August 14, 2012

It Was a Shark

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:19 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

A few months ago, I wrote about this year marking my 25th anniversary as a tragic movie fan, and I cited the unexpected dramedy Nothing in Common as a movie that might have played a key role in my becoming such a fan…or at least in the timing of when it happened. The movie I write about here is one that most definitely affected my growing passion for movies, though it would be a few years after 1987 that its impact fully hit me. The movie was Jaws, and today it makes its debut on Blu-Ray disc.

I was probably 12 or 13 when I first took note of Jaws as more than just that shark movie I’d watch part of on TV with my dad. By then, my fascination with movies was all-consuming, and Steven Spielberg was more real a god to me than the one I was supposed to pray to in temple each week. From Close Encounters of the Third Kind through Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, E.T., Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Goonies, Back to the Future, An American Tail, Innerspace, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Spielberg was the name attached to some of my favorite movies. It was my curiosity about him that led me to understand what a director does, and what an executive producer is. And Jaws was the movie where I first realized there was a technique behind movies. If Nothing in Common first showed me the emotional impact movies could have, Jaws first showed me that what I was watching was the result of a camera being placed in a certain position and zooming in, panning across, etc. The picture was being deliberately framed in a certain way to convey information or to help tell the story somehow. I probably couldn’t have articulated it as such at the time, but I understood that there was a method at work. And I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that realization changed my life. From that point on, I watched movies through a new pair of eyes.

It’s not that I hadn’t been struck by shot composition at that point. I noticed when something looked “cool”, even in movies I hadn’t yet seen. I remember watching clips of The Untouchables on Siskel & Ebert and other movie shows, and noticing  interesting shots such as the low angle view of Kevin Costner, towering in the frame with an ornate domed ceiling above him. But Jaws made me aware not just of how shots could look good, but how they could work for the movie. When the Orca departs the harbor to head for sea, the scene is photographed from inside Quint’s workshop, the camera slowly pushing in on a window which itself is framed by a pair of gaping shark jaws, suggesting that our three heroes are heading into the belly of the beast. The first of the film’s major beach scenes, which climaxes in the death of Alex Kintner, also made me aware of filmmaking tools. The way Spielberg focused on a sitting Chief Brody and his view of the activity in the water, using passersby to serve as camera wipes from one shot to the next, or the famous dolly zoom shot depicting Brody’s reaction to the fountain of blood that erupts upon the shark’s seizure of Alex. The Fourth of July beach scene, which also climaxes with a shark attack – this one on a man attempting to assist a group of boys that includes Brody’s son – ends with a shot as simple but effective as Brody looking up in the direction of the now departed shark, and the camera pushing in to suggest the inevitable showdown that will occur in those waters.

The things I learned from the movie didn’t stop there. Long before any English teacher introduced the concept of foreshadowing in literature, I learned about it as it related to Jaws. It wasn’t the movie itself, but a book about Steven Spielberg that I found in the library which illustrated how the director employed this technique. There was the dog playing fetch with his owner during the first beach sequence. Before the shark surfaces for Alex, we see the owner calling out the dog’s name, answered only by the stick floating on the water. Later, toward the beginning of the Orca’s expedition, Brody has a close encounter with one of Hooper’s compressed air tanks, eliciting a warning from Hooper that if he’s not careful the tank could explode. Spielberg then reminds us of the tanks later on, when the shark rams the boat, knocking Hooper and Brody off their feet and causing Brody to lunge toward the tank to keep it from falling over. The shark’s eventual fate is actually telegraphed much earlier, when Brody is at home looking through books about sharks. Among the many pictures he stops to ponder is one in which a shark has some kind of cylindrical device – it almost looks like a small missile – in its mouth.

I realize that I’m not illuminating these things for anybody now; just pointing out that at the time I came to understand them, they had quite an impact on me.

The most significant example of foreshadowing, as I learned from this Spielberg book, was how Quint’s Indianapolis story makes his demise inevitable. His tale of surviving the shark onslaught that killed so many who had been on the U.S.S. Indianapolis after it was torpedoed by the Japanese establishes his history with these creatures, reveals his true motives and seals his fate. It also happens to be one of those legendary scenes in movie history, not only for Robert Shaw’s riveting delivery, but for how it came about in the first place. In fact, Jaws is one of those movies whose behind the scenes tales are as famous and engrossing as the finished film. It’s a movie for which the public’s fascination never abates, and I had fun digging into some of the lore as I prepared this piece. So beware: this post is about to spin out of control into a rambling potpourri of thoughts, observations, trivia, etc. about Jaws. Feel free to abandon ship.

