by Carl Gottlieb
224 pages, Dey Street Books
Review by Pat Black
Yeah. You can’t over-Jaws it.
The Jaws Log covers the making of Steven Spielberg’s classic giant shark movie, from page to screen and all the bloody water in between. It was written by Carl Gottlieb, who not only scripted the movie but acted in it, too.
Gottlieb is one of two screenwriters named in the credits of Jaws, the other being original author Peter Benchley. Lots of people had a bite at the script, though, including Howard Sackler, John Milius, Steven Spielberg himself, and - most famously - Robert Shaw.
Gottlieb could have been forgiven for wanting all that sweet credit to himself. But the first thing to note about The Jaws Log is that its author is remarkably humble and gracious.
Consider this: Gottlieb also has an acting credit in Jaws as Harry Meadows, Amity Island’s portly newspaper editor. In the shooting script he had an expanded role, but, realising that his scenes took some pace off the film, he cut himself out. His character only appears in two or three scenes for never more than a few seconds at a time.
Be honest with yourself – would you have done that?
Even those with a passing knowledge of Jaws will be aware of the lore surrounding the film. The shark didn’t work, so Spielberg had to improvise around this absence of fish, unwittingly adding more suspense than the big fibreglass and foam rubber beastie could ever muster on its own... Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss had a blisteringly antagonistic relationship… An undersized stuntman had to dive in a mini-cage with monstrous real-life sharks off the coast of Australia, in order to “scale up” the fish... The first time he heard it, Spielberg thought John Williams’ classic score was a joke... And of course, there’s that Indianapolis speech.
What’s fascinating about The Jaws Log is that it covers many of these bases - but not all of them. Gottlieb had to go back to the text years later to cover some of the now well-known stories about Jaws that he managed to miss the first time around. The expanded edition, dating from just a couple of years ago, may be one of the few books where the appendix and expanded notes are as juicy as the main text.
We hear about the young Spielberg, getting the gig after another director Gottlieb does not name failed to realise that the creature in the picture is a shark, not a whale. The script’s journey into Gottlieb’s hands takes into account early tensions with Peter Benchley, although the pair do end up friends and Benchley eventually champions the film (and no bloody wonder!). We also go location scouting for the principal photography, with the crew settling on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
For his cast, Spielberg courted Lee Marvin for Quint… god, if only. What a Quint he would have made. Charlton Heston, similarly, would have made for a cracking Chief Brody, and Jon Voight would have been a super Hooper. However – and this is one of many ways in which serendipity found this production – the decision was made to cast reliable character actors in the main roles, not big stars. It pays off handsomely. Everyone performs so well in this film, it seems churlish to imagine anyone else in the lead roles. I can’t think of a major film so jam-packed with great performances, even in supporting roles like Murray Hamilton’s weasel mayor and Lorraine Gary as Brody’s wife, Ellen. Even Peter Benchley’s piece-to-camera as a TV journalist has a way of sticking in the mind.
Lee Marvin, though! Man!
Gottlieb is too modest to say so, but Jaws has a wonderful script. It’s difficult to believe that some parts were written the night before shooting, as Gottlieb pondered how to get the most out of the actors. The wasted days at sea proved fortuitous, allowing Gottlieb to refine the script into a smooth, sleek predator, and also allowing the leads to rehearse, fine-tune and generate new ideas of their own. It’s hard to think of a major movie these days taking a near-improvisational attitude towards its script, and the cast working with it, too (although I could believe that lots of modern scripts are written to fill in the blanks between action scenes, *cough James Bond cough*). The downtime, thanks to either the shark downing tools or the weather keeping everyone at port, proved a blessing in disguise.
The Jaws Log has a lot to do with now well-known stories about the production making it out into the wild. These include how Bruce the Shark got his name, or how Robert Shaw spent a lot of time flying out of the United States to avoid the taxman.
Equally fascinating are the small, but important details of big productions, such as how much money is lost with just one skipped day of filming, how much time and effort it takes to set up scenes and shots, or feed crews, or put them up for the night, or pay the extras…
Producer David Brown once smirkingly called residents of Martha’s Vineyard “civilians”. Gottlieb provides a bit of light and shade, here; I was surprised at his not-altogether-droll dismissal of many of the people who circled the production as being somewhat light-fingered. This put me in mind of Captain Cook’s vessel anchoring in the tropics, with the crew having to make sure native people didn’t steal anything that wasn’t nailed down (and some things which were).
However, Gottlieb makes it clear that the cast and crew knew how to unwind in the Vineyard, with Richard Dreyfuss, then a rising star and an already well-kent face, availing himself of an adoring population, let’s say. Murray Hamilton unwound himself so completely one night he woke up in the hotel lobby, with the proprietors not daring to wake him.
