The production nightmares that made Jaws a classic

With a remastered Jaws out now, we look at how the film’s chaotic production gave rise to a masterpiece…

“All right, there’s a shark in the water,” a man bellows through a megaphone, a hint of melancholy in his voice. “He’s been killing people, legs have been bitten off, and there’s blood all over the place…”

It’s June 1974, and the water’s freezing. Dozens of extras, clad in trunks and bathing costumes, are bobbing about just off the beach of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, trying not to shiver. It may be summer, but the locals know that the water doesn’t warm up until late in the season.

The man holding the megaphone is a member of the production team putting together Jaws. For the then 26-year-old Steven Spielberg, Jaws is a decisive moment in his career. With the movie already starting to run over its originally planned $3.5 million budget, he knows that, if the movie sinks, so does his future as a filmmaker.

What Spielberg couldn’t have known, as he stood on that New England beach with his goose-pimpled extras, was that Jaws would become one of the most lucrative and important films in Hollywood’s history. It would also prove to be the most gruelling shoot of Spielberg’s career. 

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Jaws defined the high-concept Hollywood picture. It was the prototypical summer blockbuster, providing a hit during a season in which Hollywood traditionally released its weaker pictures. It prompted a generation of moviegoers to stare out at the sea with fear and distrust. But before all that, Spielberg had to get the wretched film in the can, all in the face of cantankerous, feuding actors, malfunctioning props, sinking boats and frantic script rewrites. 

Incredibly, it was the movie’s troubled production that would make it such a classic.  

Jaws began production without a finished screenplay

“We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark” – Richard Dreyfuss

Producers Richard D Zanuck and David Brown had read Peter Benchley’s Jaws novel before it appeared on shelves, and quickly decided it would make a saleable movie. And when the book became a bestseller following its release in 1973, Universal was keen to get a movie into production as quickly as possible.

After briefly considering other directors, Steven Spielberg was signed up, and for a while, everything seemed to proceed quite smoothly. Benchley had turned in his screenplay for the adaptation, and things looked set for the start of shooting in May 1974.

Spielberg, however, wanted to diverge from Benchley’s novel, which had several subplots involving infidelity and a town mayor menaced by mobsters. Spielberg wanted to pare the story back to its man versus shark foundations. He also found the book’s trio of lead characters – police chief Martin Brody, unassuming marine biologist Matt Hooper, and shark hunter Quint – unsympathetic, and felt the entire story needed a lighter tone.

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Several screenwriters took over the rewriting of the Jaws script after Benchley bowed out after finishing the third draft. TV comedy writer Carl Gottlieb was brought in to give the dialogue the sprightlier touch Spielberg was after, as well as play the small role of a local newspaper editor.

By the time shooting commenced, Gottlieb was still rewriting the script, often finishing scenes in the evening ready for filming the next day. Other writers, most famously John Milius, were brought in to assist, and the actors themselves ended up contributing their suggestions and improvising key lines – “We’re going to need a bigger boat”, perhaps the most famous line in the entire movie, was made up on the spot by Roy Schieder.

From this broiling soup of screenwriters and improvisation emerged a supremely well-written film. It’s not entirely clear who we have to thank for Quint’s unforgettable monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis – it’s thought that Milius and actor Robert Shaw came up with it between them – but it serves as a perfect, eerie calm before the final act’s storm.

Some of Hollywood’s most famous actors turned the film down

When Jaws was still in its planning stages, Spielberg had already decided that the star of the movie would be the great white itself. This was just as well, since a number of Hollywood’s most respected names didn’t want to appear in a movie about a giant shark.

Although the lead role of Brody wasn’t too difficult to cast – when Robert Duvall turned the role down, Spielberg chose Roy Scheider after meeting him at a party – the other leads, Quint and Hooper, were more problematic. Neither Lee Marvin nor Sterling Hayden wanted to play Quint, and Jon Voight didn’t want to play Hooper. 

