Jaws anniversary: Steven Spielberg on how it was almost a different movie
Happy birthday to the movie that cleared the way for summer blockbusters while clearing people away from beaches.
On June 20, 1975, Jaws was released on the world. We haven’t been the same since.
The movie, about a bloodthirsty great white shark threatening a small beach community, was a notoriously troubled shoot for the ambitious young filmmaker who nearly got fired making it. Instead, Jaws turned Steven Spielberg into a household name, redefined the modern studio blockbuster, and four decades later, still has its teeth sunk into our collective jugular.
In a wide-ranging interview with Entertainment Weekly a few years ago, Spielberg discussed nearly his entire filmography up to that point. Here’s what he had to say about the one with the shark …
We got onto the topic of Jaws when Spielberg said every single movie overwhelms him with nerves — starting with his 1968 short Amblin’ and The Sugarland Express, the 1974 chase movie that marked his big-screen debut.
Entertainment Weekly: What were you so worried about?
Steven Spielberg: I never think I have all the answers. Every movie, especially a lot of my movies, are so different one from the next, there’s such a learning curve. I come on to the set on every picture, whether it was my first movie, Sugarland, or I’m about to start Lincoln… and it cuts me down to size. It’s a good feeling to have.
You know what it does? I may lose my appetite on my first couple weeks of shooting, but being nervous about it and being a little unsure of it increases my appetite to want to do good work. I work harder, and it keeps me honest.
What would you go back and tell that young version of yourself if you could? What cheat sheet would you slip that guy?
The only advice I would probably give him is to stop trying to ingratiate yourself. You know, just do the work, focus on the work, don’t focus so much on making yourself popular on the set. Just focus on the work. I was just trying to be everybody’s best friend on that show [Sugarland].
Then you had Jaws, which changed your life, right? I have this picture I keep on my refrigerator. It’s a postcard for a movie photography exhibition from years ago. I’ve always just loved it. What was happening here?
[Laughs.] Now let me tell you about the picture –- that’s a staged, fake picture. Meaning I sat on the shark. There was no reason to sit on the shark except the photographer said, “Get on the shark.” I was not directing a shot, I wasn’t trying to make a point. This is a completely irrelevant picture. [Laughs.] I remember that very well. I would never do that today. That’s something else I’ve learned: don’t let set photographers stage your shots.
Jaws seems like it was a much bigger production than anything you’d worked on before. You also thought it would end things for you — because it was over budget, the shark didn’t work, etc…
Oh yeah, it was huge! It was huge! It was incomparable in my experience. And what made it incomparable was not just the extras, and the fact that we were on a distant location. It was the fact that we had the hubris to shoot on the ocean, and not in a tank.
Do you wish you hadn’t gone to the ocean?
Now, had we shot on the tank I don’t think Jaws would have been very successful, because it would look really phony. So I really insisted on the sea, but innumerable problems… physical problems, came along with my decision. One of the first things we had to do was find a open sea where you couldn’t see land, and where there was a 30 foot flat, sandy bottom so the shark sled would have some place to [stand]…
How did that work?
It had to be 30 feet because if it was 40 feet, the shark could never get out of the water. We had a shark arm that only went up so high. The problem about shooting in the shallows 10 to 12 miles out to sea is that the shallows pile on the waves. You don’t get breaking waves out there, but you get some swell out there because of the shallowness. So we picked the worst place in the world to shoot.
Were you feeling confident, like ‘I can do this?’ Or were you thinking, ‘I’m a con artist. I fooled everybody?’
I was feeling completely confident. I was confident for the first 35 days of shooting because I was on schedule for the first 35 days. It was all the land stuff. So I was completely on schedule and on budget for all of the land stuff. Interior Brody’s house, exterior Brody’s house, interior the city selectman chamber, introducing Quint in town… I mean, everything having to do with land, and even some of the stuff with the shark, even some of the stuff with Chrissie Watkins being killed at the opening of the story — that was all land-based stuff. It wasn’t easy to shoot, but I wasn’t over schedule, over budget, and it was a normal movie. It was only when we went out to sea for our, I guess 25 or 30 days of photography, that everything went pear-shaped.
Why weren’t you fired?
I think Sid Sheinberg [then president and chief operating officer of Universal Pictures] always blocked the intention of Ned Tanen [then head of production at Universal] to fire me. He wanted me fired. [Jaws producers] Dick Zanuck and David Brown always told me that the other shoe was about to drop. They always warned me. And they didn’t warn me to threaten me or to intimidate me, they just said, “Is there anything you can do with the script, with the schedule, to avert a shut-down? What can you do?” And I didn’t have anything to do, because I couldn’t cut the script. I couldn’t cut the third act out of Jaws. I had to just keep moving forward, and the schedule was dictated by the mechanical shark, and by the weather conditions on the ocean. That’s what dictated the overrun. And I think every time there was an intention to replace me, Sid stepped in quietly behind the scenes and stopped it from happening.
