When producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck bought the film rights to Jaws, the search for a director began immediately. After a few of their first choices didn't work out, they turned to an unproven young fella by the name of Steven Spielberg who'd been making films since he was twelve years old. Brown and Zanuck had just produced The Sugarland Express, Spielberg's first feature film. They loaned him a copy of Jaws and he enthusiastically signed on. He was about 28 years old.
His enthusiasm soon met its ultimate test as Jaws became Spielberg's first great trial-by-fire as a filmmaker. The shoot ran into one delay after another, mostly caused by problems with the mechanical sharks, affectionately nicknamed Bruce after Spielberg's lawyer, Bruce Ramer (source).
Designed by the guy who did the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the sharks (there were three of them, each used for different camera angles) turned out to be terrible actors. They got tangled in seaweed forests, their foam skin got waterlogged and warped, the electronic and pneumatic controls inside them got flooded with corrosive seawater, and on at least one occasion a shark sank right to the ocean floor 35 feet beneath the surface (source). Spielberg got so ticked at the shark that he started calling it "the great white turd," which probably just added to Bruce's stage fright.
Ultimately, though, the mechanical failures were a good thing. They forced Spielberg to be creative about how and when he used the shark, which in the end meant that Spielberg kept Bruce/GWT hidden for much of the film, relying on hints of the shark's presence—music, camera angles, floating barrels, body parts, etc.—instead of showing the shark itself.
The added mystery, suspense, and dread made the movie much scarier—a lot like the films of the greatest master-of-suspense director of all time. According to Spielberg, "The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock" (source). Hitchcock allegedly said, "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." He was right, of course. Waiting for the shark attacks is the really terrifying part of Jaws.
Throughout the making of Jaws, Spielberg worried that the GWT (and the unforgiving Atlantic) would sink his career in its infancy. Even after the filming wrapped, he still had nightmares for months afterward that he was once again out on the ocean shooting Jaws. He didn't have to worry. Jaws became a huge hit, catapulting Spielberg to success and stardom, and coining the term "summer blockbuster." The boy wonder has gone on to enjoy one of the most staggeringly successful careers of any film director in history, with hits like E.T., Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Amistad, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, and Saving Private Ryan under his belt. And that's just a partial list. We think you can relax now, Mr. Spielberg.
Peter Benchley was not just one of the movie's screenwriters; he was the author of the original novel. After spending his childhood summers on Nantucket Island in New England, the idea for Jaws came to him when he read a small news article about a fisherman who caught a 4,500-pound shark off the coast of Long Island, New York. He wondered what might happen if a shark that big started preying on swimmers, and he pitched the idea to several book publishers. Finally, an editor at Doubleday took the bait (#sorrynotsorry) and paid Benchley to write the novel (source).
Jaws (the novel) was a huge hit, staying on the best-seller list for 44 weeks. By then, producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck had already acquired the film rights, and Jaws (the movie) was already in production.
Benchley wrote a first draft of the script—his first ever attempt at screenwriting—and then passed it along for others to finish. (Benchley makes a cameo in the film as the newscaster from the mainland.) Though it launched his successful writing career, Benchley ultimately grew to regret the way he portrayed sharks in Jaws and went on to become a passionate ocean conservationist (source).
Carl Gottlieb was the main screenwriter assigned to polishing and adapting Benchley's first script treatment. As much as the filmmakers loved the main idea of the book, they thought that the tone was too dark and the characters weren't likable enough. For instance, in the novel, Mayor Vaughn is in the pocket of the mafia and Hooper has an affair with Mrs. Brody and gets eaten by the shark (who's opposed to adultery, we assume).
So director Steven Spielberg brought in Gottlieb to add some humanity and humor to the story. (He makes a cameo in the movie as Ben Meadows, editor of the Amity newspaper and one of Mayor Vaughn's loyal stooges. Keep an eye out for the portly guy with the mustache.) Anyway, the fact that a film where five people get mauled and eaten by a shark is also really funny and heartwarming? That's Gottlieb's doing.
Jaws as we know it owes its existence to producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck. In 1973, they somewhat serendipitously got their hands on an early copy of Peter Benchley's novel, Jaws. Both devoured it (#sorrynotsorry) in a single night and bought the film rights before the novel was even released to the public. Robert Brown would later say that if they'd read the story twice instead of just once, they would have realized what a pain it would be to make this film and probably bailed.
