Saturday, June 20, 2015

Happy Fortieth (!) Anniversary To Jaws!

Happy 40th Anniversary to the grandaddy of all summer movies, Jaws!

Forty years! Can you believe it? I vividly remember seeing Jaws in the theater as a lad. First run, even! It was THE movie to see that year— nothing else even came close. I remember the audience shrieking out loud every time the shark appeared. And they actually cheered when it blew up at the end (sorry, SPOILER ALERT!)! When's the last time you heard that happen in a theater?

Jaws was the only topic of discussion that entire summer. Johnny Carson talked about it practically every night, it was in the newspaper, dozens of political cartoons referenced it, and even TV shows of the day got in the act. It was definitely a pop culture phenomenon.

The film also traumatized an entire generation, making them literally afraid to so much as dip a toe into the ocean.

People actually went to see the movie dozens of times, like it was some kind of roller coaster or thrill ride. Even I saw it twice (once in a theater, and once in a drive-in), which was unusual for me.

If you enjoyed seeing Star Wars, Jurassic Park or The Avengers (and countless others) in the theater during the summer months, then you owe a debt of gratitude to Jaws, which ushered in the age of the Summer Blockbuster Movie. Before it premiered, summer was just another season for movie studios. It's hard to believe, but back then studio executives thought that in the summer, people were too busy swimming, tanning and vacationing to go see a movie. Once Jaws hit and hit big, they realized there was an audience out there who actually wanted to see movies during the summer. And not just any movies, but big, expensive, action packed ones. 

Jaws opened on June 20, 1975 in 464 theaters in the US and Canada, which was the biggest simultaneous opening at that time. Before Jaws, movies generally premiered in theaters in major cities, then once they completed their runs there, the prints (which were by then beat up and full of splices) would slowly make their way across the rest of the country.

Due to the film's unprecedented success, the number of theaters was increased to 700 on July 25 and later 950 on August 15.

It made $7 million in its opening weekend, which doesn't sound like a lot now, but was huge at the time. It was the first movie to ever gross $100 million, earning $121 million in its initial release. It was the highest grossing film of all time until it was defeated by Star Wars in 1977.

There was an unprecedented avalanche of Jaws merchandise released as well. T-shirts, books, records, board games, coloring books, trading cards, bedspreads, posters— you name it. If it would hold still long enough to slap a shark on it, someone made it.

Jaws was of course based on Peter Benchley's massively popular novel. In fact Universal Pictures bought the movie rights to the novel before it was even published!

The screenplay was written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, and directed by Steven Spielberg. It was Spileberg's second time at directing a big screen film, his previous being The Sugarland Express.

Jaws was a very troubled production, running over budget and over schedule. Shooting on the open ocean caused a few of the delays, but the vast majority of them were caused by the malfunctioning mechanical shark created for the film.

It's an oddly structured film, almost like two movies in one. The first half takes place on land and features a large cast, but once the trio sets out in search of the shark, it becomes a completely different movie— a tense "man vs. nature" film with just three characters.

Of course the success of Jaws spawned a cottage industry of copycat films featuring various animals— sometimes aquatic, sometimes not— attacking humanity.

A few Jaws facts:

• Bantam Publishing artist Roger Kastel painted both the book cover and the movie poster.

• Steven Spielberg said when he read the novel he rooted for the shark, as the human characters were all so unlikable.

I read the book before I saw the movie, and he's right. Everyone in the book is a miserable asshole. For example: in the novel, Matt Hooper has an affair with Chief Brody's wife, which seemingly comes out of nowhere. It has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, and I'm convinced it exists solely to up the page count and inject some sex into an otherwise sexless tale.

Hooper also dies at the end of the novel, I suppose as some sort of comeuppance.

Fortunately Spielberg threw out this superfluous subplot, made everyone more likable and allowed Hooper to survive. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb was hired to inject some much-needed humor into the script, to great effect.

• Author Peter Benchley wanted to cast Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in the film, presumably as Brody, Hooper and Quint. Yawn. Pretty much every writer & director in the 1970s wanted those three guys in their movie.

Robert Duvall was considered for the part of Chief Brody. Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden were suggested for Quint. Timothy Bottoms, Joel Grey and Jeff Bridges were considered for Hooper. Once Richard Dreyfuss was cast, the role of Hooper was rewritten to better suit him.

Charlton Heston desperately wanted the Chief Brody part, but lost out to Roy Scheider. Heston was reported so angry over losing the part that he vowed to never work with Spielberg. He even turned down the part of General Stilwell in Spielberg's 1941. If you've ever seen that particular film, you'll know that Heston did himself a favor.

