The Making of a Timeless Classic: ‘Jaws’

By Phill Powell

Despite its relatively low-tech visual effects, Steven Spielberg’s 1975 mega-classic Jaws still plays fast and excitingly for modern audiences, who can’t help but get swept up in its masterful storytelling and compelling action.

So how can this 41-year-old film (with limited special effects) still hold its own against even brand new summer movies that are loaded with every new visual effect you can imagine?

Jaws on boat
Suspense recipe: Mix three conflicting personalities on creaky fishing boat. Add one very angry fish. Stir thoroughly and serve. (Jaws ©1975 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

What makes Jaws so endlessly watchable and what lessons does it hold for filmmakers?

IT PLAYS AMAZINGLY WELL EVEN WITHOUT AMAZING EFFECTS.

Back in 1974, when a 27-year-old Spielberg created the movie, special effects were vastly less sophisticated or dependable. Jaws relied upon huge animatronic shark models with rubberized skins, operated by remote control.

Working with the faux sharks was a slow and clunky operation. The brutal Atlantic seawater proved deadly to barely functional equipment.

Sometimes the shark didn’t thrash or bite on cue. Or it sank. On another occasion, its powerful mechanical jaws nearly crushed the young director, who had bravely climbed into its mouth to see how well it was working.

Jaws first attack
The back-and-forth motion for the movie’s first attack was provided by teams of men moving ropes and jerking them in opposite directions. The first time the swimmer disappears underwater, the yank was provided by the director himself. (Jaws ©1975 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

IT MADE TECH ADVANCES.

Despite its simpler effects, Jaws found ways to pioneer some tech advances of its own. Its main step forward was a waterbox camera developed by the film’s Director of Photography, Bill Butler.

The waterbox enabled chest-level shots of swimmers actually in the water. Spielberg wanted the viewer to see the ocean from the normal perspective they would if they were actually in swimming.

This is not a boat accident. And it wasn’t any propeller. And it wasn’t any corral reef. And it wasn’t Jack the Ripper. It was a shark.
– Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss)

These shots are some of the most iconic from the film – especially during the frightening panic scenes where swimmers create an instant stampede trying to get out of the surf and away from a shark that’s been sighted.

Richard Dreyfuss from JAWS.
Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) after examining the remains of the first victim. “And it wasn’t Jack the Ripper. It was a shark.” (Jaws ©1975 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

Jaws’ visual effects may be simple by today’s standards, but they were used smartly by Spielberg, whose sole demand upon accepting the directing assignment was that he be allowed to not show the shark for the first forty minutes or so.

Instead, Spielberg keeps showing us scary evidence of shark attacks…and keeps heaping on the suspense.

IT’S AN EPIC TALE BORROWED FROM EPIC SOURCES.

The real reason why Jaws is such a great flick even now is the strength of the script, adapted primarily by Carl Gottleib from Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel. (Benchley even makes a cameo in the film, portraying a local TV reporter.)

Gottleib first worked on the film as an actor (he plays Amity Island’s newspaper publisher), before reworking a screenplay that Benchley wrote.

Benchley’s book is a modern update on Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick, considered by many to be the ultimate American epic. Like Moby Dick, Jaws features a crusty old sea salt who thinks of nothing but bagging this big bad fish.

English movie star Robert Shaw was Spielberg’s third choice but proved absolutely unforgettable as Quint, the tough-as-nails captain who leads the hunt for the Great White. Quint’s such a tough guy that the movie never even bothers to give him a first name – just “Quint.”

Quint from Jaws
Quint (Robert Shaw) uses basic A/V aids to explain the problem to the Amity Island City Council. “Bad fish. Swallow a man whole.” (Jaws ©1975 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

You’re gonna need a bigger boat.
– Martin Brody (Roy Scheider)

EVEN ITS WORDS ARE SCARY.

In a film famous for its terror and suspense, one of the most intense scenes in Jaws involves virtually no action whatsoever. Spielberg has called this scene his favorite from the entire movie.

During a lull in the hunt, Quint talks about being left for dead in shark-infested waters during World War II, following the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

QUINT: You know a thing about a shark. He’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes…like a doll’s eyes.