Jaws did indeed prove to be a hugely difficult movie to shoot, and there was tension between Brown, Zanuck, and director Steven Spielberg throughout filming. The movie was supposed to cost $3.5 million and take 55 days to shoot. But thanks to a constantly malfunctioning trio of mechanical sharks and complications from filming on the open sea, that's not quite how it went down.
Before it was all over, they'd spent $9 million and worked for 159 days. The crew and director all went a little nuts, and Spielberg lived in constant fear of being fired from the production. (Source.)
Despite the delays, Brown and Zanuck stuck with it and even convinced Universal Pictures to do something almost unprecedented at the time: They advertised the movie on television. Back then, that was a risky move. TV ads were expensive, and other experiments in TV advertising had flopped in the past.
But this time it worked in a big way. Their $9 million money pit ultimately raked in $260 million in the U.S. alone and basically invented the summer blockbuster. Brown and Zanuck went on to enjoy great success, though they never had another hit quite like Jaws. How could they? (Source.)
Steven Spielberg used some really innovative camera techniques to make the audience feel like we've been plopped right into the water along with the shark's unsuspecting victims. The crew invented new equipment that allowed the camera to sit right at water level, just like a swimmer's line of sight. "I really wanted this movie to be just at water level, the way we are when we're treading water, Spielberg explained. "I wanted to get the camera right down to where the human point of view is most accustomed to be when you're swimming" (source).
The majority of the movie was filmed on location rather than at a movie studio. Filming on the open ocean caused all kinds of problems (lots of barfing, for instance), but Spielberg felt the ocean sequences had to be on location because the ocean itself was such a character in the film. Particularly for the third act—during the shark hunt—he wanted the sea to be ever-present. That's one reason they picked Martha's Vineyard as a filming location: The ocean remains shallow even miles away from shore, so they could operate the mechanical shark while still keeping land out of sight. In fact, Spielberg made sure the Orca had big windows so even when you were inside the cabin you still couldn't get away from the sea. He wanted to have "the ocean […] breathing down your neck" (source). Guy's a genius. An evil, evil genius.
Close your eyes.
Are they closed?
Now take a few moments and play through that Jaws music in your head. How's that feel? Composer John Williams' score for Jaws is one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the entire world. Just a few seconds of the iconic "duun-dun, dun-dun, duun-duun, dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun" is enough to strike fear into the hearts of beachgoers the world over. Who knew two little notes could be so terrifying?
It was Williams who had the idea of "characterizing the shark musically with [this] low, thumping […] bass" (almost a mirror image of the unforgettable shrieking violins from Hitchcock's Psycho), "some kind of driving thing [that] might indicate the mindless attack of the shark. It's all instinct. It's an unstoppable thing; you can't fight it off […]" (source). This stroke of genius is an integral part of Jaws' success and legacy. Stephen Spielberg himself admitted, "The score was clearly responsible for half the success of that movie" (source).
The music plays an active role in tricking, delighting, and terrorizing the audience. In the first part of the film, for instance, the audience is conditioned to expect the shark when the music is heard. When the shark isn't there (including the scene with the fake shark fin, you'll notice), there's no music. Then later, when the shark surprises the crew of the Orca without any musical warning, it's that much more startling for the audience.
When the crew of the Orca is hot on the trail of the shark, the music changes. It's now a thrilling, major-key Raiders of the Lost Ark-y (same composer) type of music. It reminds us that, in the midst of this terrible storyline, there's an element of fun and excitement to the chase—that is, before things turn deadly. It's a bunch of buddies out for adventure, and the music reinforces that mood.
Oh, and here's part of the score that's rarely heard: check it out.
As one of the most successful films of all time, it's no surprise that Jaws has inspired legions of devoted fans. Three decades after its release, hundreds of fans gathered in Martha's Vineyard for "Jawsfest" in 2005. They heard panel discussions, went on tours of filming locations, and generally geeked out together over Jaws.
Ten years later, a symposium commemorating Jaws' 40th anniversary was held in June 2015 in England (source). And lest we forget, Jaws inspired a frenzy of interest in sharks generally. If it weren't for Jaws, we probably wouldn't have Shark Week. Or Jersey Shore Shark Attack. Or Sharknado. We can't even.