Because he liked you?
Because Sid believed in me. He came out one day and he said, “Do you really think you’re ever going to finish this movie? Are we being defeated by the elements and by technology, or do you think you have a shot at finishing this?” And I always said to Sid, honestly, I said, “I will finish this film. I can’t tell you what day I’ll finish this picture, but I will finish this picture.” And Sid let me continue. Sid reminded me of a fight doctor that comes into the corner to check the cut over my right eye, you know, to see whether the fight can go on. It seemed every couple rounds he’d come check my cut, and then the other cut that formed over the other eye.
Growing up near the beach in the late 1970s didn’t make me worry about if a Great White shark would attack me. It was more a matter of when. I was about 6 years old when I saw parts of Jaws for the first time, and after that, I just assumed most of my family would eventually be eaten. After all, we spent most of our summer in and around the ocean, and, like idiots, we insisted on swimming. It was just a matter of time, right? It seemed awfully foolish to keep going back in the water when there had to be 10 — nay, 1,000 — hungry Great Whites hiding in the waves just waiting for me to dip my toes in. Didn’t Chief Brody say most shark attacks happen in less than three feet of water? Eventually, the fears faded… sort of. I love the ocean, but to this day — thanks to the panicked screams of Chrissie Watkins — I don’t like being in the ocean alone at dusk or night. The dum-DUM score in my head is still there. — Jeff Labrecque
That confidence you started out with, did it just go away?
[Laughs.] It went away. I lost my confidence, but I didn’t lose my drive to make as good a movie as I possibly could. But I had lost my confidence, and I had lost control of the production. I have never lost control of a production before, and not since either. So I know what it feels like to lose total control.
Looking back, could you have changed anything?
No. Nothing. All I could have changed was, shut the company down, and do it all in a tank with a miniature shark. It would have been less of a B-movie than I was intending. I was intending to make a B-movie, but that would have been a C-movie.
Has that experience made you sympathetic to other filmmakers who lose control when you’ve worked as a producer?
Yes, it has.
When has that come up?
It comes up whenever we get a production report that a huge lightning storm wiped out half the set. There was a huge storm that blew on the Cowboys & Aliens set, and we got a production report that some people were really badly hurt by equipment blowing over their heads and past them. When that sort of stuff happens, you can’t blame anybody. They didn’t know it was a freak storm, it just came out of nowhere and it was over in 15 minutes and there were a couple of injuries, luckily not serious.
On Jaws, you were also a relatively new filmmaker working with a lot of high caliber actors. Big personalities. Robert Shaw looks like someone who wouldn’t be too patient with a young guy whose movie is falling apart.
Robert was great with me. He really was, yeah. We had a very good working relationship. Robert was a colorful character. A brilliant actor, but a very colorful personality. [Laughs.]
And… what does “colorful” mean?
“Colorful” just means that he was very challenging. If you challenged him, he would challenge you. He and [Richard] Dreyfuss had a real mano-a-mano relationship throughout the entire production.
Lucky for you, that hostility between them is part of the movie.
We started adding scenes based on how Robert and Richard were behind the scenes! We started putting some of those anecdotes into the actual film. Matt Hooper’s squeezing of the Styrofoam cup in answer to Shaw’s squeezing of the beer can was something that actually happened.
I heard there was casting juggling early on. Who else might we have seen in Jaws?
Well, my first choice for Quint was Lee Marvin. We went to Lee Marvin first, he turned it down. And then my second choice was Sterling Hayden, and he was a fisherman. He said, “When I go fishing, I want to go fishing for real. I don’t want to go fishing for a fake shark.” And so he turned it down. Then David Brown and Dick Zanuck suggested Robert Shaw because they had just made The Sting with him and loved the experience. So I went off and gave myself a quick education, looked at A Man For All Seasons again, and then looked at Battle of the Bulge and a few other Robert Shaw movies. Of course I had seen The Sting the year before, and we offered him the part. My first choice for Matt Hooper was always Richard Dreyfuss. He’s the one person I got.
People have said he’s your doppelganger in earlier films. Did you feel that way?
Yeah, I did. I’m not as cheeky as Dreyfuss, but I feel that my metabolism is pretty equal to his metabolism. We both move at about 18 frames a second.