“Jaws Became a Living Nightmare”: Steven Spielberg’s Ultimate Tell-All Interview
“It was made under the worst of conditions,” the filmmaker reveals in a new book. “People versus the eternal sea. The sea won the battle.”
Jaws was Steven Spielberg’s second feature film, his first full-scale blockbuster, and one of the most backbreaking projects he ever directed. At times the 1975 film’s shoot in the Atlantic Ocean made the then 27-year-old filmmaker fear his own career was sinking to the bottom of the sea alongside his perpetually malfunctioning shark.
In this extensive interview excerpted from the new book Spielberg: The First Ten Years, author and filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau goes long with the Oscar winner about all aspects of the now-classic movie, from alternate casting possibilities (Lee Marvin, Jon Voight, and Jeff Bridges among them) to the near-revolt he faced from the crew, and the apology he makes to the special effects team who built the mechanical Great White. Some of his tales are downright comical, like the director’s efforts to secure the rights to a dirty rhyme that Quint actor Robert Shaw stole from an Irish tombstone, and a discarded opening-credits concept he calls “one of my bad ideas.”
“What he describes in the book, having a bit of a nervous breakdown over it, was so powerful to me, because that really shows the struggle and the toll that this took on him,” says Bouzereau, who also directed the documentaries Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind and Five Came Back, about Hollywood during World War II. He has been interviewing and writing about Spielberg for more than three decades.
By focusing on the director’s early years in his book, which will be released on October 24, Bouzereau found Spielberg to be surprisingly candid. “It probably felt like a safer time to be introspective about the past,” he says. “It’s oftentimes easier to talk to filmmakers about their past work with the perspective of time, rather than when they’re actually trying to sell something in the moment. There’s a vulnerability that exists at the time.”
The book, which spans Spielberg’s 1971 TV movie Duel, which was so acclaimed and popular that it was released theatrically, to his first theatrical-only movie, The Sugarland Express, through the megahits Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
“When I was writing the book, I needed to find, what is the real theme of those first 10 years?” Bouzereau says. “The thing that I discovered is that all those films are a variation on ‘home.’ In Duel, you have a man who is being pursued by this killer truck. He may never go home. The Sugarland Express is about this couple trying to get home and be reunited with their kid so that they can have a home. Jaws is about a man who leaves New York to form a new home in Amity Island, and what do they sing when they’re on the boat chasing the shark? ‘Show me the way to go home…’
“Then you go to Close Encounters, about a man who leaves home. 1941 is about the attack on the homeland. Raiders is about a man with virtually no home. And we end with, ‘E.T. phone home.’ And so I explained it to him exactly like I’m saying it to you, and he’s like, ‘I guess I’ve never been far away from home.’”
That may be one reason Jaws remains such a traumatic memory for the filmmaker. Having worked so hard to establish a home in the hard-fought industry of Hollywood, Spielberg saw his prospects swirling around the drain—pursued by a 25-foot shark.
Laurent Bouzereau: You found out about Jaws even before the novel by Peter Benchley was even published, right?
Steven Spielberg: I do remember working on the postproduction of my first theatrical film The Sugarland Express, and seeing a galley proof of a book called Jaws. This was way before the title entered the national consciousness—it was just a word—JAWS. I asked if I could read the book, still not knowing this was about a great white shark, a predator off the beaches of a town called Amity. I had no idea this was about to become one of the greatest best sellers in the nation.
Now, my recollection is that the project had already been offered to another director who was scheduled to meet with [author] Peter Benchley. So, when I read the book over that weekend, it wasn’t available for me to direct. But I got through the book. And I immediately thought: Wow, this is like a TV movie I made about a truck and a hapless driver, called Duel. And of course, I’m young and I’m stupid and I’m saying, “Duel . . . gee . . . that has four letters, and Jaws has four letters . . . and they’re both about these leviathans preying on innocent people.” And I saw such comparison between the two that I thought of Jaws as a sequel to Duel, only on water.
