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Thirty-five years later, 'Jaws' still has bite

Chris Garcia

Everyone thought "Jaws" would sink like a fat dead fish. Filled with sickening certitude, cast, crew and a green, 27-year-old director named Steven Spielberg believed they had a fiasco on their hands. But they were so far along in the way-over-budget production that they couldn't turn back. Like a shark, they had to keep moving or the film, and a few careers, would die.

An impossible battery of problems plagued the making of "Jaws," which turns 35 this summer. This isn't news. In mid-1974, as the production choked and spluttered, the movie became a lightning rod for Hollywood gossip and finger-pointing schadenfreude, an example of a show out of control, with a 55-day shooting schedule distending to 159 days and the original $2.5 million budget mushrooming to a jaw(s)-dropping $10 million. It was the "Titanic" of its time, both in its sensationally publicized birthing pains and its global cultural triumph.

The mass of troubles, including, most excruciatingly, a cantankerous mechanical shark, elicits an amused wince in the neatly demystifying documentary "Jaws: The Inside Story," premiering at 8 p.m. Wednesday on cable's Bio. It goes in enough different directions and depth to make a solid companion piece to the excellent "Making of Jaws," a two-hour feature included on the 30th anniversary edition DVD of the film. Both are rewarding behind-the-scenes peeks for fans of the movie and to rank-and-file filmies.

From the start, "Jaws" was a dubious proposition. Based on Peter Benchley's best-selling phenom — the novel sold 20 million copies — independent producing team Richard Zanuck and David Brown, high off the success of 1973's "The Sting," hungered for another hit. Working with Universal, they bought the rights to the book with hopes of turning it around as a low-budget quickie before the book lost heat.

Spielberg was tapped to direct. He had a few movies to his credit — notably the made-for-TV thriller (and now-classic) "Duel" and the Texas-shot feature film "The Sugarland Express," with Goldie Hawn and Ben Johnson. He'd also directed episodes of television's "Night Gallery" and "Columbo."

Unimpressed by the idea, Spielberg recalls thinking "Jaws" would be "an exploitation movie, ‘Moby-Dick' without Melville, without the eloquence. I was just making a Roger Corman movie." He was finally persuaded by a trusted friend to direct "Jaws" instead of the Gene Hackman-Liza Minnelli comedy "Lucky Lady."

Casting was critical, and difficult. The studio wanted studly beach bum Jan-Michael Vincent to play marine biologist Matt Hooper, sticking to the image of the character described in Benchley's book. But Spielberg, after much coaxing, netted Richard Dreyfuss, a nerdier, more comic Hooper.

Roy Scheider, in the afterglow of "The French Connection," jumped at the role of beleaguered Amity Island police chief Martin Brody, whom he played with a panicked dignity not without levity. ("You're gonna need a bigger boat.")

And then there was obstreperous, hard-drinking Captain Quint, coarsened by life on the sea and as intractable as Ahab. Lee Marvin was approached, but he passed. Sterling Hayden, that surly roughneck, excused himself for tax reasons. The studio wanted — get this — Charlton Heston for Quint.

Spielberg groaned. Heston was a giant, Moses and Ben-Hur. "He was 12 cylinders, and I needed eight cylinders," Spielberg says in the documentary. "I thought it was not fair for the shark."

Zanuck and Brown finally chose Robert Shaw, a boozy British stage actor who had co-starred in "The Sting." Today, it's impossible to think of anyone else in the role; he has more bite than the shark.

Always the visionary, Spielberg demanded that they shoot on the open sea in the Atlantic Ocean off Martha's Vineyard, which doubled for the fictional Amity Island. No Hollywood production had ever filmed entirely in the middle of the ocean.

"I was hell-bent on shooting on the open sea, and if they insisted I shoot it in a tank, I was absolutely going to quit the movie," Spielberg says in Peter Biskind's chronicle of the New Hollywood, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls."

He didn't need to worry about quitting the picture. The director, according to Dreyfuss, was fired every day on the set. Not literally, but that was the mood. Spielberg, terrified, was sure "Jaws" would snuff his burgeoning career. "It was the hardest production I've ever done, and I still have nightmares about it," he says.

Famously, the 25-foot-long mechanical shark, nicknamed Bruce after Spielberg's lawyer, caused the most trouble. Not a day passed that it didn't malfunction, halting shooting for hours, even days. It demanded 10 to 12 crew members to operate the fish, pulling levers to control the eyes, mouth, fins and torso.

The shark failed to do what it was scripted to do, and it looked ridiculous in the dailies. Spielberg had to toss pages of storyboards that showed the leviathan leaping out of the water snatching swimmers and chewing them up. There was too much shark, a fearsome killer that resembled a "rubber dummy."

Spielberg decided to conceal the shark, using a camera that filmed the water line — bodies frolicking on the surface and vulnerable legs kicking below.

The director asked himself, "What would Alfred Hitchcock do? ... It's what we don't see that's really, truly frightening."

Hiding the shark for most of the picture proved a masterstroke that saved the movie.

Still, cast, crew and studio were distraught. As the production dragged and things looked grim on "this fish picture," Shaw told Time magazine, "‘Jaws' was not a novel. It was a story written by committee, a piece of (expletive)," Biskind reports in "Easy Riders."

Dreyfuss told Time that the movie would be the "turkey of the year" and, as the documentary shows, he went on television and pooh-poohed the whole project and complained how bad his own performance was.

"Jaws: The Inside Story" unpacks the little-known — the money shot of the shark's head exploding was done with fake blood, pyrotechnics and pounds of squid — and the legendary, such as the crafting of Quint's magnificent soliloquy about the sinking of the U.S.S Indianapolis. The speech remains a wrenching stretch of seabound poetry that many in the documentary agree made the movie what it is: a supreme showcase of character acting, at once profoundly human and exhilaratingly scary. Some of the talking heads in the Bio documentary, from Spielberg and many of the actors and producers, believe Quint's speech is one of the greatest scenes of 1970s cinema.

What can be said of John Williams' iconic, "Stravinskyesque" score that hasn't been said before? Williams says, the "insistent repetition of just two or three notes gives a sense of not just propulsion, but an unstoppable primeval force."

"Jaws" was exactly that — an unstoppable, primeval force that became the highest-grossing movie of all time, until another force — THE Force — surpassed it two years later. "Jaws" and "Star Wars" spawned the summer blockbuster — deep-pocket event films engineered to make a bundle in tickets and merchandising — a phenomenon we've dealt with ever since.

This we know. What some don't recognize, however, is how great, how nearly perfect "Jaws" as cinematic art is. It synthesizes the surgically staged thrills of "Psycho," the complex humanity of "The Godfather" and the full-throated adventure of "Gunga Din." It endures, a shark moving, moving, moving, never to die.

‘Jaws: The Inside Story' premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 16, on Bio, channel 243 and 1661 (HD) on Time Warner cable.