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A Restrospective Look Back At Jaws By Douglas Meacham

Douglas Meacham takes a look back at the 1975, Spielberg classic Jaws which celebrates its 45th anniversary today.

JAWS
U.S. Release Date: June 20, 1975
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
Music by: John Williams
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Oscar Wins: Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score
“YOU’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER BOAT.” – Chief Brody

Today is the 45th anniversary of the release of my second all-time favorite film, the first being SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. It is the original summer blockbuster, the first film ever to gross $100 million at the box office, and it did so in just over a month. It would go on to earn over $400 million world-wide, which by today’s currency is somewhere around $2 billion.

Anyone who hasn’t seen the film will almost certainly be familiar with its basic plot: A killer great white shark terrorizes the New England island town of Amity, and it’s up to chief of police Martin Brody, shark expert Matt Hooper, and captain “Ahab” Quint to stop it.

Steven Spielberg’s second feature is one of the most influential films on my life. It’s what sparked my interest in (and fear of) sharks and the sea as a kid, making me dream of one day being a marine biologist like Hooper. Though, I eventually settled on becoming a merchant sailor like Quint (without a crazy vengeful vendetta). I can’t remember when I first saw JAWS, it came out six years before I was born. But like SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, it has been a part of my life from a very young age.
Spielberg was first interested in the project after walking into producers’ Richard Zanuck and David Brown’s office at Universal Studios and seeing a manuscript that simply read “JAWS”. After reading it, he realized how similar the story was to a TV movie he did called “Duel”, except this would be on the water. He asked Zanuck and Brown to direct it, and because they were pleased with his job on their last project together, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, they agreed.

The manuscript later became Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel. His story was very much a product of its time, having subplots that included the mayor of Amity being influenced by the mob to keep the beaches open, and Hooper having an affair with Brody’s wife. Later on after the success of the film, he and his wife became strong advocates for shark protection awareness in response to the negative views the general public had towards them.

Benchley wrote the first couple of drafts of the screenplay, which was then rewritten by an uncredited writer named Howard Sackler. More revisions were made by Carl Gottlieb (who was constantly writing and rewriting scenes on location while playing Meadows, the editor of the local newspaper). Spielberg himself even wrote a draft with a scene or two that made it into the final film. He and Gottlieb both felt the plot would flow better if Benchley’s extra material was removed from the film, creating a seamless story.

The iconic movie poster was designed by artist Roger Kastel for the paperback edition of the novel. He is also best known for designing the poster for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. His inspiration was mainly drawn from a shark exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. The image has gone on to appear in all sorts of marketing, and has appeared as political and entertainment parodies over the years.

This was the first major film to shoot on the open ocean, which Spielberg insisted on for authenticity. And because of this, all sorts of issues arose simply because the crew did not have control over their environment. The experience for the young director was the most challenging out of all the films he has made, and he has gone on record to say that it still gives him nightmares.

Every fan knows that principal photography occurred on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off Massachusetts’s Cape Cod. According to Richard Dreyfuss, in an interview for the excellent documentary “The Shark Is Still Working”, shooting started on May 1st and was supposed to be scheduled until June 28th. But because of the aforementioned problems at sea, and the mechanical shark infamously not working, the shoot wrapped up about 160 days later.

The island was selected not just for its authentic seaside look, but because it was the only location on the east coast where the crew could film 12 miles out to sea and still have a 30-foot sandy bottom for the device that would support one of the mechanical sharks. But the island had never experienced a major film being shot there before, so the producers had to convince the town leaders to shoot during the height of their summer season.

I’ve visited Martha’s Vineyard twice in my life. The first time was a weekend I spent there at the end of the 2016 season. It was a pilgrimage that was on my bucket list for years, and I finally managed to accomplish it despite only living three hours away. I started off by taking my own personal guided JAWS tour in Edgartown, which served as Amity’s town center. The following days I ventured out to all of the major shooting locations with the soundtrack blaring in my Jeep. It was childhood dream come true.

