A Shark's Tale
There's nothing like a giant cannibal shark for scaring the swimming lessons out of a nation.
Steven Spielberg's Jaws, which first preyed on our subconscious 30 years ago this month, netted a fortune in box-office treasure and traumatized the world with the image of hale, strapping Robert Shaw being gnawed on like a chicken bone. It also proved there's money in them there shark-infested deeps, and in Wookiees, and dinosaurs, and other special-effects creatures. For in its wake, Jaws spawned a thousand summer blockbusters, while the quiet auteur tradition of filmmaking drifted into unprofitable reefs. But Jaws nearly went belly-up.
Carl Gottlieb, one of its screenwriters, published a harrowing account of the production on Martha's Vineyard ( The Jaws Log, Newmarket Press) that told stories of bad weather, cost overruns, and a faulty mechanical shark named Bruce. Thirty years on, the survivors recount that manic, chummy summer.
“I'll catch this bird for you, but it ain't gonna be easy. Bad fish. Not like going down to the pond and chasing bluegills or tommycocks.” — Quint
Bill Gilmore (production executive) There were two big challenges. The first was taking on the Atlantic Ocean. The second was agreeing to make a film with a mechanical shark.
Joe Alves (production designer) It was the summer of '73. [Producer] David Brown called me and said he had acquired the rights to a book called Jaws. He said, “It's about a shark. Could you do some concept sketches that we could show to the studio?” We showed the sketches to the special-effects people, and their response was, “We can't do that. It would take years. Besides we have bigger projects like The Hindenburg and Earthquake. ” They looked at it as a low-budget horror film. So we decided to make the shark independently. I found Bob Mattey, who was responsible for the squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and he came up with a coat-hanger-wire model of a shark, a skeleton with levers that moved it side to side and up and down. We had a $4 million budget.
Gilmore We were in uncharted waters, so to speak. No one had ever made a mechanical shark before, and we had no right to assume that it would work.
“Here lies the body of Mary Lee; died at the age of 103. For 15 years she kept her virginity; not a bad record for this vicinity.” — Quint
Alves It was my job to do the initial scouting. I went to Long Island and then crossed over to Connecticut and worked my way up to Portland, Maine. I tried to get a ferry to Nantucket, but it was winter, and the weather was so bad that we turned around and came back to Woods Hole. So I went to Martha's Vineyard. It was perfect. [Producer] Dick Zanuck had some trepidation because of Chappaquiddick. There had been a lot of bad press, and there are a lot of wealthy, politically strong people on the island who wouldn't be too happy about having a shark parked in their backyards with a movie crew.
Shari Rhodes (casting director) They didn't want to make anybody mad. I was at that point, and still am, a soft-spoken, small Texan. I could get along with people. They sent me up early to the island to make friends. I spent a lot of time walking up and down the streets, introducing myself.
Alves Martha's Vineyard was even more perfect when I learned about Bob's rig and how the shark would work on a platform with a track and a crane arm. We needed 25 feet of depth, with a very small tide change, since a large tide would give us less shooting time. There was a bay between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown that was perfect. It faced out toward Hyannisport, but it was far enough away that you couldn't see land. Steven wanted an isolated feeling, but we scouted in winter and that was almost our demise. In the summer it turned out to be full of sailboats.
Edith Blake (covered the production for the Vineyard Gazette newspaper) The people who lived on North Water Street, and came for the summer and lived in the big white houses, they didn't like the congestion. There'd be too many trucks and too many police and too many people and too many street cleaners. And they'd get frustrated and nasty. On the other hand, every cocktail party every evening was filled with stories about Jaws.
Rhodes I loved the whole island feel. One of my assistants told me that before the movie crew came, there had never been anything stolen from the beach. You could leave your possessions on your blanket, go in the water, and not come back for two or three days and your stuff would still be there. Once we arrived, things like sunglasses and jackets started to disappear.
Blake It made the summer. Most people loved it, loved it, loved it. The professional people liked it. The zoning people liked it; they got to be terribly important. It was wonderful, really.
“You've got city hands, Mr. Hooper. Been countin' money all your life.” — Quint
Rhodes We cast 10 speaking parts from the Boston SAG office to keep the unions happy, but the majority of the casting was done on the island. It was a little while before we could understand what each other was saying. I had this real Texas accent, even more than I do now. And that New England sound! The selectmen in the movie were mostly real selectmen, interspersed with actors, but you can hardly tell the difference.
Gilmore Most of the locals enjoyed working as extras. They certainly enjoyed our money.
Rhodes There was a man from the Cadwallader family — they're famously wealthy — and he'd never worked a day in his life because he was so rich. I hired him as an extra, and he showed up late. I chewed him out in front of the whole island, with my finger in his face, and they were rolling on the floor. “If you don't want this job, there are plenty of people who will be here on time!” My assistant, Janice, told me that was the highlight of a lot of the islanders' experience on Jaws.
