Anyone who has grown up with cable has probably seen the topless blonde in the opening scene of Jaws ripped to shreds as many times as they’ve seen Tom Hanks waving around a box of chocolates.
It is the feature film equivalent of America’s favorite pop song. What the radio is currently doing to Rihanna’s “Work” is what cable accomplished many years ago with Jaws — it ruined the fun. The sound of that harrowing screaming and crunching of limbs devoured that filled our parents’ nightmares have lulled us to sleep more than once at 2 a.m.
The difference between “Work” and Jaws, however, is that Jaws is actually good. It’s name might evoke eye rolls, but it deserves the head nod that follows. Last Thursday’s Script to Screen was a reminder of the film’s undeniable horrific goodness, delivered as it was when it was first released in the summer of 1975 on the big screen.
Carl Gottlieb — the man, the screenwriter, the legend — was there to tell us the secret of this timeless classic, one that Hitchcock definitely wasn’t in on: a sense of humor.
As a newly graduated theater and journalism major, he found himself in a comedy troupe after college. His first credited writing gig was for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and he was in the middle of writing for the ’70s sitcom The Odd Couple when he stumbled across Jaws, the adaptation of a novel whose core idea was fear rather than amusement.
“The principle task I was given was to make these people as engaging and human as possible,” Gottlieb said, “and that’s why there’s a lot of humor in the film. I had come to the writing table as a comedy writer, not a horror film writer, and it was the humanity of all the protagonists that made you care for them.”
And indeed it was, as Gottlieb stripped away the clunky, soap opera subplots of the novel (which involved both a mafia-backed mayor and a detailed affair between Brody’s wife and a blonde, 6-foot-tall Hooper) to reveal the story that we know and love, a story that Gottlieb called “the relationship between the three men and the fish.”
The collaborative and improvisational nature of the production process, as Gottlieb pointed to the scene between Brody and his son, make the characters all the more real and make the dread we feel for them all the more gripping as the shark wreaks havoc on Hollywood’s favorite summer vacation destination.
There is humor, too, in the behind the scenes process that wasn’t caught on camera. Gottlieb recalled the nights he spent in Westwood with Steven Spielberg, the film’s director, and several other crew members when the film first premiered.
“We’d be out for dinner and we’d look at our watch and say ‘It’s time, it’s close to that time for the head,’” Gottlieb said regarding the underwater scene in which Hooper discovers the floating corpse. “So we’d drive or walk over to the theater in Westwood where the manager knew us and he’d let us in, and we’d go stand in the back of the theater and watch 800 heads on the orchestra floor and that moment would come and you’d watch the entire audience go ‘whoomph.’ All 800 people would levitate off the ground.”
The scariest aspects of the film for the audience were indeed the most humorous parts for Gottlieb and crew, at least in retrospect. The shark itself — by which there were several different prototypes all suspended and controlled by a mechanical arm on the ocean floor — took five months to build, and broke the second it met saltwater.
“The shark was by far the most difficult actor on the set,” Gottlieb said. “Granted, it did a lot of things, but everything it did was wrong.”
The shark was so temperamental that Spielberg, Roy Schieder, Robert Shaw and a skeleton crew stayed behind for an additional two and a half months to film storyboard shots — shots of the shark passing the boat — that lasted for only seconds on screen but took hours to set up.
However, as Gottlieb admits, Jaws would have never made cinematic history if the shark hadn’t been such a mechanical nightmare.
“We finally sat down and said ‘If we shoot the early deaths in a way that just shows the strength and power and brutality of the thing, we don’t have to show the thing, because well, we can’t,’” he said. “‘So we’ll build the suspense by going as long as we can without revealing the shark, and that’s what we did.”
Forty years later, Gottlieb’s script is still inspiring fear — without even showing the monster behind it all.