The Troubled Production Of James Cameron's Piranha II

Long before he was an esteemed filmmaker with major titles like "Avatar" and "Titanic" to his name, James Cameron made his directorial debut with the 1982 indie horror film "Piranha II: The Spawning." Despite this, Cameron has often acknowledged "The Terminator" as the first film he directed, even though it came out in 1984, two years after the release "Piranha II." In fact, Cameron spent years disavowing the film, citing a multitude of bizarre production issues — including a literal break-in — as the reason why he wanted little do with the film for so many years.

Cameron Was Forced to Resort to Criminal Activity

According to the book "A Critical Companion to James Cameron," production of "Piranha II" was so fraught with creative and technical difficulties that James Cameron was "forced to break into a studio to edit the movie that still bore his name." Though accounts of Cameron's actual level of involvement in the film vary, Cameron himself has stated that he was fired just two weeks into production, but due to legal issues, he was still credited as the director, much to his frustration:

"I was replaced after two-and-a-half weeks by the Italian producer. He just fired me and took over, which is what he wanted to do when he hired me. It wasn't until much later that I even figured out what had happened. It was like, 'Oh, man, I thought I was doing a good job.' But when I saw what they were cutting together, it was horrible. And then the producer wouldn't take my name off the picture because [contractually] they couldn't deliver it with an Italian name. So they left me on, no matter what I did. I had no legal power to influence him from Pomona, California, where I was sleeping on a friend's couch. I didn't even know an attorney. In actual fact, I did some directing on the film, but I don't feel it was my first movie."

Apparently, this lack of creative control is what led to the then first-time director taking matters into his hands by breaking into the editing room and cutting his own version of the film. Although his version was eventually released on home video in some areas, the executive producer's cut is still the most widely available version of "Piranha II."

Language Barriers

In addition to the battle for creative control between James Cameron and Ovidio G. Assonitis, the aforementioned "Italian producer," Cameron also had to contend with language barriers between himself and the production crew for "Piranha II." Cameron was originally hired as the special effects supervisor, but was promoted to director after executive producer Assonitis fired Miller Drake, the original director for the film. To add to the stress of being unexpectedly thrust into the role of director, it turns out that production team only spoke Italian, meaning that (unlike Assonitis) Cameron had no way to effectively communicate with them. Obviously, these are less than ideal conditions for any director, let alone a newcomer.

The Film Really Does Suck

Production insanity aside, "Piranha II" was also critical failure. In fact, with a mere 6% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 17 reviews), and a score of 3.7/10 on IMDB (based on ‎8,457 votes), it's safe to say that "Piranha II" is objectively awful. Personally, I'm someone who typically enjoys "bad" movies for the unintentionally hilarious curiosities they tend to be, but in the case of "Piranha II," however, I have to draw the line. It's bold to entertain the notion that a film about genetically engineered flying piranhas could be good on any level to begin with, but I had some semblance of hope. This hope was swiftly abandoned around three minutes in, during a bizarre underwater sex scene that includes one character cutting off her partner's speedo with a knife before they're viciously attacked by hungry fish. I don't know how they managed to hold their breath long enough to still be alive before the piranha descended upon them, but it's not a movie that seems particularly concerned with making sense anyway.

On that alone, I can understand why Cameron, who went on to make critically acclaimed movies that don't suck, wouldn't want to be associated with "Piranha II." When you add in the fact the film's production was a mess, it makes sense that he would prefer the relatively fairytale beginning of having "The Terminator" be his directorial debut as opposed to the reality of "Piranha II." Unfortunately, one cannot simply rewrite history to pretend they were never associated with a bad thing purely because it's bad, and James Cameron is still listed as the director, no matter how much he tried to distance himself from that reality. It seems that the renowned director has come to understand this, having softened his stance on disowning the film over time, going so far as to acknowledge it in interviews and jokingly stating that "Piranha II" is "the best flying piranha film ever made."