‘Jaws’ – Looking Back at Steven Spielberg’s ‘Apocalypse Now’

By the time I finally got around to renting Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” on VHS, I already knew how it ended. Heck, everyone knew the ending of all the “Jaws” movies just as we did with “Rocky” and its endless sequels, and yet we still went in droves to the nearest theater playing them when they opened. But even while the great white shark’s final moment was never in doubt, it still provided to be one hell of an exciting movie. Much of this is thanks to Spielberg and actors Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw. Its landmark success has been noted for starting the trend of summer blockbusters as well as the collective phobia of what’s in the water. 45 years later, many of us still do not feel the least bit safe about going into the water.

Looking back at the making of “Jaws” reveals a very troubled production which almost didn’t make it to the silver screen. From what I have read, this movie was to Steven Spielberg what “Apocalypse Now” was to Francis Ford Coppola. Remember the picture of Coppola on the set of “Apocalypse Now” with a gun to his head? Steven had one of him resting in the shark’s mouth, and he looked like he was more than ready for the shark to eat him.

The story of a great white shark terrorizing a New England island originated as a novel of the same name written by Peter Benchley which itself was inspired by several real-life incidents of shark attacks including the ones on Jersey Shore back in 1916. After buying the rights to the novel, film producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown tried to get John Sturges who made “The Great Escape” to bring it to the screen. When this did not happen, they went to Dick Richards who ended up calling the shark the whale, so he didn’t last long. Zanuck and Brown finally brought on Spielberg to direct, and this was just before the release of his first theatrical film “The Sugarland Express.” In adapting the novel, Spielberg focused on its main concept and took out the various subplots such as the affair between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper. In retrospect, this was an excellent call as it would have added more stories to a movie which did not need any extra baggage.

Hearing Dreyfuss describe his take on the whole production gives one idea of the mess Spielberg and Universal got themselves into:

“We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark.”

When he appeared on “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” Spielberg said he invited the actors to dinner and they ended up “spit balling” the entire movie or, in other words, they made it up. Pages of the script were apparently not available to anyone until the day they were actually shot. A lot of filmmakers still work like this today even though it makes far more sense to work with a finished screenplay.

Then there was the shark itself which Spielberg nicknamed “Bruce” after his lawyer, Bruce Raimer. Three mechanical sharks were built for the production: a whole shark to be used for underwater shots, one which moved from camera-left to right as to hide the other side which completely exposed its internal machinery, and an opposite model with the right side uncovered. But while these models were tested in a pool under controlled conditions before production began, making them work in the ocean was another story. Some of them accidently sank and a team of divers were forced to retrieve them. The main mechanical model endured various malfunctions throughout, and its operation was constantly hindered by the hydraulics being corroded by salt water. Spielberg even joked about Bruce’s maiden voyage and how he sank to the bottom of the sea:

“It was a terrible sight! The shark comes out of the water tail first, wagging like Flipper! The tail comes down into the water, and then it sinks. And then there’s another explosion of white water, and all these pneumatic blue cables come out like snakes everywhere flying around! And then that got quiet, and then there was one last belch of bubbles, and that was the last we saw of the shark for about three weeks.”

Dreyfuss described the frustration everyone had with these models, and those walkie talkies being used by the crew always had the same words coming out of them:

“(static) The shark is not working, (static) the shark is not working.”

Things got even worse from there as filming at sea resulted in many delays as it would with just about any other film. Uninvited sailboats kept drifting into shots, and the Orca ended up sinking while the actors were onboard. This apparently led Spielberg to yell out as it was sinking:

“Screw the actors! Save the sound equipment!”

The crew members had absolutely no reason to believe they were filming a classic, and they instead nicknamed the film “Flaws.” Brown commented how the budget was originally $4 million, and it ended up costing $9 million. While this may sound like chump change today, this was long before the days when movies came with budgets of at least $100 million. Filming was scheduled to last 55 days, but it ended up lasting 159. Spielberg was not yet the director we know him as today, so you have to understand what was going through his mind while he was enduring this trial by fire:

“I thought my career as a filmmaker was over. I heard rumors that I would never work again because no one had ever taken a film 100 days over schedule.”

Spielberg was not even on set for the final shot when the great white meets its maker, and it was mainly because he was under the suspicion the crew would throw him into the water. This has apparently become a tradition for Spielberg on the films that he directs; not being there for the shooting of the final scene. This is regardless of the fact not all his movies take place on the water.