Quint’s memorable monologue shakes us even more when we consider that the frightening events he describes really did happen to the crew of the Indianapolis. No less than three writers meticulously shaped this monologue.

Classic Scene from JAWS (©1975 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Our first full close-up look at the famous shark occurs deep into the film. (Jaws ©1975 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

Then there’s the greatest adlib in screen history, courtesy of Roy Scheider, whose character gets his first up-close look at the Great White.

Brody is stunned at the terrifying sight, and slowly staggers backwards into the boat’s cabin. That’s when he mutters to Quint the movie’s most famous line:

BRODY: You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

It’s one of the greatest lines in all of movies and it wasn’t in the script at all. Pure Scheider.

IT’S GOT KILLER MUSIC.

Classic movies usually require great music – especially action or suspense movies, and Jaws features one of the legendary scores of all times. John Williams, the master composer known for his work on the “Star Wars” scores, crafted an urgent, immediate main theme, where a driving cello works a churning, back-and-forth theme between two notes in the lower register.

It’s one of the most immediately recognizable movie themes ever, but when Williams first previewed it for the director, Spielberg’s reaction was to laugh. He thought Williams – who was hammering the main theme on the piano with only two fingers – was joking.

But Williams explained how he was trying to capture the instinctive and relentless attack of a shark. The low thumping ostinato bass notes conveyed that perfectly and Spielberg suddenly understood its brilliant simplicity. Now the director credits Williams’ score “for half of the success of the movie.”

IT’S RUTHLESSLY EFFICIENT, EVEN BY TODAY’S STANDARDS.

Jaws was engineered to be an instant thrill-ride, which is why it still plays so well for modern audiences, even 40 years after its creation.

Consider: The first shark attack occurs within the first five minutes of the film. The second attack takes place within the first 15 minutes.

I value my neck a lot more than three thousand bucks, Chief. I’ll find him for three, but I’ll catch him – and kill him – for ten.
– Quint (Robert Shaw)

Despite taking the time to establish its main characters, the story is kept lean and tight and differs significantly from Benchley’s novel and that efficiency helps it continue playing for new audiences generations later.

It also matches many modern sensibilities. Because of the grueling location shooting, much of it taking place within the confines of a small fishing boat, Jaws relied upon handheld shooting. In this way, it predates most big-budget studio movies of its time.

Jaws was also ahead of its time in the way it was edited, or rather, where it was edited. At a time when studio movies were usually cut in edit suites on studio lots, Jaws was edited at the house of Spielberg’s preferred editor, Verna Fields, who won an Oscar for her brilliant editing of Jaws.

Spielberg_on_Jaws
Spielberg was only 27 when he helmed Jaws. He was almost crushed in the shark’s mechanical jaws. (Jaws ©1975 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

…May Be Too INTENSE For Younger Children
– Warning on Original Lobby Posters

BALANCING ACT

At more than 40 years on, Jaws continues to hold up as a model of film production and a reminder that successful storytelling is more than just the sum of its parts. It’s also about achieving balance between those individual elements.

Do the visual effects work to advance and support the story? Are the characters well drawn and memorable?

Jaws still plays so well because of the enormous amount of attention that was paid to each aspect of its making. Ultimately, that’s the great lesson from Jaws for budding filmmakers: Learn your craft well.

Jaws_poster
Jaws quickly became the biggest movie of the 70s…until Star Wars came along. (Jaws ©1975 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

FINAL TAKE-AWAY

Steven Spielberg was only 27 when he made Jaws, but he was already prepared. He had graduated from Saratoga High School and was taking college classes when he started interning with the Editing Department of Universal Studios.

On the basis of a short film he made, Spielberg was signed to a major multi-picture deal with Universal – the most lucrative for any young director. Prior to Jaws, Spielberg had also made two other films (Duel and The Sugarland Express) and directed numerous TV shows.

In other words, he was young but he was prepared and ready for his most challenging directorial assignment when it came along.

Maybe that’s the other key lesson of Jaws: Hit the ground running and learn filmmaking fully, from professionals. Opportunities may arrive before you know it!