Sunday, August 19, 2012

Jaws - A Classic Revisited

One of my all time favorite movies was released on Blu-Ray this week, the 1970s horror classic, “Jaws.”  I've been getting reacquainted with it this weekend.  The Blu-Ray edition has two feature-length documentaries on it; one of which hasn’t appeared before and the other is double the length of what previously appeared on the DVD.

“Jaws” was the first grown-up novel I ever read.  It was a huge best seller in 1974 when I was in 8th grade and I remember my mom asking me if I’d be interested in reading it. 

I said “Sure.”

She ordered me the hardback and I dug right into it upon delivery.

It was overwhelmingly exciting and I tore through it in a couple days.  I so wish I still had it, but I lent it to a friend and never got it back again.  But soon after I read it, I began hearing about how they were making a movie out of it and I knew that it was going to be a good one.

When the movie was released in 1975, it was a huge pop culture event.  “Jaws” was all over the news and media.  Theaters were selling out, with ticket lines running down the block.  It took me a while to get to see it.  I mean, I was 13; I couldn’t exactly hop in the car and go.  I would have been able to get right in, though, because it was rated PG.  They wouldn’t invent PG-13 for another couple of years.  And for all the violence, there wasn’t much swearing, so the film avoided an R rating.  (Lord knows death, gore and bloody violence is just fine for kids, as long as no one says any naughty words.)

I was also wondering about the rating because the book includes a rather juicy sex scene between Matt Hooper and Chief Brody’s wife.  Turned out the “affair” subplot was cut from the movie, as were the underworld connections of the town mayor, who was keeping the beaches open under orders of the mob.

My little brother got to see it before I did; going with a neighbor friend of ours and making me completely envious.  I never saw it until my parents dropped us off in Pittsburgh for a week, so that they could go off themselves to parts unknown (to me at this time.)  My grandpa loaded me, my brother and sister and a couple of cousins into the family Jeepster and dropped us off at the theater.  This was probably a month or two after release, so the lines and ticket crunch had abated a bit.

I absolutely loved it, even though it scared the ever-loving shit out of me.  I pretty much knew where the story was going and was comparing and contrasting the film with the book as it went on.  As I was in a group of much younger kids, I was relieved that they cut the big sex scene I was expecting. 

I loved the shark effects and wished there were more of them.  You have to remember that in 1975, there were no computer-generated special effects.  Whatever you saw on screen, they had to physically do, from the mechanical shark to the severed head that pops out of a hole in a boat hull.

Oh, yeah, the head.  That wasn’t in the book, but I’d heard about it.  In fact, my brother was sitting beside me going, “This is where the head comes out… this is where the head comes out.”

The head came out and I went “YAAAAAHHHHH!” totally flinching and recoiling in my seat.  It was great.

I probably saw “Jaws” two or three more times in the theater, including once as a high school senior, at a drive-in.  A buddy and I sat on the hood of the car and reclined against the windshield.  And even years after release, with a tinny little speaker box, it still scared the shit out of me.

In the mean time, I’d read a follow-up book about filming the movie, called the “Jaws Log.”  It was written by Carl Gottlieb, who played the newspaper editor, “Meadows,” and was also one of the screenwriters.  This book is probably what started me on my life-long fascination for how movies are made.  And this one was a doozy.

“Jaws” was Stephen Spielberg’s second movie, so he was a relative unknown.  He had his hands full with this nightmarish production.  No one had ever filmed a movie out in the real live ocean before.  The scope of the film was such that it couldn’t be captured in the limited confines of a tank or sheltered cove.  It had to be three guys alone out on a vast expanse of sea, in life or death contest with a 25-foot monster.

Just keeping the boats facing in a consistent direction was a challenge in the face of constantly shifting winds and tides.  There was also the continuity to consider when you have to match up film shot in bright sunlight with footage that’s supposed to follow seconds later but was in fact shot on a cloudy day 3 weeks earlier. 

And then there was the shark itself.  “Bruce,” affectionately named after Spielberg’s attorney, was a cottage industry unto itself.  In case you never learned how it worked, there were 3 different sharks.  Two of them were only “sharklike” on one side, with the inner mechanics exposed on the other.  Each was designed to be filmed when swimming in one direction.  The third was intact all the way around, for head-on shots.  They also had a set of dorsal and tail fins that could be towed through the water.

Film engineers had to lay a track on the bottom of a shifting ocean and the shark would be propelled forward on a gimble arm.
This is a model of the mechanical shark, showing the full underwater mechanics.

This is a shot of the actual mechanical shark.

By today’s standards, the mechanical shark looks clumsy, stiff and completely fake.  But in 1975, there was nothing to compare it to.  There was no big Shark Week on Discovery Channel.  Most of us had never seen great white sharks in action, and certainly not in full-color, slow motion high-def like they have now.  At the time, the effects totally worked.

