Stale Popcorn » THE INDISPENSIBLES – #2: JAWS

THE INDISPENSIBLES – #2: JAWS

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The first time I heard about Jaws, or at least what I thought was Jaws, was in the playground at school. I was ten. Someone in the year above me was telling me it was the “scariest film ever”. They went on to describe to me how a shark terrorised a group of stranded teenagers whose boats had run aground and then went on to eat an entire helicopter.  I couldn’t compute that this “horror” film about a helicopter-eating shark was by the same guy who made E.T The Extra Terrestrial, my then favourite film of all time!  I begged my parents to hunt it out and show it to me! I cried for like a week (well, maybe ten minutes) when they refused on the grounds that a) I was ten and too young to be watching people getting eaten by sharks and b) my sister had a devastatingly annoying fear of sharks and I was only allowed to watch films we would both enjoy – with that in mind, how I ended up sitting through Adventures in Babysitting and Dirty Dancing, I do not know.

Thanks to a friend’s irresponsible parents though, I soon found myself sitting down to watch a copy of this much touted “horror” film one rainy Saturday afternoon.  My ten year old mind walked away from my first ever viewing of the film somewhat disappointed to find out that it was in fact Jaws 2 that held the delights of helicopters getting eaten by sharks, teenagers getting munched from their stranded sailboats and so on and so forth.  Damn that irresponsibly inaccurate playground blabbermouth!  As a schlocky piece of horror for a pre-teen frame of mind, Jaws is disappointingly bloodless for the majority of its running time.  However, it is indeed a film that you grow into loving with age. Ten year olds are not meant to be impressed by Quint’s ‘Indianapolis’ monologue or the now famous reverse zoom shot of Brody on the beach, spotting what he thinks is a shark zoning in on swimming tourists.  With time comes a mature understanding of those long boat-bound scenes between three great character actors, an appreciation for the setting up of an action sequence as opposed to the actual sequence itself and a true love of John Williams’ superb score (one of the greatest of all time!), outside of that infamous three-note signature piece.

So how did this three-men-versus-a-giant-rubber-shark movie come to be held in such high regard by a man, who two decades earlier bemoaned that it was “not as good as BMX Bandits”?  To explain that I have to take you back, unfortunately for tangent-haters, to 1974. 

Now, you need to bear with me on this because the history of the making of Jaws and how it came to be is just as famous as the film itself. It’s also one that pretty much everyone knows about. So why am I detailing? Because, it’s just so much fucking fun for a fan to write about it!

Spielberg, the now legendary director, had seen the early proof-reads of Peter Benchley’s bestseller on the desk of producer David Brown and had asked what it was about, naively believing at first – thanks to the mocked-up cover of a bikini-clad babe splashing around in the ocean (no shark in sight) – that it was about a “pornographic dentist” (I kid you not!).  Brown explained the concept to him in a manner that can only be described as the absolute opposite of ‘high art’.  “It’s about a shark that eats people!”  Yet it was so much more than that. Well, actually maybe the book itself wasn’t (it isn’t, believe me!) but the eventual film would indeed be – and then some:

Amity Island, on the East Coast of America, is plagued by attacks on swimmers by a twenty-eight foot great white shark. Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) would like to keep the whole thing quiet so that the all important tourist season – and the money that rolls in from it – remains unaffected but Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) disagrees. Soon the brutal attacks get to the stage where the shark cannot be ignored and Brody, despite his general hatred of the water, teams up with Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a marine biologist, and a mysterious old sea salt of a shark hunter called Quint (Robert Shaw) to go catch the shark and stop its feeding frenzy once and for all. However, once out in the middle of the ocean the hunters become the hunted…