Quint has always been a point of fascination for me. In fact, Robert Shaw as Quint might be my favorite movie performance ever, though I don’t know if I could ever really commit to so bold a claim. Forget the fact that Quint is just a great character to begin with, but what Shaw does with him always struck me as wholly unique. Quint is so authentically bizarre that I could never imagine that he existed on paper in any way close to how Shaw played him. The little songs he sings (“Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies…”) and poems he recites (“Here lies the body of Mary Lee, died at the age of a hundred and three…”), not to mention his many other random mumblings…basically everything about him. It always felt to me like there was no acting going on there. No writer had come up with this guy. He just showed up on set, fully formed.

I finally decided – as I was preparing to write this – that I would see how exactly Quint did exist prior to the movie. So for the first time, I read Peter Benchley’s novel on which Jaws is based. I didn’t know much about it, or how it might differ from the movie, other than being aware that the movie omitted a sexual tryst between Hooper and Ellen Brody. Thinking of the characters as played by Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary, it seems unlikely that they would ever get together. But the Hooper of the book is a much different character than the scruffy, bearded, genial guy portrayed by Dreyfuss. In the book, he’s clean-shaven and clean-cut, more WASPy and more openly flirtatious with Ellen, whom he knows from years earlier (she had dated his older brother when he was 10). The book puts a great deal of emphasis on Amity’s class differences, detailing a tense dynamic between the island’s blue-collar, year-round residents and the rich vacationers who come for the summer. It establishes that Ellen was once part of the latter, but her marriage to Martin Brody has removed her from that world, which she’s beginning to long for. Hooper represents a connection, and she pursues an affair with him. While Brody never becomes aware of the infidelity, he suspects it, and even before that he resents Hooper and his privileged status. They are not the fast friends in the book that they are in the film; their relationship is antagonistic throughout the novel.

The book also includes an organized crime subplot, in which Amity mayor Larry Vaughn is in trouble with some shady business partners, giving him an even more personal financial motivation to keep the beaches open and the summer money rolling in. The last significant difference between book and film constitutes a pretty big spoiler for people who may actually want to read the book, so I’ll hide the text and you can highlight it if you want to know. In the book, Brody is the only survivor of the final battle at sea. Hooper doesn’t escape the shark cage, as he does in the film. The shark busts through it and takes him before he can escape. When it surfaces, the lifeless Hooper is still clasped in its teeth. The deaths of both Quint and the shark play out differently as well. How the shark dies is actually unclear to me, but I think it’s the effect of multiple harpoon and stab wounds. Quint, meanwhile, isn’t eaten, but rather drowns when his foot gets caught in a rope attached to one of the barrels they fire at the shark. As the struggling fish swims wildly away, it takes Quint with it.

There are lots of other differences as well, but more in keeping with the normal types of changes that occur in the adaptation process. The role of the local newspaper man, Harry Meadows, is much larger in the book, while Mrs. Kintner’s encounter with Brody after her son dies is longer and angrier than the movie version. Something the book captures nicely which the movie doesn’t quite manage is how dire the effect on Amity will be if the summer tourist season fails. In the film, Mayor Vaughn is made out to be a bit of a villain, driven by greed to keep the beaches open despite the threat of the shark. “Amity is a summer town,” he tells Brody. “We need summer dollars.” But the movie doesn’t go much further than that, whereas the book lays plain that if Amity doesn’t make enough money in the summer, the town may literally not survive the lean winter. Businesses will fail, residents will have to move…Amity will become a year-round ghost town, and will never be able to recover.

Getting back to Quint, well, he’s certainly tough, terse and salty on the pages of Benchley’s novel, but lacks the distinctive personality he has in the film. Still curious as to how much of the performance sprung from Shaw’s own instinct vs. the screenplay, I fished around for that too. Benchley’s contract gave him first crack at the script, and the version he turned in was fairly different from both his novel and the eventual film. Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown had already decreed that the sex subplot be removed so that the story could focus on the adventure of the shark hunt, so Hooper and Ellen’s fling was eliminated early. Quint’s role also had to be expanded. He features much more prominently in Benchley’s script than he did in the book, and he is painted as a pretty eccentric guy. Many of the specifics are different from what would ultimately be featured in the movie, but I give credit where credit is due: Quint was as colorful in Benchley’s script as he was in the finished film.

