Forty years after the first release of Jaws, we still look nervously at the ocean when the subject of sharks come up. Of course shark attacks are vanishingly rare, but the movie’s enduring impact lingers with us to this day. But it was nearly a very different film, and it’s only thanks to some malfunctioning robots that we got the masterpiece that continues to define summertime horror.
You’re probably already familiar with the plot: A deadly shark terrorizes the residents of a small island over the Fourth of July weekend. The greedy mayor refuses to close the beaches, and a group of ocean experts resolves to track the monster down.
The movie’s origin is a book written by Peter Benchley. The story might never have even made it to Hollywood if producer David Brown hadn’t been married to Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan, which ran a teaser article about the book. A note alongside the writeup noted Jaws “might make a good movie,” and Brown agreed — he and his partners bought the rights to the book before it was even published.
Initially, the film was to be directed by Dick Richards, but he kept calling the shark a whale and was fired. Steven Spielberg was just 26 years old, and had directed some small films. He was attached to the film but was nervous about being pigeon-holed as a monster-movie director. (He had previously made Duel, starring Dennis Weaver facing off against a scary truck driver.) Universal, the studio behind the film, refused to let him back out, and ordered him to shoot it in 55 days with a budget of $3.5 million.
And so Spielberg streamlined the plot, removing many side-characters from the novel. Benchley wrote a few drafts, but nobody seemed to like them; eventually they brought in a writer and actor from the show The Odd Couple to punch it up. His name was Carl Gottlieb, and he appears as a newspaper editor. He would work on the script for the next day’s shooting at night, delivering scripts only a few hours before shooting was to start.
Unknown actors were deliberately cast so the shark would be considered the star. The lead actors didn’t join the project until a week before shooting began.
The shark was a mechanical wonder — actually several of them. There were three robot sharks used to shoot the film, and they caused problems almost immediately. Upon arrival, the platform used to tow them sunk, and a team of divers had to retrieve it. The shoot became impossibly difficult, with problems plaguing nearly every aspect: the robotic sharks would take on salt water, and their materials would swell with moisture and become bloated. Seaweed would entangle the machinery and break it.
But as it turns out, that was a good thing. During the shoot, Spielberg continually reduced the amount of time audiences saw the shark, and instead hinted at it. And that was the secret to the film’s success: the anxiety of a threat lurking unseen below the water was far more terrifying than a rubber robot. By breaking down, the machines inadvertently saved the film.
They did not, however, save the budget, and it ballooned up to near $10 million. It took three times as long to shoot the film as it was supposed to, and Spielberg thought his career was over.
And then the film came out; and it became the highest-grossing film in North American history. It was all that anyone could talk about that summer — and we’re still talking about it to this day. As for Dick Richards, the guy who didn’t know the difference between a shark and a whale? Don’t feel too bad for him — he went on to produce Tootsie.