Earlier this year, Jaws celebrated its 45th anniversary. Once meant to be a simple man vs. shark movie based on a paperback novel, this early Steven Spielberg movie became the highest grossing film of all-time (before Star Wars, at least) and it defined the summer movie season as we know it today. It also jumpstarted the career of its young, brightly talented filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, propelling him from up-and-coming hotshot to arguably our most well-known filmmaker outside of Alfred Hitchcock.
While the movie has seen enormous success over the years, the process of making this very famous movie was far from easy. Here are some fun behind-the-scenes facts about the beloved Spielberg blockbuster.
Steven Spielberg Was Initially Hesitant To Make Jaws
During the early days of Jaws, as producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown were eager to adapt Peter Benchley's novel to the silver screen, a young 26-year-old Steven Spielberg was adamant to get the job. Having done only TV work, including the TV movie Duel, and one theatrical film, The Sugarland Express, prior, Spielberg was a young-and-hungry filmmaker looking to prove himself.
Through his enthusiasm, he won over the producers. But as the shoot drew nearer, Spielberg's excitement waned. As the BBC reported, he was afraid he'd be typecast "truck and shark director," referring to Duel in addition to Jaws. He set his sights on making Lady Lucky for Fox instead (which was eventually directed by Stanley Donen), but Universal exercised their right to veto this decision. In the end, it was good thing Spielberg stayed on-board. But production wasn't easy.
Richard Dreyfuss Claimed They Started Making Jaws Without A Script, Cast, Or Shark
While Jaws is often celebrated for being a tight, well-constructed movie, filled with ceaseless tension and well-executed scares, the production for the movie was easily among the most troublesome of Spielberg's long career. Whether it was casting delays, script rewrites, troubles with the shark, or a boatload of other problems, Jaws didn't have any easy time making its way to the screen, and Richard Dreyfuss was honest about the difficulties that came with making this classic movie. As he noted at one point, the movie started "without a script, without a cast, and without a shark." Ultimately, a lot of these problems were figured out as the shoot continued, though it was such a problematic production that the crew apparently privately dubbed it "Flaws."
Jaws Is Considered The First Major Movie To Be Shot On The Ocean
One of the biggest reasons why the production of Jaws proved to be so very challenging and troublesome was not merely because the shark wouldn't cooperate (the producers initially wanted a real shark but that proved to be impossible), but because it was apparently the first major movie to be shot on the ocean. Not in the ocean, mind you, but on the ocean. As it was discussed in HBO's documentary, Spielberg, the decision to make the movie a little more realistic by being on the open shores pushed the production back several days (over a 100, in fact) and it caused the film's once-modest budget to skyrocket. Rather than film in a lake or on a set, a young Spielberg was adamant about realism. While it clearly resulted in a pain-in-the-ass shoot, it did help overall.
George Lucas Accidentally Got Stuck Inside The Shark
Even before the movie started rolling, Jaws had a number of problems and mishaps behind the scenes. Humorously, one such incident happened to George Lucas, a longtime friend/colleague of Steven Spielberg. As the fellow filmmaker visited his friend during pre-production on Jaws, Lucas saw some of the troubles the crew faced with the faulty mechanical shark as it was being constructed.
Being a tech fan, Lucas stuck his noggin inside the mechanical contraption to see how it worked. And, as it was noted by the oddly-titled book The Utterly, Completely, and Totally Useless Fact-O-Pedia, Lucas found himself at the center of a prank when Spielberg and John Milius made the jaw clamp shut on poor Lucas' head. Nevertheless, in the midst of these shenanigans, the shark once again malfunctioned and Lucas got stuck inside the shark. Thankfully, the filmmakers were able to get him out.
The Shark Is Named "Bruce" After Steven Spielberg's Lawyer
While casual moviegoers are prone to call the great white shark in Jaws by the movie's title, this isn't the name the mechanical shark was given on set. Indeed, for the labored crew who worked on this troubled production, the shark was known simply as "Bruce," named as Steven Spielberg's lawyer.
As for the reason why, it's not especially clear, but it was quickly adopted. Fans of Spielberg's movie and the ill-fated sequels that it spawned have also taken to calling the shark "Bruce," and the name has stuck around in the decades following the film's release. For instance, in one of several homages to Jaws, Finding Nemo's primary shark is also named Bruce, seemingly as a tribute to Spielberg's famous film. Currently, Bruce the Shark is currently located in the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures as of earlier this year.
The Line "You're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat" Was Ad-Libbed
Filmmaking is a collaborative process. Some of the most famous movies lines weren't written but rather uttered. "I'm the King of the World" from Titanic, "You can't handle the truth" from A Few Good Men, "Here's looking at you, kid" from Casablanca, "I'm walking here" from Midnight Cowboy, "Are you talking to me?,' from Taxi Driver, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli" from The Godfather, "I know" from The Empire Strikes Back, and "Kelly Clarkson" from The 40-Year-Old Virgin are just a handful of famous lines spoken instead of written.
