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Ever heard of thalassophobia? It’s an intense fear of the ocean. But, what’s so scary about the ocean, you might ask? Showmax opens its “all you can binge” seafood buffet with the South African premiere of Siren (2018) and it will give you all kinds of eerie feels about the creatures of the deep.
“The show turns the typical notion of a mermaid on its head. We usually think of these creatures as fragile, hyper-sexualised victims. Ours is powerful and predatory. She will seriously mess you up,” warns Tricia Melton, senior vice-president of marketing, creative and branding for Siren‘s production company Freeform.
There’s something fishy about Ryn (Eline Powell) the new girl in small town Bristol Cove – which, according to local loonies like Helen Hawkins (Rena Owen), was once a mermaid haven. Ryn really starts making waves after catching the eye of marine biologist Ben Pownall (Alex Roe) and his girlfriend Maddie Bishop (Fola Evans-Akingbola). But they’re wading into dangerous waters because the mermaids (or sirens) are gathering and they’re hungry – thanks to local overfishing.
“They’re scary in the way people are scared of lions or cheetahs or something like that,” explains Zimbabwean-born Sibongile Mlambo, who plays Ryn’s captured sister, Donna. “We’re not scary just to be scary. There’s totally a reason behind it. We’re predators and so we would be scary to everyone else because if we’re at the top of the food chain, we will scare you. It’s more of just a natural means to survive. We need to hunt and if you happen to be what we hunt, you will be scared of us. That’s just the way it is.” Emily Whitesell, executive producer of Siren, adds, “We really do tell why mermaids might be the way they are. We’re trying to tell stories with deeper themes – themes like global warming and why people would be driven out of their homes. From there, we tell the story of this mermaid who would like to get home. Ryn is waiting for her sister, who it turns out has been captured, so there’s this story of Ryn on this incredible journey to find her.”
No Little Mermaid
Ryn is no little mermaid, dreaming of a dry-land man. “She a little bit more animalistic than the Little Mermaid, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she isn’t as lovely,” says Eline teasingly. “Take away our loved ones, invade our home, pollute where we live… maybe kill off animal species that we rely on for survival – things like that might make us a little bit frustrated.” As it would seem, Ryn and her fellow mermaids are far from defenceless. She not only has sharp claws and teeth, she’s also able to lure people to her and manipulate them using her “siren song”. Ben becomes her first victim. “She sings this kind of quite creepy song and from then it kind of gets into your head and it messes around with your feelings and emotions and thoughts. He thinks that he’s doing things for a good reason and I think slowly realises that maybe she’s inside his head,” says Alex.
The shark horror film Jaws (1975) was one of series creator Eric Wald’s major inspirations for the story.
Under the sea
Ryn is created with a combination of physical make-up effects (while she’s on land) and computer imagery. After training, Eline could hold her breath for three minutes and 12 seconds while free diving and shooting scenes on the underwater set. “The hardest thing underwater is just finding your mark. You can’t actually see underwater because it’s all very dark. The hardest thing is making sure you don’t swim straight into the camera,” reveals Eline. “After a few hours, your vision adjusts and suddenly you can see outlines and shapes, but those first few takes, don’t expect them to be great.” Ryn’s underwater mermaid tail isn’t real though, nor are the gills. “The key thing was that we decided we were gonna do all make-up and tails digitally for the series, which we did not do in the pilot. Eline had to spend a lot of time in the make-up chair, which was exhausting, and then she had to put on this heavy tail and you can’t perform like that,” says Eric. “The underwater is all me just wearing a nude suit and then I get dots on me and then they change the skin in post [production],” explains Eline. The tail effects are handled by Pixomondo, the VFX company that created the dragons for Game Of Thrones (2011-current, seasons 1-7 now on Showmax).
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