“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?