To sell the effects even further, Spielberg used real shark footage for the big scene where the shark attacks Hooper in the diving cage.  He hired shark experts Ron and Valerie Taylor to film an actual shark attacking a cage.  But because actual sharks usually go only 10-15 feet, and the film shark was supposed to be 25, they used a “little person” in a tiny cage. 

As luck would have it, not only did they get a shark to attack the little cage, one got completely tangled up in the cables and basically thrashed the cage to pieces while the cameras were rolling.  With that footage edited in with the close-ups of Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper, you can barely tell what’s real and what’s not.

So because it was so difficult to make “Bruce” work on command, the filmmakers ended up using it less than they had originally planned.  This ended up working to the film’s advantage, as the fear of the imagined can be greater than that of the known.  Also, because they needed something to do, they shot many more takes than necessary, of non-shark-related scenes, allowing the actors to ad lib a lot of their dialogue.  Much of the unplanned bits ended up in the finished product, adding to the charm and power of the story.

So, knowing as much as I already did about the film production, I was eager to see the new bonus features on the Blu-Ray.  I wasn’t disappointed.  I haven’t watched “The Making of Jaws” yet, the one of which a portion has already been out on DVD.  But I did watch “”The Shark is Still Working: The Impact and Legacy of Jaws,” which is the new Blu-Ray-only documentary.  In it, I learned a couple of things I never knew.

* The famous dinner scene where a guilt-ridden Brody sees his young son mimicking his hand gestures was an ad-lib.

Between takes, Roy Scheider was indeed putting his face in his hands when he noticed the young actor playing his son, doing the same thing.  As he ran through some more gestures, the boy did the same.  Scheider called Spielberg over and said; “Watch this,” as they again went through the routine.  Spielberg brought in the cameras and filmed the third run-through.

* Quint’s speech about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis is one of my favorite parts of the whole movie.  Robert Shaw’s spoken delivery is almost as gut wrenching as the visuals in the film.  What I didn’t know is the speech started out running 15 pages long.  Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb cut it down to nine.  Shaw saw it and said that it was still way to long and, being a writer himself, worked on it until it was down to the five pages that you see in the movie.

* The studio execs were not happy with the cover art they used for the hardback book (pictured at the top of the post) so when they needed a movie poster, they commissioned another artist to punch it up a bit.  The artist went to a museum to take note of great white shark models, and then produced the iconic visuals that remain instantly recognizable today.
The movie poster art was later used on the paperback editions of “Jaws.”

 * The studio execs knew “Jaws” was going to be big, but in a seemingly counter-intuitive directive, they cut down the film’s release to run in far fewer theaters than it could have run.  The idea was to create a spectacle and increase demand over the whole summer.  The directive totally worked, as “Jaws” maintained a grip on the movie-going audience all summer long.  In fact, “Jaws” is credited with being the first “Summer Blockbuster” movie.

Like other cultural touchstones, “Jaws” spun bits of dialogue into widespread use the world over.

Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women…”  ~Quint~

Stop playin’ with yourself, Hooper!”  ~Quint~ to Hooper who was playing solitaire.

Ya got ‘city hands,’ Mr. Hooper.  Ya been countin’ money all your life.” ~Quint~

OK, Quint seemed to get all the good lines… Except maybe the biggest one of all…

We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” ~Brody~

I bet boaters and fishermen quote that line as often as golfers quote “Caddyshack.”  It was the perfect line, at a perfect time.

Chief Brody, while ladling fish glop over the back of the boat, comes face to face with the shark, which pops out of the water sans music, scaring the hell out of the Chief and the audience.  Brody’s reaction is priceless and his prescient comment is in sync with what the audience is feeling.

“Jaws” was a movie that changed the world, both the movie world and otherwise.  Who among us hasn’t had a pang of fear before venturing into the ocean?  Who hasn’t panicked a bit after feeling a bit of seaweed brush by a leg while wading in the surf?

No one.  “Jaws” tapped into a primal fear… the fear of the unknown and unseen enemy, and the risk of it literally eating you alive. 

Fairwell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies…”

What are your memories of “Jaws”?  Did you ever see it in the theater?  Is it still bouncing around in your subconscious today?

16 comments:

  1. I loved this movie so much as a kid. Unfortunately, I was too young to have seen it in theaters, but I saw it on VHS as a kid and was always terrified by it. It's funny to watch it some 20-something years later, now that the effects look pretty hokey and aren't really that scary, but at the time... man, that was cool stuff.

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    1. That's too bad, it was quite an experience to see on a huge screen, along with a crowd of people screaming and yelling. But it worked on the small screen too.

      I remember when it first came on TV, my dad, who never watches scary movies, was lying on the floor watching it with me. At the part where the shark pops out of the water, he recoiled so hard he almost rolled under our piano.