Another brilliant example is Roy Scheider's "You're gonna need a bigger boat." Turns out, this was something of a catchphrase during production, said whenever things inevitably went wrong. Scheider sprinkled this quote throughout the shoot, and this one made the cut. Sure enough, it fit wonderfully in this memorable sequence.
The Crew Nearly Lost A Day's Worth Of Film When Orca II Sank
Made back in the early-to-mid '70s, Jaws didn't have the benefit of special effects wizardry. Many things went wrong during production on Jaws because the crew relied on things that didn't always work and several practical sets, including boats in the ocean, that weren't on steady waters.
At one point, as the boat Orca II sunk, two Panavision camera filled with dailies were quickly plummeting underwater. As reported by Mental Floss, the crew swiftly grabbed the film and stuffed it in a bucket of freshwater to prevent the saltwater from destroying the footage and ruining a day of shooting — which would be disastrous for several reasons, but doubly for this overextended production. They jumped on a plane to have Kodak develop it. While the footage was miraculously saved, the fates of the waterlogged cameras is unclear.
The Original Version Of Jaws Would've Had More Footage Of The Shark
One of the main reasons why Jaws remains one of our most effective horror movies is because it's extremely economical when it comes to its great white shark. We typically see from the shark's perspective, following his eye as he roams the water, looking for his next person to munch. It's a distinction that, along with its great editing, sharp performances, and iconic score (we'll discuss that more later), makes Jaws not merely a great film but one of the best blockbusters ever made. But as it turns out, the idea of keeping the shark at bay wasn't an intentional one.
It was a decision made by the filmmakers because the mechanical shark proved to be so fraught with problems, the footage was damn near unusable. Had things gone as planned, Jaws wouldn't be what it is today.
Steven Spielberg Thought Jaws Would Ruin His Directing Career
Following the tremendous success of Jaws, Steven Spielberg paved the course for one of the most prolific and influential filmmaking careers in the history of cinema. It's rare that a director becomes a household name, and one of the golden standards for which every young idealistic filmmaker sets out to showcase their vision in Hollywood. But during the troubles that ensued with Jaws, Spielberg didn't even think he would have a career at all.
As the production went increasingly long and the budget ballooned enormously, word started spreading around town that perhaps Spielberg wasn't the most dependable director in the business. It's certainly crazy to think that now, but at the time, when Spielberg still had so much to prove, he feared that this would be his final film. Alas, through his talent and determination, that was thankfully not the case.
Steven Spielberg Slept With A Stalk Of Celery Under His Pillow To Comfort Him During Jaws' Troubled Shoot
While time and experience allowed Steven Spielberg to be one of the most confident, accomplished working filmmakers of our time (and of all-time), the young filmmaker was ultimately haunted by the failures found in Jaws' ever-troubled production.
Fretting about the difficulties of the shoot and what it could mean for his future, Spielberg didn't have the easiest time calming his nerves and getting some much-needed rest. Therefore, in an odd-but-ultimately-effective manner, Spielberg reportedly would sleep with a stalk of celery under his pillow. The scent was apparently comforting to the future Oscar-winning director, and it allowed Spielberg to get the rest he needed to combat every obstacle that came with filming this troubled movie.
Steven Spielberg Initially Thought John Williams' Iconic Score Was A Joke
The term "iconic" is thrown around a lot, to the point where it has almost lost its luster. But if there is any movie score that deserves to be called iconic, it's John Williams' work in Jaws. Much like the movie itself, one reason why the main theme works so well is because it's so simple. It's an alternating pattern of two notes — "E and F" or "F or F sharp" — that doesn't seem scary. But when it's used to build up nearly-unbearable tension, it's one of the most effective score pieces in cinematic history. But Steven Spielberg didn't immediately recognize the score's potential. In fact, as it was revealed in Jaws' 30th anniversary DVD, he initially thought it was a joke. But Spielberg admitted later on that Williams' score is "at least half of Jaws' success."
John Williams Was Also Conducting During The 1976 Academy Awards When He Won Best Original Score
For all of Steven Spielberg's accomplishments and everything else everyone did to make Jaws the cinematic classic we recognize it today, it's safe to say that Jaws wouldn't be nearly as memorable or haunting if it weren't for Williams' score. His theme, as we discussed, is one of the best and most easily recognizable in cinematic history; his suspenseful score does a sensational job of keeping the frightful audience in both excited and scared.
Sure enough, one of the three Oscars that Jaws received went to Williams (as well it should've), but accepting this particular award certainly proved to be an odd challenge. You see, during this 1976 Academy Awards ceremony, Williams was also conducting the award show's front-stage orchestra. Therefore, the recognized composer needed to rush on-and-off stage to keep the show moving.
These are only a handful of stories from Jaws' famous troubled production. If you know a few other tales from the set of this Steven Spielberg movie, be sure to let us know in the comment section below.
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Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.