It was sink or swim for Steven Spielberg when he set sail on the troubled filming of "Jaws."

There must have been something in the water. How else to explain the logic behind handing over the reins of Jaws — the big-budget adaptation of Peter Benchley’s best-selling 1974 shark chiller — to an untested TV director whose first feature film had been a box office dud? But on May 2, 1974, under the pressure of a looming actors’ strike (sound familiar?), wunderkind Steven Spielberg set out on what would become one of the most troubled productions of all time.

The then-27-year-old director was smarting from the commercial failure of The Sugarland Express (1974), when he got word from producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown that Universal wanted him to bring the same tension to Jaws that he did to his 1971 teleflick Duel. But the young helmer was about to confront some hefty preproduction woes. Nearly every actor he wanted turned him down (among them: Lee Marvin, Jon Voight, and Sterling Hayden). Eventually, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, and Roy Scheider signed on, but with the strike threat, Universal pushed Spielberg to start as soon as possible, with script pages still in the typewriter.

But it was off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., that Spielberg and Co. were dealt the biggest blow. ”Mr. Zanuck and I were on a barge at the first test of the shark,” says Brown, ”and we watched it plunge to the bottom of Nantucket Sound — [along] with our careers, we thought.” The faux fish caused endless frustrations, wasting entire shooting days as technicians scurried to get it to work properly.

Back in Hollywood, as Spielberg has recalled, Brown and Zanuck were busy calming the bean counters who wanted to remove him from the picture. It turned out that Universal had good reason to worry: The film’s budget had ballooned from $4 million to $9 million, and the scheduled 55-day shoot would eventually come to a close 159 days after production began.

For Spielberg, it looked as if his once-promising career would be beached, and he dug in to what became an equally grueling round of postproduction work (one sequence was even reshot in a California pool when it didn’t elicit the scare the director wanted).

All the extra effort paid off: not only did Jaws usher in the era of the summer event movie, but it was the box office champ until Star Wars opened in 1977. ”We had a cast and crew screening,” says Brown. ”And the very men and women who were on the set and knew all the Sturm und Drang of the production were frightened by the very illusion they helped create.”

And as for that young director? He would never again set a film on the water, but finding work wouldn’t be a problem.

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