Notable Festivals: Tribeca, Cannes (Classics)
Academy Award Wins: Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Sound
Inducted into the National Film Registry: 2001
“We’re going to need a bigger boat”. It was an unscripted line, an off-the-cuff remark during a take that somehow grabbed hold of an entire collective consciousness. The phrase has become a linguistic shorthand for confrontation with insurmountable odds. It came from the 1975 film JAWS, a seemingly frivolous B-film about a Great White shark terrorizing a small beachside community. However, something about the movie tapped into a primal fear, generating an unconscious callback to those terrifying caveman days when we weren’t at the top of the food chain. The fear generated by the film also leaked out into the real world: people refused to go swimming in the ocean, and beachside resort towns felt the sting of needed tourist dollars going elsewhere.
The 28 year-old director Steven Spielberg couldn’t have possibly known what he was getting himself into when he signed on to JAWS. He had seen the galley version of the eponymous novel by Peter Benchley in his producers’ office, and was drawn to it because of the thematic similarities to his 1971 TV film, DUEL. He responded to the struggle between anonymous, unknowable evil and an every-man protagonist, and saw an opportunity in JAWS to do for water what he did for the open road in DUEL. In the process, however, he’d inadvertently change the face of cinema forever.
JAWS is the kind of movie that most of the world’s population has seen, so we are all familiar with its story. Amity Island—an idyllic, fictional seaside community—finds itself besieged by a monstrous shark during peak tourist season. The town’s chief of police, Brody (Roy Scheider) is tasked with subduing the shark threat while contending with familial troubles and hamstringing, bureaucratic challenges on his authority by a shamelessly negligent mayor. As the body count climbs and the town’s paranoia reaches a fever pitch, Brody teams up with a shark expert (Richard Dreyfuss) and a skilled fisherman (Quint) to take down the fish themselves out on the open water.
Spielberg and his producers (David Brown and Richard Zanuck) agreed that hiring a cast of well-known faces would ultimately take away the effectiveness of the shark. To that end, Spielberg sought actors like Roy Scheider to headline his shark tale. Scheider is a strong everyman type, somewhat like Dennis Weaver’s mild-mannered protagonist in DUEL. Scheider gives a tremendous amount of paternal pathos to the part, and many times comes off as an authority figure not unlike Gregory Peck. The emotional through-line of JAWS is embodied in him, wherein one must conquer their own doubts and believe in themselves if they are to conquer unstoppable evil.
Robert Shaw plays Quint, a tough, salty bastard of a fisherman straight out of MOBY DICK. I was blown away to find that this was the same Shaw who terrorized Sean Connery’s James Bond as SPECTRE agent Red Grant in Terence Young’s FROM RUSSIA LOVE (1963). In that film, he’s so young, fit and Aryan he qualifies as Hitler Youth, but only ten years later in JAWS, he’s just as believable as an old, burnt-out barnacle of a man. Shaw’s performance as Quint is just as iconic as the titular shark itself, although I will say that his accent is bewilderingly ambiguous. Is it Irish? Pirate? What?
Richard Dreyfuss plays Hooper, a shark expert from the Oceanographic Institute who’s called in because of his extensive knowledge of sharks. Dreyfuss is a fine foil to Scheider and Shaw, balancing out their measured machismo with an anxious, nerdy energy and hotheadedness. JAWS is one of Dreyfuss’ earliest appearances, and one that almost never happened at all—he famously turned down Spielberg upon first approach, only to come crawling back to the production after convincing himself that his perceived “terrible” performance in a prior film would sink his career if it came out and he didn’t have something already lined up. Given Dreyfuss’ long and fruitful career since then, those concerns obviously never came to pass.
Rounding out Spielberg’s cast is Lorraine Gary as Ellen Brody and Murray Hamilton as Amity’s mayor, Vaughn. Gary balances out the prevailing machismo tone fairly well, but is ultimately never really given anything substantial to do besides fret and wail about the wellbeing of her husband. Hamilton does a great job playing the opportunistic mayor archetype, giving the glad-handing character a smarmy, curmudgeon edge.
