Let’s Talk About ‘JAWS’ (1975)

“Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women.” – Quint

JAWS is one of those movies that will forever be intertwined with my life. The movie was released in June of 1975 and was the first major blockbuster film for Hollywood. People lined up around the block to see the movie and it became the first film to earn $100 million at the box office. I even remember growing up and having the soundtrack on 8-track. Yes, 8-track, I’m old so shut up.

The story is that when my mother was pregnant with me it was a really hot summer and one day during JAWS’ summer run and my refusal to come out of the womb (I was too weeks late) my mom decided to go see a movie to cool off. That movie was JAWS and I guess it scared me right out, because not too long after she went into labor.

Securing the Movie Rights and Pre-production

Considered “the most exciting thing that they had ever read” by producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown who both independently heard about the novel by Peter Benchley through a small write up in Cosmopolitan Magazine and thought “might make a good movie”. So Universal Pictures purchased the film rights in 1973, before the book’s publication, for approximately $175,000. Brown claimed that had they read the book a second time, they most likely wouldn’t have made the film. They realized how difficult certain sequences would have been far too difficult to execute. But they were already in too deep.

Universal had several directors in mind before making a decision. But a young Steven Spielberg, who had just directed his first theatrical film, the yet-to-be released The Sugarland Express, for the two producers, very much wanted the job after reading their copy of the still-unpublished novel. He loved how similar it was to his 1971 television film Duel in that both deal with “these leviathans targeting every-men”. He even threw in a direct nod to Duel by re-purposing the sound of the truck being destroyed as the death roar of the shark. Which I think is pretty awesome. Crazy enough, Spielberg almost pulled out of the movie in fear of being typecast as the “truck and shark director”. Which just sounds silly now, right?

Unlike films today, Spielberg did his best to hire relatively lesser known actors for the film to help the audience “believe this was happening to people like you and me”. And many of the minor roles were played by residents of Martha’s Vineyard, where the film was shot. Something that I feel greatly enhances the realness of the film. Chrissie (the first victim) was stunt-woman turned actress Susan Backlinie as she knew how to swim and was willing to perform nude. And man is that opening scene a doozie.

The role of Chief Brody did not go to Roy Scheider originally. Robert Duvall was offered the role first, but he was interested only in playing Quint. And only one man could ever play that part … Robert Shaw. However, just nine days before the start of production, neither Quint nor Hooper had been cast. The role of Quint was originally offered to two different people, Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden. Shaw initially refused to take the role since he didn’t care for the book. But he ultimately changed his mind at the behest of his wife and his secretary, who both were as enthusiastic for him to take this role as they were for him to be in From Russia with Love.

Last but not least, the role of Hooper was also initially turned down by Richard Dreyfuss. But luckily for us, he changed his mind from being disappointed by his performance after seeing a pre-release screening of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

Filming

Amazingly, JAWS was the first major motion picture to actually be shot on the ocean. Which as you can imagine at this time resulted in a very troubled shoot, and caused the film to go far over budget. What was originally supposed to be $4 million picture wound up ballooning to $9 million. Practical effects alone grew to $3 million due to the problems with the mechanical sharks. Spielberg’s inexperience as a director was on full display during production. He insisted on shooting at sea with a life-sized shark. This caused disgruntled crew members to nickname the film “Flaws”. Which brings us to Bruce. Not The Boss from New Jersey, no. Bruce was the nickname of the shark, names after Spielberg’s lawyer, Bruce Ramer.

Bruce was notoriously problematic during filming. Pneumatic hoses took on salt water, frames of the model fractured due to water resistance, his “skin” corroded, and during the first water test, the “non-absorbent” neoprene foam that made up the sharks’ skin soaked up liquid, causing the sharks to balloon, and the sea-sled model would constantly get tangled in seaweed. All of these delays caused Spielberg to readjust on the fly. The script was being rewritten, changing the first two acts of the novel to make the characters more likable all to retain the last 120 pages of the book which Spielberg considered to be the best part. And instead of seeing more of the problematic shark, he decided to show less of it. Making his presence all the more terrifying. This is why for much of the shark hunt, its location is indicated by the floating yellow barrels or that only the dorsal fin can be seen in the opening attack as the shark violently drags Chrissie back and forth and not just devoured as initially written. The less you see, the scarier it is.

