, I wanted to talk a little bit about how the novel and the movie are going to be really different and both very fun experiences. But the opening of the novel where the shark eats a Tyrannosaurus Rex definitely seemed to be a bold mission statement about your intentions in telling that kind of story. You know, we were coming out of the era of Jurassic Park, where Jurassic Park sort of went away for a while. Crichton had his two big hit novels, we had the two big movies. and then Meg hits the shelves and the marketing angle is "Jurassic shark!" Do you think that scene serves as sort of a mission statement for what kind of story you're trying to tell?

S: Yeah, I think so. I was trying to make a statement in that opening chapter that my monster is nastier than your monster. But the creatures weren't alive at the same time. Though in the new version of Meg, I sort of explain that as a little docudrama that was put together by Jonas Taylor the beginning just to show how nasty this thing was. Later on in the series, I don't know if you've read any of the other Meg books, but um...

T: I've read through Hell's Aquarium.

S: So you know about the Panthalassa Sea and the other monsters that the series introduces. I think that will make a nice future for the franchise because the sea monsters — the sea dinosaur monsters — are much nastier than the land creatures. And I was looking for a way to sort of incorporate that into the series.

T: Yeah, it was interesting seeing all the new fish, the Dunkleosteus, and the Liopleurodon. The Kronosaurus in The Trench was definitely coming out of left field for a kid just interested in reading shark books. Seeing that was like, "Oh wow! Okay, they're really going to take this somewhere else." It was a fun read. I remember The Trench kind of blowing my mind as a kid. Any material from The Trench you think would make a great movie sequel for The Meg?

S: I do! You know, I hope that they follow the books or the plotlines of the books in future movies. I think it's ripe for that. And it's something that really hasn't been done before in the movies. I mean, Jurassic World has the Mosasaur. And I think Jurassic World, the first one, was so popular because of the Mosasaur of all things.

T: Yeah. It was kind of the first time we'd ever seen that. And just like in the opening of the Meg novel, there's this sort of one-upmanship, where they feed the Mosasaur a great white shark. And it's that mission statement to say that our monster is more badass than the one you remember.

S: Right, I agree! First of all, you couldn't feed it a great white anyway, because it's a protected species. And second, it's not what a Mosasaur would want to eat. It's kind of a bony meal. They would eat a whale. But no, I'm glad you picked up on that.

T: Have you ever seen the movie Orca from the '70s?

S: I did see it, yes!

T: It's just like from the beginning of Orca. In the very first sequence, an orca shows up and blows a great white out of the water, just to make that statement. It's definitely a tradition, I think, in creature horror. And I'm glad to see it sort of continue in the Meg series.

S: Yeah! (Laughs)

T: What was your favorite part of seeing all this finally come together on the big screen?

S: Uh, besides getting paid?

T: Yeah, besides that! (Laughs)

S: I think the fact that they had good scripts and they had a great cast. I remember when Jason Statham was given the nod to play Jonas Taylor. That was a good day. I felt that he would be excellent as Jonas. And then the first time I saw the trailers. That was exciting.

T: Yeah, it's cool to finally see it become real. And I haven't seen the film yet. Drew has. But even in the trailers, I see set pieces that I recognize from the book. Like the clear shark-cage tube that Maggie's in, in the book. Meg is one set piece to another to another in the novel. And it appears that has continued over to the movie. What kinds of movies and stories have inspired your sense of creating action?

S: Well, obviously Jaws had a big effect. But I remember reading Jaws and thinking the opening sequence when the shark was coming into the shallows was really cool. And then I had to flick through like, four or five chapters to get to the next sequence. And I thought when I started writing the book, "I'm not gonna give the reader that kind of experience. I want the reader to have non-stop action piece after action piece." Because that's the adrenaline push that I want when I read a book. So the Meg series has just nothing but action pieces.

T: Yeah, it's a decidedly leaner take on the technothrillers of the time. I also reread Crichton's The Lost World recently, and there's just so much endless claptrap from the scientific characters. And while Meg does take its science seriously, it keeps that sort of stuff pared down to absolute lean necessity and then focuses on set pieces. And it's a much more exciting read as a result.

S: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And I agree, that was definitely the intent.

T: Aside from the obvious Meg and Jaws, do you have a favorite piece of shark fiction? Whether it be a book or a film or what have you?

S: No, I mean those are the two top ones. There's no doubt. But I thought that The Shallows was well done!

T: Yeah. It's a really good step forward for shark cinema because we've been in this era of "shark means schlock" for a while, where shark movies were sort of relegated to being low-budget SYFY Channel movies. The Shallows stepped out and said, "actually we can do this seriously again." And I think for Drew and myself, who loved shark cinema and Meg growing up, we were worried the movie was going to be sort of an ironic take on the material. And we've both been happy to discover that it's actually a really loving take on the material. Its main goal is to have fun and take fun seriously — not ironically.