The star of the film, which Spielberg loving called both “the great white turd” and Bruce after his lawyer, was quite a marvel of engineering at the time. Production designer Joe Alves drew up plans for three separate sharks: two had opposite sides exposed for the connecting hydraulic hoses that would help power them pneumatically, and one was attached to a crane-like boom which connected to a sled that would run along the sea bottom. Because Universal’s production department was overwhelmed with other projects at the time, Joe enlisted the help of veteran special effects wizard Robert Mattey to build his designs. Bob was best known for making the giant squid in Disney’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. Fortunately, some of their hard work survives today. One of the sharks was found at a southern California junk yard recently and was purchased by the Academy of Motion Pictures Museum. It is currently being refurbished and I can’t wait for the museum to open so I can see this magnificent piece of film history in person.

The stories of the shark not working have been told numerous times over the last 45 years. Dreyfuss is known for his animated recollections in interviews. The machines just weren’t designed to withstand the corrosion that occurs in salt water. This left Spielberg and Gottlieb to improvise and alter the script to suit the reality of their plight. In doing so, they took inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock and from the original version of THE THING, using the unseen horror method. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, not showing the shark is what made the film better. Producer Zanuck has stated that when you do see the shark, that was all the usable footage available. There are times, however, when you see the shark and it is in fact a real great white. This is due to the efforts of Ron and Valerie Taylor, an Australian couple who specialized in the underwater filming of sharks. Many of the shots in the scene where Hooper goes into the shark cage are of this live footage, which includes the shark unexpectedly getting tangled in the cage bridal.

One of the ways in which Spielberg and Gottlieb improvised the script was how they altered the opening scene. Originally you were supposed to see the shark devour Chrissie. But instead, she was dragged back and forth by cables attached to her hips that led to pilings offshore and then back to the beach, where half a dozen people on each cable ran back and forth to achieve the effect. Spielberg is credited with giving the first downward pull. Another fine example of improvisation was using Quint’s yellow barrels to mark the shark during the chase scenes.

That brings me to Quint’s boat, the not-so-big but no less famous Orca, which has been compared to the Millennium Falcon and other great ships and vehicles of pop culture. It was originally named the Warlock and was purchased by Joe Alves, who then modified the wheelhouse and upper deck to give it more character. Another replica ship was built specifically to sink and refloat multiple times as needed.

Spielberg hired many locals of Martha’s Vineyard as extras, and some have become fan favorites (“A whaaaa?”). The most memorable roles though, our trio of heroes, were either already established stars or aspiring actors.

Roy Scheider had previously starred in THE FRENCH CONNECTION alongside Gene Hackman, and Spielberg loved him in the role. After playing a NYC cop in that film, he was an obvious choice to play an ex-NYC cop looking to escape that hectic lifestyle and settle in a small community.
Richard Dreyfuss originally turned down the role of Matt Hooper, stating that this was a movie he’d rather watch than film. But after his disappointment with his role in the Canadian film THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ, he called up Spielberg begging for the role.
Spielberg’s first choice for Quint was Lee Marvin, who refused to pretend to be fishing when he was already on a fishing expedition. Zanuck and Brown then suggested veteran actor Robert Shaw because of the work they did with him on the film THE STING. Dreyfuss has stated many times in interviews how he was both astonished and infuriated with Shaw throughout filming. Dreyfuss was an up and coming actor while Shaw was an established theater and film star, so the elder would constantly haze him. But Dreyfuss never lost his respect for Shaw, even after he passed away.
It is widely believed that Chief Brody’s famous line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”, was improvised by Scheider on the spot. For years screenwriter Carl Gottlieb wouldn’t accept credit for it until a fan pointed out to him an interview that Scheider did where he says it was in the script. I recently listened to an episode of Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal (pretentious?) Podcast where he interviewed Gottlieb about this. Carl basically said he wasn’t claiming credit then because he had forgotten he wrote it. He then recollected that the reason he put the line in the script was because the crew kept complaining about their support barge, the SS Garage Sale, being too small.

