Spielberg further discusses JAWS

Steven Spielberg conceded a few years ago a very interesting interview in which he explained a lot about his career, in special about the making of Jaws. In this chat, he gives specifics about how they filmed the death of the first victim, about the Indianapolis speech, about who really wrote the script… If you are a Jaws fan it’s unmissable.

This interview is part of a book which is a sequel.

First, there was a compilation of interviews, Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age: At the American Film Institute, by George Stevens Jr., which was so successful that a sequel about (mostly) younger filmmakers was made, Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation.

In its pages you will find, as well as the Spielberg chat, amazing conversations with filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky -director of Requiem for a Dream-, Robert Towne -who wrote Chinatown-, George Lucas -the Star Wars emperor-, William Friedkin -helmer of The Exorcist-,  Janusz Kaminski -Spielberg’s in-house DoP-, David Lynch -the mind behind Mulholland Drive-, Jack Lemmon -the masterful actor-… My advice: If you are a film lover please buy it and read it.

What follows are excerpts from the aforementioned Spielberg interview, specifically from the section about Jaws.

Shooting the Climax of Jaws
Shooting the Climax of Jaws

About filming in Martha’s Vineyard

Steven Spielberg:

It was like sending commandos onto an occupied beachhead to soften the landing attempts. We sent in PR men, the production manager, and the art director. Everyone wanted to make sure we would be accepted and welcome so that when we finally landed on the island there wouldn’t be any armed resistance. This continued for about three weeks.

Once we were there we realized we didn’t really have a hook into them. In fact, they had a hook into us Hollywood folk. We saw the prices of everything rising and rising. Inflation hit Martha’s Vineyard like it’s never hit any other area of this country, and we began paying tourist rates for everything in the middle of May. We were taken gross advantage of by just about every person who owned a boat, a pier, or land in the area.

Jaws opening
Summer Blockbuster is Born

Eating the Girl

Many scenes come to mind when someone mentions Jaws. One of them is, of course, the shark’s first victim, Chrissie, in a scene that had to be filmed in very specific conditions with the actress suffering certain physical “restraints”.

It was all day for night, using heavy neutral density filters. We shot four mornings in a row between about six and eight o’clock. Bill Butler needed specific conditions in order to get true day for night. He needed black clouds on the horizon and the sun just above the black clouds so there was sparkle on the water, as a kind of moonlight effect. A white sky wouldn’t do and a blue sky wouldn’t do. We were very fortunate because for four days in a row we got great sunrises.

Susan Backlinie played the part. She was a stunt girl we found through the Stuntmen’s Association. She had a harness around her waist with ropes leading to shore, where two teams of ten men hung on each rope. When one team ran to a marker stake they had to stop at that stake so the other team of ten could continue to pull. They had to let the rope go slack at the stake.

How to pull a dying girl
How to pull a dying girl

The danger was that if they didn’t, she would have ten men pulling on each side and it would have snapped her back. We had to be really careful with twenty men running on sand and not making a mistake. If the timing was off, she would jerk once, stall, then jerk again. I didn’t want this. I wanted a kind of pathetic back-and-forth-through-the-water motion, and that was tough to get. But she came through it.

A Mechanical Prima Donna

Spielberg admits that

The shark was the first real prima-donna actor I ever worked with. He wouldn’t do anything I told him to do. It was designed to jump out of the water like Flipper and work its jaws and roll its eyes and flap its tail and almost walk up on shore and shake your hand. As it turned out, the shark could barely make a right-hand turn and could never go left. When it submerged, bubbles came up. It’s only through the magic of several cameras and film editing that the shark looks the way it does.

Hanging shark
The Mechanical Primal Donna

I suppose this was because of a lack of proper preproduction time. We really needed a year to get our act together, but were given three and a half months because the actors were about to go on strike and the studio told us to start production before the strike began. I spent so much time on the screenplay that I had little time to work with the fellows who were building the shark, and when it came right down to it there was no time even to test the thing.

We tested it for the first time during first-unit principal photography. It cruised along, and right in front of everybody sank thirty feet to the sandy bottom—and never came up. And that did it. I tell you, everybody looked at everybody else that day and we knew we’d be there till September. This was April 15. Everything began going downhill from there.

The Shark Crew
The Mechanical Shark Team is deep into the beast.

Still Hard to Talk about the Making of Jaws


Most of Jaws was shot between the hours of four and six in the afternoon. Apart from the opening sequence with the girl, there was no scene in Jaws we ever got before ten o’clock in the morning, including interiors that were relatively easy to light. Subconsciously the company adopted an orbit of afternoon shooting. There was nothing that I or anybody else could do about this by talking to them or bribing them. The crew just slowed down.

They were used to getting up in the morning and dawdling until eleven waiting for special effects. I think part of it was that the crew felt they weren’t making a movie but that they were doing time. They were on an island with absolutely nothing to do at night. The whole island closes down at nine o’clock. They began to cat around but that didn’t help very much, because none of the ladies showed up until June, because school wasn’t out until the summer, so they just sat there and their brains began to fry. I think one of the main reasons for the morale deterioration was being kicked around on an aquatic earthquake every day.

When you’re out there on the water from seven in the morning until seven at night and you’re being tossed back and forth, you just don’t want to hammer those tie-down chains. You don’t want to climb in your wetsuit and go down thirty feet and haul up anchors or position five-thousand-pound concrete weights with brass eyeholes. It was manual labor. It was like breaking rocks, and everybody was affected. People really went bonkers on that film. They went right off the deep end. It was like a bunch of inmates set adrift. It was like living out my worst nightmare. Even now, looking back on it, the hardest thing about Jaws is talking about the making of the movie.

