Exceedingly Difficult To Produce, Jaws Became The Biggest Hit Of All Time in 1975.
The best-selling novel Jaws, published in 1974, primarily focused on a man-eating shark that terrorized a small island town. There was a subplot involving a love affair between two of the main characters, the young scientist and the police chief’s wife. There was also a twist involving the Mafia using threats to keep the beaches open, which helped turn more characters into fish food. Critics saw all sorts of hidden meanings and symbolism in the story. Fidel Castro said it was about the corruption of American Capitalism. Others suggested that it was about President Nixon and Watergate. When author Peter Benchley sold the movie rights to Universal Studios, he wanted the very expensive Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Steve McQueen in the lead roles. But then Universal took a chance by hiring twenty-nine year old Steven Spielberg to direct the film.
Jaws (1975) was only the young director’s second feature in the USA. His previous film Sugarland Express (1974) starring Goldie Hawn had been a disappointment at the box office. Despite his lack of pedigree, Spielberg boldly decided to jettison anything in the Jaws screenplay that was not crucial to the man versus shark theme. He also rejected the idea of hiring movie stars, or as he put it,” I didn’t want to work with anybody who been on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine”. Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw made less money combined than any of the names on Benchley’s wish list would have charged.
Earlier movies that took place at sea were usually made in a studio tank such as Alfred’s Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) or Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954). But Spielberg wanted realism and insisted that Jaws be filmed out in the middle of the ocean with the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard serving as the main location. Since great white sharks were impossible to train, a mechanical monster would have to be built. The movie began with a ten-week shooting schedule with no one involved in the production quite realizing what he or she was in for.
Almost immediately, the film crew was locked in a logistical nightmare. For several days, a thick fog rolled into the Vineyard making it impossible to shoot anything on the water. Then when it lifted, local fishing boats came out ruining Spielberg’s shots. He told his assistants to instruct the fishermen to leave and received angry retorts that they did not own the ocean. The filmmakers were forced to relocate to isolated locations leading to inconsistencies in the film where the sea would look choppy one moment, and flat the next. More damaging was the mechanical shark nicknamed Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer, who worked fine in fresh water tests but in salt water sunk like a stone. When the shark did work, it often produced chaotic results. Once it sunk Quint’s (Robert Shaw) movie vessel, The Orca. When Spielberg viewed early footage, the beast looked phony and cross-eyed. Ten weeks was now turning into six months and members of the crew renamed the film “Flaws”.
The pressure of the longer shoot began to get to the three lead actors. Roy Scheider, Gene Hackman’s second banana in The French Connection (1971), was angry that his police chief character was taking a back seat to his more colorful co-stars; he felt like a straight man. He also resented having Spielberg’s phobia of water transferred to him on screen. To relieve tension he started a food fight with some members of the crew. Robert Shaw who was once quoted as saying, “Can you tell me one great actor who doesn’t drink?” lamented to Richard Dreyfuss, that he would like to give up alcohol; then he was furious when the younger actor threw Shaw’s booze over the side of the boat. Shaw was bored out of his mind on the island despite some local gang members shooting out the windows of his rented house. He became a nasty drunk aiming his venom at the short, sensitive Dreyfuss, who Robert felt would not have a great future in Hollywood. For his part Dreyfuss, a former hospital orderly, felt the film’s producers had ruined his career by hiring him for a turkey. He said he had an unhappy time making Jaws, and denied Spielberg’s claims that he hooked up with many of the young women who lived on Martha’s Vineyard.
As the film’s budget ballooned to ten million, Spielberg was miserable. One reason he had avoided hiring movie stars was his desire to be the ultimate authority on the Jaws set. He was still mired in conflicts. Every visit to the island by a Universal executive made him fear he would get fired. And some of the older members of the crew seemed to resent being ordered around by the former Long Beach State film student. At one point, he told Dreyfuss that they planned to toss him over the side, leave him to drown and claim it was an accident. The young director toyed with having the film end with a school of sharks attacking the two survivors swimming back to shore; however, the producers talked him out of it. There were constant battles with Peter Benchley, who had been hired to write the screenplay. The author questioned Spielberg’s directing ability. The chosen ending of the shark exploding after biting an oxygen tank caused Benchley to object that it was preposterous. Spielberg ordered him removed from the set. In later years, Benchley said while he never regretted writing the book, he came to believe that sharks were victims unlikely to attack people unless provoked.