It was determined that more work was needed on the screenplay, so the next draft was written by Howard Sackler, who had written Stanley Kubrick’s first two features Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss, as well as The Great White Hope. Sackler had only a short time to work on the project, and apparently asked not to receive credit. From there, Spielberg hired a friend named Carl Gottlieb, casting him in the reduced-from-novel role of news reporter Harry Meadows as well. Gottlieb and Benchley received final credit for the screenplay. But as fans of the movie know, there were yet other writers involved. Stories have always swirled around the true author of the aforementioned U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue, and there still seems to be a lack of clarity. Spielberg has said, as recently as last year in an epic interview about Jaws that he gave to writer Eric Vespe (aka Quint) from Ain’t It Cool News, that Sackler was the first writer to introduce the Indianapolis story into the Jaws script. Yet the draft by Benchley that I referenced earlier  – supposedly the first draft to be turned in – features a short version of the tale. Who knows, maybe that script is a fraud, but the Indianapolis seeds are there. Check it out, and scroll way down to Scene 191. Either way, various versions of the story seem to agree that from there, Spielberg’s filmmaker friend John Milius took the speech and turned it into an epic, ten page stunner of a monologue. Then Robert Shaw, who was not just an actor but also an acclaimed novelist and playwright, took Milius’ speech and pared it down himself. Shaw’s version is what appears in the film. Supposedly. The full and complete genesis of the scene may never be known, but the end result speaks for itself.

Of course, I don’t know if any of the Jaws scripts floating around online can accurately reflect the finished product (unless they’re transcribed directly from that), since the film’s notoriously difficult shoot resulted in so much revision and improvisation. For anyone who might be interested, here’s another draft, credited to Benchley and Gottlieb. Although it’s much closer to the finished film, it’s still not exact, but it could be the actual draft that was turned in. Given how much new writing was done during production, there probably isn’t an official script that matches the final film. With shooting frequently delayed or impossible due to technical problems with the shark, evenings often found Spielberg, Scheider, Dreyfuss, Shaw, Gottlieb and editor Verna Fields working together to delve deeper into the characters and relationships. They would come up with new ideas and Gottlieb would generate new script pages, so the film was constantly evolving. It’s generally agreed that the problems with filming the shark are a huge part of the reason that the movie is so good. Had the mechanical behemoth worked perfectly, Spielberg probably would have featured it more prominently, which would have lessened the impact it had. By being forced to show the shark less often, Spielberg was able to make count the moments when it was onscreen.

Some of my favorite elements of Jaws have nothing to do with the shark. The movie basically consists of two parts. Part One takes place in Amity as the town deals with its unwanted offshore guest, while Part Two follows Brody, Hooper and Quint at sea. And although most people probably think of the movie for the scenes on the water – from the opening sequence with the attack on Chrissie to everything in Part Two – I’ve always loved Spielberg’s depiction of Amity throughout Part One. He captures the community so vividly, presenting such a natural and authentic portrait of the townsfolk and their chatter. A lot of the smaller parts were cast with local actors, many of whom stand out so clearly. Though she is uncredited in the movie and never mentioned by name, one of the more prominent townspeople is Mrs. Taft, a hotel owner, played by the perfectly named Fritzi Jane Courtney. Tell me that this lady doesn’t exist in every single town in America, serving on the City Council or the school committee for like, 50 years. There’s also the big guy with the checkered hunter’s cap and the camouflage jacket who greets Hooper when he arrives at the dock. (“Hello back…young fella, how are ya?”) I’ve seen this character referred to online and in writings as Ben Gardner, but I don’t know when that is ever established in the movie. Gardner is mentioned a few times, but never in connection with this figure. And of course, who could forget another of Jaws‘ great minor characters, the heavy fisherman who has a comic reaction to learning what kind of shark he and his buddies have just caught.