But Gottlieb misses a trick. Perhaps out of a sense of loyalty to a man who was still alive at the time of writing, the author does not address Robert Shaw’s legendary - one is tempted to say heroic - drinking exploits. Nor does he mention the older actor’s antipathy towards Dreyfuss. Younger, sharper, and already garlanded by Hollywood, Shaw detested him, and the feeling was mutual. Dreyfuss has been gracious towards Shaw in recent years, but the antagonism you see on screen was very real. Gottlieb avoids this. Instead, he simply remarks on an uneventful dinner Shaw attended with Spielberg and Dreyfuss, and little else.
Gottlieb also completely fails to mention the Indianapolis speech - a quieter moment, but possibly the best-regarded scene in the film. It’s a masterclass from Shaw and the speech is mainly his own handiwork. He is credited here with the final version of the speech you hear on-screen. It’s often overlooked that this hard-drinking bull of a man, best known for playing tough guys, was a published author and playwright; with this in mind it should come as no surprise that it’s such a brilliant passage. Gottlieb only addresses this in the extensive notes section at the back of the new edition, revised a couple of times since 2000 - perhaps by popular demand.
The only place hindsight seems to creep in is when Gottlieb talks about Spielberg. Jaws was a notoriously tough shoot, running well over time and budget. It was plagued with technical and logistical difficulties, particularly in those sequences shot on the water. You can only imagine the negative reaction this film would have received from gossip sites and slavering idiots on social media had it been released today – snark-marinated discussions of spy shots of the “fake-looking” shark, reports of tension on-set, the spiralling budget and endless delays, open speculation over whether the twenty-something Spielberg was up to the task of helming such a big movie. Spielberg is rarely treated as anything other than the person he became after Jaws – there’s very little discussion about how he was viewed in media res. Gottlieb never questions Spielberg once, but there must surely have been some mutterings about the not-yet-wunderkind, with both cast and crew desperate to get back home.
The notes section is crammed with interesting titbits. One of the technicians who set up the “fishermen menaced by pier” scene was John Landis. (“You’re younger than me,” Spielberg remarked, upon meeting him. “He still is, today,” notes Gottlieb.) One of the names involved in the dialogue looping process - re-recorded background noise during crowd scenes - was Derek Smalls himself, Harry Shearer.
I was especially intrigued to hear a snippet of gossip about Jaws 2, which Gottlieb also penned. Apparently its French director, Jeannot Swarc, came to blows with his star, Roy Scheider, over artistic direction. “Nothing serious”, Gottlieb claims - but serious enough to merit renowned film editor Verna Fields sitting on the pair until they calmed down. Do what your mothercutter tells ya!
I smiled when Gottlieb described jumping in the editing suite when he first watched raw footage of the fish breaching the water. (Prompting the film’s most-quoted line, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” - an ad-lib from Scheider, which Gottlieb is, again, happy to concede.) No sound, no effects, no score, just Bruce’s head surging into view - and the reaction, mimicked millions of times over across the world, to this very day.
I also smiled at Gottlieb’s brazen assertion from 40 years ago that “no-one watching that movie would be able to tell which shots are the fake shark, and which are real”. Well, I’ve got news for you, fella…
Of course, the shark looked real enough to audiences who thrilled to Jaws in 1975. Even if the fish looks fake nowadays thanks to over-exposure in documentaries, with their jaw-dropping footage of sharks flying out of the water with luckless seals clamped in their gobs, more spectacular than anything the techies on Jaws could create, it still gives us a warm glow to look at it. And perhaps, even today, that wee bit of dread.
Bruce might not look like a real great white shark, but he is still an undeniably scary monster. Some cracking black-and-white stills included in the book reveal strangely unsettling shots of technicians in wetsuits and snorkels fiddling with the mechanical shark, preparing it for a close-up. Even knowing it’s just so much foam rubber, paint and crude machinery, it must have been unnerving to be in the water with that big bad fish.
Not everyone’s a connoisseur, though. If you ever want to read something truly joyless, you could do a lot worse than look at the list of “bloopers” and continuity errors for Jaws on imdb.com. It runs into pages and pages. I stopped looking at page two or three.
Imagine being the type of person who not only notices all that stuff, but specifically looks out for it. Imagine their joy when they dig up an as-yet undiscovered continuity error. I’ve heard that this kind of narrow, focused, obsessive behaviour is a throwback to our genetic heritage as hunters. So it could be that these saddoes are natural born killers. A difficult interpretation to reconcile with insights such as: “Coffee cup in the bedroom scene moves four centimetres across the table compared to previous shot.”
No, it’s not a perfect movie, but it is still a great one – maybe the best ever. And if watching it nowadays merely provides a wee glow of nostalgia, then that still makes it worth watching, especially on dark nights like these.
A beloved how-to manual for top directors including Steven Sodebergh and Bryan Singer, The Jaws Log allows us a little peek behind the curtain at how they made one of the great movies. It’s well worth dipping your toe into, whether you’re a fan or not.