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
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
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.]