Although Jaws has since been accepted as one of Steven Spielberg’s masterpieces, and for all the horror and tension the film exudes, there was just as much went on behind the camera in the making of Jaws. The first director attached, Dick Richards, literally thought he was making Moby Dick, and when 27-year-old Spielberg came in to replace him, his youth and inexperience almost sank the film. Adapting Peter Benchley’s novel himself, the director controversially stripped out the female characters and proceeded to engage its three disparate principles – a marine biologist, a police chief and a salty alcoholic fisherman – in a battle of wills that saw them, paradoxically, become a close knit ensemble. But what is the inside story of the making of jaws?
As production became ever more wayward, California-based Universal executives began to question the somewhat ad hoc methods employed out on the Eastern seaboard. The fact that it ever wrapped at all – a mere 100 days late! – was a tribute to the vision of its driving forces; Steven Spielberg and the man who steadfastly backed him, Sidney Sheinberg. Their determination paid off and they reaped the rewards: the movie grossed over $470 million worldwide on a $10 million budget, But the story is just beginning…
The Main Players Involved in Jaws
Let the Story Begin of the making of Jaws….
Jaws was my Vietnam. It was basically naive people against nature, and nature beat us every day. I thought my career as a filmmaker was over. I heard rumours from back in Hollywood that I’d never work again because no-one had ever taken a film 100 days over schedule – let alone a director whose first picture had failed at the box office.
You could tell hundreds of stories about Jaws, but it’s about Steven. Spielberg was at the centre of the cyclone. Obviously, were it not for Steven there would be no film. But if it weren’t for Steven’s vision, there would be no great film. I watch the movie now and its still a great movie. But the chaos, you can’t imagine the chaos…
I was in Richard Zanuck’s office on the Universal lot, summer of 1973, in post-production on The Sugarland Express, my first feature, which Dick (Richard) had produced. I saw the novel of Jaws, by Peter Benchley, sitting on the shelves in is secretary office and I asked if was okay if I could read it. Zanuck said there was already a director attached to the project, but he’d love me to read it anyway.
We brought the thing from Mike Medavoy at ICM with the understanding that a certain ICM client (Dick Richards) was going to direct. A meeting was set up between us, Peter Benchley and Richards at the 21 Club in New York. This was the last step in closing the deal; all the numbers and everything had been straighten out, subject to a favourable meeting with Benchley.
He liked to have the odd drink in those days, and had had a few before we even had sat down. Richard, who we were meeting for the first time, starts talking about how he’ll shoot the picture. And he says, “Now, this is wonderful to have this small town terrified by this whale.” And I say, “wait a minute, you mean ‘shark’.” And he says, “Oh yes, yes.: And I could see that Benchley, who was working on his fifth drink, had his eyebrow raised. So Richards went on to tell more about how he would approach the story, and again he said, “Then when the whale attack the boat…” and I shouted, “Shark! Shark!’
I went to see Lew Wasserman, who was running Universal, and he suggested Spielberg. He loved him, but he said, “My god, the problems that this picture is going to create – don’t you need a really seasoned director to helm this?” And we said, “That’s exactly why we want Steven, because he isn’t that seasoned. We want this to be fresh, not an ordinary action-adventure picture.
When they gave me the movie, the first thing I wanted to do was adapt the book. Peter Benchley’s deal required him to write the first draft, and then I took a crack at it and wrote the entire Jaws script in two weeks. In those days I didn’t know how to type, so I wrote scripts longhand. I did a whole draft with some very good scenes – and some really awful ones.
I felt that the ending they were going to put in – that the shark would bite down on a scuba tank and explode like an oil refinery – was incredible. I said, “It would never happen.” And Spielberg said, “I don’t care. If I’ve got hem for two hours, they’ll believe anything in the last five minutes.” He was absolutely right. You had to have a big, splashy ending.
I had three architectural drawings made of three great white sharks. One was 18ft long, one 26ft and on 36ft, I looked at the first shark and said, “That’s too small.” Then I looked at the third shark and said, “That’s Godzilla, that’s the Japanese science-fiction movie, that’s too big.” And I looked at the middle shark, 26ft long, and said, “That’s just right.”