I got very interested in the project, and I went back to [producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, who owned the film rights] and said, “I know how to make this into a film. I know what to cut out. I know what to keep. That sea hunt for that shark is extraordinary! I know how to do this.” But Dick and David confirmed they were going to meet with another director and Peter Benchley. That was that, until I got a call from Dick asking me to come meet with him and David.
They sat me down and announced, “We want you to direct Jaws.” I said, “Whatever happened to the director?” And they explained, “We had the meeting with him, but he kept referring to the shark in front of Peter Benchley as ‘the white whale.’ And Peter became very disinterested in having his shark called a whale.” And that’s how the project finally came to me.
There were quite a few screenplay drafts written, based on the novel. A few subplots like the ties the mayor has with the mafia, or the romance between [Richard Dreyfuss’s character] Hooper and Brody’s wife [played Lorraine Gary], among others, were dropped.
The first thing I told Peter Benchley was I didn’t see any room in this adventure for the affair between Ellen Brody, the wife of the chief of police, and the ichthyologist. That was like a Peyton Place scandal that I didn’t feel had any place in the kind of movie I wanted to make. But I was mostly intrigued and swept away by Peter Benchley’s enormous storytelling skills in the rest of the novel, with a sea-hunt survivors adventure. That’s what I wanted to focus on—and I wanted to get there without having to deal with the nonessential peccadilloes going on in a town without pity. So, the affair never really made it even into the early script that Peter Benchley wrote.
I’m curious about the casting of the three protagonists: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw. They are fantastic actors, but they weren’t big stars, big “marquee” names.
I did go for a big star initially because my first choice for Quint was Lee Marvin, but he wasn’t interested. What I heard was that he wanted to go fishing for real! He took his fishing very seriously and didn’t want to do it from a “movie” boat. My second choice was Sterling Hayden, whom I thought would make an amazing Quint. He had an Ahab quality about him—he had done a film entitled Terror in a Texas Town in 1958, where he played an imposing whaler who walked around with a harpoon. I was a big fan of his, especially from the two films he had done with Stanley Kubrick, The Killing  and Dr. Strangelove . I don’t remember why, but he wasn’t able to do the role.
There were other actors who wanted to play Quint, and then Dick Zanuck and David Brown suggested Robert Shaw—they had just worked with him in The Sting , which they produced, and loved him. I’d just screened two films with Shaw to refresh my memory, including A Man for All Seasons , in which he was spectacular. Based on that, and of course on From Russia with Love —with that great fight on a train where he played the nemesis to 007—I said, “Wow . . . I wish I had thought of him! It’s a great idea!” He fortunately said yes.
I’ll never forget that one of the first things Shaw said to me was, “I haven’t had a drink in two months!” And Dick was always warning me when he sensed that Robert Shaw had been drinking, fearing it would delay filming—but it didn’t really matter because the shark wasn’t working anyway. Incidentally, during production, Dick Zanuck and Robert Shaw would play ping-pong together, and one day, when Dick won, Shaw challenged him to a fistfight which was quickly defused by others. If Shaw had gotten a black eye, that would definitely have put us further behind schedule!
Richard Dreyfuss was not my first choice either. I went to Jon Voight first, and he said no. I think we interviewed Timothy Bottoms as well as several other actors, including Jeff Bridges. I was a big fan of The Last Picture Show —I was going after everyone in the cast from that film, including Bottoms and Bridges. We got turned down or they weren’t available. These things happen all the time. Richard Dreyfuss got the part because I loved [George Lucas’s] American Graffiti . George was the one who told me, “Why don’t you cast Ricky Dreyfuss?” I sought a meeting with Richard, who said he was interested in seeing Jaws, but he wasn’t interested in being in it. I was persistent, and [Jaws co-screenwriter] Carl Gottlieb, who knew Richard well, kept saying to him, “Come on, it will be fun.” So, Richard accepted another meeting with me, and I talked him into it.