S: I totally agree, absolutely, that they got the tone right.

T: Yeah. I think we're seeing sort of a resurgence in shark fiction now. We're able to appreciate this stuff not only from just a standpoint of pure entertainment but a scientific standpoint. Is there any particular scientific organization you think should take the spotlight for their shark work?

S: Well, something that has changed since Jaws came out is that we understand that sharks are an important part of the ecosystem of the ocean. And Meg plays upon that theme too. Because there were a lot of killing sprees that happened after Jaws came out and everyone seemed to want to hunt them down. And Benchley came out against that. And this whole ridiculous thing with shark fin soup, killing tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands of sharks for their fins. It's just ridiculous. So any organization that's opposed to that, I back.

T: Yeah, the shark fin soup thing has definitely been a big thing. Thankfully, it's lost a lot of popularity. For a while, I think the anti-whaling focus received more publicity simply because whales were cuddlier. But the finning of sharks is just as barbaric. But since sharks aren't as cuddly, it didn't quite get the publicity.

S: Yeah. In one of the Meg books, Nightstalkers, I bring out an action scene that takes place in Japanese waters, where the Japanese are on this small island. They have this annual killing spree of dolphins. It's just heinous.

T: Isn't there a documentary called The Cove about something similar?

S: Yes, absolutely. And those things need to get more attention as well.

T: Speaking of Nightstalkers, the Meg series just got its seventh entry, is that right? With Generations?

S: Sixth. Number six with a seventh coming!

T: After just rereading the first novel, it's perfectly set up for a sequel. It goes right into The Trench, with the whole tank at the Tanaka Institute and the birth of Angel. What was your philosophy in turning Meg into a series? Because it's not just about the situation created when a giant shark comes to the surface. It's all centered on the Taylor family. What's your philosophy in sort of marrying those two things?

S: Well, you have to have somebody you want to root for and appreciate as the character you can follow. The Taylors do that well. But at the same time, the sharks also had their own personalities. Angel was probably the most popular character in the series. She had her own personality and she was just horrendously nasty. But you sort of rooted for her at the same time.

T: Well, yeah, you made I think a great choice in keeping her around for such a long time. Was it Hell's Aquarium where the Meg pups show up? There's a sort of like a mottled one and a darker one?

S: Yes, The Sisters!

T: That novel, more than any of the others, really leaned into that futuristic science fiction that the series got into. Because Jonas Taylor, as I remember, ages up in the series quite quickly so you can introduce his kids. How far can these novels go into that futuristic sci-fi? Is there a limit for that? Is that sort of antithetical to keeping it simple with giant shark action? Or do you want to take it even further?

S: Well, Generations takes it a little bit further. But what I've told my Meg-heads is basically that I'll keep writing them as long as they stay fresh. What I don't want to do is jump the shark with the Meg series and put something out that's, you know, the whole "jump the shark Fonzie" thing. Just a lack of quality storytelling. But as long as it stays fresh, I'll try to keep writing them.

T: I think the key in franchises now is finding that one new element that can open up a whole new menu of things to choose from and places to go. In Meg, I think, from a franchise standpoint, it's the Panthalassa Sea. Once we open up this new door into this new place, there's no telling what's going to come out.

S: Yeah, I totally agree. Hell's Aquarium was the one that has the new dimension. Or else it would have gotten flat.

T: And I think that new dimension is particularly exciting. Since the series has gone so futuristic, it kind of qualifies as speculative fiction. Now that it can go to other places, it can explore different aesthetics and still maintain that fun creature horror aspect. That's what I'm looking forward to about all this. And now we have the potential for Meg to evolve over time on the screen, too.

S: I agree!

T: Well Steve, is there anything you'd like to add today? Anything you make sure we hit?

S: Ah, just that A & M Publishing has re-released a new version of Meg. It's The Meg, the movie cover edition with images in there too. It's really the most reader-friendly version of Meg that's ever been published. And that's out in stores this week.

T: How is Meg: Origins incorporated into newer versions of Meg?

S: Actually, it reads much better in the back of the book as a sort of bonus material. It slows down the action if it's put in the front of the book, I discovered. So we've made that switch in the book.

T: Steve, I think that's about all the time we have for today. I'd like to thank you for taking my call! It's been fun. I actually used to write for Nick Nunziata. Drew and I both read CHUD.com when Meg was first in development, then we both wrote for Nick Nunziata for a couple years.

S: Ah, that's funny!

T: Yeah, it's all connected. Small world.