To paraphrase Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) in Jaws, when he is trying to explain why the art work ‘paint happy bastards’ have produced on the Amity Island board is anatomically correct to the Mayor (Murray Hamilton) in the presence of Chief of Police, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider). Jaws is the perfect eating machine of a movie.
It went over production, over budget and the mechanical shark, fondly nicknamed Bruce after Director Steven Spielberg’s Lawyer, often didn’t work. The film should never have worked, but all of this extra time meant the film matured, like a fine wine (red and white of course), to become the classic that we have today.
Hands down it is my favourite film of all time and without fail I set sail with it – on whatever format – every year on my birthday. So what better time to post this than on my actual birthday.
Over the years I have bought it several times, first as a pan and scan CIC Video VHS copy that I bought in 1987, my widescreen VHS copy and both the 25th and 30th anniversary DVDs, and now the 35th anniversary edition Bluray all cleaned up. Jaws may be 41 but it really has never looked better.
It may be about to sound better those as news has just broke that the Boston Pops Orchestra, once presided over by Jaws composer John Williams, is to perform a live screening of Jaws next summer with full orchestra.
This would follow the pattern of several other Steven Spielberg films, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, to get the live orchestra treatment. They all came to the UK so it can only be a matter of time before a dorsal fin breaks the water to a live rendition of William’s still astonishing and gripping score. William’s score isn’t a piece of music for the film; it is essentially the ‘voice’ of the shark itself.
The 1975 film is based on the best-selling book by Peter Benchley, he also write a draft of the screenplay and has a cameo as a TV news reporter on the beach.
Amity Island, a seaside town off Long Island is getting ready for the summer season, but it could have never been ready for the murderous shadow of a Great White Shark. As the victims continue to wash up the town hire a grizzled fisherman to catch it and kill it. Joining him at sea are a marine biologist and the town’s chief of police. It’s sink or swim for the thrust together threesome as they fight against the elements, against each other and against the shark.
As a piece of cinema, Jaws was always the near perfect film and now, cleaned up frame by frame for its 35th anniversary it looks like it was practically shot last week. This lean mean thriller machine became the closest to cinematic perfection it has ever got.
Jaws still packs a punch (or should that be bite radius) of a juggernaut. The opening night Chrissie attack sequence has never looked so uncomfortably clear, her nakedness making you almost feel voyeur like – making it even closer akin to the shower scene it Psycho in that respect – right up until that moment of impact that’s like a train, when the John Williams score and sound effects really kick into high gear. It’s the perfect opener for a movie (indeed Spielberg even copied it himself of sorts in 1993 in the opening of Jurassic Park).
It effectively sets the shark up as a Jack the Ripper like monster. The noise, the screams and the music all blend to still create a sense of dread in the pit of your stomach. Also one of the most iconic, and oft-imitated, poster images ever. She was the first…
However, it’s not the 25 foot shark; all three tonnes of it, that dominates the film though, each and every piece of the film he is in is dominated by Robert Shaw as Quint. Scheider and Dreyfuss are no slouches for sure and the way the threesome ping off each other is a joy to behold (the script coupled with the beauty of the extra rehearsal time due to operating problems with the shark et al) but Quint has never been so dominant, so alive.
He chews scenery like the shark chews his boat, the Orca, at the end of the film and his eyes, his eyes are just so piercing a blue that they make Daniel Craig’s look practically dull in comparison. It confirmed to me that more classic Shaw films should be viewed on the big screen but also left a genuine feeling of loss, for the man, Shaw died only three years after the release of Jaws, and for cinema generally. He carved such an impression up there on the big screen, seen as he should be and not on a box – no matter what its size – in the corner of the room.
Jaws never puts a foot wrong, it still has fantastic pace, still thrills and scares a little in all the right places and also makes people laugh in all the places that it is meant to do. Rubber shark or no rubber shark it, like Alien after it, which after all was pitched as Jaws in Space, still taps into that primeval fear and when each and every person bringing that to life is working at the top of their game you can’t go wrong, critically, commercially or for longevity.