How I cast Roy Scheider is an interesting story. I was going to a whole series of actors, most of them unknown. There was an actor I liked from Serpico —it was not Al Pacino—as well as another one I had seen in an off-Broadway play. But the studio, Zanuck, and Brown were pressuring me to get a name for this part. I was having trouble finding someone I liked. Then, I remember going to a party one night, and Roy Scheider, whom I loved from The French Connection, came and sat down next to me and said, “You look awfully depressed.” I told him, “Oh no, I’m not depressed. I’m just having trouble casting my movie.” He asked what the film was—I explained it was based on a novel called Jaws and told him the entire plot. At the end of it, Roy said, “Wow, that’s a great story! What about me?” I looked at him and said, “Yeah, what about you? You’d make a great Chief Brody!”
What about Lorraine Gary, the wife of Universal’s Sid Sheinberg. Why did you choose her for the part of Ellen Brody?
She was the first person I cast for the movie. I had loved her in a TV movie called The Marcus-Nelson Murders  with Telly Savalas. I thought she was a very natural actress, almost improvisational in her style. She brought realism to Jaws and to that family, which is something I really wanted for the film.
And Murray Hamilton as Amity’s mayor?
I had been a big fan of his from The FBI Story  with James Stewart to The Graduate . I wanted to work with him, and I saw him instantly as the mayor of Amity. I didn’t have to go through many other actors. He was the first choice for the part, and I was lucky to get him.
You hired the famous shark experts and documentary filmmakers Ron and Valerie Taylor to film real-life shark footage back in Australia. How did their contribution inform the story?
I had this idea that we could maybe shoot real shark footage. I was always afraid that the mechanical shark wouldn’t look like a real one. Ron and Valerie Taylor were well-known for having escaped the jaws of death and danger to make these outstanding documentaries on great white sharks around the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. I remember just being knocked out by what they had captured, and I thought they would be great to shoot second-unit footage.
However, because the largest shark they could guarantee finding was about seventeen feet long, and the mechanical shark we were busy building was twenty-six feet long, I had this idea of having a miniature cage for the scene where Matt Hooper goes underwater, and to use a little person or a very short man in it. As for the Taylors’ footage, the real shark got caught in the ropes of the cage, and I rewrote the scene around that piece of existing footage. That’s why you have the shark getting entangled in the ropes of the cage, and why it starts pulling the jib down, splintering it.
You decided to film on Martha’s Vineyard—what was that experience like?
Martha’s Vineyard suited the purpose of the story— everything was perfect. But the main attraction wasn’t so much the charm of a whaling town with piers and boats or anything of that nature. It was something you couldn’t see with the naked eye; it was the fact that it was the only place on the East Coast where I could go twelve miles out to sea and avoid any sighting of land but still have a sandy ocean bottom only thirty feet below the surface, where we could install our shark sled. That’s the depth the mechanical shark apparatus required.
Another factor was that once we were at sea on the Orca, no matter what direction my cameras turned, you didn’t see land. My fear was the minute the audience saw land, they would not feel the danger. I wanted the audience to think the boat couldn’t just simply turn around and go back to shore. I literally needed a 360-degree stage at sea.
And Susan Backlinie, who played Chrissie, the first attack victim, was attached to wires so she could be pulled back and forth to simulate the attack, right?
She had a harness on. There were two eye rings in it, and wires that led to two stakes in the beach. Five crew were on one side, and five crew on the other, and they basically pulled Susan. There was a ribbon hanging from the wire, and when it got to one of the stakes, they had to stop pulling and the other team took over and pulled the other way. What you didn’t want to have happen was for both teams to pull at the same time.
For extra safety, she had the ability to quick release the wire if something went wrong. It had to be perfectly choreographed to give the impression the shark was pulling her violently to the right and then immediately violently to the left.
Susan told me you pulled when the shark first attacks her.
Yes, I did it myself, but that was then—I don’t go into the water anymore.
How did you cast Susan?
I didn’t want an actor to do it. I wanted a stuntperson because I needed somebody who was great in the water, who knew water ballet, and knew how to endure what I imagined was going to be a whole lot of violent shaking. So, I went to stunts to find her, and Susan was up to the challenge.
I understand that you looped her screaming later. You gave her a bassinet of water and did all those sounds during post.
Yes, we went to the looping stage, and she did her own screaming and choking on glasses of water.
The next victim is the Kintner boy—there’s amazing tension and suspense in the way you created that scene.