Having recently moved to Malibu earlier that year and spent many hours staring out at sea, (so fascinated by the scope and mystery that he put down making a movie based on that very subject on his wish list of projects he would like to make one day) Spielberg was sold on the idea and put himself forward for the job of director. Brown and fellow producing partner, Richard D. Zanuck, turned him down flat. In their eyes, Spielberg was (at that moment in time) a jobbing TV director who had turned gigs on Columbo and The Twilight Zone into lengthy and complicated affairs with his pursuit of original camera set-ups and technical framing.  However, they were impressed with his TV movie, Duel, which had attracted great critical acclaim to the point where it was released onto a movie screen for a lucrative run – something very rarely, if ever, done. When their first choice of director, Dick Richards, stepped aside after a run in with both Zanuck and Brown due to his inability to stop referring to the shark as a ‘whale’ (and his subsequent revelation that he did not know the difference between a shark or a whale) the producers chased Spielberg down and handed him the directorial controls of his first major motion picture!

Jaws became Spielberg’s breakthrough.  As we all know it was the first summer blockbuster ever, as well as being the first to break the (now cripplingly all important) $100 million mark (worldwide it exceeded that five times over!) and single-handedly caused a downturn in the package holiday trade. Seriously. At the first ever screening of it in it’s completed form, Spielberg’s sister Anne staggered out of the cinema and became one of the film’s causalities through its sheer well-executed tension!

The film has lost none of its power to terrify. The head popping out of the boat sequence (which was actually a reshot sequence, completed in editor Verna Field’s swimming pool with a black tarpaulin pulled over the top to create the illusion of a ‘murky depth’, because Spielberg was apocalyptic that although the preview audience had jumped during that sequence they had not “jumped high enough”), the moment the shark’s head comes bursting through the surface, the first attack in the film’s opening moments by an unseen predator… our primal fears are intricately and incessantly tweaked by a filmmaker bursting out onto the big screen ‘scene’ at the very top of his directorial game.
 
That aforementioned ‘unseen’ element, is absolutely crucial to the success of the film and how it has come to be regarded as a genuine classic in the field of suspense thrillers, instead of a schlock-heavy one-note “monster” movie.  Spielberg refrained from unleashing his “beast” for over an hour into the film’s running time.  This works superbly because we do not know exactly what is attacking the townsfolk of Amity Island and we, the audience, won’t buy that it is a shark responsible until we have seen it with our own eyes.  Why should we? The characters within the film spend the majority of the first act almost uncertain themselves. 

However, now that enough time has passed, behind-the-scenes anecdotes have been committed to legend and original shooting-drafts of the screenplay have been made available online, we now know that Spielberg’s delivery of suspenseful unseen attacks was not the original intention but a forced decision due to endless technical difficulties.  As can be seen by the original (intended) shooting draft, the shark would have been onscreen for as much as sixty to seventy percent of the running time (and, rather disappointingly, within the opening sequence!) had it been able to work properly and, most importantly of all, stop sinking. 

There were three full sized mechanical models of ‘Bruce’ the shark (named after Spielberg’s lawyer). One of them spiralled so unbelievably out of control that it slammed into the side of the crew’s boat, bursting through the wooden frame and sinking it within minutes, taking expensive camera equipment with it. What of the other two? Well, legend has it that one still lies rotting at the bottom of Martha’s Vineyard – where the movie was filmed – and the other was slammed into storage, only to be pulled out a few years later, adapted and shipped to Universal Studios for use in their theme park ride based on the movie.

However, had the technical aspects not backfired so enormously, the true genius of the film – and its most timelessly rewarding aspect – would never have been born.  Due to the huge amount of delays caused by shooting on water, the failed mechanics of their prop sharks and sinking boats taking thousands of dollars worth of equipment down with it, the film’s three main stars – Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss – found themselves sat sharing bottle after bottle of whiskey in a variety of locations on both dry land and at sea, waiting for calls to film that never came.  Out of this huge amount of downtime, bonds were made and broken, petty rivalries were birthed and huge amounts of the film’s best third-act moments were created as a result of improvisation sessions between the three men.  Check out the sequence in which Quint crushes a beer can and Hooper retaliates by doing the same, only with a Styrofoam cup.  That was based on an exact incident between Shaw and Dreyfuss, the actors playing those respective characters.

