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Film: Universal Bites Jaws Into Vineyard

"All is grist to their mill."  
By PETER BIRGE  |  June 19, 2009


This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix on June 4, 1974

Governor Sargent posed for the photographers on a pier in Edgartown, preparing to let fly a bottle of vintage California champagne against the hill of the Orca, a pleasure craft transformed into a Nova Scotian Trawler to be used in Universal's production of Jaws. Based on Peter Benchley's bestseller and directed by 26-year-old Steve Spielberg (late of The Sugarland Express), Jaws documents a seaside community's battle with a Great White Shark, whose man-eating maraudings threaten to ruin the profitable peak-season tourist trade. "I just want you to know, I've read Jaws," crooned His Excellency, "and I think it's the most mahvelous book I've ever read."

Jaws' cast includes Roy Scheider (Gene Hackman's cop sidekick in The French Connection) as Brody, the town's chief of police; Richard Dreyfuss (last seen in American Graffiti) as Hooper, the young Ivy League oceanographer; and Robert Shaw (the heavy of The Sting) as Quint, a latter-day Captain Ahab who becomes obsessed with killing the Great White. But top billing clearly goes to the shark. I stumbled upon the sequestered star on the upper level of a grey hangar-sized warehouse used by the Jaws Art Department in Edgartown. 24 feet long, its gaping jaws ringed with real-enough bicuspids and its eyes rolled back in a bloodlust frenzy, it looked terrifying enough just lying there on its scaffolding. Trucked out by Universal from Hollywood, where it had been created by former Disney engineer Bob Mattey, the Great White had been going through final preparations prior to launching.

In fact, there are three sharks, but they will add up to one leviathan on the screen. One's used for right profiles, one for left — and, in the tradition of all indispensable action stars, a full-face shark will do stunt work for the other two. The profile sharks had their blind sides cut away. Their inner workings of pumps, gauges, hoses and clamps reminded me of one of Andy Granatelli's old steam-belching Indy Novi Specials.

Elastex Nemesis

"They're made of elastex; it makes for a very lifelike skin. Very flexible," explained the engineer on duty. Could they do anything beyond look terrifying? "Sure," he said, pointing his finger at the fusebox labels in the sharks' bellies ('Eyes,' 'Mouth,' etc.). "They can flip this way and that, roll their eyes, and bite down with 1700 pounds of pressure; enough to look convincing. Run by pneumatic engine," he added with laconic pride. Mounted on rods fastened to a platform beneath the waterline, the shark could move at high speed for a short distance, he explained. And with a catapult, the stand-in could even leap clear out of the Atlantic.

"Well, I'm just a journalist, and I was curious," I said, preparing to leave. "A what?" gasped the engineer, taking a step back. "The producers'd have a heart attack if they knew you were here." The Great Whites were very much off limits, and I only noticed the Keep-Out signs when I retreated back down the stairs.

"You&ldots;saw the sharks?" director Spielberg queried me, as we sat on the porch stoop of a clapboard house near the East Chop Lighthouse a mile from Oak Bluffs. (The shooting that day was an interior dinner scene between Brody and his son.)

"Would it be wrong to mention my sighting of Universal's Great White?" I asked. "I think it's unfair to reveal the illusion," Spielberg shot back. Real sharks had been used for 70% of the action footage, shot months before in Australia, just after Benchley's screen rights had been bought; a midget in a miniature cage had been lowered into the shark-infested Great Barrier Reef, thus proportionately doubling the size of the only available sharks. "But if people realize we're using a mechanical shark," worried Spielberg, "they may look at the live footage and think the real sharks are imitations." The jaws on the Great White's first victim, a young girl gone for a moonlight swim, will be mechanical ones.

Lorraine Gray, the wife of a Universal executive, is making her film debut playing the wife of the police chief Brody. "Who's got Jaws' starring roll?" I asked her. "The shark is the star," she sighed. Benchley's novel has been stripped of all its sex by the screenwriters, including Brody's wife's illicit affair with the young oceanographer Hooper. Her part now consists almost entirely of serving Brody his meals between shark hunts. "What can you tell me about the shark in the warehouse?" I asked. "Oh, I'm not supposed to talk about it," she laughed. And kept her promise.

Roy Scheider and I chatted across a picket fence in the sunshine. "No, the shark isn't the star," he objected. Scheider maintained that the film actually centered around two people who leave the city behind them (in the book, Brody's a native of tiny Amity, his wife a 15-year resident) looking for a new life not so fraught with tension and frustration, only to learn that they must still face-up to the town's finned terror and the townspeople's eagerness to save their own financial necks. "No," grinned Scheider, squinting in the sunshine, "the shark's not the star, he's just the antagonist. Brody's the protagonist. If the shark's the star of this film then we're in trouble."

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Related: Heart of sharkness, Into the heart of sharkness, Mixed Magic’s Moby Dick goes to DC, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , Movies, Nature and the Environment, Wildlife,  More more >
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