Film History 101 (Part 10): Open Wide

One of the most famous “behind the scenes”  stories ever to come out of Hollywood occurred during the 1970s.   It happened during the filming of Marathon Man (a terrific movie by the way) and involved stars Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman.  Specifically, it took place during the filming of the famous scene where Olivier’s Nazi character tortures Hoffman in the dentist chair by drilling on the most sensitive parts of his teeth without any anesthetic.  (“Is It Safe?”)

Olivier showed up on the set that morning rested and ready to work, while Hoffman looked just awful.   He hadn’t bathed, shaved, or gone to bed for two straight days.  Olivier asked Hoffman why he looked like something the cat dragged in.  Hoffman explained that he was a method actor.  And that in order to get ready to film the scene,  he had not slept for 2 days, and had deliberately stressed out his body as part of his preparation.  Olivier, the greatest English speaking actor of his generation, calmly looked Hoffman over, and casually asked, “Why don’t you just act?”

It’s a great story.  But while its been repeated enough times around Hollywood to qualify as an urban legend, no one has ever come forward to vouch for it’s authenticity.   Hoffman denied for years that such an exchange ever took place, before finally admitting it was only partially true.   Given the egos that go along with method acting, it’s very easy to assume that enough of it is based in fact to warrant its continued retelling.

“Marathon Man” was released in 1976.  But it was during the summer of the previous year that a certain film came out which had a much bigger impact on the Hollywood landscape.  It set box-office records,  established itself as the top money-maker of the time, and led to a complete overhaul of how movies are marketed and distributed (even to this day).   It also instantly established its young director as a force to be reckoned with in the industry for decades to come.  (Hint:  Duh-dah, duh-dah).  The movie’s name was  Jaws. 

The movie was based on a best-selling book by Peter Benchley.   Most people who have read “Jaws” are sometimes shocked to find that it spends relatively little time dealing with the shark.  Most of it, in fact, deals with a love triangle between the three principle characters.   The producers (David Brown and Richard Zanuck) who secured the rights to the book still thought there was a terrific story in there, but they knew it needed some work.  They had been impressed with a made-for-TV movie they had seen named Duel, which featured Dennis Weaver being chased through the desert by a monstrous truck.   They liked how “Duel” never showed you the  driver of the vehicle, and built an incredible amount of tension through editing and a lean script.  This was exactly their vision for “Jaws.” So they approached “Duel’s” director with an offer to take on their new film.  The director’s name was Steven Spielberg.  At the time he was only 26 years old.   (Coincidentally,  the same age as Orson Welles when he made “Citizen Kane”).

Spielberg read the first draft of Benchley’s screenplay, and said he would take the job on two conditions.  One, he wanted to re-write the script to take out the love triangle and concentrate on the shark.  Two, he would deliberately not show the shark until over half way through the movie.  This was exactly what Brown and Zanuck wanted to hear, and the stage was set for a major chapter in film history.  But before reaching that point, the movie had to endure one of the most difficult productions since “Cleopatra.”

Spielberg went through two more drafts with Benchley before they amicably parted ways.  Two more scriptwriters were brought in, and once the script was what the director wanted, he turned to solving other logistical problems.   Brown and Zanuck had assumed they would shoot the movie with live sharks.  But the finished script called for the animal to do things that simply weren’t possible (like jumping up into real boat and splitting it in two).   It’s an old Hollywood maxim that dates back to the silent days:  Never shoot a movie with children, animals, or on water.  Spielberg was aiming for two out of three.

It was decided that a series of mechanical sharks had to be built.  In the end, there were five of them, nicknamed “Bruce.”   For a filming location, the production team chose Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.   Not because of the warm weather, but because it was the only place in the United States where there was a flat, sandy ocean bottom only 30 feet deep and which stretched out 12 miles to sea.   The film crew could get out of sight of land, and still have a relatively reasonable depth of water.  It was decided that the mechanical sharks would need this to operate properly.   But nothing like it had ever been attempted before.  When the first mechanical shark was flown to Martha’s Vineyard, it promptly sank.  A diving team then had to be assembled to retrieve it.   But this was only the start of the trouble.

