Sunday, October 14, 2012

Reconsidering "Jaws"

By Paul Iorio

When Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" was released 25 years ago this

summer, it was upstaged by its own mechanical shark and then

by its unprecedented commercial success. Today, after decades

of repeated viewing, it's easier to see the movie for what many

think it really is: a quality thriller in league with such

Alfred Hitchcock classics as "The Birds" and "Psycho."

What emerges from my own interviews with the film makers

is that one of the best things to have happened during the making

of "Jaws" was the malfunctioning of the main mechanical shark

(and the two supporting sharks).

"The shark didn't work," actor Roy Scheider, who plays police

chief Martin Brody, tells me. "And that left us with weeks

and weeks and weeks to shoot, to polish, to improvise, to

discuss, to enrich, to experiment with all the other scenes

that in a movie like that would [usually]

get a cursory treatment."

"What happened was, [Robert] Shaw, [Richard] Dreyfuss and

Scheider turned into a little rep company," he says. "And all

those scenes, rather than just pushing the plot along, became

golden, enveloping the characters. So when the crisis came,

you really cared about those three guys."

Those "three guys" are by now familiar to moviegoers

everywhere: Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss), an aggressive

scientist from a wealthy family; Quint

(Shaw), a veteran fisherman unhinged by past trauma;

and Brody (Scheider), a phobic police chief from the big city

trying to assimilate in small town Amity ("A fish out

of water, if you'll excuse the expression," quips Scheider).

Spielberg's problem in getting the shark to work was

also one of the main reasons he didn't show the fish

until very late in the movie (eighty minutes in, to be

precise). This contradicts the generally accepted

explanation that the delay in showing the shark

was a purely aesthetic strategy meant to enhance

audience anticipation and suspense.

"The shark didn't work," says screenwriter Carl

Gottlieb, echoing Scheider's words exactly. "It

was a difficult piece of mechanical equipment....It

malfunctioned most of the time [so] we had no shark to


Spielberg and Gottlieb got the idea for withholding a

glimpse of the monster until the end from the b-movie

"The Thing," says Gottlieb. But the decision was more

along the lines of, 'this is a way we can get around

the fact that our main prop isn't working' rather than

'this is a choice that we would've made in any case,'

according to Gottlieb.

Gottlieb's screenplay was based on a best-selling novel by

Peter Benchley, though the finished film differs from

the novel in significant ways.

Benchley initially wrote a couple drafts of the screenplay,

before Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Howard Sackler

("The Great White Hope") took on the task, writing a

couple drafts of his own. Finally Spielberg brought

aboard Gottlieb, a comedy writer and actor who had

won an Emmy for his work on TV's "The Smothers

Brothers Show," to write the final script.

Others also contributed to the screenplay, including

Shaw, Scheider, Spielberg, and writer John Milius

("Apocalypse Now").

The script was another element that was inadvertently

helped by the shark-related glitches, since the

downtime gave Gottlieb more time to write and revise.

And the screenplay did undergo lots of changes. Hooper's

character (which was almost played by Jan-Michael

Vincent instead of Dreyfuss) changed from a

womanizer who had an affair with Brody's wife

to that of the monomaniacal scientist in the film.

Quint (almost played by Sterling Hayden) developed

"from this crazy lunatic to this guy with a real

reason to hate sharks," as Scheider puts it.

And Brody (a role originally sought by Charlton Heston)

became an everyman rather than a conventional

action hero. "Every aggressive and macho impulse

I had in my character, [Spielberg] would grab me and

pull me back and say, 'No, don't talk like that, don't

speak like that. You are always afraid, you are Mr.

Humble all the time,'" recalls Scheider. "He would say,

'What we want to do is gradually, slowly, carefully,

humorously build this guy into being the hero of the movie.'"

The first scripts did not include the part of the film that

Spielberg and many others consider to be the movie's best:

the nine-minute sequence on the Orca that starts with

the three main characters comparing scars, progresses

through Quint's Indianapolis monologue, and ends

with the three singing sea songs together.

How exactly did that sequence evolve? "Howard Sackler was

the one who found the Indianapolis incident and introduced

it into the script," says Gottlieb. "Scar-comparing comes

out of a conversation that Spielberg had with John Milius.

John said that macho beach guys would try to assert their

manliness and would compare scars...So Steven said, 'Great,

let's see if we can do something with that.' So I wrote the

scar-comparing scene."

Meanwhile, several writers took a crack at Quint's

Indianapolis speech, in which he tells of delivering

the Hiroshima bomb aboard a ship that subsequently

sank in shark-infested waters. "Steven was worried

about the Indianapolis speech," says Gottlieb. "My

drafts weren't satisfactory. Sackler's draft wasn't

satisfactory to him."

"The conventional historical inaccuracy that has found

its way into most of the literature about the movie is

that Milius dictated the speech over the phone and

that it's basically Milius's speech. I was on the

phone taking notes and the speech is not Milius's

speech. It's close, it's got elements of it. But what

Milius was working from was my drafts and

Sackler's drafts." [Milius did not respond to

our request for comment on this.]