The presence of people like this, backing up the naturalistic performances of Scheider, Dreyfuss, Shaw, Gary and Murray Hamilton as Mayor Vaughn, helps make the first half of Jaws as memorable and rich as any of the scenes at sea. Of course, the cast might have looked a bit different from how it ended up. Though it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Brody, Hooper or Quint, other names were in play. Spielberg is said to have wanted Robert Duvall to play Brody, but the actor wasn’t interested, preferring Quint. Spielberg didn’t think he was right for the part, so they parted ways, though apparently the director later admitted that he was wrong not to have seen Duvall could have been great as the Orca’s captain. As it was, he first offered Quint to Lee Marvin, who turned it down. Then he went to Sterling Hayden, who was unavailable. Producers Zanuck and Brown had just worked with Robert Shaw on The Sting, and thought he would make a great Quint. Shaw turned it down at first, reportedly calling the novel “a piece of shit”, but his wife convinced him to take the part.

Richard Dreyfuss was Spielberg’s first choice for Hooper, but the actor turned him down at least twice, saying that he would much rather watch Jaws than shoot it. But then he watched a pre-release screening of his most recent film, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and felt he was so terrible in it that if he didn’t have another job lined up before the movie came out, he might never be hired again. He begged Spielberg for the role, and the director was happy to comply. As for the part of Brody, Spielberg was having trouble finding the right actor, until he met Roy Scheider at a party. In author Nigel Andrews’ book about Jaws for the Bloomsbury Movie Guide series, Scheider recalls hearing Spielberg talking to someone about a project in which a shark would jump out of the water and land on the deck of a boat, cracking it in half. He thought they were crazy. A couple of months later, he says, Spielberg called him and asked him if he was interested in the part. Spielberg’s recollection is slightly different. In the Ain’t It Cool News interview linked above, he affirms that they met at a party, but says he was sitting on a couch and feeling a bit glum about his inability to cast Brody, when Scheider approached, introduced himself and asked why he looked so down. He says Scheider then suggested himself for the part, and Spielberg loved the idea, having enjoyed his performance in The French Connection. The actor did have concerns during filming that Brody came off as too weak and clumsy opposite Quint and Hooper, but he needn’t have worried. Brody is the audience’s surrogate, and as such we relate to him most easily. The film doesn’t disrespect him, but does derive humor from his aversion to the water and his lack of experience on boats. And he gets some of the best moments in the movie, from the shark’s first full-on appearance just beyond the chum bucket to the classic line that follows to the climactic showdown as the Orca sinks. Brody’s the fucking man.

Jaws became the highest grossing film in history during its initial run, and was the first movie to make over $100 million at the box office, ushering in – alongside The Exorcist and previous box office champ The Godfather – the blockbuster era. It has sometimes been denigrated for this, but in the 70’s more so than the decades that followed, great movies and box office hits were often one and the same. Like those two earlier movies, Jaws was based on a popular novel, and just like The Godfather, it is widely agreed that the movie improved upon and deepened an entertaining but soap opera-ish book. It went on to success at the Academy Awards, though it didn’t earn nearly as many nominations as either The Exorcist or The Godfather. Spielberg was actually being filmed by a TV crew on the morning the Oscar nominations were announced, and his reactions display good humor despite not being nominated himself and the movie not being recognized in more categories. (C’mon, how was Robert Shaw not nominated?!?)

It eventually went three for four, winning Best Sound, Best Film Editing and Best Score for John Williams’ classic music. It lost only Best Picture. In the wake of the movie’s success, obligatory and inferior sequels followed. Scheider was apparently under contract to return, but neither Dreyfuss, Shaw or Spielberg were involved. According to Nigel Andrews’ book, Spielberg toyed with the idea of doing Jaws 2 as a prequel, telling the story of the Indianapolis, but the idea never went anywhere. I don’t even know if it’s true. Andrews cites no sources for any of the information in his book, and Spielberg says in the Ain’t It Cool News interview that he had no ideas about what he might have done with Jaws 2, and that he couldn’t face the prospect of another ocean shoot anyway. However as this article from Den of Geek! neatly summarizes, several attempts have been made to film the saga of the Indianapolis, with J.J. Abrams and Robert Downey, Jr. among the more recent names attached.

