Jaws Turns 40: The Story Behind the Accidental Blockbuster

Despite the mega success of the movie 'Jaws,' which turns 40 this week, the making of the film nearly deep sixed the entire crew.
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Jaws Photo

Original poster art for "Jaws" (1975). (Photo: Universal Pictures/Photofest)

Despite the mega success of the movie Jaws, the making of the film nearly deep sixed the entire crew. Filmed in the summer of 1974, the production quickly ran over budget and behind schedule. The robotic sharks broke down daily, tempers flared between the actors, and rough seas made shooting nearly impossible. For months, it looked like the production was sunk. However, a series of happy accidents not only kept the production afloat, but actually helped shaped a cinematic classic that would sell more movie tickets than any other film before it.

An Unlikely Cast

When the 27-year-old Steven Spielberg arrived at Martha’s Vineyard to film Jaws, he had only one feature film under his belt: a box-office flop called Sugarland Express. Determined to redeem himself, he planned to pack Jaws with adventure, horror, and realism. But from the start, the film had the makings of a disaster. Casting proved a challenge when big name stars like Robert Duvall, Lee Marvin, and Jon Voight all turned down roles. Even Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss initially snubbed Spielberg. But fortunately, Shaw’s wife and secretary talked him into taking the part; while Dreyfus found himself crawling back to Spielberg after starring in a dud early that spring.

An Unfinished Script

Eager to capitalize on Peter Benchley’s best selling novel, Universal Studios had cameras rolling before the script was even finished and Spielberg was busy making a number of notable changes from Benchley’s novel. He struck out the part where Hooper (Dreyfus) sleeps with the wife of Police Chief Brody (Scheider). He also added little bits of humor throughout the script in order to make the characters more likeable. Although a team of screenwriters were brought in to complete the script, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw still needed to improvise a number of lines. (Scheider famously ad libbed the line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”)

Dump the Shark

Part of the reason the cast had time to improvise was because the robotic sharks kept breaking down, halting production. Named “Bruce” after Spielberg’s lawyer, the sharks relied on a complicated series of pneumatic pumps that kept getting fried by the sea water. Breakdowns became a daily occurrence. Undeterred, Spielberg had the actors improvise their scenes while he wrote the dialogue into the script. The impromptu workshops proved a success, resulting in fully developed characters that enraptured audiences — all thanks to faulty props.

Hooper and Quint: Conflict On and Off Camera

It’s no surprise to audiences that that the bookish Marine Biologist Matt Hooper butts heads with Quint the Shark Hunter. But the two were frequently at odds off-camera as well. “[Robert Shaw] was a perfect gentleman whenever he was sober,” Richard Dreyfuss said in an interview. “All he needed was one drink and then he turned into a competitive son-of-a-b****.”

Legend has it that Shaw would often try to distract Dreyfuss before the cameras began rolling. He’d also once tried to humiliate Dreyfus by offering him money to climb to the top of the mast on the Orca and jump in the water. Roy Scheider suspected Shaw was irked by Dreyfuss’s youth, “He would say, ‘Look at you, Dreyfuss. You eat and you drink and you’re fat and you’re sloppy. At your age, it’s criminal. Why, you shouldn't even do ten good push ups.”

A Drunken Performance

For many, Quint’s Indianapolis speech is a masterclass in acting, but it wasn’t so smooth behind the scenes. The initial monologue was eight pages long which Shaw, an accomplished writer himself, cut down to four pages. When it was time to film the scene, he showed up to the set drunk and wasn’t able to finish the scene that day. Spielberg shot the scene again the next day — this time with a sober performance from Shaw. The final cut uses footage from both days, although Shaw’s delivery is no less convincing.

Spielberg: From Scapegoat to Hero

When shooting ended in October 1974, Spielberg was so afraid that the crew was going to turn on him that he was not on set for the last scene. The film took nearly three times as long as it was supposed to and cost more than twice as much as it was initially budgeted. For many nights, Spielberg remained sleepless in his log cabin stressing about rumors that he was going to be pulled from the project and would never find work again. He brought a pillow from home and kept a stalk of celery beneath it because the smell comforted him.

But as Spielberg sat through the first test screening, there was no doubt that they had snagged a big one. Audience members screamed in horror. One individual became physically sick. Soon, the film was selling out across the country and would eventually pull in $430 million worldwide. Despite what seemed like certain disaster, Spielberg and his team turned adversity into success and had managed to create the world’s first summer blockbuster.