Gottlieb remembers the moment when the Indianapolis

monologue was officially born. "One night after dinner,

Spielberg, me, [and others] were talking about the movie,"

he says. "Shaw joined us after his dinner with a wad of

paper in his pocket. He said, 'I've been having a go

at that speech. I think I've got it now.'...The

housekeeper had just packed up; she dimmed the

lights as she left. Shaw takes the paper out of his

pocket and then reads the speech as you hear it in

the movie....He finishes performing that speech and

everyone is in stunned silence. And finally Steven

says, 'That's it, that's what we're going to shoot.'"

"It took two days to shoot that scene," says Gottlieb. "

Shaw was drunk one day, sober the other. What

you see on film was a very clever compendium of

the two scenes....If you watch that scene, listen for the tap

[on the table] because that's where it cuts from sober

to drunk. Or drunk to sober, I don't remember which."

And indeed there is a tap on the table by Quint that

splits the two parts of the Indianapolis monologue.

Shaw appears to be drunk in the first six minutes

of the sequence and sober in the last three

minutes. (For those who want to locate the

splice on video, it happens at the 91-minute mark,

between the phrases "rip you to pieces" and "lost

a hundred men.")

By all accounts, the shoot at sea, off Martha's

Vineyard, was nightmarish and difficult. Originally,

Spielberg expected to spend only 55 days on the

ocean but ultimately stayed for 159. At times,

there was tension and conflict among the cast

and crew. At one point, Gottlieb fell overboard

and risked being sliced by a boat propeller.

Further, Spielberg insisted on having a clean horizon

during the Orca sequences, in order to emphasize

the boat's isolation at sea. If some vessel happened

to be sailing in the background of a shot, Spielberg

would have one of his crew drive a speed-boat a

half-hour or so away to the offending craft to

ask the sailor to consider taking another route. "A

lot of times there was no other way to go, so

they'd say, 'Fuck you,'" says Gottlieb. "So we had

to wait for the boat to clear the horizon."

And if the film makers wanted some food while

they waited, they had to settle for turkey and

tuna sandwiches that had somehow lost their

freshness in the heat and salt water at the

bottom of the boat. They'd sip coffee that was

sometimes four-hours old. And occasionally,

the waves would cause the boat to pitch and

bounce in place ("Not a great thing early

in the morning on a sour stomach," says Gottlieb).

"You'd go home at the end of the day sea-sick,

sunburned, windburned," says Gottlieb.

But when the main shark worked, it was a wonder

to behold, says Scheider. He recalls the moment

when he knew the movie was going to succeed:

when he first saw the shark sail by the Orca on

the open sea. "They ran [the shark] past the

boat about two or three feet underwater," says

Scheider. "And it was as long as the boat. And I

said, 'Oh my god, it looks great.' I remember

that day. We probably all lit cigars."

When the movie finally wrapped, nobody knew for

sure whether it would succeed or fail. The first

clue came when they brought the film to

technical workers for color-timing purposes. The

techies, who were looking at the film only for

purposes of checking the color density of the

negative, were almost literally scared out of their

chairs during certain scenes. "Guys

in the lab were jumping," says Gottlieb. "So

we started to have a feeling."

Still, nobody was certain how the general

public would respond. The tell-tale moment

came during a sneak preview of the film in

Long Beach, California, in the late spring of '75.

Gottlieb remembers driving to Long Beach in a

limo with his wife and Spielberg. "We gave

Steven...tea to calm him down on the drive," says

Gottlieb. "He was so nervous."

His nervousness apparently subsided about

three minutes and forty seconds into the

screening when the invisible shark ripped apart

its first victim. The audience went nuts, drowning

out dialogue for the next minute or so. "You could

tell from the crowd reaction that it was going to

be a very important movie," he says.

When the lights came up after the screening, top

executives from Universal Pictures quickly headed

straight to the theater restroom -- "the only

quiet spot in the theater," says Gottlieb -- and

proceeded to change the film's

release strategy on the spot. Realizing they

had a massive hit on their hands, the execs

immediately decided the movie would not be

opened in a normal gradual fashion, but in wide

release. Amidst the summer toilets of Long

Beach, movie industry history was made that


"The idea of opening a picture simultaneously on

1,500 to 2,000 screens was unheard of," says Gottlieb.

"After 'Jaws,' it became standard. Every studio had

to have a big summer picture."

By mid-summer, the film was taking in a million

dollars a day. Within a couple months, it had

become the biggest grossing movie of all time.

Today, its domestic gross stands at around $250

million, making it the 13th top grossing movie of all


"I see it the same way I saw it then," says Scheider. "It's

a very good action adventure film...Plus it's well-directed,

it's well-acted, it's beautifully shot, it's got a great

score and a fabulous story. So why shouldn't

it be a classic movie?"

[By Paul Iorio. Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 28, 2000.]