There are only a few dozen shark attacks on humans every year. It has been widely reported that you are 30 times more likely to die from a lightning strike than you are from an attack. In 2003, Reuters ran a story claiming that more people are killed by vending machines each year than are killed by sharks. And yet, I would bet that just about anybody who has spent time at the beach has thought about the possibility of an attack. I know I certainly have. Before dipping so much as a toe into the ocean, I scan the horizon for a dark, approaching shadow from the deep. And I thank Steven Spielberg for that.
In 1975, Spielberg released the first of what would become a franchise. Jaws was a landmark horror-thriller, recognized by everyone from Empire magazine (fifth greatest film ever made) to the New York Times (one of the 1,000 best movies ever) to the American Film Institute (number 48 on the "100 Years... 100 Movies" list). It won three Academy Awards and was even nominated for Best Picture. (It lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.) Perhaps more importantly, the movie created the wide-release summer blockbuster, a tradition of providing big-budget thrills in ever major theater across America during the hottest months of the year that continues to this day. Jaws brought in more money than any other film and held that title until George Lucas released Star Wars two years later.
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An instant classic, Jaws received rave reviews. Roger Ebert called it "a sensationally effective action picture, a scary thriller that works all the better because it's populated with characters that have been developed into human beings we get to know and care about." There's Roy Scheider as Brody, the police chief who we can all identify with, who doesn't like to swim, who is genuinely terrified of the water. There's Robert Shaw as Quint, "a caricature of the crusty old seafaring salt," at Ebert put it in that 1975 write-up. There's Hooper, the rich- kid-turned-oceanographer played by Richard Dreyfuss, just off a string of successes as the nice kid in American Graffiti and the title character in the Canadian hit The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. But the most important character -- and, in many ways, one of the most human -- is the shark itself.
Everyone knows the story by now: The shark is a great white that terrorizes a small resort town during the Fourth of July weekend, a weekend critical to the economy of this little village. In an effort to track down and kill the shark, these three men leave their families behind (where applicable) and set out on a rickety boat. It's leaky. It's too small. It's old. This boat, we know from the outset, just isn't cut out for shark hunting. At least not hunting sharks of the size we suspect this great white to be.
"There are no doubt supposed to be all sorts of levels of meanings in such an archetypal story," Ebert notes. But he doesn't bother writing about them or trying to figure them out. And neither does Spielberg. "This is an action film content to stay entirely within the perimeters of its story, and none of the characters has to wade through speeches expounding on the significance of it all." And what an action film it is. This isn't just about the dark shadow from the deep -- though it is that, too. Before the story comes to an end, many individuals both on and off the island have been killed in a series of terrifying scenes that allow you to get up close and personal with the shark.
The only reason this works -- the only reason that theatergoers in the 1970s left their seats terrified of these macropredatory beasts and that modern viewers can't turn off the lights when screening the film in their own living rooms -- is the craftsmanship and technology that went into creating the main characters: Jaws.
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In early May of 1974, the rights had been acquired to Peter Benchley's book of the same name, the contracts had been signed by Spielberg and principal photography began on Martha's Vineyard. It could have failed. By all accounts, it probably should have failed. Spielberg, not yet 30, was largely untested as a director of big-budget productions and nothing was in place. "We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark," Richard Dreyfuss would tell James Lipton during a taping of Inside the Actor's Studio years later. But the cast would come together. And the shark was already in the works.
"We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark."
In the fall of 1973, art director Joe Alves designed the shark for Jaws. Three full-size pneumatically-powered units were constructed between November 1973 and April 1974 at Rolly Harper's Motion Picture & Equipment Rental in Sun Valley, California. They each measured about 25 feet long and weighed hundreds of pounds. One shark, known as a sea-sled, was a full bodied prop with its stomach carved out. The other two, known as platform sharks, were each one-sided. One platform shark moved from camera-left to -right with the side facing away from the camera completely exposed, the other moved in the opposite direction. Once completed, the three sharks were trucked to Martha's Vineyard. They arrived in July, two months after shooting had started.