After the production team found a way to keep the sharks from sinking, a new problem emerged.  The salt water from the ocean had a corroding effect on the mechanical shark’s internal mechanisms.  It ate through the wires and none of the gears would work. But under intense pressure from the studio, Spielberg couldn’t wait around.  His plan to keep the shark hidden from the audience was no longer just an option.   He literally had nothing to show, and was forced to keep “Bruce” under wraps even longer than originally intended.

Spielberg and his co-writer Carl Gottlieb were forced to rewrite the script as they went along to accommodate their uncooperative “star.”   In scenes where you were supposed to see the shark, they substituted yellow “barrels” that Quint (Robert Shaw) could chase in his boat the “Orca.” Again, this wasn’t the original plan. And it soon led to another calamity.  In the shot where the yellow barrels approach the boat, but then dip under, a winch system was devised to “pull” the barrels toward the boat.  But they were using a real boat.  A real OLD boat.   The strain from the winches ripped out the siding from the “Orca” and it quickly sank along with the cast, crew, camera, and sound equipment.  The latter elements could be fished out of the water (some a little worse for wear).  But the boat itself wasn’t salvageable.  A new one had to be built from scratch to match the old.

Bad local actors, uncooperative tides, damage to set pieces from the ocean’s pounding waves, and poor weather added to Spielberg’s headaches.   The budget for the movie doubled from $4 to $8 million.   The original shooting schedule was supposed to be 55 days.   It stretched to 155.   Many members of the film crew began to call the production “Flaws.”    Spielberg’s relationship with the crew deteriorated to such a degree that he assumed he was going to be fired.  To this day, and dozens of mega-movies later Spielberg says he’s never been under such stress.   In an taped interview a few years ago, he admitted he still has recurrent nightmares and problems with insomnia after the experience.   He says  it’s always the same.  In his dream, he’s on day four or five of “Jaws”, and suddenly realizes that he still has weeks to go on the production.  He says he wakes up in a cold sweat, and isn’t able to get back to bed.

But Brown and Zanuck continued to support their young director.   They were happy with the dailies they were getting, and agreed that as long as they saw some progress, they would stick it out.   But as the film began to take shape in the cutting room, they still didn’t know what they had.   Spielberg has stated that the turning point for him came when he went to visit music composer John Williams.   Williams played the “Jaws” theme we’re all so familiar with for him on a regular piano.  Spielberg laughed out loud and asked to hear the real score.  His heart sank when Williams said he wasn’t fooling around.   But when Spielberg heard the various motifs and chords played by a full studio orchestra, he knew that Williams was on to something.

Spielberg thought he might have a decent film.   But in the cutting room, as he began to apply Williams’ music to the movie, in his words it “came alive”.  The film began to exceed his wildest expectations.  Brown and Zanuck also saw some of the early cuts with music, and big smiles broke out on their faces.  Spielberg has always been fairly generous in providing credit to his co-collaborators. In this case, he’s openly stated more than once he feels “Jaws” would have made a third less money at the box office if it hadn’t been for John Williams’ music.

But even after the film was finished, Spielberg had one more scene he wanted to fix.   It’s the one where Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) dives underwater to retrieve a shark’s tooth from the hull of a boat only to be confronted with the head of a floating corpse.  In the original version, the head pops out, and Richard Dreyfuss just turns and swims away.   Spielberg realized that he had missed an opportunity for a really big “scare.”   So, he went back to Brown and Zanuck and asked for more money.   They were befuddled at the request, and promptly turned him down.  The movie was great, they said….please don’t mess with it!   So Spielberg ponied up $3,000 of his own money, hired some friends, and went to his film editor’s house.   She just happened to own a swimming pool.   They threw some carnation instant milk into the water to make it murky, and shot the entire underwater part of the sequence in the backyard one night.

