On June 20th, 1975 the world of cinema would be forever changed when Steven Spielberg would show the world the terror that lurks in the depths of Amity Islands’s shores...
...Jaws would scare and thrill audiences, breaking box office records and creating what is now common practice in theatrical releases, the summer blockbuster.
Earning a total of $470.7 million, Jaws would go on to spawn sequels, a theme park attraction, merchandise and even impact the shark ecosystem.
Based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, the book was purchased for film rights before its publication in 1973 by well known producing duo Richard Zanuck and David Brown for Universal Pictures.
While there were several directors in mind for the task of tackling this literal beast of a film, Steven Spielberg knew that he was the right director for the job after reading the novel as there were similar themes between Jaws and Spielberg’s directorial debut Duel. No one could know then how difficult the film would be to make let alone understand the impact it would have once audiences saw the film for themselves.
Filming began in 1974 in Martha’s Vineyard with many of the land scenes shot first as the aquatic scenes were set to be filmed in open water rather than a studio water tank which would cause the film to go over its $4 million budget, “Once the crewmen returned they arrived ravaged and sunburnt, windblown and covered with salt water,” Jaws screenwriter Carl Gottlieb said in a 2015 Empire article.
Cast in the film as the everyman type character Chief Brody was Roy Schneider and nine days before the film was to start production, Robert Shaw was cast as the Captain Ahab type character Quint and Richard Dreyfuss as the scientist Matt Hooper.
But perhaps the biggest star, Bruce the Shark, was the hardest to bring to life. Originally the thought of training actual sharks crossed production’s mind but that idea soon went out the window and instead three sharks were built by Joe Alves with Bob Mattey overseeing the mechanical effects. A total of fourteen operators were needed to control Bruce although when put into the open water and exposed to the elements such as weather and sea salt the shark began to essentially fall apart and become nonfunctional, causing more delays during production.
Going back to the drawing board, Spielberg began shooting scenes in the style of a Hitchcock thriller. This dramatic shift in filming drastically makes the film better as the less is more approach gradually grows the suspense, because when Bruce is finally revealed you can't help but gasp aloud.
With the shark out of the picture, the film gave the chance to focus on the characters, mainly the trio of Brody, Quint and Hooper, delivering some great scenes put to film, particularly Quint’s USS Indianapolis monologue which highlighted a part of Quint’s backstory that is a catalyst for what drives him to hunt the shark as Hooper’s motivation is more scientific and Brody’s motivation is more keeping the people safe. The monologue feels raw and personal allowing you a moment to connect with the enigmatic captain.
While the film is nothing without its acting and directing, what really ties to film together to create a lasting legacy is the editing and musical score.
Verna Fields had the difficult task of editing the film and given the delays in filming she wasn't given much film to work with, but it's the way she cut Jaws that has been studied and analyzed years later. Fields takes a scene and cuts in such a way that changes the tone of the scene and the film overall.
An example of Fields’s editing would be what is one of my favorite scenes from the film among many...the barrel sequence. While trying to corner and take on the shark, there is this slow build up as the trio go about their planned action with cuts from inside the ship to the outside when the shark begins to go on the offensive. Fields begins using sort of quick cuts in the editing from close up on the deck to wide shots on the ocean so that the tension and action never seems to ease to the point that you are constantly reminded of this tug of war between man and beast.
Tension built through these cuts is only made even more memorable because of the score.
The task of composing the score fell to John Williams who had scored Spielberg’s previous film The Sugarland Express and would go on to score many other Spielberg films. The main theme was written in two notes which alternate, signaling to the audience that danger is soon approaching as the two notes begin slowly building up until the time to strike is nigh similar to the theme from Psycho.
Looking back on the film, the diving cage sequence is one where the score makes sense as the deep thematic score is playing, causing you to sit on the edge of your seat expecting something to happen, so that when the score lightens and all but dies down you are eased into comfort until the shark suddenly makes its move and the score kicks up again.
For their efforts, Fields and Williams would go on to win the Academy Award for best editing and best original dramatic score along with other countless awards that Jaws would take home.
Beyond its cinematic impact, Jaws also had its downside as the already ever present fear of sharks was heightened by the film leading to an increase in shark slayings. According to shark expert/researcher George Burgess for the Florida Museum of Natural History reported in 2016, “Humans kill an estimated 30 million to 70 million sharks each year...that may be a conservative estimate, with possibly 100 million killed annually.”
The impact of Jaws was so great on the shark ecosystem and stigmatization that the book’s author Peter Benchley would later become a shark conservationist hoping to aid in the education of sharks as well as help protect them and their impact on the ecosystem.
45 years later the impact of Jaws has inspired copycats in films like Orca or Piranha with its impact still felt in recent films such as Crawl. There is even a week devoted to sharks on the Discovery Channel known now as Shark Week which aims to show the truth behind the fiction and further entertain and educate the masses that still fear what lurks beneath the depths.
By Kalani Landgraf