With the opportunity to read the original screenplay in the approach to the festival, then a chance to see the film with the screenwriter’s live commentary, Script to Screen Live events are a real treat of the London Screenwriters’ Festival.
When the film is a monster success like JAWS on the 40th anniversary of it’s release it’s a sensational experience. Jaws was a phenomenal success back in 1975 and it’s worldwide box office since tallies in at currently around $1.94 Billion. It was the film that created the summer blockbuster. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert said it was as frightening as The Exorcist but a nicer kind of fright. Watching a blu-ray edition mastered from the restored original print Eddie Hamilton and Chris Jones joined Carl Gottlieb to talk us through the adventure!
The film itself was preceded by a short documentary Eddie Hamilton had found shot in 1974 at the start of the shoot showing scenes of the making of the film with a 26 year old Steven Spielberg at the helm and featuring Carl Gottlieb.
The Jaws novel, on the bestseller lists by the time the film was being shot, had been written by Peter Benchley. Optioned early, as part of the deal he had been paid to write a first draft and some revisions. Another screenwriter had taken a pass to include some changes Spielberg wanted and take some of the literary quality out to make the film more cinematic. Though not entirely where the producers and Spielberg wanted it to be the studio was happy enough with the script to sign off on pre-production. Carl Gottlieb who was friendly with Spielberg was brought into the project for a small acting role. As the pair were wont to discuss projects and chat about matters of art, Carl, an accomplished writer as well as an actor gave Spielberg his thoughts on the screenplay and was hired to do rewrites before shooting commenced. For story considerations he reluctantly put his job as screenwriter ahead of his acting goals and wrote a lot of his role out of the picture. It was painful, he tells us, but necessary.
With three weeks to principle photography, no script finalised and actors still being cast and throwing their ideas in there was a lot of writing to be done. Setting up shop on location in Martha’s Vineyard Carl Gottlieb and Spielberg shared a house and he was able to work with the directors input at hand to get things ship shape. Carl’s initial desire for the film was that it could be a great popular entertainment film, making people as afraid to go into the water as they were afraid to get into the shower after Psycho. The script changes to make that happen were a lot and revisions were still being made when shooting began. Last minute changes threw production plans off kilter, the shark didn’t work and cover scenes also had to be written to suggest it’s menace until the beast itself could be made to function. Though Carl was able to go home after the dialogue in the screenplay was finished shooting there was another two months spent on set to get the action shots once the shark got going.
There was fun in the project though, the scene on the beach where Brody is looking over masses of people on the beach they called ‘the menu’ deliberately not sharing with the audience which ‘dish’ the shark was going to select. It ended up being termed ‘the lunch menu’ and the July 4th montage of the tourist influx became ‘the dinner menu.’ Robert Shaw brought the idea that the Quint character he was playing should be eating something, jaws mimicking the shark itself and they gave him saltine crackers to champ on. The grieving mother cameo was played by a local actor who was a member of the dramatic society and earned Carl’s respect by delivering her lines exactly as written but bringing all the emotion to the role that we see on screen. A lot of locals featured in the film, one guy bringing his own dog, who’s disappearance from shot became a foreshadowing of things to come.
Decisions had been made to exclude some of the book’s storyline. Brody’s wife in the book had an affair with Hooper that was unhelpful to the structure of the screenplay other than a small tension it might have added to the three men on a boat together. The later death of Hooper which made sense in the book as a kind of just deserts for sleeping with someone else’s wife then also became unnecessary in the movie plot, where it would have detracted from Quint’s misfortune. The scenes where exposition was necessary were cleverly injected with such passion that the audience doesn’t realise they are being fed information. The screenplay structure itself was unusual in that it’s a two act screenplay, act one ending when the guys sail off with a singing Quint and act two becomming ‘man against shark.’ The hard arduous work next to enjoyment of the movie’s qualities was mirrored in the tone of the film. The notion that you can have horror moments next to laughter moments was something they worked hard on figuring if you like people you’ll be more scared for them. The score was one of adventure music, like pirates braving the waves of the high seas. It’s a film that contains a lot of enterprise.
For many of the film’s shots lots of things are happening in the frame at once, Spielberg refused to compromise sometimes spending 12 hour days out at sea and coming home with nothing. The sharks malfunctions worked out as Stephen and Carl had been fans of The Thing where you don’t see the creature until deep into the movie. For suggesting the shark they used yellow barrels with unnatural bobbing movements to indicate the frenzy going on below the water. For the places you see the shark Carl tells us if you see the head and tail in one shot it’s the real shark and if you don’t it’s the fake one.
Eventually the film was finished and they did previews to test response. By the second paid preview they knew the film would be popular but it wasn’t until the box office started flooding in that they realised it would be something historical. Since then it has become the template for releasing summer movies. Sequels followed, Carl joking that the law of sequels is only the last one loses money. His own pockets were sadly not filled with financial security from the job but, Carl tells us, the film is a rare example of a strong collaboration and when you write something iconic you have to accept it becomes part of you. Watching the film with him I realised that for many of us here today the reverse would be true and I’d never again watch Jaws without noting the scene and story choices, the blood sweat and tears gone into creating them that he’d shared with us today, my enjoyment enriched by the deeper sense of adventure I now know went into creating it.