Nine days before filming began, Spielberg still hadn’t found actors to play Quint or Hooper. On the recommendation of his friend George Lucas, Spielberg offered the part of Hooper to Richard Dreyfuss, who turned it down. Robert Shaw was offered the role of Quint, but he hated Benchley’s novel, and said no.

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Fortunately, both actors later changed their minds. Shaw was persuaded to join the movie after both his secretary and his wife enthused about it. Dreyfuss, convinced the film he’d just made (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) was going to be a flop, decided to give Spielberg a call. “’If you still want to offer me that job,’” Dreyfuss said, “’I’ll take it.’ In essence, I came crawling to Martha’s Vineyard for that part.”

Just at the right time, the pieces fell into place for Spielberg, and it’s now hard to imagine three better actors to cast in such archetypal roles.

Unfortunately for the director, his problems were only just beginning.

The shark didn’t work

“I remember being on set for the first shark test, and it simply sank,” producer David Brown said in The Making Of Jaws. “We thought our careers in motion pictures had gone with it. Everything that could go wrong with the shark went wrong.” 

“The shark was frustrating” Spielberg concurred, in what may be one of the greatest understatements in the history of filmmaking.

The problem, it seemed, was that everyone involved in the production of Jaws knew they had the makings of a great movie. Unfortunately, they had no idea of how to make a giant shark. Art director Joe Alves and effects designer Bob Mattey spent the best part of six months building three mechanical great whites, each designed to fulfil a specific function; one could be towed along for full-frontal shots, while the other two were mounted on platforms, and meant to be filmed from the left- or right-hand side.

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Spielberg named the shark Bruce, which was the name of his lawyer. Years later, he would also refer to it as “the great white turd”. It’s not difficult to understand his hatred for his mechanical nemesis.

Before filming even began, Bruce tried to kill George Lucas. While visiting the Jaws effects shop one day, the future Star Wars director decided to place his head into the shark’s maw, only to become trapped when Spielberg and John Milius mischievously pressed a button and closed the jaws on him. Now jammed shut, the beast’s mouth had to be prised back open to get Lucas’ head back out. A portent, perhaps, of the arduous shoot ahead.

Bruce worked reasonably well on dry land, but the seawater played havoc with his complex innards. His waterproof skin proved to be anything but, and the salt regularly corroded it. As David Brown pointed out, Bruce also had the habit of sinking to the bottom of the sea.

Bruce’s misbehaviour ultimately had a positive effect on the movie, which Spielberg freely admits. The shark’s failure forced him to resort to other means to suggest its presence, using acting, cinematography and John Williams’ astonishing music to heighten the sense of fear. What could have been just another B-movie instead became a terrifying exercise in suspense.

Or, as Spielberg once put it, “The film went from a Japanese Saturday matinee horror flick to more of a Hitchcock, the less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller.”

Robert Shaw didn’t like Richard Dreyfuss

As if working on a film with an unfinished script and an unreliable shark wasn’t enough, Spielberg also had his actors to contend with. Reflecting their characters’ on-screen enmity, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss were frequently at loggerheads.

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Roy Scheider once described a typical barbed comment from Shaw, who appeared to be irked by his younger co-star. “Shaw would say, ‘Look at you, Dreyfuss. You eat and you drink and you’re fat and you’re sloppy. At your age, it’s criminal. Why, you couldn’t even do ten good push-ups.’”

Speaking in the documentary Jaws: The Inside Story, Dreyfuss downplayed his tense working relationship with Shaw, but admitted that he often goaded him on set – usually when drunk, which Shaw frequently was.

“[Shaw] was a perfect gentleman whenever he was sober. All he needed was one drink and then he turned into a competitive son-of-a-bitch” was how Dreyfuss would later put it.

“Robert would basically humiliate Richard into taking a chance,” Spielberg said. “For instance, Robert would say, ‘I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you climb up to the top of the mast on the Orca and jump off into the water.’”