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  2. I watched a documentary on Jaws once and remember them talking about the opening scene with the girl swimming. I love that they didn't have to show the shark to create terror. I also remember them saying that the girl didn't know when they were going to yank her under the water, which added to her surprise and fear. I love that movie.

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    1. That opening scene lets you know they mean business right from the get-go. And the fact that the shark is unseen just adds to the horror. You can only imagine what it is that's tossing the girl around so violently.

      Poor girl... it was too bad... a complete waste of a nice butt, which I so fondly enjoyed seeing walking into the surf early on.

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  3. GREAT. MOVIE. I will never get sick of it. I still get a little scared when swimming in the ocean. Also, we reenact that movie in my pool almost every time we go in. :o)

    Hugs!

    Valerie

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    1. My brother used to re-enact the girl’s killing at the opening, in our neighbor’s pond. He got pretty good at yanking himself down under the water.

      Wait a minute… that doesn’t sound how I mean it…

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  4. And that music. There is no other music (well, maybe on Psycho) that is elicits such emotion and is recognizable in just two notes.

    I've heard that their problems with getting the shark to work ended up working in their favor. It made them save the effect until almost halfway thru the movie. That made is so much scarier since your imagination does most of the work by then. Dreyfus, Scheider, and Shaw. What a cast. Jon Voigt, Jeff Bridges, Lee Marvin, and Dustin Hoffman all turned down roles in the film. They also considered Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen.

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    1. Right… the music was perfect, in its utter simplicity.

      Oh geez, Heston would have overacted that roll to pieces. Scheider was a perfect, low-key “everyman,” as we saw all the terrifying events through his eyes.

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  5. I agree with Jess and Tom. The opening scene was awesome. And the music still spooks the shit out of me.

    I saw it when I was probably around 13 or so. I don't remember where or anything, but I remember it freaked the shit out of me and I haven't seen it since. Just bits and pieces here and there when it's on TV.

    Was it Jaws 2 where the people are attacked in that underwater canal thing? Because every time I go underwater now in the Chesapeake or even just the T to the North Shore, I have to remind myself that Jaws doesn't live in the Allegheny (or the Chesapeake.) Le sigh.

    Primal fear is right.

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    1. You’re right… no sharks in the Allegheny… giant mutant carp, maybe, but no sharks.

      The movie you’re referring to is Jaws 3, which was a horrible movie, wherein a third giant shark stalks the Brody son to where he’s working at a Sea World-type park. It was atrocious, although not quite as bad as Jaws 4, where a 4th giant shark somehow knows that Mrs. Brody is in the Bahamas, cavorting with a slumming Michael Caine, and after eating the remaining Brody son up in NJ, shows up to eat any remaining Brodys in the islands, until it impales itself on the protruding bow of their boat.

      They never do explain where all these massive, vindictive, 25-foot sharks are coming from all of a sudden.

      While Jaws was far-fetched but still within the realm of possibility, and Jaws 2 stretched it a bit (giant shark stalks a bunch of teenaged boaters), movies 3 and 4 were preposterous and horribly done. Same clunky shark, zero acting chops, character depth or charisma.

      It was like the Universal Studios suits were going, “Shit, we spent millions on this shark, lets use it again. Who cares about the story; we got a giant mechanical shark! It’ll be just like 1975 again. Now tell that hooker to pass me the blow…”

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  6. My open-water phobia, while highly inconvenient for The Guy, is actually very, very easily explainable:

    In an effort to keep me from going in the water unsupervised, when I was four, my dad told me that both Shamu and Jaws lived in Lake Bistineau.

    Good job, Dad. Indeed, I have not drowned, and it's very unlikely that I ever will.

    P.S. He also told me that if I was naughty in the country club pool, the bartender would see me and press the button that released the sharks.

    It's a miracle that I'll even take a bubble bath.

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    1. I’m betting as Harper grows up, you’ll begin to see the wisdom of such parenting techniques.

      But going in the water “unsupervised?” Did you ever ask how Daddy’s supervision was going to repel Jaws and Shamu? Both seem pretty impervious to firm directives, if you ask me…

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  7. I was born in '73 so I didn't get the theater experience, but I saw it when I was pretty young. Young enough to think there was a shark at the top of my closet that night. I barely moved because I thought if I pretended not to see it then it wouldn't get me. I remember being pretty freaked out that night.

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    1. I'm glad I was older when I saw it... So all I had to be afraid was the ocean, and not the closet. I might have never gotten properly dressed again. Although with my lack of fashion sense, I doubt anyone would have known the difference.

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  8. You know, I'm not sure I've actually seen "Jaws". Or at least more than the last five or ten minutes of it. Thanks for ruining that head for me in case I ever do see the whole thing, because OMG, pants-peeing would have ensued.

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    1. Trust me, even if you do see the whole thing, it won't be ruined. You can't help but jump. But if this post has helped you keep from ruining a good pair of undies, I'll consider it a win.

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