In 1975, after a long labor and great pains, Steven Spielberg birthed this first summer blockbuster and the highest grossing film of all time (at that time). With a great cast portraying memorable characters, a picturesque location and a believable (and much maligned) monstrous foe to root against, Jaws left audiences alternately terrified and ecstatic. The film still holds up today and in a testament to Spielberg’s efforts, I still jump every single time that head rolls out…
If you’re a fan, the documentary attached to the 30th Anniversary edition DVD is well worth a watch, with commentary by Spielberg, Benchley, Scheider, Dreyfuss, David Brown, Richard Zanuck, Carl Gottlieb, John Williams and many crew members.
1. For years, author Peter Benchley thought about writing a book about sharks that attacked people and what would happen if the sharks wouldn’t go away. In 1964, he read a story about a fisherman who caught a “4550 pound great white shark off the shores of Long Island, and thought, what if one of those wouldn’t go away?” In 1971, a publisher told Benchley it would make an interesting story and so he wrote the novel.
2. The sport fisherman Benchley had read about was Frank Mundus, a “colorful character” who in fact, harpooned that white shark (estimated weight—no scale—of 4500 pounds) and still holds the record (with Donnie Braddick) for the largest fish caught by rod and reel: A 3,427 pound great white shark. Though Benchley denied it, many sources (including Jaws screenplay writer and actor Carl Gottlieb) say the character of Quint was based on Mundus (who died in 2008).
Braddick and Mundus:
3. Benchley said he thought over novel titles for months, right up until 20 minutes before production. He thought most of them were too pretentious: The Stillness in the Water, A Silence in the Deep, Leviathan Rising, Jaws of Death, Jaws of Leviathan. In the last meeting with his editor, Benchley said the only word they could agree upon was “Jaws;” it was short and would fit on a cover jacket so they went with it. They didn’t think its prospects were good for a first novel about a fish—it was sent out to several literary houses and a book of the month club. After the club and Reader’s Digest both made it a selection, Bantam bought Jaws and then it immediately went out to movie auctions. Universal bought the rights for $150,000, which was for Benchley, “the moon.”
4. Producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck (A Few Good Men, Driving Miss Daisy, The Sugarland Express) loved the book, though Brown said they never thought about how they would get a shark to jump up on a boat and eat a man. He thought if they had read the novel twice, they might have had more time to think about the technical issues and not made the film. When the film was first sold, a director (unidentified on the commentary, listed as Dick Richards on Wikipedia) who always wanted to make a film about a “whale” was attached—but things didn’t work out and Richards was dropped.
5. Steven Spielberg said he first became aware of Jaws when he saw the name on a large stack of papers; he didn’t know what the title meant and thought it might refer to a dentist. The book was not yet in the national consciousness. He read it over a weekend and thinking back, said he remembers Jaws as a time in his life of great courage and stupidity. His first thoughts were: “Wow, this is like a movie I just made about a truck and a driver (Duel). Jaws and Duel both have four letters, they’re both about a leviathan going after man.” He felt it was kind of a sequel to Duel and was very interested because of that.
6. Zanuck and Brown wanted to get rid of the novel’s backstories, just do a straight-line adventure story. Benchley did the script adaptation and handed it over to Spielberg, who didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with the movie—so he wrote an entire script himself (a few of the scenes survived). The director said writing the script was an exercise for him to decide what he wanted Jaws to be. Brown and Zanuck next suggested Spielberg go to Howard Sackler, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who wrote The Great White Hope and was also an expert scuba diver (as is Benchley). Very familiar with sharks and underwater activity, Sackler didn’t want any credit for, but committed to doing the film. The Screen Actor’s Guild contract was about to expire at the end of the year (1973) and the studio decreed that no movie would be started that could not be finished by June 30th of that year, because they didn’t want to be stuck (with an unfinished film). Spielberg, Zanuck and Brown met to discuss how quickly Jaws could be made and Spielberg said he didn’t have a finished script yet. Finally, Brown suggested Carl Gottlieb (“The Odd Couple, The Bob Newhart Show,” The Jerk). Gottlieb was first hired as actor and he helped with improv, along with contributing to the script. Gottlieb predicted they’d be doing for the water what Psycho had done for showers and commented that to this day, he hears about how people wouldn’t go swimming anymore after seeing Jaws.