It’s hard to think that the then 27 year old Steven Spielberg almost turned down the chance to direct the movie that launched a thousand nightmares. It was the first film to smash the $100 million barrier and upon initial release it is estimated some 67 million Americans went to see it,
At the time the Director felt that the film was too similar to the man versus (mechanical) beast of Duel (1971). He wasn’t too worried about the lorry and shark having the same dinosaur death cry though, one as it lurches over a cliff, the other as its carcass sinks to the bottom of the sea. Spielberg felt both had a kinship of sorts – both leviathans targeting everyman
The original schedule of 52 days tripled due to the problems of filming on location, not so much the filming at Martha’s Vinyard, which doubled as the quaint Amity Island, but more the filming at sea, which almost left the whole production at sea. Previously most movies set at sea were filmed in giant tanks with a pre-filmed backdrop but being on a real sea, on a real boat it made the experience that much more successful.
The 12 hour days were not wholly productive as only four were devoted to actual filming, due to the poor weather and the not wholly co-operative shark (it sank on its first test and practically exploded on its second), but in the end these were the elements that helped make the film the success it was.
Initially the Producers, Richard Zanuck and David Brown, thought(!) that they might be able to hire a man to train a Great White to perform a few simple tricks and do the rest with miniatures. Thankfully this route was not pursued and it soon became very clear that there was only one man who could make this monster fish a reality, the retired Bob Mattey, who created the giant squid for Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea some 20 years earlier.
Jaws and Christian Bale both might have too many teeth but his strops pale into insignificance next to ‘Bruce’, who was cross-eyed and his jaws would not shut.
This, however, proved to be Spielberg’s masterstroke as he had to be more inventive and hide the shark behind the camera for as long as possible, its presence suggested by twisting camerawork and the now unmistakable primeval music composed by John Williams, thus allowing the audience’s mind to create the horror of the shark, all 20, I mean 25 feet of him. And of course those rather cannily placed yellow barrels!
No matter how well the shark performed or how well it was hidden when it didn’t the filmmakers knew that the audience would need to see real sharks, and that is exactly what they got with amazing footage from Australian husband and wife diving team, Ron and Valerie Taylor.
Thankfully Great Whites do not grow to 25 feet in length so to make the shark look larger for the Hooper cage dive a smaller cage and midget were used to get some spectacular footage.
But the best was yet to come when the shark destroyed the cage and almost the boat, thankfully the pint size stuntman, Carl Rizzo, was not in it at the time and after seeing the ‘attack’ on the boat promptly locked himself in the toilet. The footage remains in the film, which effectively meant the shark helped rewrite the book and ensure the survival of Richard Dreyfuss’ character.
Peter Benchley, and old pal of Spielberg, Carl Gottlieb, are listed as the screenwriters of the project but beneath the surface of the credits it is revealed that several different people helped stamp their authority on the project.
Benchley had two passes at the script and then the Pulitzer winning playwright (and scuba diver), Howard Sackler, was brought in to beef up the script. One of his greatest additions was the Quint USS Indianapolis monologue, which is now being mooted in various quarters as a prequel. There is a script floating about.
This one moment, more than any other, has been the one that has become fabled in who should take the credit for the powerful moment when Robert Shaw’s character retells his World War 2 shark encounter. Future Apocalypse Now and Conan scribe, John Milius, had a crack at it with Shaw himself, an accomplished playwright, also gave it a polish and honed it to the perfection you see on scream, depending on whose tale you listen to of course.
The great thing about the hours of waiting to film meant that the main actors (Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw) all got to hone their characters, got to know each other and also got to rework their dialogue with co-screenwriter, Gottlieb (who also played opposite Mayor of Sharksville, Murray Hamilton) who often updated dialogue only 24 hours before the shoot, which perhaps goes someway to explaining why these three characters and their words – which even Tarantino would be proud of – and every nuance is so spot on and crisp over 40 years later.
Other unsung heroes of the movie also had to include camera operator, Michael Chapman, who practically filmed the last third of the movie handheld, which helped give it that realistic, fresh look. And he even saved vital film from a sinking Orca, narrowly saving his skin and the dailies.
Finally, there is Editor, Verna Fields, who won one of the three Oscars (it was nominated for four) for the film and edited the movie on location as the footage slowly crept in, not only editing around the underperforming shark but also continuity problems of an ever changing sea and sky, not that you’d notice.
She was also instrumental to adding the ‘head in the boat’ scene that was shot in a swimming pool and added long after filming had wrapped. And that scene gave the extra jump that the film needed, even after all those viewings it is still hard to judge exactly when it will pop out.
By the end of the film the shark may have been dead but the blockbuster as we know it today had been born. The sea (or the bath when I was little as I was convinced he was going to get in there) and cinema would never be the same again.