In 1975, a film was released that would change the business of Hollywood, launch the career of one of the most beloved directors of all time, and become one of the most famous movies ever made. It created a worldwide phenomenon, gave us an unforgettable theme, and made countless people afraid to swim in the ocean.
That film, of course, was “Jaws”.
In 1971, author Peter Benchley began work on his first novel.
Benchley was a Harvard grad who had written for the Washington Post and Newsweek. He had even done some work as a junior speechwriter in the White House for President Lyndon Johnson. Tom Congdon, an editor at Doubleday, had seen some of Benchley’s work and invited him to lunch that year in order to discuss the possibility of transitioning to writing books. While Congdon wasn’t impressed by Benchley’s non-fiction proposals that day, he did latch onto his idea for a fiction novel… about a shark that terrorizes a beach community.
Benchley had been fascinated by sharks since he was a boy summering on Nantucket Island. Years before the luncheon with Doubleday, in 1964, Benchley had read an article about a fisherman named Frank Mundus, who caught a 4,550 pound Great White off the coast of Montauk, New York. Benchley realized how close that was to several beaches, and wondered what would have happened if the shark had begun to attack people. It gave him the idea of a shark that began feed on recreational bathers… and what lengths a beach town might have to go through to rid themselves of it.
With a $1,000 advance, work began. It took numerous revisions and rewrites, and the title itself wasn’t settled upon until just prior to printing, but “Jaws” was finally ready for publication in 1974.
Richard Zanuck and David Brown
Prior to publication, however, it was circulated to select film producers in order to stimulate interest in the movie rights. Two important people who read it were Hollywood producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck. Zanuck was the son of Daryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, and rose to the position of president of the studio before his father fired him following a string of unsuccessful films. Brown was at Fox as executive vice president of creative operations at the time, and the two of them went to Warner Brothers, but decided to form their own production company shortly thereafter. The Zanuck/Brown Company was formed in 1972. One of the company’s earliest productions was 1973’s “The Sting”, which would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Each read “Jaws” independently, and both felt it would make a phenomenal motion picture. They moved in quickly and, still several months prior to the novel’s publication, secured the rights for $150,000, plus $25,000 for Benchley to create the first draft of the screenplay.
As a condition of the sale, however, a director was initially attached. His name was Dick Richards, and he had directed a film called “The Culpepper Cattle Co.” the year earlier. However, Richards kept referring to the shark as a whale during initial meetings, a habit that did little to instill confidence in Zanuck and Brown. He was let go.
Fortunately, the two had the perfect man for the job on hand in a young director named Steven Spielberg.
One of the films the Zanuck and Brown had produced was 1974’s “The Sugarland Express”, which was Spielberg’s first movie after cutting his teeth for a couple of years in television (including the made for TV movie “Duel”). The two had a received a firsthand view of just how talented Spielberg was.
They were convinced that the young director was capable of creating a great movie, in spite of his relative lack of experience and the enormous challenges that lie ahead. So, when Spielberg expressed interest in the project after finding the manuscript in their office, they signed him. This was in spite of the fact that “Sugarland Express had yet to be released (The film wouldn’t go on to be a huge hit, but it did make $12 million on its $3 million budget). Spielberg wavered briefly before production commenced, expressing interest in “Lucky Lady” at 20th Century Fox instead, but Universal enforced their contract with him. Eventually, he was brought back around and became enthused about making the film again.
“When I first hear the word ‘Jaws’, you know, I just think of a period in my life when I was much younger than I am right now. And… I think because I was younger, I was more courageous. Or I was more stupid. I’m not sure which. So when I think of ‘Jaws’, I think about courage and stupidity.”
– Steven Spielberg
So, with the director attached, “Jaws” was underway. It was given a $3.5 million dollar budget, and principal photography was scheduled for 55 days, beginning May 2nd, 1974.