Quint’s famous delivery of the Indianapolis Speech is one of the most memorable moments of the film and one of the most famous scenes in film history. It was the result of three people working on it, with Robert Shaw writing the final version. Most people first learned about the U.S.S. Indianapolis incident from this film, the files having been declassified by our government between the publishing of the novel and the writing of the speech. Peter Benchley once told a story of how his housekeeper had to call in sick the day after she saw the film because she had just learned how her son died.

Speaking of Benchley, he had disagreed with Spielberg on how to end the film. In the novel, the shark drowns after being pierced by a harpoon. Spielberg didn’t think that was a rousing ending, so he came up with the exploding oxygen tank. When Benchley tried to explain to Spielberg that that was literally impossible, his response was “If I’ve got the audience for two hours, they’ll believe anything I do.” And I agree. This film doesn’t set out to be a hyper-realistic narrative, it’s a horror flick/adventure story. By the time you get to the end of the film you want to see the shark go out in a big way.

The shark exploding was the last shot on location, but it was filmed without Spielberg. He was on a plane back to Los Angeles early because he was afraid the crew was going to through him overboard after filming wrapped. You could argue they’d be justified in doing so. But this ended up becoming a tradition for Spielberg at the end of every future film, not shooting the last shot.

Back in Hollywood, the film went through the usual post-production process. A few scenes still needed to be shot, like the close ups of the shark attacking the cage which was done in a tank. Another was a pickup shot Spielberg wanted to film in editor Verna Fields’ pool, the famous Ben Gardner’s head jump scare. He had replicated a section of the hull of Ben’s boat, and filmed the scene with the head popping out several ways until he decided which one was the scariest.

At the 1976 Academy Awards, JAWS picked up three Oscars. Spielberg was snubbed for Best Director but got the Best Picture nomination, something that rarely ever happened. Verna Fields deservedly got an award for crafting a masterpiece (in her pool house) out of what most crew probably thought was going to be a flop, given everything that went wrong during filming. At Universal Hollywood today, she has a building named after her.


Maestro John Williams received his first Oscar for Best Original Score, he had previously won an award for adapting the music to FIDDLER ON THE ROOF for the screen. This marked a turning point in the career of who most people believe to be one of the greatest film composers ever, myself included.

And that finally brings me to Williams’s epic score. John Williams has been responsible for several instantly recognizable and iconic pieces of music during the past four decades, and it all started with this film. Who would’ve thought back in 1975 that a simple two-note theme would resonate throughout pop culture and with so many people 45 years later? Certainly not Spielberg, at least at first. When Williams played him the theme for the first time on the piano, Spielberg thought it was a joke. He was expecting something more melodic in nature and not something so primal. But after listening to it several times, and realizing that the theme would act as a type of siren declaring the presence of the shark, Spielberg was moved by Williams’s genius. And so were audiences when they first heard the theme as the film started, and more so as the story changed from a horror flick to an adventure tale. Part of the genius of the score is also where you don’t hear it. Spielberg and Williams brilliantly decided to have the JAWS theme only play when the shark was actually on screen or its presence suggested. When the audience sees the kids pulling a prank with a cardboard fin, they instinctively know something is off because they have been subliminally conditioned to think that way early on.

In conclusion, I want to briefly mention my favorite JAWS experience. I had the privilege of seeing JAWS in Concert three years ago at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, the outdoor venue of the Boston Pops. It was the first time I saw the film with a wide audience and with a live orchestra. Listening to the audience’s reactions and the magnificence of the music being played before me was like watching the film for the first time. It almost made up for not being alive to see it in theaters in 1975.

Douglas Meacham
Douglas is a HUGE movie fan and has a very insightful movie group on Facebook called, Meacham's Movie Madness. Douglas is also a Patreon of The Bearded Trio and a very valuable supporter of the site.

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