‘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.

‘Jaws’ Remains a Thrilling Experience Decades After its Release

Jaws movie poster

Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is one of those movies I thought I watched a few years after it came out, but in retrospect I had only seen bits and pieces before finally watching it all the way through. It came out in 1975 a couple of months before I was born, and I can still vividly remember people talking about it while in a carpool to school. One of my kindergarten buddies kept telling me about all the blood the great white shark ends up spilling, and what he said made me NOT want to see “Jaws” for the longest time.

I do remember seeing certain scenes from “Jaws” for the very first time, and those moments remain forever burned in my conscious mind. When ABC presented its network television premiere of the movie, I remember those giant red letters coming out at me from the TV screen, and it was enough to have my hair standing on end. It was also the first time I saw little Alex Kintner getting dragged down to his bloody death, a very frightening image to be featured in any movie, let alone one with a PG rating.

Years later, I was watching an episode of “At the Movies” with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert where they were talking about Spielberg’s movies in general. This was when I first saw the scene where Roy Scheider is throwing chum into the water, and the great white shark ends up rising out of the water which leads Scheider to tell Robert Shaw, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” This appearance of the shark scared me to death back then, and I felt exactly like Scheider’s character did as he slowly backed away from the boat’s rear.

A few years later, “Jaws” was again showing on television, and it was one of the few motion pictures shown unedited on television. Most movies, when they make their network television debut, are edited for content, but “Jaws” is so highly regarded to where it had to be shown with all the good parts intact. It was then I got my introduction to when Richard Dreyfuss was exploring Ben Gardner’s boat and Gardner’s head pops out of the hull. This proved to be another sequence which almost stopped my heart.

By the time I reached junior high school, I was already fully aware “Jaws” ended with the shark getting blown up. In fact, I had seen all the sequels by then and watched those other great white sharks bite the dust in their individual ways. Heck, I remember my brother renting “Jaws 3” on videotape, and we watched the shark getting blown up by a grenade and parts of his teeth getting thrust out at us with those 3D effects which never translated to the small screen.

While watching the last half of “Jaws” at a friend’s house all those years ago, I was truly astonished at how thrilling the movie was. I figured knowing the movie’s ending would rob it of any suspense or tension Spielberg managed to generate for audiences back in 1975, but man was I wrong. Seeing Dreyfuss trapped in the shark cage while the great white makes an effort to “reach out and touch someone” by attempting to smash through those metal bars had me begging for someone to kill it. Watching Scheider trying to keep his head above water as the boat sank had me wondering how the hell he was going to make it back to shore in one piece as his character hates the water.

I eventually rented “Jaws” on VHS in the days before Blockbuster Video became a dominant force in the video rental market. Seeing the movie in its entirety was a great experience, and it’s still one which I cannot ever get sick of watching. Even though I knew certain moments were coming, the anticipation of them still had me on the edge of my seat.

Having watched “Jaws” so many times before its Blu-ray release, the thing which keeps bringing me back to it is the human element. What Spielberg does best here is give us characters who are human and not mere clichés. Whether you’ve ever lived on an island like Amity or not, we know its inhabitants up close and why they depend on the summer months for their very lives.

Now while Spielberg did have problems with the mechanical shark which he named after his lawyer, he did have tremendous luck with his cast. What I love about Scheider, who plays Police Chief Martin Brody, is he doesn’t act the part as much as he becomes it. Those who read my reviews know I love talking about actors who inhabit their roles more than act, and Scheider proved to be one of those actors who did this very effectively. Brody is not out to be the hero, and he is like any other husband and father who just wants to keep his family safe. Scheider also makes you admire this ordinary police chief as he faces his fear of water so he can to put an end to the shark’s reign of terror.

Dreyfuss proves to be endlessly entertaining as Matt Hooper, a man whose love of the ocean and the animals inhabiting it keeps him from ever becoming a cynical bastard. Even after all these years, Dreyfuss is so much fun to watch as he shares his shark expertise with Scheider’s character and endures constant battles with Robert Shaw’s Quint who thinks this oceanographer is a little too domesticated to be sailing the ocean with him.

Speaking of Shaw, he has always struck me as one of those actors who proved to be as tough as the characters he played. This must be why he inhabits Quint so effectively, and his performance is one of the most unforgettable I have ever witnessed. Quint proves to be very hard to get along with, but then he goes into his long speech regarding his experiences on board the USS Indianapolis and of what happened after it sank. This monologue still gives us all chills every single time.

It’s the strong human element which makes “Jaws” work so phenomenally well as we come to care deeply about these characters and their hairy predicament. This could have been one of those pictures which lived or died on the quality of its special effects, and here they really could have been a detriment here more than anything else. The stories behind the making of this movie have long since become legendary as the filmmakers dealt with endless obstacles in making anything about the shark work.

But I also love how what worked against “Jaws” actually helped it in the long run. Dreyfuss loves to joke about how he kept hearing crew members saying “the shark is not working” on their walkie talkies, but it turned out the less we saw of the shark the better (something the sequels would quickly forget). “Jaws’” overall effectiveness came from the terror of what we didn’t see as opposed to what we did see. Many may prefer to see the monster, but the lack of its appearance forces our imaginations to go into overdrive, and this makes the monster so infinitely frightening.

“Jaws” is also aided tremendously by John Williams’ unforgettable music which still freaks us out whenever we hear those “dum-dum-dum-dum” sounds. So much attention is placed on this part of his score, however, to where other parts of it don’t get the praise they deserve. The music where Brody’s son mimics his dad’s every move at the dinner table is beautiful, and the same goes for the end theme which is mournful of what’s been lost and yet thankful this ordeal has finally come to an end.

This was the first movie to make $100 million at the box office, and that forever changed the way movies were made and distributed. As a result, many blame Spielberg for putting an end to the thoughtful, character-driven movies of the 1970’s, but that’s not fair. “Jaws’” success got Wall Street interested in the money which could be made from movies, and this proved to be the death knell to 70’s filmmaking. If Wall Street had looked more closely at the success of “Jaws,” they’d see how it focused as much on its characters as it did on the shark.

“Jaws” inspired a lot of filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith and Eli Roth, and it is bound to inspire many more in the future. Many have even gone on to name their companies after famous lines of dialogue like A Bigger Boat and Bad Hat Harry. It says a lot how “Jaws” is as powerful today as when it first came out in 1975, and I hope movie studios remember this if they ever foolishly decide to remake it, and heaven forbid this ever happens.

* * * * out of * * * *