The Scary Matter team is watching Jaws – again! It should be required viewing for everyone during Shark Week. Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of the Peter Benchley novel is the gold standard of shark movies. In 1975, Jaws became the first summer blockbuster movie. As far as I’m concerned it is still the best shark movie ever made. But as good as the movie turned out, getting there was no easy task!
You know the story. A great white turns the water off the coast of Amity Island into its personal feeding grounds. Chief Brody’s attempts to close the beaches are ignored by the local money-hungry politicians. That is until a young boy is killed. Brody sets out to find and kill the shark. He is joined by a young shark scientist named Hooper and a salty fisherman named Quint. The shark is not going down easy. It’s hungry and the boat (and its passengers) look like lunch.
Roy Scheider as Chief Brody, Richard Dreyfus as Hooper, and Robert Shaw as Quint were great casting choices. Brody and Hooper’s determination to kill the shark while fighting against Quint’s obsession to bring it in alive was a battle almost as big as fighting the shark. Shaw and Dreyfuss didn’t like each other, which was perfect for their characters’ relationship. The chemistry (or lack of it) between the actors helped make the movie.
Stephen Spielberg’s directing was on point. He perfectly captured that New England summer town feel. His knack for direction and eye for the best shots had audiences on the edge of their seats. Composer John Williams’s iconic score has been living rent-free in people’s minds since 1975. It has been used in everything from commercials to Spongebob Squarepants. It’s even in your brain right now. (MWAHAHAHA!)
Spielberg hired special effects artist Robert A. Mattey to build a shark. And so he did. As a matter of fact, he built three. One was mounted on a “shark sled”. It was attached to an arm that could move back and forth. It was mounted to track on the ocean floor. Another shark moved from right to left and one moved left to right. All the sharks were named Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer, Bruce Rame. The sharks didn’t always work out as planned. Adjustments had to be made which ultimately enhanced the movie but caused expensive and time-consuming delays.
- The sharks were created for freshwater, not the saltwater oceans of Martha’s Vineyard. The saltwater caused the machinery in the sharks to malfunction.
- Because of the malfunctions, the shark constantly came out of the water tail first.
- The saltwater corroded the outside of the shark.
- The first shark that they put in the ocean sank to the bottom
Speilberg had to rethink some of the planned shots. He used either the dorsal fin or barrels to show where the shark was. He had the opening scene shot from the shark’s point of view, and it’s never seen attacking the girl. This technique coupled with the iconic music added to the terror of the scene. But then he had to figure out how to make it look like the girl was being attacked.
Actress Susan Backlinie was wearing a life preserver shaped like a U wrapped around her waist and thighs. She was attached to cables that were pulled back and forth to simulate the attack. There were men on the beach running back and forth pulling her, and Speilberg had a cable that he pulled. Unfortunately, it was a terrible and painful experience for Susan. The cable broke some of her ribs. Her screams were real and she choked on the water every time she opened her mouth. The sound of her drowning was made by pouring water into her mouth while she held her head back. Talk about suffering for your craft!
The shark cage scene was another huge challenge. With Bruce malfunctioning underwater, Speilberg had to think outside the box (or cage). His solution? Real sharks! They shot the scenes in South Australia, where sharks naturally are. It didn’t go well. And yet it did. Jaws was supposed to be twenty-five feet long and the sharks in the ocean weren’t. They decided to use a smaller boat and cage and hired an actor who was four feet tall. The poor man had no experience diving and was afraid of the three swimming sharks. He was so scared that he locked himself in a room inside the boat. And it’s a good thing he did – the cage was already in the water and a sixteen-foot shark attacked it!
Cameraman Ron Taylor was already in the water and immediately started filming, while his wife Valerie filmed from the boat. The shark got stuck and destroyed the cage. The shark almost capsized the boat. That was the footage used in the movie. The script initially had Hooper get eaten during the attack. In order to use the footage, the script was changed to show him escape and hide.
I know you want more so here are a few fun facts about Jaws:
- Robert Shaw ad-libbed the “Here lies the body of Mary Lee” lines. He told Speilberg that he saw it on a gravestone in Ireland (Speilberg was worried about royalties)
- The head that floats out of the boat wreck that Hooper is investigating was not in the original script. After seeing how test audiences reacted to the shark coming out of the water, he wanted more jump scares.
- Roy Scheider ad-libbed the iconic line “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”.
- Speilberg didn’t like the look of the fake arm created for the scene where the woman’s remains are found on the beach. So a woman from the crew was buried in the sand with her arm sticking out.
- When Speilberg first heard William’s score he laughed and thought the composer was kidding.
- Robert Shaw was an alcoholic. He was so drunk when they filmed his monologue about the USS Indianapolis, that he had to be carried off set. He reshot it sober the next day.
- Speilberg originally wanted Charlton Heston as Brody, but then he realized that when people saw him they would automatically know that he would save the day.
- There is a production company named after the line “That’s some bad hat Harry”
- Speilberg called the shark “The Great White Turd”, because of all the mechanical problems.
- There is a deleted scene from the shark attack in the pond. Brody’s son is in the water and frozen in terror as the shark approaches him. A man saves his life by pushing him out of the way at the last minute and gets between the boy and the shark. Then the shark grabs the man and drags his bloody upper body in its jaws as it goes underwater. Speilberg pulled it because he thought it was” too gruesome”.
- When the facade for Quint’s store was being painted some paint spray got on the boats of a local named Lynn Murphy. Mr. Murphy was pissed and went to see what was going on. He was surprised by how little the crew knew about boating. So he offered to help. He gave them advice and lent them some of his own equipment. His help added realism to the film. He wasn’t credited in the film but he was paid.
- Jaws was supposed to be filmed in fifty-five days, but all the delays bumped it up to one hundred fifty-nine.
- So many things went wrong that the crew called the movie “Flaws”.
The more problems that arose during filming, the more Speilberg’s creativity came out. It’s because of that, Jaws became the classic it is today. So be careful when you go in the water my friends – you never know what’s swimming under you.