What made “Jaws” a classic, a phenomenon, the original Hollywood summer blockbuster? The reasons are as familiar as that iconic poster image of a great white shark about to show a sexy skinny-dipper the true meaning of risky. You know the list: Steven Spielberg’s instinctive flair for suspense (aided in no small part by Verna Fields’s Oscar-winning editing). Composer John Williams’s universally recognizable, urgently ominous score. Colorful performances by Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss that made audiences care about the characters Peter Benchley’s story dangled as shark bait. All elements that helped make the film not just a 1975 Oscar nominee for best picture, but also something that forever changed the way we experience and anticipate movies.
“Jaws” marked the arrival of high-concept movies that were easily described and readily sold. A cinema landscape then characterized by the work of Coppola, Scorsese, Polanski, et al. quickly shifted its emphasis to “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.” and other profit machines. TV promo blitzes became standard. Studios suddenly started looking at summer as high season rather than the off-season. Today, when “The Dark Knight Rises” and other big releases open on 4,000 screens across the country, they’re following a pattern set by “Jaws,” which broke from the platform-release model of opening small and building business gradually. Universal Pictures execs took the unprecedented step of opening wide — on 400 screens! — after test screenings suddenly made them realize what they had on their hands.
But for all of the movie’s far-reaching impact, dare it be suggested that there’s also a “that was then” argument to be made? “Jaws,” after all, infamously features a mechanical shark (three, actually) that Spielberg and his crew could never quite get to work properly. Shaw’s salty Quint has his fateful showdown with the creature, and its limited-mobility glitchiness is on full, brightly lit display. You might figure that in the Comic-Con era, with its far more elaborate effects — heck, a shark could battle the Hulk these days — “Jaws” would have loosened its hold on our imagination. Not really, judging by the thousands anticipated for Jawsfest: The Tribute, a fan gathering being held Aug. 9-12 on Martha’s Vineyard, onscreen stand-in for fictional, shark-plagued Amity Island. (Look for the film to further reaffirm its relevance when it hits Blu-ray shelves on Aug. 14, in a splashy restoration that’s being screened at the festival. An additional area showing will follow Sept. 3 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.)
Ask “Jaws” production designer Joe Alves, whose duties involved everything from overseeing the effects work to originally scouting the Vineyard, and he’ll tell you that the malfunctions were frustrating, but also a motivator for tackling shots creatively. What’s more, he contends, the robo-shark — legendarily dubbed Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer — is as much a part of why the movie endures as anything. “Even though you could do a CGI shark today and it would be slicker, our shark had a certain character to it,” says Alves, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “It became a personality in itself.”
It’s easy to get Alves chatting about, say, hurriedly going fishing for squid to supply the “Quint guts” that needed to be stuck between the shark’s teeth for a key shot. (Expect Alves to share plenty of those memories in a series of Jawsfest panels he’ll be doing with the likes of Jeffrey Kramer, who played deputy to Scheider’s island police chief, Brody, and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb.) “The shark was simplistic,” Alves says. “But then, a lot of films today are so dense with stuff, and the screen is filled with so much information, it’s over the top. If we had had that, rather than being a great experience, it could have been a distraction from that great relationship between the three guys.”
Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary, who played Brody’s wife, offer another perspective on Bruce’s value in a feature retrospective newly included on the Blu-ray, the cleverly titled “The Shark Is Still Working.” All the technical holdups, they remember, led Spielberg and the actors to meet regularly at his cottage to brainstorm — improv sessions that resulted in moments such as Quint darkly likening a shark’s cold, blank eyes to a doll’s.
To hear Shaw deliver the line now, you can’t help but wonder: Can we picture this creepy image so vividly because of “Jaws,” or did “Jaws” shrewdly trade on existing, ingrained mental snapshots? It might not be possible to say anymore. What’s clear is that sharks continue to inspire a mix of fascination and fear — particularly locally — that helps keep the movie’s sense of peril fresh. Last week’s shark attack in Truro raises concerns, of course, as did last month’s viral image of a kayaker being shadowed by a shark’s dorsal in Orleans. Part of the impetus for the festival’s extensive conservation component is to acknowledge and help alleviate those concerns.