There’s so much more to say about Jaws, but it’s already been said in books, magazines, documentaries, etc. For the truly obsessive, I came across this amazingly in-depth blog called A Mouth Full of Butcher Knives, whose author delves exhaustively into the film, first by comparing it to the novel in detail, and then by analyzing it scene by scene. It’s an ongoing project that he’s still in the middle of, but his knowledge and ability to explore the film in various contexts is seriously impressive. Any Jaws lover should give it a look. So really, what can I add? This post has already gone off the rails. The main points are: Jaws was a formative movie for me; it’s a classic that never loses its power; the Blu-Ray is getting rave reviews and you should check it out not only to enjoy the film itself, but to dig into the extras and learn about all the stories I’ve been recounting (plus more) from the people who actually experienced them. I don’t know how one DVD could contain it all. They’re gonna need a bigger disc.


  1. haha! Nice last line.
    I was just reading a lot about the film in anticipation for today’s release of the Blu Ray (uhh.. purchased). One tidbit: The guy you site who played Ben Gardner was actually a fisherman (Craig Kingbury) on the island who Robert Shaw hung out with to absorb his “Quintness”. Apparently the guy told a lot of tall tales to Shaw, (the island rampant with incest, etc), which Shaw then recounted during an on set TV interview. Classic! (this clip is on the blu ray) =


    Also check out the gigantic book: “Memories From Martha’s Vineyard” (Matt Taylor). I got a signed copy! (coworker of Stella knows this guy)

    Another thing I obsess over is the screwed up edit in the Morgue Scene. Brian Singer finally interviewed Speilberg about this cut (which I call the worst edit in cinema history) and why it’s still in the film, etc =


    I may fix it myself. I think it just needs the dialogue removed (“This is what happens…” (@ 1:17) makes NO #$%#$% SENSE) and some better room noise added. =


    Comment by Jim — August 14, 2012 @ 3:16 pm | Reply

    • I knew you’d like this post.

      Awesome story about Craig Kingsbury. I still don’t know how everybody who talks about the movie knows that he’s supposed to be Ben Gardner. I never knew that until I was researching this post. Did I miss something? Do you remember anybody ever calling him by name, or pointing him out? Gardner gets mentioned by Brody a few times, but that’s all, right?

      I forgot about that line in the autopsy scene, but now I remember reading that question from Bryan Singer. I think you should fix it, yeah. Fix it and send it to Universal so they can put out new versions of the Blu-Ray. They can do a trade-in for everyone who already bought it.

      Comment by DB — August 14, 2012 @ 4:07 pm | Reply

      • TOTALLY! I know Ben Gardner is mentioned (I think) only after he’s killed. Brody and Hooper find his boat in the middle of the night: “That’s Ben Gardner’s boat!….” That’s awesome you read the novel and different drafts of the script! See if you can find a version of the Morgue Autopsy Scene that has any dialogue remotely related to Hooper saying “This is what happens….” Would be interesting to see the long version they chopped up.

        Comment by Jim — August 14, 2012 @ 4:45 pm | Reply

        • Brody also asks someone on the dock when the tiger shark is strung up if Ben Gardner caught it.

          Neither version of the script I found had the line “This is what happens….” Maybe Richard Dreyfuss remembers. We gotta call him up.

          Comment by DB — August 14, 2012 @ 7:57 pm | Reply

  2. A few years back, I went to Bryant Park for HBO’s summer movies in the park. Maybe you’ve seen what Bryant Park looks like on those Monday nights, but if you haven’t: shoulder to shoulder picnic blankets. Everyone’s everywhere, drinking and eating and ready to rock.

    That night’s movie was Jaws, and while I’d seen it at least a dozen times by then, the girls on the blanket next to me (whom I didn’t know) had clearly never seen a frame. And so that night became an experience of watching it for the first time, through their eyes. I knew when the moments were coming, and I couldn’t wait to see how they reacted.

    I wasn’t disappointed. Neither were they.

    Comment by Frants — August 14, 2012 @ 10:36 pm | Reply

    • What a great way to see that movie. Not just the outdoor setting with a big crowd, but witnessing people’s reactions to seeing it the first time. So true that watching a beloved movie with someone who’s never seen it before is the closest you can ever get to seeing it yourself for the first time. I love that.

      Comment by DB — August 15, 2012 @ 11:29 am | Reply

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