JAWS finds Spielberg collaborating with Bill Butler, his cinematographer for the television films SOMETHING EVIL (1972) and SAVAGE (1973). Freed from the boxy constraints of the small screen, Spielberg and Butler take full advantage of the panoramic real estate that the anarmorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio offers. For a film with such dark subject matter, JAWS looks surprisingly bright and sunny (as befitting a film set in an idyllic beach community). Spielberg and Butler have cultivated a palette of neutral tones and striking primaries, especially the blue of the ocean/sky, and the red of blood in the water. In fact, red is used so little throughout the film that, when it bubbles up from the ocean depths, the effect is acutely arresting. Spielberg makes no attempt to avoid lens flare, which not only gives the film its sun-bleached patina, but also marks the first instance of a visual conceit that would mark many of Spielberg’s works to come, as well as influence the filmmakers who would follow in his footsteps (I’m looking at you, JJ).
Spielberg’s first high-profile film utilizes surprisingly primitive camerawork, mainly because of the realities of location shooting under harsh conditions. For instance, the majority of the camerawork is handheld, due to having to counterbalance the roll of the ocean during boat-based sequences. The well-documented technical difficulties with “Bruce” (the life-sized shark animatronic) resulted in a lot of unusable takes, so Spielberg embraced the Alfred Hitchcock approach and created a palpable atmosphere of suspense by showing the shark as little as possible. In a further nod to Hitchcock, Spielberg reprises the infamous VERTIGO zoom technique during a key beach attack sequence, and in the process created a reference-grade example of the technique that he first used in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS. Spielberg also ratchets up the tension by continually adopting the shark’s POV as it swims towards its prey. The underwater photography results in some of JAWS’ most enduring and iconic moments, but many film buffs will be able to see the influence of another underwater monster movie: Jack Arnold’s CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).
There’s one sequence in particular that illustrates the fundamental effectiveness of JAWS as well as the young Spielberg’s mastery of the craft. This is the aforementioned beach attack that occurs early on in the film. The scene assumes the POV of Chief Brody as he uneasily watches over a crowded beach blissfully unaware of the shark that lurks in its waters. Spielberg gives us several character threads to follow—a dog, a young boy, an obese woman—and we see them through Brody’s eyes, with the uneasy tension that comes with knowing something everyone else does not. Spielberg, along with editor Verna Fields, strings together these vignettes into a suspenseful edit that commandeers our eyeballs and rumbles ominously in our gut.
In addition to the already-virtuoso nature of the sequence, Spielberg had initially planned to cover the entire thing in one continuous shot. While this conceit was highly indicative of traits shared by many a young, overconfident director, Spielberg was experienced enough to realize that there was little value in an approach that wouldn’t justify the considerable resources he’d need to accomplish it. Instead, he used screen wipes of people walking past the camera as a way to seamlessly hide his cuts and punch-ins. The “Get Out Of The Water” sequence has become one of the most well-known in cinema, with Spielberg channeling the likes of Hitchcock and Sergei Eisenstein to remind us of the primordial power of montage.
For the most part, Spielberg brings back his core creative team from THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS for JAWS. The film was production designer Joe Alves’ second collaboration with Spielberg, and he would eventually go on to direct JAWS 3-D (1983) himself. Editor Verna Fields won an Academy Award for her work on JAWS, and ironically, her work would prove to be too good—many critics attributed the film’s greatness to Fields’ touch instead of Spielberg’s. In somewhat of a dick move designed to assert his talents better on the next project, Spielberg would never again collaborate with Fields.
Spielberg’s collaboration with John Williams on the score continues, this time resulting in the first of many films together to boast a universally recognized theme. I don’t even have to describe the JAWS theme to you, because you’re playing it in your head right now. Williams’ Oscar-winning theme has become the archetypical cue for looming danger, imitated and parodied countless times throughout pop culture. Spielberg initially thought Williams was playing a joke on him when he played him the two-note theme; he didn’t realize that he was the first one to be hearing what is arguably the most iconic film theme of all time.
