I have this summer ritual of going to the Arlington with the staff and watching a big film on opening day – with the largest refillable tub of popcorn. We sit towards the front of the theatre – totally submerged in cinema. Summertime for most of us film lovers has always meant blockbuster movies being released. That wasn’t always the case. Studios used to hold their big titles for the Christmas holiday. Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” changed all of that in June of 1975, and it caught everyone by surprise. It led the way for Hollywood studios’ new business model where high concept movies became the norm.
So, I sat last night eagerly with some popcorn to watch this classic I hadn’t experienced in its totality for a very long time. Forty-five years ago, I must have seen it at least fifteen times – maybe more. I was as obsessed as I am now about deconstructing and observing movies. And I’m thrilled to tell you it’s just as electrifying as ever. There are aspects of it that — under our current situation — I found shockingly of the moment. Like the mayor arguing with Brody the chief of police about who has the authority to close the beach. “We’re anxious you’re rushing into something serious here.” The fact that a great white paralyzes the economy of this small town dependent on tourism also stood out. The shark attacks everyone notwithstanding of their socioeconomic situation. But it’s a heck of rollercoaster ride – a masterfully well put together thriller. It’s probably my favorite Steven Spielberg film – for he was obviously under pressure – and that energy is on the screen. He’s experimenting with new ideas as well as some borrowed – and in full command of his visual storytelling skills.
The production of “Jaws” was marred with filming delays and a growing budget due primarily to the fact that it was the first major motion picture to be shot in the ocean. The mechanical sharks kept malfunctioning. This latter detail is one of the reasons the film is as good as it is. Spielberg started to figure out ways to imply the presence of the shark as supposed to showing it – creating in the audience a sense of anticipation and suspense. Instead of the film becoming a creature feature – it plays more like a Hitchcock film. Early in the film, when Chief Brody is on the beach watching bathers and he realizes there’s a shark in the water – Spielberg uses the dolly zoom that was developed for Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Suddenly, Brody grows in size and it overwhelms the background. The effect undermines our normal visual perception – and it’s totally unsettling. Even after repeated viewings I still get goosebumps.
The opening sequence – the first attack – I use as an example for my students every semester when discussing sound. Whenever we hear the tempo speeding – we get tense. An increase of volume is also unnerving – and hearing a high pitch is unpleasant to our ears. Now, when you combine all three – tempo, volume and pitch – we are made to feel nervous and uncomfortable. We do not see the shark attack – but we sensorially experience it. In that first sequence they parallel cut to the lover of the victim laying on the beach in silence. That pattern of going from the John Williams’ alternating repetition of two notes – and total quiet – trains the audience to feel fear whenever we hear that musical motif later in the film. We relate the music to the camera-shy shark.
Spielberg also had to rely on the actors to make you be more invested in the story and to see how big this shark was. Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss are terrific – especially in the latter part of the film where the three of them are in the boat in a Melvillian quest to capture the shark. Their characters are so well defined. Scheider – the city man afraid of water, Shaw – as Quint – the Captain Ahab – and Dreyfuss as the Spielberg alter ego – the science man. I still love how Spielberg slows down the action in act three to listen to Quint tell the tale of the US Indianapolis – totally setting up the last ferocious thirty minutes.
Quint: “Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark… he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be living… until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then… ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’.”
Available to stream on HBO and to rent on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox, DIRECTV and Flixfling.
Screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb. Based on the novel by Peter Benchley
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss,Lorraine Gary and Murray Hamilton
“Jaws” began life as a 1974 novel by Peter Benchley…Film rights were secured by Zanuck and Brown for $150,000 (plus $25,000 for a first draft of the script) before the novel had been published (the book sold 5.5m copies before the movie opened). After potential director Dick Richards reportedly blew the assignment by repeatedly referring to the shark as “a whale”, the producers turned to rising director Steven Spielberg, who had just finished work on his feature debut, “The Sugarland Express,” and had made waves with the TV movie “Duel,” which pitted an emasculated Dennis Weaver against a giant, predatory truck. “I always thought that “Jaws” was kind of like an aquatic version of “Duel,” said Spielberg… “It was once again about a very large predator, you know, chasing innocent people and consuming them – irrationally. It was an eating machine. At the same time, I think it was also my own fear of the water. I’ve always been afraid of the water, I was never a very good swimmer. And that probably motivated me more than anything else to want to tell that story.” The production of “Jaws” proved problematic from the outset. First, there was the screenplay, which was still in flux when principal photography began in May 1974 (Richard Dreyfuss famously declared: “We started without a script, without a cast and without a shark”). Three drafts of the “Jaws” script were produced by Benchley before playwright Howard Sackler was brought in to do uncredited rewrites. But still things weren’t quite right and 10 days before the shoot Carl Gottlieb was enlisted to work with Spielberg on some dialogue scenes, bringing more warmth and “levity” to the often unlikable characters. Gottlieb would continue to do rewrites throughout the production, often incorporating material improvised in rehearsal by the cast, with added input from John Milius. (theguardian.com)
“Let’s start with the name. It came from director Steven Spielberg — or rather from Spielberg’s lawyer, Bruce Ramer. The shark itself was every bit as big in real life as it’s described as being in the film. So when marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) exclaims, upon first seeing the shark, that it’s a 20-footer, and Robert Shaw’s Quint the shark hunter corrects him, saying it’s 25, Quint’s right. The film’s art director, Joe Alves, was hired to create the shark, and he remembers very clearly how he decided on those 25 feet. He made two life-size paper drawings of Bruce — one 20 feet long, the other 30 feet. He took the two to a parking garage on the Universal Studios back lot and put them side by side for studio executives. In a classic Goldilocks moment, the bigger shark seemed too big and the little shark too little. So Alves took the middle road… The width of those famous jaws: nearly 5 feet. The head alone, according to one schematic, weighed 400 pounds. And the most important number of all: three. There were three Bruces, not one, created for the original Jaws. All three sharks were created from the same mold. One was pulled by boat, when it had to swim convincingly on camera. The other two sat atop a metal arm, hidden underwater so they could, among other things, vault onto the deck of the Orca and make short work of Robert Shaw. And while you wouldn’t know it from watching the film, Bruce the mechanical shark had a dirty little secret: It didn’t work very well. Stories abound of the animatronic shark stalling the moment it hit water and sinking to the seafloor. In fact, the finicky mechanics ended up pushing the film both over budget and over schedule. But Alves insists that when it worked, the shark “was just great.” “When it first comes out of the water, and [Roy] Scheider says, ‘C’mon down and chum some of this [stuff],’ and you look and the shark comes up, it was just fantastic,” he recalls. (npr.org)
Bringing “Jaws” to the Big Screen
“…With a projected budget of between $3.5m and $4m, filming got under way at the Massachusetts resort of Martha’s Vineyard. Several residents were cast in minor roles, but a few feathers were ruffled by the prospect of a Hollywood production rolling into town. “Martha’s Vineyard is a very upmarket place,” says Nick Jones, producer/director of “In the Teeth of Jaws.” “There is a somewhat snobby element of the super-rich, but the businesses rely on tourist dollars. So there was a little tension between those who wanted the film crew there and those who didn’t. For example, when the production needed to build Quint’s shack on a vacant harbour lot, they were refused planning permission even though it was only a set. Finally, they were allowed to continue on the proviso that they put everything back exactly the way it was, including the trash!”
