How Steven Spielberg Got the 'Jaws' Gig Only to Almost Walk Away

How Steven Spielberg Got the 'Jaws' Gig Only to Almost Walk Away

Aug 17, 2012

Welcome to Jaws Week! When it was announced that Steven Spielberg's Jaws was arriving on Blu-ray, we thought it'd be perfect to dedicate an entire week to the movie that created the summer blockbuster. Every day this week we'll be posting an assortment of really fun features tied to the film, its production, its legacy, its fans, its merchandise and so much more.


For a film so firmly associated with the director credited with launching the "summer blockbuster," Steven Spielberg wasn't actually Universal Studios’ first choice as director for their highly anticipated Jaws. He was coming off an impressive, well-received theatrical debut in 1974’s Sugarland Express, after 1971’s critically acclaimed TV suspense film Duel, but the wunderkind Spielberg was only 27 at the time shooting started on Jaws and certainly no sure thing.

But before Spielberg was given the director’s chair, the film's producers, Richard Zanuck and David Brown, had initially wanted to play it safe. According to Joseph McBride's Steven Spielberg biography, after buying the rights to Peter Benchley's bestselling beach-horror novel, they'd wanted an experienced action filmmaker. They first discussed the idea of bringing on John Sturges, an old hand who'd had great critical success with The Great Escape and Bad Day at Black Rock, but also the sloppy and far-too literal Old Man and the Sea, an adaptation that did not set the greatest precedent for Jaws. This may have weighed on the producers’ minds when they instead shifted attention to Dick Richards, whose recent film The Culpepper Cattle Co. had been relatively well received. Though it's not entirely without interest, to revisit Culpepper today is to see a glossy, arty but ultimately simple and empty period film; it’s hard to imagine Richards having the same skill with both characters and action pacing as Spielberg.

In a disastrous meeting with Zanuck and author Benchley, according to Mike Medavoy’s book You’re Only as Good as Your Next One, Richards kept referring to the “giant whale.” “It’s a shark,” he was corrected, to no avail, to the point where Benchley became incensed at the director’s cluelessness. Richards was gone.

Zanuck and Brown quickly turned their attention to an up-and-coming young director whose first feature, Duel, had some interesting parallels with Jaws: Both feature a menacing, as Spielberg puts it in the 30th anniversary DVD documentary, “leviathan preying upon every man.” He saw it as a sequel to Duel, only set on the water.

Benchley wrote a draft of the script himself, and then turned it over to Spielberg, who took a crack at it, too, before taking it to Howard Sackler—a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Great White Hope, who, like Benchley, was an expert diver. Still needing a finalized script ready enough for production, and pressed for time, Spielberg then brought on Carl Gottlieb to hone it further, to add character depth and humor. To save money and ease logistics, Gottlieb also hung around as an actor (he played a local newspaperman). Other scriptwriters brought in to tighten things up include Richard Levinson and William Link, as well as John Milius, renowned for his interest and knowledge of military history, who is credited with the now-famous USS Indianapolis monologue that Robert Shaw’s Quint unforgettably recounts during an eerie lull in the shark chase. The sheer number of talented scribes brought in by Spielberg were as much a reason Jaws ended up as good as it was—for once, an example of multiple writers being a good thing.

Before shooting had even began, however, Spielberg considered quitting Jaws to go shoot another film he'd been offered and very much wanted to make; Lucky Lady, a 1930s rum runners melodrama with Paul Newman--a film that, sadly for eventual director Stanley Donen, later became a total critical and commercial flop. Despite Spielberg's misgivings about Jaws and his own desire to do the other film, Universal tightened the screws on the director. (This probably isn't quite the case but one pictures a Godfather-like scene in which a wandering member of the family is reminded of their "responsibilities.")

It was partially out of budget necessity—Spielberg had been given about $4 million to work with (total production budget eventually exceeded $10 million, still low for a film of this scope) which didn’t help sooth his trepidations about the film’s shark effects—but the young director used a straightforward, at times documentary-like style that gave the film an immediacy making the scares, when they came, more effective. When the studio chief Sidney Sheinberg asked Spielberg if he could shoot in a studio tank instead to save money, Spielberg thankfully insisted on shooting in the ocean to keep it realistic despite the cost.

The problems with the mechanical shark are now legendary (Spielberg is quoted as saying the shark at Universal Studios tour works 10 times better than the one he had to work with, to put it in perspective). Obviously, in the days when such things were purely mechanical, rather than computerized, the odds of complications arising were much higher, but this aquatic automaton was, in the words of Zanuck, a “disaster”— causing Spielberg to again nearly quit and the studio to debate shutting the production down.

But Spielberg persevered, working around the issues, shooting when the shark was actually working and, ironically, the film may have benefited in a way, as the director was forced to focus more on building suspense, and heightening the impact the shark makes when it actually is revealed.

Some day there will be a sequel to this article about the sequel to Jaws--which Spielberg turned down, and in which Jeannot Szwarc replaced director John Hancock. Because Jaws 2 ultimately was a movie version of a dead shark, no one cares, but for the record Szwarc swears his "vision" for the film was wrecked by studio interference.

At any rate, there’s still only one Jaws, and the film’s creative success, yet alone its blockbuster status, is pretty close to a miracle given all the things that could have gone wrong on this shark hunt.

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