As we all know now, the shark malfunctioning proved to be a blessing in disguise as it gave the “Jaws” a more suspenseful tone than it had already. By filming the dorsal fin as often as he could or using those yellow barrels to indicate the shark’s location, he was able to get away with not showing the whole thing through most of the movie. In fact, he had already told the producers he would agree to direct the movie on the condition he did not have to show the shark for the first hour. Spielberg went on to explain the logic behind this decision:

“I don’t know of anything more terrifying than off-camera violence, off-camera suspense. You have to give the audience credit; they bring with them to the movie theater probably collectively more imagination than any of us behind the scenes put together. And they come in there with their imaginations and implore us as filmmakers to use it.”

Looking back at the hell Spielberg went through to finish this, it is amazing any movie came out of it. You can only imagine what he was thinking before “Jaws” was even released. One of the funniest stories he ever told about it was when he went to a preview or test screening. As he stood in the back of the theater right near the exit, he was expecting the worst:

“Around the time that little boy was killed on the raft, a man got up and began to walk out of the theater. And I said ‘well, here’s our first walk out, the movie’s too violent. I shouldn’t have done this; I shouldn’t have made it that intense.’ The guy then starts running and I go ‘oh worst the walking out, he’s running out of the theater! He’s RACING out of the theater!’ He got right next to me, went to one knee and threw up all over the carpeting of the lobby. Went to the bathroom, came out five minutes later, walked back to his seat and I said ‘IT’S A HIT!’ “

“Jaws” ended up becoming the first movie in history to gross over $100 million at the box office, and it marked a watershed moment in how movies were distributed. Since its release, it has spawned several sequels, become a memorable part of the Universal Studios tour and has spawned lord knows how many VHS, laserdisc, and DVD reissues. And, of course, it was released on Blu-ray, and it has now been released on the format 4K Ultra HD. If there is to be another new format on the horizon, you can be sure “Jaws” will be released on it.

As for the sequels, “Jaws 2” had its moments, the only saving graces of “Jaws 3-D” was its 3D effects which look awful when viewed on your television, and for the beautiful appearances of Bess Armstrong and Lea Thompson. As for “Jaws: The Revenge,” it remains one of the worst movies ever made as it contains many unforgivably glaring errors. On the upside, “Jaws: The Revenge” did inspire one of the greatest movie reviews on “Siskel & Ebert” which still has me laughing whenever I watch it. Spielberg later said he felt bad about how the franchise turned out, but he couldn’t go back to it after the frustration he had with making the first. By the time “Jaws 2” came around, Spielberg and Dreyfuss were already busy making “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

After all these years, “Jaws” remains one of the all-time great movies as it effortlessly taps into those fears we all have of the unknown, or of what is underneath us in the water. You could watch it a dozen times and still be thrilled by it, and it made Spielberg into the director he is today. If you are about to watch it for the first time, and you will find that the shark is indeed still working.

Here are some other interesting tidbits about “Jaws”:

  • Spielberg originally offered the role of Brody to Robert Duvall, but he was more interested in playing Quint.
  • Charlton Heston expressed interest in playing Quint, but Spielberg felt he was too big a personality and would end up overshadowing what he saw as the film’s real star: the shark.
  • Spielberg was initially apprehensive about casting Scheider because he feared he would play a tough guy like he did in “The French Connection.”
  • The role of Quint was offered to Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden, but both turned it down.
  • The scene where Hooper discovers Ben Hooper’s body in the hull of his wrecked boat was actually added after an initial screening of the film. Spielberg said he was greedy for one more scream, and he ended up financing this moment with $3,000 of his own money since Universal Pictures denied him anymore financing at that point in the production.

Jeremiah S. Chechik Looks Back at Making ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’

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Jeremiah S. Chechik was the special guest at Arclight Studios in Hollywood a few years ago when they hosted a screening of his directorial debut, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” The third and most beloved in the “Vacation” franchise has long since become a holiday classic, and it is the Christmas film many families watch during the holiday season instead of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After the movie was over and the end credits were all done, Chechik came up quickly to the front of the audience before anyone could introduce him and said, ”I haven’t seen it since the day it opened!”

The screenplay was written by the late John Hughes and was inspired by an article Hughes wrote for the National Lampoon called “Christmas ’59.” Chechik tipped his hand to Hughes’ wonderful writing and went on to say it was originally written as a stand-alone movie. Warner Brothers, however, read it and immediately wanted to integrate it into the “Vacation” franchise.

When asked how he got the job to direct, Chechik explained he was directing what he called “high profile” commercials back in a time when it was unusual to go from doing commercials to directing feature films. His work eventually got him discovered by Steven Spielberg who ended up giving him an office at Amblin Entertainment. This brought a lot of awareness to his visual style, and both Chase and Hughes soon became adamant he be the next one to direct the next “Vacation” movie.