When “Jaws” premiered at the Rivoli Theater in New York in 1975, most of the cast attended the screening.  At the end of the movie, the audience just cheered.  And then stayed and sat in complete silence through the entire credits.   After the screen finally went dark, the entire crowd once again erupted in another loud series of cheers.   Spielberg, the producers, the cast and the attending film critics were dumbfounded.   After years of attending Hollywood screenings, this was something that they had NEVER seen.  That night, they knew they were witnessing something magical.

It was the birth of the modern Hollywood blockbuster,  or “tent pole” film.   In promoting movies, it’s still the conventional wisdom that the best advertising is the only kind you can’t buy:  good Word of Mouth.  Before “Jaws” came along, movies would open slowly in select markets.   A distributor would intentionally hold back copies of the film until they felt the current theaters were playing at capacity.   The idea was to build momentum through positive word of mouth.    But Brown and Zanuck realized they had lightning in a bottle.   They ordered up hundreds of extra copies of the film and simultaneously put them out for release to every theater in the country willing to play it.  In the process of using this mass release approach, “Jaws” became the first film in Hollywood history to break the $100 million barrier at the box office.  In today’s dollars, and after years of re-releases and ancillary rights, it has made over $2 BILLION.

“Jaws” was also released in the summer, paving the way for a yearly ritual at your local cineplex.   Namely films released with a built-in audience, aimed at a younger crowd, and with a wide distribution pattern.  Just like “Jaws” some 43 years ago.

Back then, the rest of Hollywood stood up and took notice.  “Jaws” also had the positive effect of removing the fear of bankruptcy which had plagued the movie-making industry  since the late 1960s.   In one fell swoop, movie-making was shown to be extremely profitable again.   But this also led the people who finance movies to approach it with a “home-run” mentality.   The idea was to swing for the fences, in the hope of landing another “Jaws.”    And as any baseball fan will tell you, when you try for a home run every time, your overall batting average is going to suffer.   Whether this has led to better movies overall is open to conjecture.

More “Jaws” trivia:

Roy Scheider’s line “We need a bigger boat” was completely ad-libbed.   It was never in the script.

Quint (Robert Shaw’s) speech about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis is Steven Spielberg’s favorite part of the movie.   Two writers wrote the dialogue before Spielberg gave Shaw a bottle of scotch and told him to make up something.  What’s in the final film is the early part of Shaw’s ad-libbing.   Before he got too drunk to speak coherently.

The second half of the film does feature some live shark footage (shot off the coast of Australia).   When you see Hooper in the cage being menaced by the shark, they had a dwarf in a wet suit in the shot to make the shark look bigger.   The close-up of Richard Dreyfuss’ eyes in the sequence aren’t really his.  They belong to a third stuntman.

The very large tiger shark the townspeople string up on the dock was real.  The local fishermen tried for weeks to catch one off the coast of Massachusetts without success.  They finally had to fly a dead one up from Florida (which didn’t smell too great after a week of being out in the sun).

The opening sequence in the film (where the girl gets brutally attacked by the unseen shark in the water at night) was achieved using a special harness.   Several men using cables ran up and down the beach dragging the stunt actress through the water to get the desired effect of her thrashing around and being pulled under by the shark.  For the shot where her head gets jerked under the first time, that was actually Steven Spielberg pulling on the line under the water.

During the final part of the film, as the shark’s dead carcass sinks into the ocean, if you listen carefully, you can hear a dinosaur bellowing.  Spielberg lifted the sound effect from an old B-movie from the 1950s.  You can hear the exact same sound effect at the climax in “Duel” when the truck goes over the cliff.   It was Spielberg’s tribute to his other movie, as well as his way of showing that both the truck and the shark were forces of nature…primal and unthinking.

As it turned out, “Jaws” would only claim the title of “biggest money-maker” of all time for a scant two years.  As influential as it was, it was eclipsed in 1977 by another film which not only outperformed it at the box office, but which also created a seismic shift in the industry (and pop culture in general).  A movie, which perhaps more than any other, has defined the kind of entertainment we still expect when we go to the cinema today.  That’s next in Film History 101.

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