Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has created some of the most popular films of all time, garnering him an enormous amount of respect on both a critical and financial scale. He is considered by many to be the most famous director of all time, given his track record as both director and producer of some of the most recognizable films of the past 50 years. Movie Daddy is a series by Story Screen Editor-in-chief, Mike Burdge, which aims to cover the Beard's directorial filmography in an attempt to present just why Steven Spielberg is very much that hot fire when it comes to being an American filmmaker. In this installment, we're talking the big one, the movie that jettisoned Spielberg’s career into the powerhouse that it continues to be today: Jaws.
Jaws is one of those rare movies that TRULY gets better every time you watch it. During my rewatch for this article, I found myself inevitably getting lost in the story and characters, yet again, even after having viewed this movie dozens of times, if not more. There is a brisk pace and sleek style to how the film reveals itself, whether it’s through individual character arcs, genre bending or basic act structure. Much like Hitchcock’s Psycho, Jaws is such a behemoth of movie fandom that a critical analysis starts to feel unjustified. “What can I say about this movie that hasn’t already been said, or even worse, is brutally apparent at this point in time to anyone watching it?” So, instead of discussing what about this movie is so good, I thought I’d focus on the whys and hows that made it so great.
Jaws was the first true blockbuster of Hollywood, at least in the sense we have come to define the term today. It was the first movie to break $100,000,000 at the box office, catapulting it into the consciousness of the entire world. When a movie becomes as popular as Jaws did, it moves beyond entertainment, and cements itself into popular culture forever. To this day, the film, and its massive success, affect the way movies are made, and even more so, how they are marketed. While the arrival of Star Wars in 1977 - just two years after Jaws’ release - solidified the new model of marketing and spectacle-style of releasing films, it is Spielberg’s movie that unintentionally paved the way to how modern Hollywood big budget films are handled at almost every turn, from concept to release.
So how did this thing all come together? By now, I’m sure most of you know some of the troubled production myths that plague stories of the shoot to this day. What Spielberg described as a “hellish shoot,” (mainly due to the increased stress and troubles of shooting on open water) was ultimately completed, mainly due to a good amount of luck and A LOT of talent. Or how Spielberg himself put it, with: “courage and stupidity.” Hey, it's not called magic because it's easy to understand and believe.
We’ve all heard the horrors of the shark, (lovingly referred to as “Bruce” by the crew) not working on set, leading to massive delays initially, and ultimately, requiring a need to work around showing the beast too often and too early. This reworking created the motif of not showing the shark to build fear and tension with the audience. It’s a similar tactic used by John Carpenter in Halloween, where the less you see (or know) the scarier, which really is where most of Jaws’ legendary horror status comes from. Hell, the opening credits are also very indicative of the same style used only a few years later in Halloween’s opening moments (which Robby Anderson and myself discuss in this video). I will say, however, that I’ve come to consider that this “shark no work” reasoning for many of the film’s most brilliant moments might be a bit of an exaggeration due to the mythology built around the production. Spielberg himself called the film: “Duel in the sea,” referring to his first feature film (which I covered here) where the truck-driving antagonist is intentionally never shown to create dread and mystery. The climactic defeat of the truck driver is even visually the EXACT SAME SHOT as the demise of the shark in Jaws falling in slow motion to the bottom of the ocean. So how much were the failings of the original shark device to blame for the movies truly masterful successes? We’ll never know, because at this point, the myth is so much sweeter than any reality.
Based on Peter Benchley’s wildly successful book of the same name, the project was shopped around quickly to get it going. To give a very basic understanding, meetings with Spielberg first began in February of 1974, the shooting started in April, and the film needed to be completed by June, mostly due to specifics involving the Screen Actors Guild, as well as the need to get the film out into theaters while positive reception to the book was style hot. Because of these time constraints and Spielberg’s persistence on changing the script to fit his style and vision, the film became a massive collaborative project: Spielberg worked with Benchley, along with other credited and uncredited writers, to tighten the script up all throughout production, sometimes delivering new pages of scenes on the day of shooting. This allowed for a pretty elastic experience on set, where the actors began to work new dialogue and moments into the scenes, leading to a very naturalistic feel to the finished product. This process is why we get these amazing characters, who you really CARE about, making the developing conflict between them and their environment an absolute delight to behold throughout the first half of the film. In fact, the first half of the movie just might be even better than the second half, but I dunno! Depends on the day, I guess. But once these anchors of character and plot were put into place, Spielberg’s true superpower of combining and heightening genres could be unleashed.