The “Jaws” shoot was originally scheduled for 55 days, but the production swiftly turned into a logistical nightmare when the mechanical shark (three full-size, pneumatically animated models were constructed) consistently failed to play ball. Nicknamed “Bruce” after Spielberg’s lawyer, Bruce Ramer, the shark had been built by Bob Mattey, who had created the giant squid for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The models worked fine in the warehouse, but the minute they were dumped into seawater, they started to malfunction. Day after day went by without any usable footage being shot, storms and seasickness the film-makers’ only reward. Recalling the ordeal of the shoot, Spielberg said: “Jaws” to me was a near-death experience – and a ‘career death’ experience! I went to a party on Martha’s Vineyard and a very well-known actress came over to me and said, ‘I just came back from LA and everybody says this picture is a complete stinker. It’s a total failure and nobody will ever hire you again because you’re profligate in your spending and you’re irresponsible. Everybody’s calling you irresponsible!’ I had never heard the scuttle before, I didn’t ever hear the noise that was coming from Hollywood about me. So I was halfway through shooting the picture and this person tells me that my movie’s a disaster, and I am a disaster, and it’s over. And I really believed for the second half of the film that this was the last time I was ever going to shoot a film on 35mm.” (theguardian.com)
John Williams on his Infamous Score
“I knew about the novel,” Williams recalled… “I don’t think I read it, but Peter Benchley’s book was very, very popular. I remember seeing the movie in a projection room here at Universal. I was alone; Steven was in Japan at the time. “I came out of the screening so excited,” Williams said. “I had been working for nearly 25 years in Hollywood but had never had an opportunity to do a film that was absolutely brilliant. I had already conducted “Fiddler on the Roof,” and I had worked with directors like William Wyler and Robert Altman and others. But “Jaws” just floored me.” Williams viewed Spielberg’s thriller about a giant Great White shark terrorizing New England beachgoers as a chance for music to make a major contribution. Not only could he characterize the predatory fish in dark, powerful terms, but, as he remembers telling Spielberg, “I really saw this as a kind of sea chase, something that also had humor, so the orchestra could be swashbuckling at times.” First to come – and the only music that Williams demonstrated for Spielberg prior to the recording sessions – was the shark motif. He found a signature that not only fit the creature but proved flexible enough to function in as many ways as the shark itself: Sounds from deep in the orchestra (low strings, low brass instruments) that were also rhythmic: “so simple, insistent and driving, that it seems unstoppable, like the attack of the shark,” Williams explained. The music could be loud and fast if he was attacking, soft and slow if he was lurking, but always menacing in tone. Surprisingly, the director took a bit of convincing. “I played him the simple little E-F-E-F bass line that we all know on the piano,” and Spielberg laughed at first. But, as Williams explained, “I just began playing around with simple motifs that could be distributed in the orchestra, and settled on what I thought was the most powerful thing, which is to say the simplest. Like most ideas, they’re often the most compelling.” According to Williams, Spielberg’s response was: “Let’s try it.”
Williams spent two months writing more than 50 minutes of music for the film. They recorded in early March 1975 with a 73-piece orchestra. “It was a lot of fun, like a great big playground,” the composer recalled. “We had a really good time, and Steven loved it.” Loved it so much, in fact, that he decided to get involved. Early in the film, a high-school band is playing a Sousa march during a street parade, and Williams needed to record a terrible-sounding rendition with his orchestra, which included many of the finest musicians in Hollywood. “It’s very difficult to ask these great musicians to play badly,” he pointed out. But Spielberg, who played clarinet in a high-school band, decided to join the orchestra on that one number. And, says Williams, “he added just the right amateur quality to the piece. A few measures still survive in the movie.”
While the shark theme remains the most famous part of the “Jaws” score, Williams’ entire score is musically diverse. He wrote a delightful promenade (amusingly titled “Tourists on the Menu” on the original soundtrack album) for the Fourth of July crowds at the Amity beach, and an eerie soundscape for Quint (Robert Shaw) relating his horrific experience as a survivor of the sunken USS Indianapolis. A favorite part for Williams is the “shark cage fugue,” as Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) assembles the underwater apparatus that will enable him to observe the underwater predator up close. Drawing on his classical training, Williams composed a Bach-like piece that both indicated the complexity of the job and the urgency of the moment.
There was a lighthearted hornpipe (a traditional sailor’s dance) heard when the Orca departs the Amity harbor for the open sea, and brass fanfares for the boat chasing the shark at sea. “It suddenly becomes very Korngoldian,” Williams noted, referring to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the famous Austrian composer who scored so many pirate movies in the 1930s and ’40s; “you expect to see Errol Flynn at the helm of this thing. It gave us a laugh.” Williams was not in America when “Jaws” was released on June 20, 1975 and immediately took the moviegoing public by storm. He was in London working on a stage musical. He recalls one of his collaborators entering the theater one day and informing him “that shark thing is all the rage in the States.” “Jaws” not only became the highest-grossing film of its time, it propelled John Williams into the front rank of modern film composers. He won his second Academy Award for the score (one of five he has today) as well as a Golden Globe, a Grammy and BAFTA’s Anthony Asquith Award for film music. Together with “Star Wars” – which Williams would compose two years later for Spielberg’s friend George Lucas – the phenomenally successful music for Jaws brought about a resurgence of interest in the symphonic film score and paved the way for such future Spielberg-Williams masterpieces as “E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) and “Schindler’s List” (1993). More than anything, Williams’ music for “Jaws” helped the director achieve his goal: to scare the wits out of moviegoers. As Spielberg later put it: “I think the score was clearly responsible for half of the success of that movie.” (filmmusicsociety.org)
Changing Film History
“The New Hollywood, film historian Thomas Schatz notes that Jaws “recalibrated the profit potential of the Hollywood hit and redefined its status as a marketable commodity and cultural phenomenon as well”. Significantly, it achieved this success at a time when “most calculated hits were released during the Christmas holidays”. Not so “Jaws”, which according to David Brown was “deliberately delayed until people were in the water off the summer beach resorts”. Indeed, one of the film’s most memorable tag-lines was “See it before you go swimming!”. Yet it wasn’t just the resorts where Jaws showed its box office teeth.