Hell, that now legendary monologue by Robert Shaw about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis may well be credited to Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler, with open contribution from Spielberg’s friend and fellow-70’s-movie-brat, John Milius, but the ‘meat and veg’, nay the very beating heart, of this fantastic speech is all down to Shaw. Rumours, now substantiated as fact, reveal it was he who took the half a page piece of dialogue away and rewrote it into the nigh-on three-page monologue we have come to worship.  It was he who spent several nights in a row rehearsing every line and facial nuance of the speech until he had it down perfect, and it was he who nearly threw it all away on the night of filming by getting too drunk to be able to deliver it.  The performance captured for the film is one born out of Spielberg screaming and begging Shaw, a publicly full-blown alcoholic, to sober up and become even semi-coherent, threatening him with the very-real possibility that whatever he did on the next take would be what ends up in the film, potentially ruining what could be a great slice of cinema.  Thanks to that threat and time borrowed from the huge amount of technical delays, one of the greatest performance pieces and greatest moments in cinema history is there for us to enjoy for all time.

But this seemingly perfect trio of performers didn’t come without a struggle.  Producers Zanuck and Brown wanted Charlton Heston as Chief Brody, as well as Sterling Hayden for the role of Quint. Spielberg nixed it and pursued Lee Marvin instead.  In didn’t matter, both Hayden and Marvin turned the role down flat.  The director thought that Jon Voight would be perfect for the role of Hooper but he also refused to join the production.  Which is weird when you think that Jaws wasn’t for Jon Voight but An American Carol, Bratz, September Dawn, The Karate Dog, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Pearl Harbor, Varsity Blues, Most Wanted and Anaconda were? Unthinkably, all three actors cast in the lead role were not even on the producers or the directors top five wish list!

If original author Peter Benchley had gotten his way 85% of the budget would have been spent on hiring Robert Redford (as Brody), Paul Newman (as Hooper) and Steve McQueen (as Quint).  His casting obsessions were ignored along with his repeated rumblings and complaints about the production and the shooting script – having watched his novel get gutted and radically rewritten (out went subplots about holidaying Mafia bosses and storylines regarding Hooper’s affair with Brody’s wife).  Despite Richard Dreyfuss’ repeated assertions that he’d “rather watch this fucking movie then shoot it”, it’s actually now unthinkable for any three actors (four if you include the sublime turn from the late Murray Hamilton) to be any more masterful in the roles.

We could go on to discuss the brilliance of using an untrained dwarf to get in a cage with real sharks over in Australia just to capture the attack on Hooper sequence.  Or the absolute genius of the film’s best line (“We’re gonna need a bigger boat!”) having been made up on the spot within the moment by the late great Roy Scheider himself.  Instead, having made the point about this particular film being the perfect gelling of performance, script, direction, score and – most importantly of all – behind-the-scenes circumstance, I’m going to leave you with the words reputedly uttered by director Steven Spielberg as he watched a ship (portraying the Orca in the film) dip and sink into the ocean bed whilst housing his three main actors and the sound unit recording them: “Fuck the actors! Save the sound department!”

Spielberg threatened to “Lucasize” (TM) the film, replacing the shark models with CGI. He also talked of remaking his own movie, like what Hitchcock did with The Man Who Knew Too Much, in the early 90s stating that his dream cast would be Anthony Edwards (Brody), Jim Carrey (Hooper) and Bruce Willis (Quint). Many don’t realise how close he actually came in 1999, when he actually seriously considered remaking the movie with Tom Cruise (Hooper), Tom Hanks (Brody) and Russell Crowe (Quint).

The film does not need touched! Jaws is not a movie about a giant rubber shark. It’s a movie about three men meeting their respective destinies out in the big blue expanse of the ocean! Take it that way and you cannot help but recognise it as the masterpiece that it is!

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