The show’s slow progress led to creative opportunities. The three actors, given more time to rehearse, developed chemistry with each other on screen. Roy Scheider, forced to imagine the malfunctioning shark he was supposed to be seeing for the first time adlibbed the line,” You’re going to need a bigger boat.” After some drunken misfires, Robert Shaw delivered a chilling speech involving his character Quint being on board the USS Indianapolis, the naval ship that delivered the atom bomb in World War II. Torpedoes sank the boat and Quint witnessed most of his crewmates devoured by sharks. Shaw was so compelling in the scene that executives at Universal considered making a film about it (Colin Farrell as Young Quint?).
One night, the inebriated Shaw, who had called Jaws a piece of crap written by committee, had a moment of clarity. In a slurry voice he told the producers that the movie would be a smash hit and he’d like to trade his entire salary for a percentage of the film. He was told to go back to sleep. Unlike his two co-stars, who would go on to solid careers if not major stardom, the colorful Shaw would die of heart failure three years later at the age of 51.
When he got enough footage, Spielberg left Martha’s Vineyard without throwing the customary wrap party for the film crew he still distrusted. Back in Los Angeles, he realized in order to make the picture work, he had to limit Bruce’s appearances on screen. Otherwise, audiences would laugh the fake looking beast out of the theater. With help of editor Verna Fields, he used John Williams’ music plus Quint’s harpoon barrels to announce the monster’s presence. He would later say that the shark not working made him go Hitchcockian, meaning he raised the movie’s suspense level by showing less.
At one of the early previews of the film, Spielberg was so nervous he couldn’t sit down. What if Jaws was a flop? Would he ever work again? Ten minutes into the screening, the shark killed a boy in a bloody attack. Suddenly a man in the front row got up from his seat and ran past Steven Spielberg into the lobby. The startled Director followed him and watched in amazement as the man threw up on the carpet and then returned to his seat. For the first time in months, Spielberg relaxed, figuring that if the movie made people sick and they still wanted to watch, it would be a hit.
The normal way to market a movie in the seventies was to place it in a few first run theaters and spend money on newspaper ads. But Universal, wanting to strike gold immediately, gave Jaws massive distribution combined with a heavy dose of thirty second television commercials, almost like a political campaign. It quickly raced to all time box office records and made Spielberg rich and famous. His personal triumph was marred only by his jealousy when editor Fields and composer Williams won Oscars while he himself was not nominated. The massive success of Jaws whetted the appetite of the Hollywood studios to have every movie from then on be a major blockbuster. They were determined to find a formula, which replicated its box office, and overlooked the most obvious: Jaws was simply a good, entertaining picture. And so a film that got good critical reviews reduced the power of critics. Huge television advertising budgets to open movies would be a staple from then on. Weak pictures like Wild, Wild West (1999) would get terrible reviews yet the marketing campaigns would cause the box office to swell before the bad word of mouth got out. A movie where the technology kept failing led to a huge reliance on special effects. Desperate producers would add more explosions to make up for weak storylines. A movie where good acting was more important than big names led to more power and outrageous salaries for movie stars. Investors in big-budget blockbusters saw drawing cards like Tom Cruise or Kevin Costner as the best insurance policies against box office failure. Jaws, a movie that had taken so many chances, led to a Hollywood mentality of playing it safe.
Author Stephen Schochet is a professional tour guide in Hollywood, who years ago began collecting little known, humorous anecdotes to tell to his customers. His new book Hollywood Stories: Short, Entertaining Anecdotes About the Stars and Legends of the Movies! The book contains a timeless treasure trove of colorful vignettes featuring an amazing all-star cast of icons including John Wayne, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, Shirley Temple, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, and many others both past and contemporary. Tim Sika, host of the radio show Celluloid Dreams on KSJS in San Jose has called Stephen, “The best storyteller about Hollywood we have ever heard.” Available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. For more information go to http://www.hollywoodstories.com.
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