“I don't want no volunteers, I don't want no mates. There's too many
captains on this island.” — Quint
Carl Gottlieb (coscreenwriter, actor in the role of Meadows, and Spielberg's housemate during the production) When you're writing and serving a director's vision, it's a giant cooperative adventure. It's like a ship at sea: The director is the skipper, but everybody's pulling on ropes and steering and managing the boat as it careens around from rock to shoal to narrow to a final berth. Very salty, really.
Gilmore The physical handicaps that Steven had to deal with on a day-to-day basis would've taxed a lot of directors, I can assure you. He had a lot of patience, and he was experienced well beyond his years.
Jeffrey Kramer (played police officer Lenny Hendricks) Steven was still “Steven” then. We were all babies. In that day they took a big chance with an unknown filmmaker and basically an unknown cast.
Gottlieb The atmosphere in the Log Cabin [the house where he and Spielberg stayed] was, “We're going to make this movie. We'll plow through and overcome the obstacles.” I was aware of the pressures on Steven's head, but he was careful not to let them get in the way of his work.
“Here's to swimmin' with bow-legged women.” — Quint
Alves Richard Dreyfuss had done American Graffiti. Roy Scheider was in The French Connection, but he wasn't the main guy. Robert Shaw's big thing was The Sting, and he was third to Redford and Newman. So they were there, but they weren't huge. I think Dreyfuss turned it down a few times before Steven convinced him to do it.
Gottlieb We had three terrific actors who all had a different methodology. Robert Shaw was a classically trained English actor. Roy Scheider was a New York film actor. Richard Dreyfuss was a Hollywood television actor. They had these very different styles and very unique voices. And I had the pleasure of writing for them, because I could create dialogue without having to imagine someone saying it, since I could hear them say it the next day.
Rhodes Shaw always denied it, but his character and dialogue were based on [a local fisherman and selectman named] Craig Kingsbury. I gave him a tape recorder to read all of Shaw's lines into, and he did it and gave it to Steven, who gave it to Shaw. You know, Craig Kingsbury was the only person in history to get arrested for drunken driving in an ox cart. He passed out asleep, and the ox just stood there blocking traffic. [Laughs.]
Kramer I really got close with Murray Hamilton, who played the mayor. One night he got skunked.
Rhodes He was walking back to his hotel from dinner and he reached down to pet a cute black-and-white kitty! When he went to the lobby of the hotel the people said, “Get outta here!” He smelled so bad I think they wouldn't let him in his room. He had to sleep on the porch or something.
Kramer We had to bathe him in tomato juice.
Rhodes Craig Kingsbury told me, “He wouldn't have gotten sprayed if I hadn't brought skunks over to the island. They didn't have any on the island, and I thought it wasn't ecologically balanced. So I brought them over.” [Laughs.] He was wonderful. [Kingsbury died in 2002.]
Gottlieb Shaw was a mischief maker. He had an extremely provocative streak in him. He used to twit Richard [Dreyfuss] about his acting. They would good-naturedly do actor tricks to each other. Just as the clapboard was leaving the shot, the last thing you'd hear on the track was Robert leaning in and whispering to Richard, “Mind your mannerisms, lad.” Which was designed to totally throw him off. On those interminable days at sea, Shaw used to drink and smoke. Once, he was sipping a drink or having a cigarette, and he mentioned offhand, “I'd like to be able to quit these things.” Richard reached across the table, took the cigarette or drink, and threw it out the porthole. Everybody blanched. Normally you'd get a punch for your trouble. It was a shocker. I think Robert wanted to break a chair over Richard's head, but he restrained himself. They had a food fight later, and that was the end of it.
“I value my neck a lot more than three thousand bucks, Chief.” — Quint
Gilmore In the book, when Hooper goes down in his cage and the shark attacks, the shark eats Hooper. Hooper is gone. That was the way we had it in the script originally. But before the shark attacks Hooper's cage, there are these shots of the shark circling to build up tension. We knew we could never shoot the entire length of that with a mechanical shark, so I went to Australia to get shots of a real shark circling the cage. The problem was, the shark in the movie was 25 feet long and the biggest shark ever caught was only 16 feet long. The obvious way to deal with the scale problem was to reduce the size of the cage. If you reduce the size of the cage by a third, you have to reduce the size of the actor by a third, so I started to look for a midget stuntman. Seriously. I had to find somebody who had the skills, who was a midget, who had his own scuba equipment. I sent a crew and the midget stuntman down there, and we got word that they had radioed in and had a 16-foot great white shark, and they were going to start shooting. About 24 hours later I got a call, and they told me that they had just shot the most exciting shark footage that they had ever seen. The great white shark got into the line from the cage to the support boat. He got it caught in his gills and he went bananas. Thrashing. He just went crazy. The shark reared out of the water and almost landed in the support boat. I said, “Was the little guy in the cage?” He hadn't gone in yet. My heart sank. But the footage was spectacular. Exactly the footage we needed. We said, “It's got to be in the film.”
