As Steven Spielberg’s horror masterpiece well and truly hits middle age, its journey to the big screen remains an incredible feat.
The movie, the story of a great white shark terrorising the shores of the fictional Amity Island, was plagued with production problems, but the ingenuity of Spielberg (just 27 at the time) and his crew in the face of adversity, made Jaws a masterclass in tension and the first summer blockbuster.
1. Author Peter Benchley denied his bestselling source novel was based on a series of attacks by a great white shark on the Jersey Shore in the summer of 1916
2. Jaws’ original director, Dick Richards, was fired as he kept referring to the shark as a whale
3. Steven Spielberg was concerned he’d be typecast as the “shark-and-truck director” if he signed on to Jaws
He’d already directed 1971’s Duel, about a truck terrorising a motorist.
4. Richard Dreyfuss turned down the part of cocky marine biologist Matt Hooper twice before taking the role.
He thought the water scenes would be a “b*tch to shoot”. He was right.
5. Lee Marvin, Spielberg’s first choice for Quint, declined the role as he was on a sport fishing holiday
He preferred that to making a “fishing movie”, so Robert Shaw got the part.
6. Charlton Heston wanted the part of Police Chief Martin Brody.
But Spielberg thought he was too big a star for it. He went with Roy Scheider.
7. The script wasn’t even finished when filming started on 1 May 1974
8. In the iconic opening shark attack, it was Spielberg doing the final death yank as Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) disappears under water
In the 2010 documentary Jaws: The Inside Story, the director explains that the terrifying thrashing around of Backlinie was created by a rope attached to her, tugged left and right by 10 crew members on each side.
9. Backlinie’s screams were made all the more horrifying in postproduction. The actress screamed with her head tilted back as Spielberg poured water down her throat
10. The sound of Jaws’ fin coursing through the water was created by spraying Coke on to concrete
11. Quint was partially based on local fisherman Craig Kingsbury, who taught Shaw how to speak like a whale-hunting sea captain
Some of Kingsbury’s dialogue ended up in the script, and he also played the ill-fated fisherman Ben Gardner, whose one-eyed head pops out of the boat hull terrifying Hooper and providing one of the film’s best jump scares.
“They wanted a dirty old character who gets eaten up by a shark,” Kingsbury told the Boston Globe (via SF Gate). “The lady testing guys for the part took one look at me and said, ‘Seek no more.’”
12. The head scene was shot in the backyard pool of Jaws editor Verna Fields
The crew poured milk into the pool to replicate the murky waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
13. Shaw was blind drunk before the first take of his famous USS Indianapolis soliloquy, and had to be carried on to the Orca
The shoot was postponed to the next day, when the veteran actor nailed it.
14. Spielberg removed the “melodrama” of the novel to make it a straight “sea-hunt movie”
In the book, Hooper and Brody’s wife Ellen are having an affair.
15. Filming the scene where the grieving Mrs Kintner confronts Brody over the death of her son Alex, actress Lee Fierro slapped Scheider 17 times in one day. Hard
People have long approached Fierro requesting she slap them too.
16. Producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck thought they could get an animal trainer to get sharks to do what was required in the screenplay
Problem is, great whites won’t be tamed.
17. The mechanical shark was called ‘Bruce’… and the ‘the great white turd’
Spielberg named it after his lawyer Bruce Ramer, and there were actually three models – the “hero” version is the one that attacks Quint. It weighed half a tonne, spanned 25 feet and cost $200,000. Despite its potential technical wizardry, the shark frequently malfunctioned, causing major delays in the shoot.
18. Spielberg was forced to rewrite the screenplay “without the shark”
The slow reveal of Jaws – which is now seen as a masterful piece of terror storytelling – wasn’t intentional. In the original script, Jaws featured much more, but the mechanical shark’s failure forced Spielberg into a rewrite. He cleverly introduced a shark’s eye view and used devices like floating yellow barrels to terrifyingly imply the beast.
“I had no choice but to figure out how to tell the story without the shark,” Spielberg said. “So I just went back to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘What would Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’ ... It’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening.”
19. The filmmakers attempted to make real sharks look bigger by putting four-foot-nine stuntman Carl Rizzo in a miniature cage
A second unit team led by shark experts Ron and Valerie Taylor was filming great whites off the Australian coast, but they were only 15 feet, nowhere near the 25-foot Jaws.
20. Hooper was supposed to get eaten by Jaws
In the original script, Hooper is killed by Jaws in the closing moments after he’s lowered down in a cage attempting to harpoon the shark. While some incredible footage of a shark caught on top of the cage thrashing about to free itself was captured by the Taylors, Rizzo wasn’t in it at the time.
But the footage was so powerful that Spielberg decided to use it, rewriting the script so that Hooper lived. “A great white shark off the south coast of Australia rewrote our script,” said production executive Bill Gilmore in Jaws: The Inside Story.
