“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Back in March I wrote about quotable movie lines and at least in my circles, Chief Brody’s ironic statement to Captain Sam Quint ranks near the top. If you’re under the age of twenty-five you truly may not recognize it, but if you’ve made it through life this far without having seen most of Jaws, then I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to step away from your computer screen and go out for some fresh air.
And once you’ve done that, immediately put Jaws in the number one spot in your Netflix queue.
Thirty-five years ago, on fourth-of-July weekend, movies and the movie-going public were changed forever by a hot-shot young director and his mechanical shark.
That’s right kids, no CGI, no green-screen magic, not even a little forced-perspective puppetry. The shark was a life-sized monster, tooling around in the ocean instead of a water tank, and the actors really got wet.
Back in 1975 no one had really heard of Steven Spielberg. Besides a string of television episodes, he had only one movie under his belt: Sugarland Express, which he both wrote and directed.
However, that movie did well enough for him to be taken seriously when he asked to direct the movie adaptation of Peter Benchley’s number one best seller, Jaws.
Film students will be happy to tell you ad nausium how the perspective shots in Jaws changed how horror movies were filmed.
They will tell you that Spielberg’s shooting so many scenes from the shark’s point of view influenced future horror classics such as Halloween.
But the truth about what are now iconic angles stem from unending mechanical failures with the shark itself; it simply wasn’t functioning most of the time and yet shooting had to continue, forcing Spielberg to find ways to film around his temperamental star.
According to an interview with Spielberg done for the DVD release of Jaws, during pre-production, Spielberg, accompanied by friends Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and John Milius, visited the effects shop where “Bruce” the shark (named lovingly after Spielberg’s lawyer) was being constructed.
Lucas stuck his head in the shark’s mouth to see how it worked and as a joke; Milius and Spielberg sneaked to the controls and made the jaw clamp shut on Lucas’ head.
Unfortunately, and rather prophetically, considering the later technical difficulties the production would suffer, the shark malfunctioned, and Lucas got stuck in the mouth of the shark.
When Spielberg and Milius were finally able to free him, the men ran out of the workshop, fearing they’d done major damage to the creature.
When construction was complete on the three versions of “Bruce,” none was ever tested in the water, and when the first mechanical shark was put out to sea in the salty brine of Martha’s Vineyard, it sank straight to the ocean floor.
Twenty five years later, the filmakers behind Deep Blue Sea created Bruce-sized CGI sharks with amazing realism, but with none of the panache of their inspiration.
Let’s face it. Sometimes the real thing is better.
(GC Note: the directors of Deep Blue Sea pay homage to the master in a scene where a license plate pulled from a shark’s mouth has the same plate numbers as one pulled from a tiger shark’s mouth in Jaws.)
The film rights to the novel were optioned for $175,000 in a deal which also included a first-draft screenplay from author Peter Benchley.
This draft, extremely faithful to the novel, was rejected by Spielberg.
The subsequent two drafts from Benchley were also rejected and, due to Universal Studios’ aggressive filming schedule, shooting had to begin before the script was complete; meaning the actors were sometimes given scenes only hours before they were to begin shooting them.
The unfinished script, the technical difficulties and the unfavorable weather conditions in Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1974 heightened tensions on the set. Robert Shaw, who played the grizzled sea captain Quint, was reportedly an alcoholic who drank during shooting and openly hated Richard Dreyfuss.
In later interviews, Roy Scheider (Chief Brody) described his co-star as “a perfect gentleman whenever he was sober. All he needed was one drink, and then he turned into a competitive son-of-a-bitch.”
The shooting schedule eventually ballooned from 52 to 155 days, and Universal threatened to stop production on a weekly basis due to the enormous cost overruns. A frustrated Spielberg had to scrap several scenes and compromise others due to their expense.
He later described the creation of Jaws as one of the worst periods of his career.
However, when it was finally complete and screened for the executives at Universal Studios, they made the unprecedented decision to back the movie’s release with a $70 million advertising budget; the largest ever for a film at that time.
Jaws was also the first film to adopt the now-common “wide release” distribution strategy, and is important in film history for that reason alone.
Before 1975 films opened slowly across the country, starting in a few theatres in major markets, and as word-of-mouth grew more prints would be made available. If you didn’t live in Chicago, New York or Miami, you got used to hearing your snotty urban cousins brag about the latest new films weeks before they showed up in your home town.
Universal executive Sidney Sheinberg took a big chance on Jaws, betting that $70 million could buy enough television advertising to get the entire country talking about the film at once, and thus generate a faster return on his investment.
His gamble paid off: when it hit theaters over the holiday weekend in 1975, Jaws became a one of the largest box offices smashes in history, drawing over 67 million Americans and earning the title “father of the summer blockbuster.”
It was also the first movie to earn $100 million, and the highest grossing movie of all time until Star Wars: Episode IV came along two years later. Entertainment Weekly has voted Jaws the sixth scariest film of all time.
Now a bona fide Hollywood success, Spielberg nonetheless vowed that his “next picture will be on dry land. There won’t even be a bathroom scene.”
True to his word, Spielberg’s third turn in the director’s chair was for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and he brought Richard Dreyfuss along for the ride.
Roy Scheider reprised his role as Chief Brody three years later in Jaws 2. But though Peter Benchley was brought on in an attempt to recapture the original magic, the movie has none of the original shock value and movie goers were now focused on a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
However, that didn’t stop Hollywood from continuing to try with Jaws 3-D (1983) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987).
The later films are held in even lower regard than Jaws 2. In fact, even Universal refused to acknowledge the third one in the press release for Jaws: The Revenge, referring to Revenge as the “third film of the remarkable Jaws trilogy.”
Not that it helped. Revenge is frequently cited as one of the worst films ever made.
The last known surviving mechanical ‘Bruce’ is suspended atop two metal poles in the middle of an auto wrecking yard, in the San Fernando Valley. It seemed a rather inauspicious end to such an icon of pop culture, until I did a little hunting and found that like any movie star Bruce continues to have his obsessive fans; check out the web site called The Shark is Still Working.
And not ones to ever walk away from equity, Universal Studios added Jaws to its studio attractions in 1976, one year after the movie release.
In 1990, Jaws: Amity Island was one of the original rides when Universal Studios opened their Florida branch theme park.
The actual “Orca,” Captain Quint’s boat in Jaws, used to be moored on lake in the California attraction. There’s a story that Spielberg used to sneak into the park when he was working on the lot, and have his lunch sitting in the hull of the Orca, I guess as a way of keeping in contact with a physical relic of the movie that made his name in Hollywood. One day, Universal employees decided that the boat had rotted too much to remain in place, and it was removed and destroyed. Spielberg was understandably irritated.
In a major overhaul of attractions a few years back that would eventually give rise to The Harry Potter Experience at Universal Studios Florida, Jaws: Amity Island made the cut and got a fresh coat of paint. It is my pleasure to personally tell you that this ride alone would still be worth a trip south. The true classic movie monsters only get better with age.
Just in case you really don’t understand what someone means by throwing down the quote “you’re gonna need a bigger boat,” it implies we’ve gravely understated the severity of the problem at hand and our failure in judgment is likely going to result in our being eaten or otherwise mangled in some horrible way.
And that’s a relevant in 2010 as it was in 1975.