JAWS was one of the most difficult shoots of Spielberg’s career, owing primarily to his insistence that the film be shot in the choppy waters surrounding Martha’s Vineyard. Between various instances of the shark animatronic malfunctioning, the cast and crew getting seasick, or even the Orca boat set sinking in the ocean, the production was literally a baptism by fire for the young director. What was initially scheduled to be a 55-day shoot ballooned to 159, and Spielberg feared that he’d never work again because no one had ever fallen that behind on a schedule before.
Despite the hardships, however, fortune was smiling on Spielberg and his beleaguered crew. Much like the accidental capturing on film of a gorgeous shooting star (which remains in the final edit), there was a magical quality to JAWS that fundamentally connected with audiences. When he was 18, Spielberg made a $1 profit from his film FIRELIGHT (1964). Ten years later, he found himself the director of JAWS: the highest-grossing motion picture of all time. If that’s not encouraging to aspiring filmmakers than I don’t know what it is.
All that success at such an early age has its drawbacks. JAWS gave Spielberg the freedom to pursue any film he desired, with final cut privileges to boot. Critical acclaim was pouring in alongside the box office receipts, and Spielberg began to believe that JAWS was not only bound for Oscar glory, but would sweep the whole damn thing. There exists a fascinating home video of Spielberg, literally drunk off of his own confidence, watching the Oscar nominations come in on live TV—only for him to grow increasingly dejected as reality set in. Spielberg was so confident that he’d net a Best Director nomination that it’s almost disgusting to watch his hubris try to compensate for the subsequent deflation. I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to be so unenthused about scoring a Best Picture nomination at that age. JAWS eventually won for Best Editing, Score and Sound, and Spielberg would go on to personal Oscar glory for SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), but I like to think this early disappointment was a learning experience for the young director, and turned him away from the entitled, bratty persona he was dangerously flirting with. Ultimately, JAWS got something even better than the Best Picture Oscar when it was inducted into the National Film Registry as an important artifact of American culture by the Library of Congress in 2001.
Even with its massive success, the rippling wake of JAWS’ release proved farther-reaching than anyone thought. Before JAWS, the summer season was a cinematic dumping ground, a clearinghouse of sorts to make way for the big studio releases in winter. JAWS proved that summer could be an extremely lucrative season for profits, and thus the summer blockbuster phenomenon was born and an entire way of organizing the release calendar was fundamentally altered. As the “first” blockbuster, JAWS became the benchmark against which all others were, and still are, measured. It reigned supreme as the highest grossing film of all time until two years later, when it was unseated by Spielberg’s friend, George Lucas, and his humble little space opera. JAWS itself would go on to get three sequels, but with each one bringing in exponentially diminishing returns, the original remains the only entry that still enjoys relevancy today.
While the rise of the summer blockbuster has resulted in several decades’ worth of cinematic memories, the coming of JAWS could be likened to letting the Trojan Horse inside the city walls. JAWS’ Trojan Horse hid a battalion of studio executives, who used the film’ unprecedented success to leverage more power for themselves and ring in the age of high-concept spectacle films at the expense of thoughtful, auteur-oriented cinema. Spielberg is often regarded as an auteur in the same breath as Kubrick or Fellini (and rightfully so), but he is one of the few auteurs whose work has the unintended effect of displacing auteurs altogether. When one entity rises, another must fall, and as JAWS gave rise to the modern spectacle film, it did so at great detriment to the adult, auteur-oriented cinema of the 1960’s and 70’s—ironically, the very kind of films that influenced Spielberg’s style in the first place. JAWS transformed Spielberg from a French New Wave fringe-kid into an establishment director, and it earned him just as many detractors as it did admirers.
All told, the effect of JAWS on Spielberg’s career cannot be understated. The little boy who had grown up in the Arizona desert with dreams of making movies was now the biggest filmmaker of them all. In doing so, he had—for better or worse– fundamentally changed Hollywood for decades, if not forever.
JAWS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Universal.
Produced by: David Brown, Richard D. Zanuck
Written by: Carl Gottlieb, Peter Benchley
Director of Photography: Bill Butler
Production Designer: Joe Alves
Edited by: Verna Fields
Original music by: John Williams