Peter Benchley appears in the film as a TV reported in the beach attack scene.

• Author Peter Benchley later regretted writing the book, which he said paints sharks as evil creatures that target humans. He became an ocean conservationist, and spent much of the rest of his career trying to convince people that real sharks don't act like the one in his book.

• In the scene in which Chrissie's remains are found, that's a real hand sticking out of the sand. Spielberg thought the prosthetic appendage originally used in the scene was too fake looking, so he had a crew member buried in the sand with just her hand sticking out.

During the entire summer of '75, anytime I was in any body of water, be it a lake or a pool, I'd pretend I was being attacked by a shark. I'd paddle around serenely for a while, then suddenly start thrashing about and pulling my head under water as if I was being dragged down by a shark. Yes, I was quite hilarious, and I'm sure a joy to be around.

• During the shark attack on the beach, Spielberg uses the famous "Hitchcock Zoom" effect to highlight Chief Brody's spine-tingling terror. The camera zooms in on Brody's face, while the background seemingly recedes from him.

It's an interesting, but simple effect. It's created by zooming in on a subject, while the camera is simultaneously being moved away. You can recreate yourself it if you have a camera with a zoom feature.

• Robert Shaw absolutely hated Richard Dreyfuss, and the two argued off-screen constantly. This may have actually helped the film, as it created a palpable tension between the two characters.

• After Alex Kintner's death by shark, his mother slaps Chief Brody in the face. Lee Fierro, who played Mrs. Kintner, couldn't convincingly fake a slap, so she actually hit Scheider in the face. Unfortunately for Scheider, the scene required multiple takes, and he says it was one of the most painful of his career.

• One of the biggest scares in the film is when Ben Gardner's severed head tumbles out of the boat, terrifying Hooper (and the audience as well). The head's appearance was one of the last scenes filmed. Spielberg decided he needed one more big scare in the movie, so he shot the head in film editor Verna Fields' swimming pool, paying for the shoot out of his own pocket.

This was the other big scare in the film, in which the shark pops up to say "hi" when Brody's not looking. That scened caused much screaming and soiling of garments in the theater the day I saw the film.

• According to Spielberg, the shooting star that appears during the scene where Brody loads his revolver was real, not an optical effect.

There's a second shooting star that appears over a long shot of the Orca though, that is most definitely fake. It looks like it's either been animated or filmed in slow motion.

• The mechanical shark, nicknamed "Bruce," was a complete and utter disaster. The harsh saltwater messed with its electronics, causing it to constantly malfunction. In fact, the first time it was lowered into the water it promptly sunk to the ocean floor!

Spielberg then had to figure out how to film a shark movie without a shark. He solved the problem by asking himself, "What would Alfred Hitchcock do?" Hitchcock believed that what the audience doesn't see is infinitely scarier than what they do see. Spielberg decided to shoot many of the shark scenes from the shark's point of view, which ratcheted up the tension. The shark was also suggested by the yellow barrels that were attached to it.

Thank the film gods for the malfunctioning shark! By "hiding" the shark, the audience never quite knows where it is, which makes it that much more frightening. Just think, if the film was made today, the shark would no doubt be lovingly rendered in CGI and would be splashing away in every scene.

• Chief Brody's famous line, "You're gonna need a bigger boat," was ad libbed.

• During their little pissing contest, Quint displays his manliness by crushing a beer can in his bare hand. Hooper counters by crushing a paper cup.

It's a funny scene, but I wonder if much of the humor is lost on modern audiences, as beer and soda cans are extremely flimsy these days. Back in the 1970s cans were much, much thicker, and really were a lot harder to crush.

• Near the end of the film, the shark attacks Hooper, who's inside a submerged cage. For these scenes, shark experts Ron and Valerie Taylor shot underwater footage of real sharks. To make the sharks look bigger, they filmed them swimming around a scaled-down cage with a little person inside.

• The first time Spielberg heard John Williams play the Jaws theme, he thought it was a joke. He was eventually convinced to use it, and of course it's gone on to become one of the most famous themes in movie history.

Spielberg later said that without the score, the film would have been only half as successful. He's right.

Other notable movies celebrating their 30th Anniversary this year: The Rocky Horror Picture ShowOne Flew Over The Cuckoo's NestMonty Python And The Holy GrailDog Day AfternoonA Boy And His DogTommyDeath Race 2000RollerballThe Stepford WivesThe Land That Time ForgotThe Devil's RainDolemite and The Hindenburg.

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