I remember a day when we all went out to Shark City, the hanger in North Hollywood where they were building the shark. It was me, George Lucas and Steven and, I think, Martin Scorsese.
There was no-one there, just a couple of special-effects guys, and we were all kids. Steven gets the controls to the shark and is making the mouth open, and it’s horrifying. George gets on a ladder, and when the mouth opens, he sticks his head inside to see how it works. So Steven closes it on him. George pretends he’s caught and starts kicking his legs. I though, my god, the way that shark could eat a human, is like humans eating a taco.
I’ll never forget that image of George Lucas’s legs sticking out. Then as George crawled out and Steven tried to open the mouth wider, it just wouldn’t open; we’d broken it. And we all just ran. We got out of there. We knew we’d broken something expensive.
David Brown said, “Who would you like to cast in this movie?’ And I said, “Oh, easy; Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Steve McQueen.” And he said, “that’s interesting, we’ll certainly take that into account.” well, they knew that the movie didn’t need stars. The star of this movie was the fish.
I had a whole bunch of idea about who I wanted, but I couldn’t get any of my first choices. Then Zanuck and Brown said, “We had a wonderful experience working with Robert Shaw on The Sting.” So I looked at all of Shaw’s movies. I felt he was over the top, but I thought that for the mythology of a shark hunter, maybe he should be slightly bigger than life, so I said, “Let’s get him.” And when I met with Richard Dreyfuss his energy was so kinetic, I thought he was perfect for Matt Hooper.
I was asked to meet with Spielberg and was told, “Please don’t read the book.” So I met with him at Universal and he said, “You want to do it?’ And I said no. I was very native, I just thought great opportunities like that would happen all the time. I thought it was going to be a rough shoot – weather, islands, boats, sharks….
I was at a party at my agents, Andrea Eastman’s, house, and Roy Scheider came and sat next to me and we shook hands. I said, “Hey, I loved you in The French Connection. God, You’re a great actor.” He said, “You really look depressed.” I said, “I just can’t cast this movie Jaws, I’m having a horrible time.” He said, “tell me the story.” It must have taken half an hour, sitting on this couch in this crowed room, and at the end of it Roy said, “Well, I can play Brody.” I looked at Roy and said, “you know, you’re right.” So we committed to each other at a Hollywood party.
We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark. I was cast after the film started. What happened was, I saw myself in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), and I was so freaked out as I thought my performance was so terrible that I called Steven and begged for the job.
Robert Shaw was drinking a lot in those days. We all were drinking a lot. Shaw and I used to play ping-pong between dallies in the game room of the hotel. One time he bet me my percentage of the picture. He’d seen one shot of the shark in action and was very excited. So he was going to put up his salary, which was $200’000, in exchange for five percent of my share. I think I won, but we never settled it.
My feelings about Robert are truly…talk about ambivalent. I consider him to be one of the cruellest men I have ever worked with – and sweeter than hell when he wanted to be, and a world-class actor. He had more personal power than any person I’ve ever met, to this day. [Cameraman] Michael Chapman used to say, “What is this Robert Shaw-Richard Dreyfuss shit? What is going on?” And I didn’t understand it. I was hurt by it.
It was very much like Quint and Hooper. They fought in character and they fought out of character. It all began one day at lunch, when Robert Shaw poured himself a drink and said, “I’d give anything to be able to just stop drinking.” So Richard said, “OK” and took the glass from his hand and threw it out of the porthole into the ocean. That was the ‘shot heard around the crew’.
At that moment the five or six drinkers that I could see behind him all went, “Jesus!” He didn’t forgive me for that. One day he took this firehose and aimed it at my head. When he did that from behind the camera, I stopped and said, “That’s it. I don’t want to work with you anymore. Go fuck yourself.” I went home. I guess I held up shooting that day.
John Milius has been credited with writing Shaw’s Indianapolis speech, a very stirring moment in the movie. Milius claims to have dictated it over the phone to Spielberg. The truth of the matter is that Robert Shaw went off and wrote the speech and read it to us over dinner. Shaw came in and said, “I’ve given that speech a shot.” He kinda performed it – how could he not? He finished, and there was, like a silence in the room, and Steven said, “That’s it.”
