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Stories From The Making Of 'Jaws:' Fiasco On The High Seas 

Entertainment | June 20, 2019

Left: Bruce the shark. Right: Richard Dreyfuss feigns happiness during production. Sources: (IMDB; Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

Jaws (1975) has taken on legendary status as the first summer blockbuster and the film that launched Steven Spielberg's career. But it was a mess -- just a mess. Production on the film was beset by issue after issue, including technical difficulties with the shark, the lack of a script and Spielberg's decision to film in the Atlantic Ocean. A simmering feud between Richar Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw didn't help.

When Jaws swam into theaters in June of 1975 audiences were unprepared  -- what could have been a b-picture at a drive-in was transformed into a horror picture that redefined the genre while bringing about a new era of blockbuster films. No one believed that some kid named Steven Spielberg would make one of the most thrilling pictures of all time. He pulled it off and somehow managed to turn some of the crises into strengths.

The Shark Didn’t Work

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It’s a well-known fact that the shark, nicknamed “Bruce” after Spielberg’s lawyer, didn’t work. But it can’t be overstated just how much this failing effect irreparably altered the picture. At the time it must have felt like the film was ruined by not having the main antagonist of the picture in the film until the hour and 20-minute mark, but it’s clear that the tension caused by not seeing shark makes the film that much better.

Director Steven Spielberg later said:

The film went from a Japanese Saturday matinee horror flick to more of a Hitchcock, the less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller.

Principal Photography Stretched On For Half A Year

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Films aren’t supposed to take long to shoot, especially horror movies. In many instances, movies shoot for a month or two tops. But nothing on Jaws went the way that a normal movie should and principal photography stretched from the scheduled of 50 days to something closer to 150. Much of the scheduling problems had to do with Spielberg’s choice to shoot on the ocean rather than in a “North Hollywood tank,” but the water wasn’t solely to blame for the setbacks. 

Aside from dealing with the issues of the deep, there were days spent trying to get the animatronic shark to work, and even more days trying to rouse a performance out of Robert Shaw. And some days there was just no script. All in all the extended Jaws shoot ended up pumping a lot of money into Martha’s Vineyard. 

The Orca Sank During Filming

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The boat on which the ragtag crew goes on to catch the killer shark was about as fit for the sea as Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody. This rust bucket had to carry the three actors, a camera crew and a sparse production team and it frankly wasn’t up to the task. During filming the Orca sprung a leak and started sinking to the briny deep.

According to the making-of documentary, The Shark Is Still Working, when the boat started sinking Spielberg shouted: “Get the actors off the boat.” In response, sound engineer John Carter said: “F**k the actors, save the sound department.” 

'Jaws' Went Into Production Without A Script

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One of the many things that’s needed for a feature film is the script. Without a blueprint for what the actors are supposed to do and say there’s really nothing to do but point cameras at people and shrug. The film’s producers were so excited about adapting Peter Benchley’s book that they greenlit the film and threw it into production before it was ready.

Benchley wrote a draft for the script that Spielberg hated. He thought it had too many subplots and that it lacked focus. To lighten things up and get the story Spielberg wanted he brought in TV comedy writer Carl Gottlieb and Apocalypse Now screenwriter John Milius to work on the script while Spielberg was shooting. Richard Dreyfuss, who claims that many of the film’s best moments were improvised said it best: “We started the film without a script, without a cast, and without a shark.”

Nobody Wanted To Be In The Movie

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Trying to get known actors to appear in a movie about a killer shark made by a director with nothing substantial under his belt was like trying to get someone to volunteer to jump off a cliff. Roy Scheider, who played Chief Brody, was the only actor who was actually interested in appearing in the film. Everyone else avoided Spielberg like the plague.

Spielberg asked everyone in Hollywood to take on the roles of Quint and Hooper. Jon Voight was reportedly in talks for the film at one point but that fell through. With nine days left before starting the film, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss finally agreed to appear in the film. 

Robert Shaw Was Drunk Throughout Principal Photography

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Robert Shaw wasn’t doing well while filming Jaws. He was in trouble with the IRS, his drinking was out of control, and he had a strange working relationship with Richard Dreyfuss. Spielberg explained:

Robert would basically humiliate Richard into taking a chance. 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.’

This kind of nasty relationship helped make their characters feel real, but it nearly killed the two of them in the process. To his credit, Dreyfuss would later say that Shaw was “a perfect gentleman whenever he was sober.”

A Stuntman Almost Drowned

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Even when Spielberg wasn’t behind the camera it looked as if Jaws was snake bit or rather shark bit. While filming second unit photography in order to get footage of an actual shark Ron and Valerie Taylor hired a little person to stick in a shark cage to make the great whites they were filming in look larger than they actually were. It wasn’t a bad idea, it’s just that their diver couldn’t dive. The second unit team explained:

Hollywood sent us this little man, and he couldn't dive. He had spent most of his life riding horses, doubling for children in films like National Velvet — he had doubled for Elizabeth Taylor. And we had to take him out and stuff him into a cage, and dangle him into the cold southern ocean, and have sharks — big, huge, monstrous sharks — swimming around him. And he was very much afraid, and we had a lot of difficulty getting him into the cage.

Spielberg Insisted That The Film Shoot On The Ocean

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Almost every film that takes place on the water is filmed in a tank on a Los Angeles studio or on a controlled lake. Productions see this as a necessary way to shoot the films to make sure they have as much control over the water as possible. Spielberg didn’t want to do that. He wanted Jaws to look as real as it could so he opted to film in the Atlantic Ocean, a choice that ruined the shooting schedule and made his cast and crew think he was crazy. He told Entertainment Weekly

I was naive about the ocean, basically. I was pretty naive about mother nature and the hubris of a filmmaker who thinks he can conquer the elements was foolhardy, but I was too young to know I was being foolhardy when I demanded that we shoot the film in the Atlantic Ocean and not in a North Hollywood tank.

At the time the decision made Spielberg look like a fool, but the film looks amazing and at the end of the day that’s the only thing that matters. 

The Cast And Crew Were At Each Other's Throats

Roy Scheider moments before he delivers the classic line 'You're gonna need a bigger boat.' Source: IMDB

Working on a movie takes a toll on everyone. In the best of scenarios, everyone is working a 12 hour day in Los Angeles where they can return to their family after work, but that wasn’t the case on Jaws. The cast and crew were stuck on Martha’s Vineyard for close to a year during the island’s offseason. As the shoot dragged on the close working conditions began to wear on everyone. According to writer Carl Gottlieb, Roy Scheider lost his temper one day and his tantrum took hours out of an already long day. Gottlieb writes:

[Scheider] threw the [food] tray on the deck, screamed at the AD [assistant director], and shouted at Steven, and then unburdened himself of all the frustrations and observations that had been bubbling inside him for the preceding months. It was probably a primal release, and it took hours for Steven to calm down and walk it off, which isn't easy on a small boat.

Filming 'Jaws' Gave Spielberg PTSD

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Even though Jaws made Spielberg’s career and essentially gave him a blank check for the rest of his career, he’s still haunted by his experiences on set. He was under an immense amount of pressure and dealing with a cast and crew who despised him, something that’s he’s never managed to kick. He told Entertainment Weekly

I used to come out for a couple of years after I made the movie to get over my PTSD. I would work through my own trauma, because it was traumatic. I would just sit in that boat alone for hours, just working through, and I would shake. My hands would shake.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Jaws | Movies In The 1970s | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Richard Dreyfuss | Robert Shaw | Steven Spielberg

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.