The movie still needed a script, however. When the rights to the book were purchased, Peter Benchley was attached to do the adaptation, but three drafts from the author failed to produce a satisfactory script. As an exercise in finding out what he himself wanted out of the film, Spielberg wrote a draft, personally. Few elements from that version made it to the screen, however.
Spielberg was able to get Tony and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Howard Sackler to do a revision, but Sackler only had a window of availability of about a month, which wouldn’t be enough time to finish the job. Sackler didn’t even want to be credited, knowing he wouldn’t be able to nail the script down in that time. He did, however, “crack its back”; his draft provided the main structure of the film, even though it was still far from the finished product.
Left to right: Roy Scheider, Robert Nevin, Murray Hamilton, and Carl Gottlieb.
The fact that they didn’t have a finished script couldn’t slow the production down, however. A potential Screen Actor’s Guild strike was looming in mid June of 1974 (when their contract expired). Universal decreed that no films were to be started that couldn’t wrap by then.
So Spielberg sent the script to Carl Gottlieb, a friend of his who was an Emmy winning television writer working as a creative consultant on “The Odd Couple” at the time. Spielberg and Gottlieb were friends, and had once outlined a movie and made an unsuccessful studio pitch together. Gottlieb had worked with him subsequently in small roles in his television projects. So Spielberg asked for his input on the script and offered him a role in the movie as an actor, knowing that having Gottlieb on hand would be useful to assist with revisions along the way.
The screenplay was so far from the final version at that point, however, that Gottlieb would eventually earn credit as the primary screenwriter.
As Spielberg struggled to get the script in order, the production team was busy with another challenge: replicating a great white shark. Everyone involved in the production realized that the shark would be the key to the film… if it wasn’t credible, nothing the film could do would make up for it. Stock footage, stop motion and “trained” sharks were quickly rejected. Footage of real sharks would be shot off of the coast of Australia by famed shark experts Ron and Valerie Taylor, but those shots would only be used on a supplemental basis. The only way the film could be made was to build a life-sized, believable, animatronic carcharodon carcharias.
The Universal Studios special effects department declined to build it. They felt there was simply no way to accomplish the job in the time frame given. They estimated such a challenge would take three years of development to achieve properly. Other big studio outsourcing options passed as well. Finally, production designer Joe Alves turned to Bob Mattey, who had built the giant squid for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” 20 years earlier (1954). Mattey enthusiastically assured Alves that the project could be accomplished in time.
He was brought aboard.
Working from Alves’ designs (which were made after preliminary discussions with Spielberg as to what the shark would be required to do), three sharks were built. One capable of “thrashing” and moving its head from left to right, one from right to left, and a third on a submersible “sled”. The right to left and left to right sharks were only complete on one side, the opposite sides (which would face away from the camera) were open for the wiring for the controls to run out to the operators. These sharks would be attached by crane arms to steel platforms riding on rails along the ocean floor. They would be capable of approximately 60 to 70 feet of travel. The third, the sled shark, was complete on both sides and would be towed underwater, with scuba divers beneath operating the fins.
A production team of roughly 40 technicians built the three sharks over a period of four months (Jan-April 1974). The finished props cost approximately $250,000 each and weighed 2 tons apiece. The single sided versions would require 14 operators to work the pneumatics.
There was one major problem, however. Due to the tight production schedule, the sharks were never tested in the ocean prior to being shipped cross-country to location (they were built in Los Angeles, while the film was being shot in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts).
Shooting was fast approaching, and Spielberg was assembling his cast. Local actors and actresses (and several local neophytes) would fill small roles. Ben Gardner, Alex Kitner, Mrs. Kitner, Michael Brody, and several others were played by residents of the Vineyard. Peter Benchley would cameo as a television news reporter, a position he actually had experience with in real life.
In addition to Gottlieb and Hamilton (who was always the first choice for Amity’s Mayor and was the first major role to be cast), Spielberg cast Lorraine Gray as the wife of Chief Brody. He claims it was her performance in the tv movie “The Markus Nelson Murders” which impressed him, but cynics point to the fact that she was married to the president of Universal, Sid Sheinberg. Having her in a prominent role could be seen as an insurance policy against the project being cancelled. Whatever merit such a theory has or doesn’t have, Gary turned in a fantastic, empathetic performance as the mother of the Brody family. It’s hard to imagine another actress in the role, in hindsight.