Along with all of this Spielberg had cinematographer Bill Butler create new equipment for marine and underwater shooting, including a rig to keep the camera stable regardless of tide and a sealed submersible camera box, to help keep the perspective of what people see while actually swimming. Spielberg even spent some of his own money to re-shoot an underwater scene, to get in one last big scream from the audience. And it was well worth it, because that scene of the head floating underwater makes me jump every time.

It’s these little things and the decision not not use red anywhere else in the film except for the blood that makes this one of Steven Spielberg (and Hollywood)’s greatest films. So even if it was a problematic shoot, its those kinds of problems that make someone a better filmmaker. This movie proves that.

I could go on and on about how everything about this film is so well done, the camerawork, the suspense, the acting, but really you just need to see it for  yourself. It truly is one of the greatest films of our time. Jeez, I didn’t even mention the soundtrack!! John Williams’ score is truly one of the greatest and most haunting scores ever used in a film. It adds that extra layer of dread in just the right places.

What JAWS Means to Us

The last time I saw JAWS in its entirety was also the first time I saw it… and I had to have been eight or nine years old. Carrie might have been the movie that introduced me to horror, but it was JAWS that had an everlasting effect on me. I suppose, even at that age, I knew telekinetic teenage girls weren’t real. But sharks? Sharks were real. And JAWS so expertly encapsulated my fear of the unknown. It took my love of swimming and turned it on its head, making me wonder what predator could be lurking just beneath the surface where I was treading water. Sometimes I think if JAWS had never truly revealed the great white feasting on tourists and townsfolk like on Amity Island I wouldn’t be as petrified of sharks as I am today. I thought Martin Brody was a badass. I thought Quint was an incredible anti-hero and I was fascinated by the story and the thrill of not knowing where the shark was and who it might attack next. Because as I mentioned, I had a fear of the unknown and JAWS tapped into that fear, intensifying it with the kind of adrenaline that was both thrilling and terrifying.
As it was, the first sight of those dead, black eyes and the ragged, sharp teeth as it broke the surface to snack on a poor boater… I would never look at the ocean the same way again. I would actually never look at freshwater beaches the same way either. It didn’t how irrational my phobia was. If I was in the swimming pool and even thought about a shark, I was out of the water within seconds. I couldn’t even lay on my parents’ waterbed to watch television in their room. I was afraid a shark was inside, waiting to tear through the bed and eat me. To me, every shark was the shark from JAWS, hungry, and looking for unsuspecting prey. Which was me, of course. Even looking at photos of sharks triggers nausea and sometimes tears. All because of one movie. These days, if I find JAWS on the television, my masochistic, morbid curiosity will have me reaching for the remote to take a look. Occasionally, in an attempt to overcome my fear, I’ll watch the movie up until the scene with Brody’s son in the estuary. And then I realize I can’t do it. It’s a testament to JAWS that it was able to terrify me so profoundly that it triggered an intense phobia that I’ve carried with me into adulthood. Yes, it certainly heightened my love of horror, and yet, I still can’t bring myself to watch the movie in its entirety, even several decades after my first viewing. I suppose if you were to ask what JAWS means to me, I would have to say quite simply, it’s complicated.

– Romona Comet


I saw JAWS for the first time as a young kid on television. I thought it was a good movie with a few decent scares and actions scenes, but I was more interested in things like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark at the time, so I wouldn’t say I was profoundly impressed. As I got older, the film gained in stature with me and now I consider it one of my favorite old-school summer blockbusters. What’s not to like about it? It’s got the humor, emotion, and action beats of classic Spielberg and a great cast. Of course, Roy Scheider is the hero (and he’s great in the movie) but the supporting cast really shines. Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper is intelligent, funny, and a great foil for Robert Shaw’s Quint. Shaw, though, is the film’s MVP. Rough around the edges, eccentric, and more than a little crazy, he rounds out the major players in the cast perfectly. The dynamic between the three characters on the Orca is probably the best part of the film for me. The movie has gone on to be synonymous with summertime in my head, and every time I see it on TV I’m guaranteed to watch it for at least a while…and usually get sucked in enough to stay through the end. To this day it ranks as one of my top five Spielberg movies.

DryButSoupy

Author: K. Alvarez

A king without a throne.