JAWS (1975), the iconic film that terrified audiences and set the standard for summer blockbusters, celebrates its 48th anniversary today. Its incredible journey from a bestselling novel to a cinematic masterpiece is a testament to the determination and creativity of the filmmakers involved.
JAWS originated as a gripping novel penned by Peter Benchley, which quickly gained popularity upon its publication in 1974. Universal Studios recognized its potential and acquired the rights, entrusting the production to David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck. All The Right Movies shared a complete story of JAWS in a big thread on Twitter.
The Search for the Perfect Director
- Universal initially hired Dick Richards, a renowned photographer and director of “The Culpepper Cattle Co,” to helm the project.
- However, he was dismissed when he repeatedly referred to the infamous shark as a whale during studio meetings.
- Michael Winner was considered as a replacement before Zanuck and Brown turned to a young, promising filmmaker who had recently directed their film “The Sugarland Express” – Steven Spielberg.
- At just 27, Spielberg had primarily worked on TV movies and directed the pilot episode of the popular show “Columbo.”
- “JAWS” (1975) marked his third feature film. Peter Benchley had adapted his own novel into three drafts of the script but, exhausted by the process, he refused to make further changes.
- Spielberg believed significant revisions were needed and brought in Howard Sackler, drawing parallels between Sackler’s play “The Great White Hope” and their own great white shark tale.
- Even with Sackler’s contributions, Spielberg still felt the script lacked humor. To inject wit and comedic elements into the story, he sought the expertise of Carl Gottlieb, known for his work on the sitcom “The Odd Couple.” Spielberg’s only instruction to Gottlieb was to “eviscerate” the script, emphasizing the need for a complete overhaul.
Casting Challenges and Surprises
- When Universal inquired about Peter Benchley’s preferred choices for the three main roles in JAWS, he suggested Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Steve McQueen.
- However, the studio deemed the idea financially impractical and informed Benchley that his vision was unattainable.
- Charlton Heston expressed interest in portraying Chief Martin Brody, but Spielberg believed Heston’s fame would overshadow the shark’s presence, stating, “The shark wouldn’t last past the first act.”
- Other actors, such as Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman, were considered for the role of Brody, but Spielberg remained unconvinced.
- A serendipitous encounter occurred when Spielberg met Roy Scheider at a Hollywood party just weeks before filming was set to begin. Spielberg shared the plot of JAWS with Scheider, who enthusiastically proposed himself as a potential lead. Impressed by Scheider’s passion, Spielberg found his Chief Brody.
On-Set Drama and Tension
After the conclusion of filming, Dreyfuss granted an interview where he labeled JAWS (1975) a disaster and criticized his own performance. Interestingly, he later changed his tune, declaring JAWS as the film he is most proud of. When it came to casting the character Quint, Spielberg initially approached Lee Marvin, but the actor declined, choosing to pursue real fishing instead.
Robert Mitchum and Oliver Reed also turned down the role. Sterling Hayden, burdened by tax debts, would have worked for free, but Spielberg opted for Robert Shaw to portray Quint. To prepare for the role, Shaw spent two weeks shadowing a real Martha’s Vineyard fisherman, Craig Kingsbury and incorporated some of Kingsbury’s authentic dialogue, including the memorable “bluegills and Tommy cotts” line.
- Shaw actively contributed to shaping some of his character’s dialogue. It was Shaw’s idea to sing “Spanish Ladies,” and he also improvised the memorable Mary Lee limerick after encountering it on an Irish tombstone.
- Originally, Quint’s introduction was meant to take place in a cinema, with the character seen mocking the unrealistic portrayal of sharks in “Moby Dick,” which starred Gregory Peck. However, Peck denied Spielberg the right to use the film, as he believed his own performance in it was subpar.
- Tensions arose between Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss during filming. Shaw would taunt Dreyfuss, often making derogatory remarks about his weight and even daring him to jump off the top of the Orca, the boat used in the film, from a height of approximately 90 feet.
- Dreyfuss was ready to accept the challenge until Spielberg learned of the plan and promptly put a stop to it, exclaiming, “Not in my movie, you don’t!”
- On another occasion, while Shaw was enjoying a drink during a break on the Orca, Dreyfuss snatched the shot glass from his hand and flung it into the ocean. Spielberg later described the tensions between the actors as “ugly.”
Unforgettable Performances and Memorable Moments
- In the film’s chilling opening sequence, Susan Backlinie, a swimwear model, was chosen to portray Chrissie Watkins, the unfortunate victim. Although not an actress by profession, Backlinie impressed Spielberg after being recommended by Zanuck. Spielberg had doubts about her acting abilities but was won over by her appearance.
- The filming of the scene proved physically demanding for Backlinie. Underwater ropes dominated her while five people pulled her in different directions to create the illusion of a struggle.
- Spielberg, however, felt that her screams lacked authenticity and decided to re-record them in post-production, even resorting to pouring water down her throat to achieve the desired gargled sound.
The Slapping Challenge
Another standout performance came from Lee Fierro, who portrayed Mrs. Kintner. Fierro, unfamiliar with acting, faced a challenge when asked to fake a slap during a scene. Over the course of filming, she ended up slapping Roy Scheider seventeen times, accidentally knocking his glasses off at one point. Due to frequent requests from fans to be slapped, Fierro decided she would no longer partake in such requests.
Behind the Scenes: Filming Challenges
Filming Jaws was no easy feat. Unforeseen problems, including terrible weather conditions and difficulties encountered while shooting at sea, caused significant delays. Moreover, the mechanical shark, affectionately nicknamed “Bruce” by the cast and crew, frequently broke down and had to be retrieved from the ocean floor. These challenges compelled Spielberg to adopt a different approach and tell the story without fully revealing the shark, thus building suspense and making its eventual appearance even more impactful.
The climactic ending was one of the most memorable changes made during the production. Benchley’s original ending, where the shark succumbs to exhaustion, was replaced by an explosive sequence where Brody shoots a gas canister into the shark’s mouth, causing it to explode dramatically. This change infuriated Benchley but added a cinematic punch to the film’s conclusion.
The production of Jaws (1975) faced numerous hurdles, including the sinking of the Orca, the main boat used in the film. However, despite the setbacks, Spielberg and his dedicated team persevered, resulting in a remarkable cinematic achievement.
Jaws left an undeniable imprint on the film industry, changing the way movies were marketed and distributed. It was one of the first films to have a nationwide simultaneous release, opening in 465 cinemas across the country – a practice that has now become standard. The success of Jaws shattered box office records, grossing over $470 million worldwide and becoming the highest-grossing film of its time.