Robert Duvall was offered the part of Chief Brody. He turned it down, however, expressing interest in the role of Quint instead. Charlton Heston lobbied for the role of Brody, but Spielberg, Zanuck and Brown didn’t want such a huge star in the film. They felt the shark should be the star. The role remained open until Spielberg was discussing “Jaws” at a party, and was introduced to Roy Scheider. Scheider had overheard some of the conversation leading up to their introduction, and thought that Spielberg was crazy for what he was about to attempt. Nevertheless, the meeting set the casting in motion.
Two major roles remained uncast mere weeks prior to the start of principal photography: Quint and Hooper.
For the role of young oceanographer Matt Hooper, Spielberg had gone to Jon Voight first, then Jeff Bridges. When neither worked out, he offered the role to Richard Dreyfuss (on the recommendation of George Lucas, who had worked with him on “American Graffitti”). Dreyfuss turned the part down, initially, citing the fact that it was certain to be a difficult production with so much of the film being shot at sea. Soon afterwards, however, he saw his own performance in a film called “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.” It was the first time he had seen himself in a leading role in a movie, and he was dismayed. He worried that after “Kravitz”, he wouldn’t be able to get work again. In a panic, he got in touch with Spielberg and pleaded to take the role if it was still available. It was.
Spielberg’s first choice for the role of Quint had been Sterling Hayden. However, Hayden was in trouble with the IRS and any proceeds he earned from acting would be garnished. Lee Marvin was offered the role, but he passed, stating that he liked to fish for real when he fished. Zanuck and Brown finally proposed Robert Shaw, whom they had worked with on “The Sting”. Shaw, who was Irish, was in the country on a work visa at the time, but based on the shooting schedule as it was originally set, he could finish the part. He accepted.
With the cast set, the crew headed to Martha’s Vineyard for the start of principal photography, unaware of the difficulties that they were about to encounter.
The team began encountering problems immediately. Martha’s Vineyard had never allowed a major Hollywood production, and placed tight restrictions on what could be built. For example, in order to build Quint’s shack, which was built on a vacant lot, the producers had to post a $500,000 bond guaranteeing they would raze the structure when filming was complete. To appease the town, the vandalized billboard needed to be erected and taken down in a single day.
Worse still, the production discovered that the waters off the Vineyard depend on a seasonal shift of the Gulf Stream in order to become warm enough for swimming. The beach scenes, which had been scheduled up front, now needed to be shifted to the end of the schedule. The open water shark scenes were pushed forward to accommodate. “Bruce” the shark would make his debut two weeks ahead of schedule.
In its first test in open waters, the shark’s platform base, designed to be levelly submerged to the ocean floor, listed over and sank straight to the bottom of the sea. It required a team of scuba divers to salvage it. It was an inauspicious debut.
It was merely the beginning of the difficulties the production would experience with the mechanical sharks, however. It took months for the production team to get them to operate correctly. The first time they towed the sled shark against the tide, for example, it burst. The steel rods comprising its frame twisted and bent out of shape under the strain. The material the sharks’ skins were made of soaked up water, causing them to swell. The pneumatic hoses controlling the sharks movements would take on water as well, causing them to malfunction. Sensors built into the sharks to give readouts assisting the operators were destroyed by the salt water. Without their feedback, controlling the machinery was much more difficult, and the shark was dented and damaged in the course of normal operation. The sea sled shark would often get entangled in seaweed. Every night the sharks needed to be repaired, repainted and dried, essentially creating a round-the-clock shooting/maintenance schedule. Even on productive days, it was commonplace for delays in shark setups to push back shooting.