Gottlieb We dropped the love story between Hooper and Brody's wife. It was in the script right until we started shooting. But we were working with the personas of the actors, and the relationship between Brody and his wife was so sweet, and it would have made her very dark and corrupt to be an adulteress. The same with Hooper, who was clearly a smarty-pants good guy who would probably not descend to that level. And once we decided to have no adultery going on, there was no reason to have Hooper killed by the shark. There was no reason for divine, or finny, retribution.
Gilmore So we rewrote the script. We had the shark attack. We had Hooper drop his gun and the shark get caught in the line while Hooper hides in the rocks. The bottom line is, a great white shark off the south coast of Australia saved Hooper's life. He should get a writing credit.
Gottlieb In the script I inherited, Hooper was kind of a proto-Indiana Jones oceanographer stud. Once we got Richard Dreyfuss, well, now we've got a smart, clever, well-educated, dedicated oceanographer. More Greenpeace than Indiana Jones.
Gilmore And just imagine if we'd killed Hooper! He was the most attractive and the best-loved of the three characters, with his smartass attitude. Just imagine! People would have thrown things at the screen.
“So, 1,100 men went into the water. Three hundred and sixteen men come out. The sharks took the rest. June the 29th, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.” — Quint, in the famous USS Indianapolis speech that's often attributed to writer-director John Milius
Gottlieb I don't want to say a lot about it, but I'll repeat one line [from The Jaws Log ]: Who do you believe, the guy who was there, who tells you [Milius] didn't write it, or the guy who wasn't there who tells you he did? Robert Shaw wrote that speech using material from several sources, including me. The actors were terrific about ad-libbing. Occasionally someone will compliment me on the line, “You're gonna need a bigger boat.” But Roy ad-libbed that on set.
“Well it proves one thing, Mr. Hooper. It proves that you wealthy college boys don't have the education enough to admit when you're wrong.” — Quint
Gilmore A lot of the crew were young smartass guys, and they referred to the movie as Flaws. I didn't necessarily enjoy their humor.
Alves A lot of the shooting crew got island fever. The soundman went bananas. They just got tired going out to sea everyday and waiting for the shark to work. I guess they got homesick.
Gottlieb In Jaws, if we weren't making it up as we went along, we were certainly filling in a lot of spaces. And those spaces in some cases were the dialogue and the story.
Alves We had union problems and there was a strike for a short period of time. The Boston Teamsters used to be real tough guys. I used to ride a bicycle to get around, and the head Boston Teamster says, “What are you doing on the bicycle? Your driver's got to be with you at all times.” So there I was, pedaling down the road, with this truck following me. This created a huge thing. I was just ornery enough to fight them. It got resolved, but some nights I thought maybe my legs would get broken.
Gilmore The most difficult day was the day that Joe and I admitted to ourselves that there may be no way to finish the movie at any cost. When the shark malfunctioned for 40 days in a row, what else are you going to be led to believe? We knew we weren't going to be able to shoot much past October, with winter coming on, and there was no end in sight in the first week in August. No one ever said it, I certainly never said it to Spielberg, but the thought was, we may have bit off more than we could chew. It was a lot of pressure.
“Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark's in the water. Our shark. [Sings.] Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies. Farewell and adieu, you ladies of Spain. For we've received orders for to sail back to Boston, and so nevermore shall we see you again.” — Quint
Alves They just wanted us to wrap, because it was costing too much money. After we left, we still picked up a few shots, like Ben Gardner, the fisherman whose head comes out of the boat. Steven said, “We now have a four-scream movie. If we can get that head shot, we'll have five.” So we stole the prosthetic head out of the makeup department, and we shot it in [editor] Verna Fields's swimming pool.
Rhodes That was the one year on the island when nobody had to go “on the town.” On welfare. Everyone who wanted a job could get one. Every kid on the island had a job. The people who worked for long periods of time got residuals and eventually earned enough to buy retirement homes in Florida. I feel real good about it.
Blake Some of the people left with the crew. There were people that went out West to become actors. There were those that married them and them that married those. There were a lot of people who made a lot of money. The drugstore made money. The markets made money. The sporting goods shop made money. I don't think that it affected the regular tourism of the island that much. A lot of people said they didn't go in the water for two years, which I think is a lot of nonsense. I can't believe it. We've always had sharks around here.
Alves As big of a movie as it became, it was actually a rather small movie. There were only half a dozen key people pushing to get it done. Then there was a preview screening in Long Beach, and we were deathly afraid that they were going to laugh at the shark, because we used to laugh at the shark. We had never heard the John Williams music. We just heard the valves, and it was very mechanical. But when you had the music and the sound, they didn't laugh. They screamed, and it was pretty horrendous. They released it on maybe 850 screens. We made about $100 million in eight weeks at $3 a ticket. It was pretty amazing.