7. Spielberg had written a different introduction for Quint, in which Quint was at a movie theater watching Moby Dick, laughing because it was so silly with the mechanical whale. Quint continued to laugh so hard and so maliciously that people got up and walked out of the theater, until finally Quint was completely alone in the theater, with his laughter echoing out into the streets. The scene was squashed because the director was unable to secure the rights to Moby Dick, relating (very carefully) that “Gregory Peck felt it wasn’t his proudest work; he didn’t want it to be made fun of or even to be in the film at all.”
8. Zanuck thought they should have footage of real sharks, so Australian experts Ron and Valerie Taylor (“Shark Hunters,” Blue Water, White Death) were hired. (Peter Gimble, who directed the documentary Blue Water, White Death was asked to do camera work, but because he insisted he direct the film, was not involved.) Since the sharks the Taylors worked with were only 14 feet, Spielberg looked for a little person to be used in their footage to scale the shark. The director hired Carl Rizzo, who came in to meet Spielberg with blood dripping from his head — Rizzo explained he’d just had an accident at the studio’s front gate. Spielberg thought Rizzo brave and felt he must really have wanted the job to come in that condition. The Taylors also used two small dummies in their footage of sharks attacking an underwater cage, but said that “Carl looked better and could move around.” Ron Taylor said they’d been working for about a week, trying to get a shark attacking the cage, but that sharks don’t normally do that. Finally one day, a shark came over and got its nose stuck in a bridle; sharks go crazy when they are trapped. So the shark went berserk and they used that footage (with an empty cage), because it looked as if the shark was attacking the cage. Taylor said it was the scariest thing he’d ever seen.
9. Roy Scheider was hired after Spielberg had begun searching for an unknown actor; the studio wanted “a name.” At a party, Scheider’s agent introduced him to Spielberg as the director was describing the story to someone. Scheider said, “That’s a great story, how about me?”
10. Scheider improvised the film’s most famous line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
11. Jon Voight, Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges were considered for the part of Hooper; they each turned it down “for one reason or other.” Richard Dreyfuss was cast because Spielberg loved American Graffiti (the actor was suggested by George Lucas). Dreyfuss said he loved the exciting story as told by Spielberg, but when asked if he wanted to make the film he said he’d rather watch it because, “it’s going to be a bitch to shoot.” A few months later, Dreyfuss went to the premiere of his own film and saw himself as a leading man for the first time; he didn’t like his performance, saying “I figured I’d better get a job really soon.” He called Spielberg and asked to do the film.
12. Spielberg’s first choice to play Quint was Lee Marvin, but Marvin said he liked to fish for real, not in a movie. His second choice was Sterling Hayden (Spielberg was a fan of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), but Hayden couldn’t do it. Producer David Brown suggested Shaw (liked him in The Sting). Spielberg screened A Man for All Seasons and From Russia with Love and decided on Shaw, saying he wished he had thought of the actor himself. Dreyfuss said Shaw was “the most extraordinarily, unnecessarily competitive person he’d ever met.”
13. Production Designer Joe Alves was sent to scout possible locations; they’d thought of Jamaica because of the water clarity. Martha’s Vineyard had never been photographed for a feature film before because of strict rules. But it was the only place they could go on the east coast 12 miles out to sea, there was a sandy bottom 30 feet below where they could put sharks and cameras down—no matter what direction cameras turned, land couldn’t be seen. Spielberg felt it was important the audience would feel there was no shore to run back to. The only set built was Quint’s shack; they had to promise to put everything back exactly. The billboard had to be put up, shot and then taken down that day. Nothing could alter the landscape or harmony of the island.