The idea and educational aim is similar to, say, the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, still a draw after 25 years — a milestone also being celebrated as part of the festival. “Jaws,” obviously, serves a very different purpose. Just as we watch disaster movies to imagine catastrophic events, we watch “Jaws” to safely experience the terror and horrific result of a shark attack — albeit with a somewhat greater sense of could-this-happen unease.
Jawsfest will certainly be doing its part to keep the vicarious chills alive, as organizers have enlisted renowned effects artist Greg Nicotero of “The Walking Dead” to re-create the production’s gnarlier props for a “Behind the Screams” exhibit. (All in a day’s work for Nicotero, who also crafted a Bruce reproduction for the Vineyard’s previous Jawsfest in 2005.) “He’s already sent us a replica of [doomed swimmer] Chrissie Watkins’s arm, the one they find on the beach,” says festival producer Susan Sigel Goldsmith. “A jeweler here made the rings for the original, and those are long lost, so they’re refitting rings for us.
“That’s the kind of crazy stuff that’s going on — a fair number of body parts coming in,” Goldsmith continues, laughing. “Which I think is good for a ‘Jaws’ event.”
A related bit of happy news for fans: former stuntwoman and actress Susan Backlinie, who played Chrissie, will be appearing at the festival, limbs fully intact. Interviewed by phone from her home in Southern California, Backlinie, 65, is entertainingly matter-of-fact about her industry resume, which doesn’t extend too many years beyond “Jaws,” but includes some fun secondary credits. She spoofed her ill-fated swim in Spielberg’s “1941,” and, in 1981’s “The Great Muppet Caper,” lent an assist with Miss Piggy’s Esther Williams water ballet riff. Oh, and then there’s the wild animal training. “Remember the tiger that jumped out of the bush in ‘Apocalypse Now’?” she says. “That was mine.”
No wonder Backlinie wasn’t overly fazed by strapping on a rig to have a gaggle of Spielberg’s crew guys yank her through the water shark-style. If anything, she’s a poster girl for not sweating the movie’s foreboding “Don’t go in the water” tagline. “I left the business about seven years after ‘Jaws’ to go sailing around the world,” she says. “Covered everything but the Panama Canal.”
If Backlinie isn’t one to replay her big moment in film history on some continuous reminiscence loop, that’s OK — the “Jaws” fan waters are teeming with diehards whose obsession keeps the film preserved in sharp detail. Take effects creator Nicotero, whose career path was set by youthful memories of seeing the movie. Goldsmith talks excitedly about Nicotero’s work on one of the featured Jawsfest attractions, a life-size replica of Quint, Brody, and Dreyfuss’s Hooper on the transom of Quint’s boat, the Orca. And how’s this for a passion project: He was working on the re-creation even before he knew the festival was scheduled, says Goldsmith.
Then there’s local fan Jim Beller, co-compiler of the recently published visual history “Jaws: Memories From Martha’s Vineyard,” who first caught the movie as a 9-year-old at a packed Charles Cinema back in ’75. The experience left such an impression that it spurred Beller to amass what is reputedly the world’s largest collection of “Jaws” memorabilia. It’s a sprawl that includes both amusingly familiar consumer tchotchkes and true rarities — everything from an original Bruce tooth and schematic to a shark facts poster that the Charles used to prime the queued-up crowd. (Beller won’t be bringing his stash to the festival, but you’ll be able to catch him running the “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat” Tour, among other events.) “Before Blu-ray and DVD and VHS, collecting was a way to take the movie home with me,” says Beller, touching on another key to the film’s ever-lurking cultural presence — its prototypical merchandising blitz, still having a ripple effect on eBay.
But it’s not just about the swag, of course. “It’s a movie that has everything in it,” says Beller. “Those great water-level shots, great story, drama, suspense, horror, comedy — it’s one of those rare cases where everything works. It’s still the shark movie, even if some of the facts are wrong.
“And it’s just that fear of not knowing what’s under you when you’re out there swimming,” he says. “That feeling that no matter where you are, you’re in their territory. That’s why the movie will always work, for as long as people go in swimming.” Or don’t go in, as the case may be.