21. One take of Quint’s death had the crew in hysterics
As Shaw bellows in pain after his character has been attacked by the shark, the fake blood he coughs up ends up all over his face, too over-the-top even for a killer shark movie.
22. The crew used raw chicken as Quint’s flesh hanging from Jaws’ teeth
23. Filming on the ocean was a disaster
Spielberg wanted to shoot in the Atlantic Ocean, off Martha’s Vineyard which doubled for Amity Island, for authenticity rather than filming in a studio back-lot tank. But it turned into a logistical nightmare marred by mishaps including the sinking of the Orca, sending the crew scrambling to safety.
With the ocean shoot such a negative experience, the director declined to come back for Jaws 2.
24. The long delays in the shoot caused cabin fever in the cast and crew
“I do tend to drink when totally bored,” Shaw said in footage from the set in Jaws: The Inside Story. “Roy does exercises… and Dreyfuss talks, Dreyfuss just talks interminably.”
25. Benchley cameos in the movie as a news reporter
26. Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw weren’t exactly fond of each other
It was one of the great Hollywood feuds, a clash of egos between veteran actor Shaw and cocky young star-on-the-rise Dreyfuss, and it enhanced the tension between their onscreen characters.
“In private, he was the kindest, gentlest, funniest guy you ever met,” recalled Dreyfuss in Jaws: The Inside Story. “Then we’d walk to the set and on the way to the set he was possessed by some evil troll who would then make me his victim.”
27. It’s Spielberg voicing the Amity coast guard on Quint’s radio
28. Scheider ad-libbed the famous line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”
29. But the catchphrase originated from one of the many production problems on the shoot
The boat supposed to steady the ‘SS Garage Sale’ – the barge that housed all the camera equipment, lighting and catering – was too small to be effective, hence the immortal line was born.
“[Richard] Zanuck and [David] Brown were very stingy producers, so everyone kept telling them, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat’,” screenwriter Carl Gottlieb told The Hollywood Reporter. “It became a catchphrase for anytime anything went wrong – if lunch was late or the swells were rocking the camera, someone would say, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’”
30. Spielberg reportedly laughed at John Williams’ iconic two-note Jaws theme when the composer first played it to him
31. Dreyfuss was told by some Australians that the Jaws theme is used as a shark warning on our beaches
32. Spielberg was constantly in fear of being fired by the studio because of the disastrous shoot
The fear was well founded, the director estimating he was almost fired 20 times.
33. The director put a piece of celery under his pillow every night as a good luck charm
34. Spielberg didn’t direct the scene where Jaws explodes
35. Ironically, it was Spielberg’s fear of the water that spurred his desire to direct Jaws
“I’ve always been afraid of the water, I was never a very good swimmer,” he told film critic Mark Kermode. “And that probably motivated me more than anything else to want to tell that story.”
36. Spielberg had recurring nightmares after the shoot, about being in a storm at sea. He then realised he was sleeping on a waterbed
37. After shooting wrapped, Dreyfuss gave a TV interview openly criticising the studio, the script, his character and his performance
“The script never got, in my estimation, to where my character should have been,” he says in footage of the interview featured in Jaws: The Inside Story. “Instead of it being an interesting character, it became a kind of nebulous function within the film, and as an actor I am disappointed.”
38. Spielberg knew the movie would be a success when, during a test screening, he witnessed an audience member dash out of the cinema in reaction to a gory scene
They threw up in the foyer before promptly returning to their seat.
39. The director came up with the idea to sell mini chocolate sharks that would squirt cherry juice when bitten to promote the movie
The studio wasn’t interested.
40. Universal did want to sell shark foetuses in bottles of formaldehyde at its studio store, though
But pressure from animal rights activists nixed the bizarre plan.
41. When Jaws was released, ice-cream flavour names were given a shark twist
There was ‘jawberry’, ‘finilla’ and ‘sharkalate’.
42. Spielberg was angered that the film only received four Oscar nominations
“This is called ‘commercial backlash’,” he said in a filmed rant. “When a film makes a lot of money, people resent it. Everybody loves a winner, but nobody loves a winner.”
Jaws did get nominated for Best Picture though, and won for Best Editing, Best Score and Best Sound.
43. According to Zanuck, when Jaws was released, people were so afraid of the water that “lifeguards were falling asleep at their stations”
44. Jaws was the first movie to gross over US$100 million at the box office
When it opened in the US on 20 June 1975, queues snaked around blocks, and the movie was No.1 at the box office for 14 weeks. Adjusted for inflation, Jaws’ domestic gross was US$1.15 billion making it the 7th highest grossing film of all time.
Not bad for the movie they once called Flaws.
Jaws airs on Wednesday, 5 June at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND followed by Jaws: The Revenge at 10:50pm.