Despite the fact that the summer months had traditionally been slow for cinemas (why go to the movies when the sun is shining?), Spielberg’s brilliantly constructed shocker struck a nerve with young audiences whose natural environment was not the beach but the shopping mall. Between 1965 and 1970, the number of malls in America had grown from 1,500 to 12,500 and Jaws rode high on the growing wave of multiplex cinemas that these urban meccas increasingly housed. Along with confirming “the viability of the summer hit, indicating an adjustment in seasonal release tactics”, Schatz also argues that “Jaws” struck a chord with a new generation of moviegoers who had “time and spending money and a penchant for wandering suburban shopping malls and for repeated viewings of their favourite films”. It didn’t hurt that these malls were air-conditioned, with the multiplex cinemas they increasingly housed providing a cool alternative to the sweltering summer heat. In the wake of “Jaws”’s extraordinary success, film-makers and studios started to see the summer months not as dog days but as prime time, something that had previously only been true for the declining drive-in market. “The summer blockbuster was born on 20 June 1975, when “Jaws” opened wide,” wrote the Financial Times’s Nigel Andrews, adding: “In the years after “Jaws,” the entire release calendar changed.” This change was apparently confirmed two years later by the May 1977 opening of George Lucas’s “Star Wars,” with its sequels “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” setting new benchmarks for seasonal franchise profitability. In the process, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas became two of the most influential people in Hollywood, the men who, according to popular folklore, had invented the “summer blockbuster”. (theguardian.com)
About Director Steven Spielberg
“Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on December 18, 1946. Throughout his early teens, he made amateur 8mm “adventure” films with his friends, charging 25 cents for admission, while his sister sold popcorn. In 1958, Spielberg became a Boy Scout and fulfilled a requirement for the photography merit badge by making a film titled, The Last Gunfight. Using his father’s movie camera, he says “That was how it all started.” Trying unsuccessfully to attend the film school at University of Southern California twice, he became a student at California State University, but later dropped out (he returned thirty-five years later to finish his degree). Becoming an unpaid intern at Universal Studios, he made his first short film called Amblin’ in 1968. After Universal’s vice-president saw the film, Spielberg became the youngest director ever to be signed for a long-term deal.
Once Spielberg found his way in Hollywood, there was no turning back as he has directed/written/produced some of the biggest films of the last forty years including: “Duel” (made for TV), “Jaws” (1975), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) “ET” (1982), “Gremlins” (1984), “The Goonies” (1985), “Poltergeist” (1982), “The Color Purple” (1985), “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984), “Empire of the Sun” (1987), “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989), “Hook” (1991), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “Schindler’s List” (1993) “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (1997), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), “Minority Report” (2002), “War of the Worlds” (2005), “Munich” (2005), and “War Horse” (2011).
Spielberg also co-founded DreamWorks in 1994, which was later bought out by Paramount Pictures in 2005. Returning to television, Spielberg produced “Band of Brothers,” “Taken” and “The Pacific.” Throughout this, Spielberg lived with dyslexia that caused him to learn to read two years later than his classmates. The teasing he experienced was future inspiration for “The Goonies,” in which he said, “I was a member of the goon squad.” But he says he never felt like a victim of his learning disability. “Movies really helped me, kind of saved me from shame and guilt. Making movies was my great escape.” Over his career, he’s won three Academy Awards, and two Golden Globes along with over 100 other wins and nominations.” (mcbdds.org)