The film’s screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb, said: “When you do a straight line adventure film like Jaws, anything that doesn't contribute to the suspense or the humanity or the horror has to go.” With this idea in mind, the creative minds behind Jaws sought to not leave out any genre elements that didn’t live up to the high standards they had placed. Instead, they made them reach those standards. Comedy, drama, horror, action - everything was upped to the highest level conceivable in order to maintain the adventure genre aesthetics, and the result was one of the most joyously watchable films ever created. This is something Spielberg has carried over to most of his adventure oriented projects, which ultimately, (to oversimplify) is why his movies work so well. It’s the reason why you (and I should include myself in this) wouldn't be to blame for getting so lost in some of the best stories Spielberg has presented, that we forget to notice all of his amazing directing choices - both audio and visual - purposefully generating a mood, theme, idea or some other reason. Getting lost is the point. THAT’S pure movie escapism, and you need a master of that weapon to truly get the results ya boi Steve constantly receives.
Spielberg’s contributions as a director cannot be understated when really breaking down just what makes his movies tick - from his color choices: reserving red only for blood, (and a couple glasses of wine) to his archetypal nature of subverting typical “Monster Moments” in order to create something primal - he allows our familiarity with swimming to set the mood, and our imagination to fill in the rest. His direction of the entire project is masterful. Spielberg constantly flips expectations on a technical level throughout Jaws. As a true cinephile, he knows how movies HAVE been made, so he uses all of this knowledge to build tension and execute terror in ways that feel fresh and unexpected.
In her review, film critic and absolute beast, Pauline Kael, wrote:
"In 'Jaws,' which may be the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made, the disasters don’t come on schedule the way they do in most disaster pictures, and your guts never settle down to a timetable. Even while you’re convulsed with laughter, you’re still apprehensive, because the editing rhythms are very tricky, and the shock images loom up huge, right on top of you."
This is a fantastic observation (obviously), and in a cheekily charming anecdote, the director explains his love of manipulating the audience’s mood, transitioning the laugh of Brody's “Shit” line into the scream of the first appearance of the shark as an example. Spielberg says he would sit at the back of movie theaters waiting for that moment's reaction: where the joyful experience of the adventure thus far suddenly has the rug pulled out from under it, in what has now become arguably the film’s most famous moment.
The director’s use of camera tricks, both in filming and editing, are also in high gear. His infamous subtle blocking and camera placement are used to present differing alignments with various characters, as well as differences between characters themselves (character design and costumes communicate these same things). You can just look at the shots used during the USS Indianapolis story for a perfect example of how all of these elements can be used to create the separation between Hooper/Quint and Brody. We even have the brilliant dolly zoom shot (perfected by Hitchcock in Vertigo). Always really fucking cool in any movie, the dolly zoom is peppered in at the end of a fantastic series of shots, that are cut together using passing people to direct position and the eyeline of the audience. It’s all fantastic stuff that you just love to watch. We’ll get into this much more as we continue down the director’s filmography, but John Williams’ score is the stuff of miracles in Jaws, and it’s no surprise that he took home that little gold statue for his work on the film, his second win at the time.
While I must take a brief moment to say that the movie itself is a masterpiece, and one of the best movies ever made, I’d be lying if I didn’t find the why and how of it all so much more fascinating throughout this analysis. On every level, Jaws is a movie that probably shouldn’t work, and most definitely shouldn’t work AS WELL as it does. A lot of the film requires a certain suspension of disbelief, which isn’t always a negative thing to say about a movie. That’s the very nature of movies: they aren’t real. Spielberg and his crew are able to manipulate the flow of information and the display of the images into a feeling of passive adventure; it is extremely impressive, and unbelievably risky. On the believability of some of the film’s events, Peter Benchly quotes William Goldman by saying: “Reality may be great and truth may be wonderful, but none of it holds a candle to believability, and if a filmmaker has done his job and brought you into believability he can do anything.” To that effect, Spielberg himself believes, “If I've got them for two hours they will believe whatever I do for the next three minutes, because I've got them in my hands.” This seems to specifically point to the tank blowing up the shark at the end of the movie, which is (understandably) a little unrealistic. The decision came from the need to change the story’s original ending, where the shark ultimately just dies from its wounds, which is definitely not as COOL. Both versions of the story still help to tie off Brody’s arc; the shark represents his realization of his own mortality and weakness. But blowing the thing up is way cooler, and a much better ending to this crowd-pleaser.
I’ll end with a great summarized quote from film critic, Roger Ebert, who looked back on Jaws in retrospect in relation to Spielberg’s continued career afterwards. I think it perfectly encapsulates exactly what this movie did for the director, as well as the moviemaking world at large:
"Spielberg's first big hit contained elements he repeated in many of his movies... The movie was the launching pad for the most extraordinary directorial career in modern movie history. Before 'Jaws,' he was known as the gifted young director. After 'Jaws,' he was the king."
On the next Movie Daddy, we’ll be jumping ahead (that’s right, it’s time to start hopping around!) to the modern animated epic: The Adventures of Tintin.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.