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The Surprising Truth To How Spielberg Made Jaws So Friggin’ Terrifying

5 years, 29 days ago
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by Billy Russell

On June 21st, Steven Spielberg’s sophomore film, Jaws (often referred to as being the first film of Hollywood’s “blockbuster” era) turns 40. So, if Jaws were a guy, he’d be growing into a paunchy beer belly and occasionally checking the mirror for continuing graying hairs.

Jaws set a precedent for thrills audiences of the time weren’t used to. It scared the hell out of people then, and it scares the hell out people now. It’s one of the perfect thrillers, a movie made to take delight in and laugh at yourself when it successfully scares you.

Here are some of its best moments:

The Opening

Spielberg has a way with the openings to his films. From Indiana Jones entering a temple and then tumbling away from it with a giant boulder in pursuit, or Captain Miller storming the beaches at Normandy, Spielberg knows how to set the stage for what’s going to happen.

Bah-dum. Bah-dum. Bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum… DOO-DA-DOO!

We begin with the yet unseen shark’s POV scouring the ocean for a bite to eat and then cut to its prey, getting dunk on the beach with a roaring bonfire flickering in the blackness of the night. A guy with too much to drink follows a girl to the water and, only something like ten minutes in, one of the most terrifying deaths in cinematic history follows.

Panic on the Beach

Spielberg and his director of photography Bill Butler (one of the best in the business) use every cinematic trick they have up their sleeves to ramp up the masterwork of the infamous beach scene that ends with the two things audiences just hate seeing: A dead dog and a dead kid. When you see a kid bite it in a summer movie, you know the filmmakers aren’t just messing around. They want to see you unnerved.

It’s almost hyperbole to refer to a scene as being “Hitchcockian” because what you really mean is that camerawork and editing were employed to create tension. But here, literally, Jaws is Hitchockian in form and in execution. To create the illusion of seamless action, when someone walks in front of the camera, there is a camouflaged cut with a closer angle and a more appropriate lens attached, a la Hitchcock’s Rope. Then, someone walks by, and the angle is now directed toward the beach. All the while Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), is monitoring the beachgoers to make sure everyone remains safe. And then, as the perfect climax, we get the classic Vertigo shot, where the camera zooms in on the subject while simultaneously dollying out so that the background grows and stretches and causes unease in the viewer.

Quint’s Monologues

Quint is clearly a leftover from another movie transposed into Jaws, but I mean that as a compliment because it works beautifully. When he officially joins in on the action to get the shark, it becomes a totally different movie—so, I usually see Jaws divided into halves: There’s the story on the land that’s filled with dread of the unseen shark and the ocean is this unseen darkness holding threats capable of anything; and then there’s the second half which is like a much more terrifying Moby Dick that’s somehow more existential, even though it’s less mysterious. Both halves are equally great.

In each half of the movie, Quint delivers a monologue worthy of telling your friends to shut up for. “Hey!” You’ll rudely say. “Quint’s gonna say something!” and he’ll deliver a beautiful speech about how if these people don’t hire him, the beaches will be closed and they’ll lose their precious tourist-season money.

The second monologue was written by John Milius, which says everything that needs to be said of its greatness. John Milius, if you’re unfamiliar, is one of the most fascinating writer/directors in Hollywood legend. He was his career’s own undoing, but it was a great ride… from convincing Martin Sheen to record his narration for Apocalypse Now with a gun in his hand to make him uneasy, to crafting immortal lines in Jaws like, “You know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.”

The Severed Head

True story, when Spielberg was wrapping production on Jaws he said he got greedy for “one more scream” and re-shot a scene with $3,000 of his own money in editor Verna Field’s swimming pool in which the dead body of a shark victim is discovered.

Let me tell you something about “scare chords.” I hate scare chords. I hate them. It’s a cheap and easy way to scare someone, if you can even call it scaring someone… it’s more like jarring their senses and causing them such a sudden physical discomfort that they have no other choice but to react. Anyone can do that, you just talk to them quietly in a very hushed, reassuring tone and then—AHH YOU SCREAM!!

The discovery of the dead body and the shark’s tooth in the wreckage of the sunken boat might very well be the only instance of a musical cue intended to scare an audience that I actually really, really love. It’s so self-assured and cocky. One moment you’re beginning to process what exactly it is you’re seeing, and when you make the mental connection that it’s a badly decomposing corpse becoming visible within the background, the music SHRIEKS at you and it’s brilliant.

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

When Jaws was first envisioned by Universal Pictures and its creative team, Spielberg was to be making a rather straight-forward monster movie, featuring an animal that exists in nature being the twist. Like The Creature From the Black Lagoon or other, similar movies of that era, the shark was going to be in the front and center of the action. Good thing for us and good thing for film history, the robotic shark that they designed was a piece of crap that kept breaking down and it, in fact, almost killed George Lucas when he was visiting the set one day.

Making do with what he had, Spielberg, used obscured shots, shots of fins, perspective shots and all kinds of trickery, barely ever showing the thing from below. And the movie is all the better because of it. Fear doesn’t exist in the sunlight, it exists in the shadows. Fear isn’t rationality—by definition it’s everything irrational in the world. Seeing the shark again and again would obfuscate in clear intentions being established with the tension and cheapen it to nothing more than a creature feature with a better director attached to it.

When we first see the shark—and hear Roy Scheider’s immortal, ad-libbed line—you just have to agree with the total sincerity of the moment. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Jaws is going to be playing at select theaters this month and if you’re lucky enough to have time available and a theater close enough to you showing it, go see it now. If you can’t make it, at least pick it up on Blu-Ray. The transfer is gorgeous. The original 35 mm negative was used for its transfer and you’re in for a night of sheer, unbridled fun.

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