The schedule was shuffled again in order to work around the malfunctioning sharks. This caused issues with actor’s availability, and of course, the script was still in flux. Every night Spielberg and Gottlieb were working on revisions. Even on good days, the difficulties of shooting at sea raised problems. The weather could be bad, and other boats in the distance in the background ruined shots. On a good day of shooting, Spielberg would get five shots. Two Orcas were built, one was a seaworthy craft, the other was designed to sink during the finale. During the production, the “seaworthy” Orca sank after having a hole torn in its hull by the rig towing the barrels.
As the production began to go over schedule and over budget, Spielberg feared he would be fired. Or that he would never be hired as a director again afterwards. Zanuck and Brown drew up contingency plans in case the production needed to be shut down, tabled or relocated.
The cast discuss Robert Shaw harassing Richard Dreyfuss.
The tension was getting to the cast as well. The lack of production was frustrating, and every member of the cast experienced sea sickness. Robert Shaw was forced to keep flying out of the country on off days in order to avoid exhausting his work visa. Everyone was feeling the stress of an indefinite shooting schedule, the setbacks and delays, and the close quarters of the island. Roy Scheider reportedly exploded into an angry tirade during a lunch break one day. The crew began derisively calling the production “Flaws”.
Robert Shaw had taken to taking his frustrations out on Richard Dreyfuss, tormenting him at every opportunity. Dreyfuss was young and comparatively inexperienced as an actor, plus their characters were antagonistic in the film, so Shaw took to making things uncomfortable for him whenever he could. It didn’t help matters that Shaw was drinking heavily at the time. According to some crew member accounts, Shaw was drinking all day and all night at times. His first day of shooting the famous “Indianapolis monologue” (which Shaw rewrote himself after John Milius did a revision of the passage from Howard Sackler’s draft) had to be scrapped due to intoxication.
Embarrassed, Shaw returned the next day and delivered the monologue on the first take.
In spite of all of these difficulties, the production moved ahead. By this time, the book had been published, and had become a national bestseller. The buzz was strong, and the success of the property ensured the movie would be high-profile. In spite of the difficulties being encountered, Universal liked the dailies and Spielberg’s job was never in actual danger.
In fact, the delays and forced workarounds may have strengthened the picture. Originally intended to be featured much more prominently, the mechanical shark’s malfunctions caused it to be replaced (by barrels) or not shown in several key instances. While these changes were forced in order to keep the shooting schedule moving, they had the effect of creating a build up of anticipation for the appearance of the shark in the third act. Spielberg is quoted as saying “The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen.”
Spielberg was also evidencing his talent as a director. Nearly a quarter of the movie is shot at eye level on the surface of the ocean, in order to give the audience the feeling of treading water. In order to emphasize the blood in the film, he insisted that the color red not be used anywhere else. During a pivotal beach scene, he zooms in on Chief Brody in a moment of panic and the background falls away from the viewer… the inverse effect of shots used in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. The film was evidencing Spielberg’s creative genius.
Shooting finally wrapped on October 6th, 1974. It had lasted 159 days, nearly three times as long as it was initially scheduled for (55 days).
The film was still missing one crucial facet, however: Its score.
Spielberg had worked with John Williams previously on “Sugarland Express”. Williams was a prolific film and television composer who already had an Academy Award to his credit by that time, (“Fiddler on the Roof”, 1972), but he was far from a household name. His score for “Jaws” would change that, however.
Reportedly, when Spielberg first heard the theme, he laughed, assuming Williams was joking. He wasn’t. The simple, alternating, two note pattern was meant to symbolize the shark’s primal, relentless nature. Its drive. By adjusting its tempo, the music could reflect the current level of danger in the film. Audiences would quickly identify it with the presence of the shark; so much so that Williams refused to use the theme as a false alarm when the shark was not actually present.
His work on “Jaws” would win him the second of the five Academy Awards he’s won to date, and establish him as the premiere movie composer of our generation. The theme itself would become not only synonymous with the shark, but with approaching danger in general.
