Wednesday 29 March 2017

How Speilberg and his 'Flaws' changed cinema (and swimmers) forever...

I'm not sure how many times I've seen it -- it might be 20, it could be 25 -- but Steven Spielberg's Jaws is one of those films I just can't resist if it comes up on TV. Even if it's halfway through I'll start watching, and am invariably mesmerised all over again by the battle between three desperate men and an almost mythological beast.

Next week, cinemagoers in the greater Dublin area will get a rare chance to watch Spielberg's 1975 classic on the big screen. This Tuesday, the IFI Temple Bar will screen Jaws as part of its 'Essential Cinema: Hollywood in the 1970s' season, and I'll be very surprised if the cinema isn't packed.

Thirty-six years after its release, the film still regularly appears at or near the top of lists of the most popular films ever made. It's certainly among the most entertaining, but during its troubled shoot it seemed more likely to become a notorious flop.

The relatively untried Spielberg went way over budget, earned the enduring contempt of his crew and was delayed time and again by problems with mechanical sharks. But the delays and technical problems ultimately played into the director's hands because he was driven to desperate innovations that turned Jaws from a workaday thriller into a unique classic.

The film had its origins in an unlikely source, and Spielberg only ended up directing it by accident. In 1974, writer Peter Benchley scored a huge hit with a rather pulpy novel about a great white shark that terrorises a Long Island summer resort.

Before it even came out, two producers at Universal Studios named Richard Zanuck and David Brown heard about Jaws, read it and immediately snapped up the movie rights. However, Brown would later say that if they'd read it twice they'd never have bought it, because of the technical difficulties filming it would entail.

Universal wanted John Sturges, whose credits included The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, to direct, but the veteran wasn't interested. They then hired Dick Richards, who was in vogue after his critical hit with The Culpepper Cattle Company, but he proved unsuitable and was quickly dropped.

Hiring Spielberg was a big gamble for Universal, because in 1974 his first major film, The Sugarland Express, hadn't even come out yet.

Inexperienced he might have been, but like his great hero Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg had an innate gift for storytelling. He instantly saw the potential in Benchley's novel and its dramatic flaws as a film plot. He then ordered a series of rewrites, in part to drop an adulterous affair between Chief Brody's wife and the oceanographer Matt Hopper.

Spielberg had his say in the casting as well. At one point Charlton Heston lobbied for the part of Chief Brody, and Robert Duvall wanted to play the shark hunter, Quint. But Spielberg felt these actors would be too big for a film in which the shark was the real star.

He wasn't initially all that wild about Roy Scheider, either, fearing that he would turn Brody into the kind of tough guy he'd played in The French Connection. But Scheider was perfect in the lead role, playing a world-weary New York cop who takes the job of sheriff at a sleepy seaside resort called Amity.

After the first shark attack, Brody earns the enmity of Amity's residents by closing the beach on the eve of the busiest weekend in the summer season. Richard Dreyfuss was chosen to play Matt Hooper, the shark expert Brody calls in to help, but the cleverest move of all was casting larger-than-life English actor Robert Shaw as the shark hunter Sam Quint.

Producers Zanuck and Brown had just worked with Shaw on The Sting, and suggested him to Spielberg. His knowingly over-the-top portrayal of Quint added drama and resonance to what might have been a relatively slight horror film, and Shaw was central to the success of the film's finest scene.

Only a few years later, Shaw died of a heart attack in Ireland in 1978 after completing filming of Avalanche Express. He had lived for seven years in Co Mayo.

When the shoot began on Martha's Vineyard in May 1974, Spielberg had plans to put his shark at centre stage.

Four mechanical sharks had been specially made, allowing the beast to be viewed at different angles and in various modes of attack. But these machines proved disastrously unreliable -- they froze at vital moments, the sea water corroded their innards, they sank to the bottom without warning -- and Spielberg was forced by time constraints to find other ways of telling his story.

Instead of making the models central to the early part of his story, Spielberg turned the shark's absence into a virtue. In the famous opening scene, a beautiful young woman is skinny-dipping at night when that ominous John Williams score starts up, and she's dragged below the water by forces unseen.

As the body count began to mount, the fact that you couldn't see what was killing people made it all the more terrifying, and Spielberg brilliantly titillated audiences by showing them a swish of tail or the odd suspicion of a fin.

Meanwhile, the production stopped and started and eventually ran four months over its time limit. A $4m budget more than doubled, and the crew began to blame it all on Spielberg's exactitude and inexperience. They nicknamed the film 'Flaws', and predicted box-office failure.

Even Spielberg himself was rattled, but he toiled on perfecting the film as best he could. After Universal finally froze the budget, he used his own money to film an extra scene in which a head floats out of a submerged wreck because he felt the finished film needed one more scare.

In the film's most celebrated scene, Quint, Brody and Hooper share a bottle of the hard stuff in a boat cabin while Quint tells a chilling story about the crew of a scuttled US warship being eaten by tiger sharks during the Second World War. Robert Shaw apparently wrote most of Quint's monologue himself, and the scene provided a tension-mounting moment of calm before the film's climax.

With shooting completed, Spielberg waited nervously. "I thought my career as a filmmaker was over," he said. "I heard rumours that I would never work again because no one had ever taken a film 100 days over schedule."

As we now know his extraordinary career was only beginning, and Jaws was the triumph that made it possible. Universal must have believed in the film, because it was the first movie to be given a simultaneous wide release. Up to that point, films would be premiered in key urban cinemas across America to see whether they had the potential to be hits.

Jaws earned more than $100m at the US box office in the summer of 1975, and went on to make a then-record $470m worldwide. Such was the film's impact that other studios began planning their big budget action films around July and August, and the summer blockbuster was born.

Jaws also spawned an entirely unfounded paranoia about sea swimming. Across America, beach attendances dipped in the summer of 1975. Jaws opened in Ireland in the spring of 1976, and that summer a certain miniature bather hesitated in Brittas Bay at water's edge, as that ominous John Williams score began rising in his head.

The IFI, Temple Bar will screen Jaws on Tuesday at 6.30pm.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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