Jaws ( 1975 )


Peter Benchley wrote Jaws after reading about the great New Jersey shark scare of 1916. The grand-son of Hollywood wit Robert Benchley, he even scored a cameo in the movie playing the reporter on the beach. He strongly resented the finale planned for the picture, so strongly in fact that he was ordered off the set. He felt the exploding gas tank idea was unrealistic. And he was right. A bullet fired into a gas cylinder would not make it explode. It would simply cause it to zoom about like a punctured balloon. Later, Benchley would attempt to emulate Jaws by writing another ocean thriller The Deep, but it only had limited success. The movie of the same name flopped, its only redeeming feature being the exquisite Jacqueline Bisset’s presence, (hence it is still in my collection).

The part of Chief Brody’s wife was given to Lorraine Gary who just happened to be the wife of Sid Scheinberg, the president of Universal Studios. As of 2015 they have been married nearly 60 years.  Robert Shaw (Quint) and Richard Dreyfuss (Hooper) could not stand each other. Their characters were supposed to be opposites anyway, so this aided their performances considerably. Susan Backlinie played the shark’s first victim. To obtain the desired gurgling and drowning sounds, she was laid on her back under a microphone and water poured down her throat. Director Steven Spielberg thought the arm protruding from the sand looked too much like the fake arm it was, so he had a female extra buried in the sand with just her arm protruding, and the scene worked well.

In preparation for this movie Quint’s boathouse was built in Martha’s Vineyard on a vacant lot. The city council imposed a condition that it must be completely demolished after shooting was completed, and that the abandoned lot be returned to precisely its original condition – and that included the litter. Make sense of that if you will. Residents of Martha’s Vineyard were paid $64 each to run about on the beach and scream their lungs out whenever it was required. Shooting took five months to complete and Dreyfuss, by all accounts, made the most of it. He got to know just about every waitress on the island, most of them pretty college girls working on their summer vacations. Ah, it’s a tough life being a movie star, but I suppose somebody has to do it.

The mechanical shark had a habit of breaking down quite often. In fact, the first time it was placed in the water off Martha’s Vineyard it sank to the bottom like a rock. It had been tested, of course, but only in fresh water. The salt water played havoc with its controls. Spielberg was compelled to shoot several scenes from the shark’s viewpoint while waiting for the thing to be repaired and tested, a technique that greatly added to the tension in the movie. As nearly everyone knows, he named the contraption Bruce after his lawyer. The original Bruce (not the lawyer) tours around American museums, while Bruce II inhabits Universal’s Theme Park. In all there were three sharks made for the film at a cost of $250,000 each.

Speaking of the Universal Tour, it began in the silent era but was discontinued in the thirties and then revived in 1964. In the early days an average of 500 people a day paid 25 cents a head (a boxed lunch was included in the price) and for this they were taken around the back lot and its various sets. The tour was capped off by a stint sitting in specially built bleachers watching filming in progress. These were the silent movie days so visitors could clap and cheer to their heart’s content without interfering with production.

Immediately following the first private showing of Jaws, MCA mogul Lew Wasserman met with his distribution heads to discuss releasing what he knew was going to be a phenomenally successful movie. When his people excitedly reported that over 600 theatres in the USA were ready to take the picture, a totally unprecedented number at the time, his first response was to ‘lose 300 of them’. He sagely realized that the best way to promote the picture was not to fill 600 theatres, but to fill just 300 and have lines of patrons outside them waiting to get in.

After the preview screening Spielberg was aware that the picture contained just one major ‘scare’; at the 80 minute mark when Chief Brody is surprised by the shark as he shovels offal into the water from the back of the boat. He wanted another, so Spielberg commandeered his editor’s swimming pool, clouded up the water with Carnation Milk, then shot the sequence where a man’s head suddenly pops out of the hull of his sunken boat. He inserted the extra footage into the appropriate spot and at the next screening it caused a sensation. The most oft-quoted line from the movie would have to be Chief Brody’s ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat’, yet the writers claim no credit for it, saying it was ad-libbed by actor Roy Scheider. The most talked about scene is the ‘severed head’ shot added by the director as an afterthought.

Interestingly, Hooper was supposed to be killed by the shark when he enters the cage under the boat, but Spielberg was unable to shoot convincing footage of the attack. It looked faked. So, he decided to get a midget actor wearing midget air tanks to climb into a miniature cage off the coast of Australia and have it attacked by a genuine 16 foot Great White. Unfortunately, (depending on your point of view), the shark chose to attack and demolish the cage before the little guy could get in it. After observing the footage of the attack the man (understandably) refused to get into the cage again. Reluctantly, Spielberg had Hooper exit the cage before it was demolished. Preview audiences stood and applauded his survival. The real shark footage of it wrecking the smaller cage can be seen in the movie.

Even people as hugely successful as Steven Spielberg get it wrong sometimes. As a promotional item he suggested the studio have little chocolate sharks sold to patrons at the cinemas, each one containing red cherry juice that would spurt out when the shark was bitten into. ‘We’ll clean up’, he said. Studio executives vetoed the idea. When John Williams first played him the musical score he thought it was a joke. ‘That’s funny, John, really’, he said, ‘but what did you really have in mind? The Jaws theme music, of course, has become one of the most recognizable in movie history.

Robert Shaw’s wonderful monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis is (in my view) the highlight of the film, indeed one of the highlights of all films, yet it very nearly did not happen. He had a massive drinking problem, one that changed his personality in the blink of an eye from a kind, courteous man to a competitive, vitriolic son of a bitch. He tried to do the scene drunk, but none of the footage was usable. Spielberg was going to drop it altogether when Shaw (pictured below) rang him and asked if he could take a ‘sober’ shot at it the next morning. He completed the entire monologue in one take and it is indeed memorable, even though he gets the date of the sinking wrong by nearly a month. Sadly, just three years after completing Jaws, he would die from a heart attack in Ireland. He was 51.

Robert Shaw

Despite its extraordinary success Jaws won only technical awards at the Oscars that year; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest sweeping just about everything else. This would not be the only time that Spielberg successes would be ignored at the Academy Awards. Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial were passed over in favour of the very ordinary Ordinary People and the monumentally boring Gandhi respectively. In Hollywood, more often than not, artistic success and economic success do not go hand in hand.


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      • It’s one of the reasons I can’t forigve Spielberg, someone I can’t stand. The book of Jaws, by Peter Benchley, was much more about the immorality of local politicians and corruption than about the shark hunt (which was a far more low-key affair). Spielberg dramatised it and made it an excuse for mindless idiots to murder Great Whites to the extent that they are endangered today – but Spielberg is a time-serving opportunist, as is clear to anyone who’s followed his career, so one shouldn’t be surprised by that. I find it telling that Benchley himself later became an outspoken shark conservationist.

        • Well, Spielberg is not the first to mangle a good book in an endeavour to put bums on theatre seats, and he won’t be the last. My second book ‘Movies Based On True Stories’ looks at over 400 movies that exaggerated, altered, or downright ignored facts in the name of ‘dramatic license’. As for great whites being ‘endangered’, I am not so sure. I am an Australian and we have had 11 shark attacks in the last 5 months, most of them by great whites, so maybe numbers are on the increase (here anyway). I recall reading a government estimate a few years back that claimed there were about 50 million sharks in the waters around Australia.

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