With this being his first film, Chechik said he was determined not to back down on actors who wanted to exert their power over him. While it’s tempting to think he and Chase didn’t get along as Chase’s reputation for being hard to work will never disappear, Chechik said they actually had a great working relationship on set. This came after he admitted to not being a big fan of Chase’s comedy as he described it as being “very broad.” Chechik described Chase as having a very strong point of view, a very clear intention of what the movie is about, and they worked together to find things which worked.

Chechik, however, did say he and Beverly D’Angelo had many arguments, some of which he described as being “very heated,” on set. Still, he said all the bad blood between them is now water under the bridge.

“Christmas Vacation’s” budget was $27 million, and its shooting schedule lasted for 60 days. Much of the movie was shot in Breckinridge, Colorado while other scenes were shot the following summer at Warner Brothers in Burbank, California. Chechik was happy to say Hughes had his back throughout the whole production. When the movie went through previews, the studio heads pressured him to cut the scene where the cat got electrocuted. Chechik claimed he resisted the pressure and kept it in because he thought it was funny (and it was) and that he was more of a dog person anyway. The test audiences also loved the scene, and the studio heads didn’t bother keeping the moment out of the movie’s trailer.

Chechik said “Christmas Vacation” worked so well because we truly cared about Clark Griswold and what he went through. The mood of certain scenes was very important to him, especially the one with Chase in the attic where he watched home movies of past Christmases with tears filling his eyes. Looking at this made Chechik point out the way comedy should be done in movies:

“Funny beats funny,” he said. “If everyone thought the set pieces were funny but they didn’t care about the main character, then the movie won’t work.”

With the squirrel scene, he said a trained squirrel was brought onto the set and there was also a trainer there for the dog featured in it as well. Chechik said the filmmakers “storyboarded the hell out of it” and were eager to start filming it, but when he arrived on set that day he was confronted with the grim faces of the trainers and line producers. After shuffling around for a bit, they informed him the squirrel had died. The squirrel trainer went on to say they don’t live for very long anyway as if that could have possibly softened the blow.

So, they went out and got another squirrel for the scene which they ended up drawing out onto the set with food. From this, Jeremiah said he learned how to roll with things and to use improvisation. About every scene in “Christmas Vacation” had a certain amount of improvisation in it, he pointed out.

As for the most difficult scene to shoot, Chechik said it was the dinner table scene where the whole family begins their Christmas Eve celebration. He did not hesitate in telling everyone having 9 to 11 actors in a scene is a really bad idea. The blocking proved to be very complicated, and it became such a nightmare for him as it took days and days for him to get the scene right.

Here are some other “Christmas Vacation” trivia Chechik let us know about:

  • In the scene with the two granddads snoring in front of the television, the actors playing those roles really were fast asleep.
  • Mae Questal, who played Aunt Bethany, was the voice of Betty Boop.
  • Chevy’s angry rant on his boss was done exactly as it was written by Hughes.

It was really nice of Chechik to come out and talk with us about “Christmas Vacation,” a movie he succeeded in making a timeless classic and, as he put it, “very postcardy.” When asked why he hasn’t seen the film since it first came out, he said he just wanted to let it go and let it live. It certainly has had a long life since 1989, and the series continued on with “Vegas Vacation” and “Vacation” which starred Ed Helms and Christina Applegate. In response to one audience member who said his family watches it every year, Chechik replied, “I like your family!”

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‘Full Tilt Boogie,’ the ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ Documentary, Screens at New Beverly Cinema

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After a double feature of William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Rampage,” which is not currently available on DVD, the audience members at New Beverly Cinema were in for a special midnight treat as the theater held a screening for the 20-year-old documentary “Full Tilt Boogie.” Directed by Sarah Kelly, it chronicles the making of Robert Rodriguez’s action horror cult classic “From Dusk till Dawn” which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as outlaw brothers who, along with a vacationing family, end up at a rowdy Mexican bar which turns out to be infested with vampires. The documentary introduces us to those people who worked behind the scenes on the movie, of why they want to be a part of show business, the fun they have when the cameras are not rolling, and of the complicated relationship between movie studios and unions.

Introducing this screening of “Full Tilt Boogie” was Kelly, and she was joined by her producer and friend Rana Joy Glickman. The emcee who welcomed them remarked about how cool it was this documentary was playing at the New Beverly and that it was sharing a marquee with Friedkin’s “Cruising.” To this, the emcee said about Kelly, “Whoa! She scored good!”

Kelly welcomed all the “insomniacs” who came out to see her documentary and explained how it became a reality.

“The reason this movie came about was that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin were about to start shooting ‘From Dusk till Dawn,’ and it was an $18-million-dollar independent movie and the unions were pissed,” Kelly said. “They were like, ‘What do you mean? No, you have to go union.’ And so, there was a big threat of a strike, and Quentin thought it would be cool to document it.”