14. Stunt woman Susan Backlinie (first victim) wasn’t an actress and Spielberg was nervous hiring her, but ended up loving her.The director thought it would be much scarier not to see the shark at first—if it had come up out of the water, right away, Jaws “would have been monster movie.” Spielberg himself did the first jerk-down. Backlinie had a cable attached near her stomach, “he’d pull and she’d throw her head back.” According to Backlinie, they wanted to put her on an electric wench, but she didn’t want that, so they used man power. Cables ran from each side of her, to men back on beach. Several men pulled back and forth and she’d throw her arms to make it look more violent than it was. Sound re-recording (done back at the studio) had the stunt woman leaning back over a baby bassinet while Spielberg poured water over her head, as she screamed to get the appropriate sounds. For the victim’s hand found in the sand, Spielberg bought a fake arm which he said was too shiny and plastic looking. He instead had a person buried in the sand with her arm sticking up and put little crabs around it.
15. Spielberg said that had he met local, Craig Kingsbury (Ben Gardner) before hiring Shaw, he might have hired him to play Quint. The director called Kingsbury “the purest form of Quint” and “a drunk who drove cows around town and ad libbed his own lines.” Quint’s “Not like going down the pond chasin’ bluegills and tommycods” line came from Kingsbury. Meanwhile, Ben’s famous head popping out scene was highly coordinated by Spielberg for maximum scare. The director played with the timing and tested the scene with preview audiences and crew, choosing the version with the biggest reaction.
16. With little idea as to how to create a huge, mechanical shark, Joe Alves was thrilled to find retired Special Effects man, Bob Mattey, who had done the giant squid for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Mattey was very enthusiastic that they could make the creature instead of using miniatures. They decidef upon a 25 foot model because they felt it would be both formidable and credible. Alves borrowed a real set of shark jaws from Steinhart Aquarium and got the proportions for the model shark, “Bruce” (named after Spielberg’s lawyer). A team of experts (plastics, electronics, hydraulics, etc.) was assembled and the Taylors were brought in to comment and advise on the fake shark’s movement. They created several shark components and a full shark (Spielberg called the full model “The Great White Turd” and the effects team “Special Defects”), which on its first test run in the water immediately sank to the ocean floor. Richard Dreyfuss joked about constantly hearing “The shark is not working” over handheld radios everyone carried. Because of all the issues with the shark, shooting went way over schedule and budget, with Spielberg unable to say when the film would be finished; “Show Me the Way to Go Home” would bring tears to crew-members’ eyes. The crew did get to shore every Sunday, but Spielberg never went because he was afraid he wouldn’t come back.
17. Spielberg related a story about a big event being held, with a buffet for all the cast and crew and tons of wonderful food and desserts. Roy Scheider began a food fight by throwing mashed potatoes and gravy at Spielberg and “…it turned into a bit of a Three Stooges brawl. The help serving dinner came out and became hysterical and it was a tremendous blowing off of steam.” Then they all — covered in food — jumped into a pool.
18. Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss were out on a boat with a sound man when some sort of malfunction caused the boat to leak and start sinking. While the boat driver was trying to get back to shore before they sank, Spielberg sent out another boat, telling people, “Get the actors off the boat!” Sound man John Carter held up a sign reading “Fuck the actors, save the sound man!” A camera onboard got wet, but the film inside was recovered and usable.
19. It was Robert Shaw’s idea to take the cap off his tooth when Quint and Hooper compare scars. According to Spielberg, Shaw also rewrote part of Spielberg’s favorite scene, the Indianapolis speech (conceived by Howard Sackler and written by two scriptwriters). Dreyfuss said that as an actor one often has to feign interest in the story another actor is telling, but that Shaw’s tale was “one of the most riveting things he’d ever seen or heard.”
20. When Spielberg first heard Academy Award winning composer “Johnny” Williams (Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun) play the Jaws music (on a piano), the director thought it was a joke—it was too simple. He asked Williams to play it again and then again, and “suddenly it was right.” Jaws won the Academy Award for Best Original Dramatic Score and is ranked sixth on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years of Film Scores.
Spielberg and Bruce:
Cindy Davis still suffers moments of panic when swimming in the ocean.