The finished film is one of unparalleled adventure. Man vs. nature on the open sea. The horror aspects of the film were so effective upon release that “Jaws” instilled a phobia of the ocean in people across the country. It would also (sadly) trigger a global surge in sharking, damaging the public’s perception of the creatures and inspiring shark hunting on a massive scale.
The acting in the film is incomparable. Scheider, Shaw and Dreyfuss play off of each other perfectly, in spite of whatever animus occurred behind the scenes. Each were given fully fleshed out characters… complete with their own backstories, motivations and arcs. They didn’t squander them, either; all three actors brought their characters to life in the fullest way possible. They perfectly embodied their roles. Shaw grimaced and growled his way through Quint, the crusty man of the sea, who finally met his fate at the hands of his lifelong adversary: the shark. Dreyfuss’ Hooper proved that he was more than just a “big yahoo in the lab” by going face to face with the beast underwater. And Scheider’s Brody finally stood up against the town, faced his fear of the ocean, and saved the day.
It’s an incredible story, featuring rock solid characters, brought to life in exciting fashion with fantastic special effects.
Enthusiastic response to test screenings convinced Universal executives to take an unprecedented release strategy. Prior to the opening, they launched the largest national media campaign in movie history to that point, totaling $1.8 million, running $700,000 worth of television ads alone. When Jaws was finally released on June 20, 1975, it became the first movie to “open wide” on opening weekend, showing on 409 screens across the country. Until then, most films were given a platform release, slowly expanding into different markets and allowing word of mouth to build. It would expand again in July to 700 screens and in August to nearly 1,000 (950).
In spite of the fact it had more than doubled its initial budget, “Jaws” recouped its production costs in a mere two weeks. It became a nationwide phenomenon, becoming the first film in history to make over $100 million in “theater rentals” (roughly half the box office take), It would go on to gross $260,000,000 domestically and another $210,653,000 internationally for a lifetime theatrical cume of $470,653,000. It became the highest grossing film of all time, surpassing “The Godfather” in less than three months (a title it would lose to “Star Wars”, however, within two years).
The film would change the way Hollywood releases movies. “Jaws” was the first ever “Summer Blockbuster”. Initially released at the beginning of summer simply in order to coincide with and capitalize on its summer content, “Jaws” became a phenomenon that kept audiences flocking to theatres all summer long. Its success led Hollywood to define the summer months as the time for big budget tent pole releases. Major films also followed its release strategy going forward as well, utilizing national ad campaigns, then releasing into as many theaters as possible in their first week as opposed to the former pattern of “rolling out slowly”.
In spite its popular success and critical acclaim, Jaws wasn’t a lock for a Best Picture nomination. Horror and science fiction films don’t generally fare well with the Academy. Jaws was considered a popcorn movie, in spite of its undeniable quality. It would receive a Best Picture nomination anyways, however, although Steven Spielberg would not receive one for best director. Though the movie did not win Best Picture (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” did), it did win the other three awards it was up for. Best Editing (for Verna Fields, who is credited with much of the success of the film), Best Score (John Williams), and Best Sound.
Since then, it has only grown in esteem. It’s widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made, and rightfully so. The American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Movies placed it at #48. It dropped slightly, to number 56, on the 10th Anniversary edition. Even though it’s not a human being, AFI ranked the film’s shark at #18 on its list of the 50 Best Villains. Roy Scheider’s ad-libbed line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”, made #35 on their list of top 100 movie quotes, John Williams’s score places at #6 on their list of the top 100 Film Scores, and they rank the film as second on their list of the 100 most thrilling films, behind only “Psycho”.
In 2001, the United States Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 2006, its screenplay was ranked the 63rd best of all time by the Writers Guild of America.
“Jaws” is an incredible film that has become a part of the fabric of pop culture. It launched the career of the legendary Steven Spielberg, made John Williams a household name, and restructured the very way that Hollywood does business. It became a worldwide sensation, and remains an incredibly popular film to this day. Its enduring appeal will never wane, as it’s built upon the solid foundations of great characters, great story, and timeless themes.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.