“I had worked for him on a little movie called ‘Pulp Fiction’ and a couple of other movies he was involved with,” Kelly continued, “and he knew that I was studying to be a director so he gave me a shot. At the time, I was taking a break from production and I was working part-time in a law firm and I was like, ‘So is this for real? Should I quit my job?’ And he said, ‘Uh, quit your job yesterday.’ So, I did. We wrangled our little, tiny, hardcore crew and we started shooting, by the way, on 16mm film. Nobody shoots documentaries on 16mm film anymore, but we did. The union threat kind of turned into a cold war and I asked Quentin if we could keep shooting and just do a love letter to the crew. I pitched it as kind of like ‘Hearts of Darkness’ (Eleanor Coppola’s documentary on ‘Apocalypse Now’), but not that dark. Quentin said, ‘Yeah, that’s really fucking cool!’”

As for Glickman, she claimed to have hundreds of stories to tell about the documentary and “From Dusk till Dawn,” but she chose to tell only this one.

“When we finished ‘Full Tilt Boogie’ we were just so pleased that we finished and we got to make the posters for the film, not the one that Harvey Weinstein had selected,” Glickman said. “Our favorite poster is Sarah’s design, and it was Ken (Bondy), the craft service guy on ‘From Dusk till Dawn,’ standing there with a tray of lattes and it said, ‘From the maker of coffee on Pulp Fiction, we bring you Full Tilt Boogie.’”

Kelly responded, “That’s a great poster, right?”

“Full Tilt Boogie” may not be the masterpiece “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” is, but it’s still a very entertaining documentary which takes you behind the scenes of a movie’s production in a way few others do. We get to see the challenges crew members constantly face on a movie set, and we also get to take in the fun they have outside of it as well. For these people, this is a job done out of love and far more preferable than working a 9 to 5 job which has them sitting at a desk all day. Kelly certainly did create a love letter to these crew members, and we revel in the festivities they have from one day to the next.

Thanks to Sarah Kelly and Rana Joy Glickman for taking the time to come out, and at such a late hour, to talk about “Full Tilt Boogie” at New Beverly Cinema.

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Exclusive Interview with Erin Benach on ‘Loving’

I got to speak with Costume Designer Erin Benach about her work on Jeff Nichols’ historical drama “Loving.” The movie takes us back to the late 1950’s and early 1960’s where we are introduced to Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple whose marriage quickly had them banished from Virginia as it violated the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. They later sued Virginia, and their civil rights case, “Loving vs. Virginia,” eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court which affirmed the very foundation of marriage ways and ended state laws that prohibited interracial marriage.

Benach also worked with Nichols on his other 2016 movie, “Midnight Special.” She earned a 2012 Costume Designers Guild Award nomination for her work on Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” and she reteamed with him on “The Neon Demon.” She has also worked with filmmaker Derek Cianfrance on his movies “Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” and “The Light Between Oceans.” Her other credits include Brad Furman’s “The Lincoln Lawyer,” Andrew Niccol’s “The Host,” Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Sugar,” and Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut “Lost River.” You can visit her website at www.erinbenach.com.

In my conversation with Benach, she talked about having the costumes fit into the story without overwhelming it, why the costumes could not stand out too much, and of the challenges she faced in capturing the look and feel of the years “Loving” takes place in. She also talked about the differences of working with Nichols and Refn whose films are so very different from one another.

Please check out the interview above. “Loving” is now playing in Los Angeles and New York.

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Exclusive Interview with Kenneth Walker and Julia Lallas about ‘Loving’

Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” is a beautiful movie from top to bottom as everyone involved in its making did an expert job of transporting us back to the 1950’s and 60’s. Based on a, yes, true story, it introduces us to Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) who are deeply in love with one another. They eventually get married, but with Richard being white and Ruth being black, they are arrested and put in jail as their interracial marriage violated Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. As punishment, they are banned from returning to Virginia for 25 years and forced to live in Washington D.C., but they soon sue the state and their case eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court where it was ruled banning interracial marriage is unconstitutional.

I recently got to speak with two artists who worked on “Loving” behind the scenes: Kenneth Walker and Julie Lallas. Walker was the head of the hair department, and his previous credits include “Jimi: All is By My Side,” “Munich” and Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” which he described as the hardest film he ever worked on. Lallas headed up the makeup department and worked with Nichols previously on “Take Shelter,” and she has also worked on the set of “Enchanted,” “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Talking with them both was very illuminating in terms of how they went about their jobs, and it also allowed me to ask them if they want their work to be showy or to instead just disappear into the framework of the movie.

Check out the interview above, and also included below is a trailer for “Loving.” Nichols’ movie is now playing in Los Angeles and New York, and it is definitely worth checking out.