As it turned out, this behind the scenes “feud”, as Spielberg called it, had a positive rather than detrimental effect on the movie, with their energy feeding back into their naturalistic, spiky performances. 

“It got ugly,” Spielberg admitted. “But it was also Quint and Hooper living out that relationship as Shaw and Dreyfuss.”  

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The production went over budget and over schedule

“Had we read [the script] twice, in my opinion, we never would have made Jaws,” producer David Brown said in The Making Of Jaws. “Because anybody with a modicum of production knowledge would know there was no way to get a shark to leap onto the stern of a boat and swallow a man.”

The malfunctioning shark and feuding actors all took their toll on the production schedule. Principal photography was supposed to take place over 55 days, but instead, it took 159 days. Disgruntled members of the crew walked up to Spielberg and testily asked him, “When are we going to finish this movie?”

Spielberg was forced to admit that he didn’t know. “I thought my career as a filmmaker was over,” Spielberg said, referring back to those dark days when stunts were going wrong, with Dreyfuss trapped underwater and Gottlieb narrowly avoiding decapitation by propeller. 

The shoot reached its depressing nadir when, while filming a final act scene where the shark is harpooned with barrels to slow it down, the Orca’s hull was accidentally ruptured. With the Orca rapidly sinking, Spielberg called out, “Get the actors off the boat!”

Disgruntled sound engineer John Carter yelled back, “Fuck the actors. Save the sound department!”

As the shoot ground on, the filmmakers fought to get more than a few shots per day in the can. The problems were partly down to Spielberg’s desire to get everything just right, and also partly due to his inexperience at shooting a movie on the water. But yet again, what could have been a drawback became a benefit.

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A more seasoned director probably wouldn’t have shot a movie out at sea at all, but as Spielberg has since said, “I could have shot the movie in the tank or even in a protected lake somewhere, but it would not have looked the same.”

The protracted shoot also gave Spielberg time to hone the movie as he went along. Even as the script was being polished by Gottlieb and other writers, he and editor Verna Fields could see, from the handful of shots coming in after each day’s shoot, that what they were making was far more than just another monster movie.

The lengthy production gave them time to consider how best to edit the film around their malfunctioning shark, while a continuity error, in which footage of a real shark was captured attacking an empty diving cage, prompted Spielberg to have Hooper live to see the end credits – instead of being eaten by the shark, as scripted, he’d managed to vacate the cage and swim to safety. 

On the 6th October 1974, Jaws’ gigantic shoot finally ended. Legend has it that Spielberg, fearing that a mutinous crew would celebrate the wrap by throwing the director in the sea, was already on a boat heading for shore long before the last shot was completed. “I shall not return,” Spielberg called out, as the vessel speeded him away from his 159-day nightmare.

If Spielberg had been perturbed by the dark rumours that the movie might also spell the end of his career, those particular clouds were quickly dispelled after the first test screening. Jaws’ budget may have ballooned to $9 million – more than double its original estimate – but the movie became a phenomenon, making more than $430 million worldwide. From the chaos of production, Spielberg and his filmmakers had assembled a masterpiece of precisely controlled suspense, and audiences found it irresistible.

“All right, there’s a shark in the water,” the crew member bellowed to the extras assembled in the sea, way back in June 1974. “He’s been killing people, legs have been bitten off, and there’s blood all over the place!”

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The scene Spielberg was shooting that day would become a key moment in the finished movie; it’s the sequence in which the young Alex Kintner is devoured by the shark right in front of Chief Brody, giving the character the impetus to set off with Quint and Hooper to hunt the beast down.

“Background action!” the man yelled into his megaphone. Right on cue, the extras rushed for the shore, screaming as they went. Spielberg didn’t know it at the time, but those screams would still be echoing in cinemas and living rooms decades later.

From the jaws of defeat, Spielberg would pull an all-time classic.

Jaws is available to download on iTunes now. It is also available on Blu-ray.

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