The Jaws' Director's Chair
The Jaws¡ director’s chair wasn’t secure for Spielberg: The media described the shooting as a disaster.

The Author of the Script

Who really wrote Jaws? It looks like Jaws had 5 1/2 writers. Spielberg didn’t actually write, but he was the mind behind most scenes, so he counts as one. The other writers were the author of the original book, Peter Benchley; Howard Sackler, John Milius, Carl Gottlieb, and, only supplying a little but important bit, actor -he played the shark-hunter- and dramatist Robert Shaw.

Spielberg explains:

I supervised every draft of Jaws, and just about every scene in the movie is from my own head, as set down on paper by five different people. I should have been brave and sat down and written the screenplay myself, but I felt I needed a sounding board, someone to come in and play with my ideas and make them better and give me ideas back that I never would have imagined myself. As such, Jaws had six screenplays and five writers, including three uncredited writers. The script changed daily. 

The actors really supplied most of their own dialogue. Scenes that were never in the screenplay were added that same day, like the autopsy scene and the scene at the billboard where the two men are trying to talk Murray Hamilton into closing down the beaches. 

That scene was written the night before it was shot by everybody sitting around in a room, with Carl Gottlieb taking notes, Rick Dreyfuss ad-libbing, Roy Scheider ad-libbing, me standing on the table, and Verna Fields, who edited the film, jumping up and down. If an actor has an idea that’s much better than the idea I had a month ago at home writing the script, or a week before I plan the scenes, I’ll change my plans. If it’s a better idea and it makes it a better movie, I’ll change on the spot.

I didn’t do that in the first week or two of Jaws because it was just such a difficult shoot, but once it was obvious that the film was an impossible movie to make according to the studio’s ballpark shooting schedule, I was much looser to listen to the actors’ ideas. To be honest, it’s very hard to tell who did what. It’s hard to draw the line between what John Milius did and what Howard Sackler did and what Peter Benchley did and what Carl Gottlieb did. I had to take that jumble and sit with the actors, who also felt it was a jumble, and sift through every single page and distill it until we were certain that every scene made a point. If a scene didn’t make a point, it didn’t belong in the movie.

On the Jaws' Set

To be a little more specific, Benchley did three drafts. Peter and I were agreed on most everything, except at a certain point he’d really had enough because he hates to fly and didn’t want to make the trip out to Los Angeles anymore. He would only write in his New Jersey home, so we didn’t have much communication except for the several times we’d meet here in Los Angeles. Then I hired Howard Sackler, not because he wrote The Great White Hope, but because he was a diver and a good friend of David Brown. We had a meeting and Howard came up with some simply marvelous ideas, one after the other, and together we totally rewrote the script in about three weeks.

But I’m never really satisfied with anything. I’m always changing and needed somebody on the set every day with me to change the things. I needed a short-order cook, so I hired Carl Gottlieb, who was a friend of mine. He was there for about five weeks before Zanuck and Brown decided they’d paid him enough money and sent him back to Los Angeles. So for probably four and a half months we were left to our own devices, and the actors and I would sit in a room together almost every night and refine the dialogue and think of new moments and pieces of business. The movie took shape as we went along, but the structure was there from the fourth draft. In retrospect I should have hired only one writer and spent four months getting the screenplay to where I liked it, rather than being pressured into an early start date with a script I didn’t care for and had to improvise my way through.

Ingmar Bergman inspecting the Jaws shark
Legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman inspecting one of the sharks from Jaws

The Indianapolis Speech

The speech came from a book that Howard Sackler found in a library. He thought it was a great opportunity to have a flashback. I didn’t want a flashback but thought it would work if we just had someone say it. So Howard wrote out about half a page and I brought it over to John Milius who loved it. He sat down, and faster than the pen could write had written nine pages at his dinner table.

Robert Shaw delivering the Indianapolis speech: Someone telling a story became one of the most remembered scenes of a horror movie

Later we cut it down to five pages and Robert Shaw revamped it so it would fit his own character, his own rhythm. He wanted it to be more to the point and less graphic. The speech was written for a MacArthur type, but Robert didn’t feel his personality was as ostentatious as that. I thought the speech John wrote was absolutely brilliant, but I knew we had to sacrifice a lot of the words so that Robert would feel comfortable playing the part.

According to historical sources

The speech has a few historical errors, the Indianapolis didn’t “deliver the bomb” just its uranium, it was sunk on 30 July not 29 June and a distress signal was sent.

Just 321 men would be rescued and only 317 ultimately survived the ordeal. It was and remains the worst naval disaster in US history.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis

Comparing Scars

The idea for them to compare scars was mine. It was written one way by Howard Sackler and explained to me another way by John Milius. Then Carl Gottlieb had some ideas and I wound up rewriting the scene with a guy named Craig Kingsbury, a guy from Martha’s Vineyard who wears no shoes, has been struck by lightning twice, gets drunk with oxen, and generally does strange things. This was the man who Robert Shaw mostly relied on for his salty dialogue.

Robert would go over to Craig and say, “We’re stuck. What would Quint say in this case?” And Craig would say, “Well, you know, I got in a big fight in an Okie bar in San Francisco celebrating my third wife’s demise.” That’s a typical Craig Kingsburyism, and I’d write that down with Robert and we’d do it that day. Sometimes Craig came on the boat and just sat back listening. I’d say, “How’d you like the scene, Craig?” He’d say, “These guys are talking like West Coast Californians,” and he’d come up with some good dialogue. Working that way is exciting, but you shouldn’t do it in every picture or you won’t live very long.

Jaws’ Alternative Movie Posters

Only a few of them:

Jaws Classic Trailer:

More about the making of JAWS here:

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