Milius did suggest the scene of the men comparing scars, and a few other lines of Shaw’s. As I say in my correspondence to movie-trivia buffs, if you’re looking for the Milius contribution to Jaws, it’s the line “I’ll find him for five, I’ll kill him for ten.” John wrote that. He didn’t write the Indianapolis speech. Shaw did.
Do you want to hear the rest of the story of the speech? Well, Robert called me the night before shooting it, and he was working hard, had most of it committed to memory. “I’m worried about the scene,” he said, “because this is the reason I made the movie. This is my one chance to act in this entire drama. Will you let me have a drink? Just one before I do the speech? I don’t want to act it, I want to be it. Not drunk, but a little off balance.” I said, “Absolutely”, thinking I was giving in to his ‘method’. And so the next morning the crew carried Robert to his mark. Yeah, they had to help him up the stairs.
Robert asked if, at least on the first take, could he go right to the end of the speech? Even if I didn’t intend to use the whole scene from that angle, would I allow him to just do it once? So I put two cameras on him, one close and one on a slow dolly. Robert began the speech brilliantly, and about a minute into it he sort of went up [he forgot his lines], but he didn’t go up in an embarrassing way. He went up in a way that was quite relevant to the mood he had set in reminiscing about the Indianapolis. All of a sudden he bagged talking about his children, about his wife and about his life, some things that were very personal to him. He would come back to a few lines of the scene and then ramble on about himself again. I didn’t have the courage to say, “Cut.”
I went to Robert and I just gave him hug, gave him a kiss and said, “It was great, it was brilliant. Go home.” And he said, “Really? Was it great?” I said, “It was great. It’s all I’m going to shoot today.” So sent him home and shot inserts for the rest of the day. Then at three in the morning, Shaw rings me. He says, “Steven, how much did I embarrass you?” I said, “You didn’t.” “Will I have chance to do it again tomorrow morning?” I said, “Absolutely.”
The next day Shaw comes in and did, bingo. Didi it in one or two takes brilliantly.
Sid spent one day on location, looked around and saw how difficult it was to make this film on the ocean, as opposed to in a tank. We did have some tank discussions, and I said, “Well, I wanted to shoot this in the ocean for reality.” He said, “I understand that, but I really believe in this movie.” So Sid Said, “Well, I believe in you.” He flew back to LA and they never bothered me again after that. But I went another 40 days over schedule!
And I didn’t stay for the shark blowing up. I said goodbye to the entire crew, because they were going to throw me in the ocean. I was Ahab or I was Bligh, and they wanted to put me in a boat and cast me off. I decided that before the crew did anything to harm me, I’d jump into a small boat and get to the Boston airport. So I began a tradition. For my next six pictures I never stayed for the last shot, thinking that Jaws was suck a hit that maybe it was a good-luck charm.
There were no walkouts, which is always good to see. The audience was tense and very nervous. There was a scene early in the movie where the boy on the raft is killed, and someone in the front row, some guy, gets up and starts walking out. And I thought, Oh my God, I went over the top with the blood. It was my first walk-out. Then the guy began to run. I said, “Oh my God, It’s a run-out!” I had never seen that before, and the gut got right past me, stopped and vomited all over the lobby. Then he went to the bathroom – and he came back after throwing up and went right back to his seat. That’s when I knew we had a hit.
My secretary walked into my office and handed me this piece of paper saying what she had been told over the phone. I just stared at this number [$7,061,573]. This was for Friday, Saturday and Sunday – the first three days. I kept waiting for the next week-end to drop off, but it didn’t – it went up and up and up, and Universal kept taking out ads of the shark on the front page of Variety. The Godfather was the film to beat in those days, at about $86m in theatre rentals – and then we started to do, like, $130m in rentals. We had the crown for two years until Star Wars came out.
After the movie opened, Steven brought a beach house in Malibu. And he was very, very concerned, because he felt he had done a grave injustice to sharks by making the movie. Of course, they probably would really avoid him and treat him very well because he made them famous.
Great white sharks are now protected and admired because of Jaws. But Steven felt he had broken some karmic law with the sharks, and that as soon as they knew he was in the ocean they’d be, “Calling all sharks, calling all sharks, Spielberg is in the water.” And the little ones, big ones, you know, they’d all be steaming toward him. It took him years to get in the water at that beach house.