Monday, June 1, 2015

A Reel 40: JAWS - Part 1: The Beginning

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS. Widely regarded as one of the best films of all time, Reel Speak will celebrate this game-changing film with a blog each week for the month of June. This first part will explore the beginnings…

"You're gonna need a bigger boat."

Based on the 1974 novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, JAWS was a film that probably should not have worked as well as it did. A thriller film in which a giant man-eating great white shark terrorizes a New England-based resort town, JAWS had the deck stacked against it from day one. The production was ambitious in the decision to film not in a controlled-environment water tank, but in the elements of the actual ocean. Throw in a script which had been through numerous revisions, countless problems with equipment, weather, seasick crewmembers, mechanical sharks that either broke or sunk, and a very young (28 years old) director by the name of Steven Spielberg, who was only making his second feature-length film…and JAWS seemed destined to sink before it left the dock. 

Despite going over-budget and past schedule (on a good day they would come away with five good shots, on a bad day…zero), producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown kept their faith in Spielberg, who had said that he expected to be thrown out of Hollywood forever if JAWS turned into a disaster. But Spielberg and his cast and crew persevered through the issues and the on-location shooting (they shot off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard), and wrapped in October of 1974…after 159 days of filming. 

Thanks to Spielberg’s eye for framing a shot and talent for telling a story, JAWS came together brilliantly in the post-production phase. Editor Verna Fields cut together a tight and intimate thriller, and composer John Williams, in his first of many collaborations with Spielberg, contributed a primal and minimalistic score which 40 years later, could very well be one of the most recognizable music cues in history. The cast, which included Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gray, and Murray Hamilton…showed tremendous chemistry together on film and gave JAWS a very human element. The decision to film on-location gave Spielberg the chance to bring local flavor into JAWS, giving it a very authentic feel. 
In the final product, the many issues with the always-breaking mechanical sharks turned into a blessing in disguise. Spielberg decided to mostly suggest the presence of the shark, using Williams’ ominous theme and other devices to indicate the pending killer’s approach. In film, what we don’t see is always more frightening than what we can see, and Spielberg capitalized on it. JAWS came off as a thriller with a touch of horror as audiences jumped out of their seats in showings across the country. But the real genius of JAWS began in the third act, when the main characters played by Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss left shore to hunt the shark. From there the film shifts into an adventure at sea, akin to MOBY DICK or maybe even something Sinbad or Jason’s Argonauts would take on. JAWS goes from scary to adventure in a seamless shift…but still retains that feeling of dread when Williams’score kicks in. 

JAWS would not only become the biggest box-office smash of that year, but would become the No. 1 film of all-time. The model of JAWS would change the industry forever; from the way films are made, marketed, budgeted, and released. It was the first “summer blockbuster” and set a model that studios still use today. The film would win three Academy Awards for Best Editing, Original Dramatic Score, and Sound. John Williams would also win a Grammy Award. The film appears on many of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 lists, and in 2001, the U.S. Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. The film is analyzed to this day not only by filmmakers, but by film-teachers and scholars. 


If you were born past 1970, there was a Holy Trilogy of Films which likely defined your childhood; STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and JAWS. Adventures and thrills were all that mattered, and those three films captured it all…and it all began with JAWS. This Blogger did not discover JAWS until the late 1970’s, when the film began heavy rotation on a new cable device called HBO. As a wee-lad, it was frightening but fun, and the music was something you ran away from when someone started humming it. Later on in college, this Blogger was required to watch and analyze the famous scene when Robert Shaw’s character recounts the story of the doomed battleship USS Indianapolis as a lesson in writing. With that lesson began a long study of the film; a study that continues to this day. This Blogger, along with his friends and countless other fans, quotes JAWS often (the movie has a memorable quote every minute), and it is a satisfying thing to always know that one of your favorite films is also one that is forever embedded into pop-culture. Everyone knows the story of JAWS; the music, the characters, the adventure...and that awareness will swim on for another 40 years and beyond. 


Read Part 2: Why It Worked HERE
Read Part 3: The Legacy HERE
Read Part 4: On the Big Screen HERE

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