The death of the Kintner boy on his raft—all the paranoia, tension, and suspense leading up to the actual attack—was something I wanted to do in one sustained shot. It wasn’t possible, so instead, I came up with the idea to have bathers with different colored bathing suits walking in front of the camera, creating a wipe that would either reveal Roy Scheider or his point of view. It wasn’t one shot, but it gave a seamless feeling to the scene.
I’m also curious about [fisherman character] Ben Gardner’s death. Wasn’t the discovery of his boat originally shot in the daytime?
I had an afterthought about the scene. But either way, I always thought the best solution was not to show Ben’s death in real time, and to have Hooper discover not only the hole in the boat with the shark’s tooth but Ben’s head.
**Yes, and that was shot later at the MGM tank, while the famous close-up on Ben’s head was shot in [**Jaws editor] Verna Field’s swimming pool! Did you ever wonder how the shark killed Ben? Did he bite him and spit out his head?
[Laughs.] I didn’t think that deeply about it. All I know is that he was dead!
In terms of Quint’s death, was it very disturbing to film that sequence?
No, it wasn’t disturbing because it was toward the end of the movie, and I just couldn’t wait to get off the picture. I just couldn’t wait to get back to Los Angeles—get on that airplane in Boston at Logan Airport and fly as quickly as a plane could take me back home. So, no, there was nothing scary about it for me. For that sequence, I was following the storyboards I had been working on for months. I shot the ending of the film and left just before effects pushed the button and blew the shark into shark bait.
Following the “fake” attack and panic on the beach, there was the victim in the estuary. That scene changed quite a bit in the cutting room.
I cut the scene down because it was too bloody, too gory. Stuntman Teddy Grossman played the victim—and Teddy is a very funny guy, by the way—but originally, he was riding in the mouth of the shark like a maidenhead of a ship, toward the kid in the water, vomiting blood. That was much more horrible than anything else that came in the first third of the movie, so I took it out.
I love the moment where the guys are packing up to go out to sea—I read that Robert Shaw improvised some of the dialogue in that scene.
I asked Robert to give Lorraine’s character, Ellen Brody, a bit of a hard time by teasing her husband— he is wearing rubber boots and a rubber outfit, so Quint says, “See ya got ya rubbers!” and laughs. Quint is doing this to both Brody and Hooper— and at some point, Robert Shaw recited this little poem, “This is the story of Mary McGee, lived to the age of a hundred and three. For fifteen years she kept her virginity, not a bad record for this vicinity.” I said to him, “You got to help me clear this—if that’s from a song, we can’t use it without paying for the rights.” And he reassured me, “No, I don’t think we’ll get sued. I got it from a tombstone in Ireland!”
Once we’re out to sea, we never leave the Orca— Quint’s boat.
The Orca was originally called the Warlock before it was purchased by our production designer Joe Alves. He chose the boat and I liked it a lot, but I felt it didn’t have enough character—and Joe agreed. So, he replaced the entire wheelhouse with one of his own design with larger windows, so we could see out. Everywhere you were on the boat, the ocean was breathing down your neck. Joe built a second Orca that was essentially designed to sink, with pumps so it could come back up for another take.
A problem we had was when a speedboat pulling the Orca went too fast and pulled out the planking from the haul—water rushed in, and the boat sank in about two minutes. I remember vividly the moment where the actors were yelling, “Send boats, get us out, send boats!” Our sound mixer John Carter—who shared an Oscar with his team for Jaws—picked up the Nagra recorder, held it over his head, and said, “Fuck the actors, save the sound department!” I have this image to this day of John sinking holding his recorder with water up to his ankles, and then to his knees, while crews on boats were scrambling to pull everybody off the sinking Orca. Months later, he was holding an Oscar in those hands!
What happened to the camera equipment?
The camera was on the boat, too, and it went underwater. Our director of photography Bill Butler said: “You know, in a sense, the developing solution we use is saline, and I think the film will be okay if we can rush it to the lab, and as long as we keep it in saltwater.” We had big buckets of saltwater and kept the magazines of film in there—they were sent to our lab in New York, and they successfully saved the negative.
Bill Butler was inventive and created equipment just to make Jaws. There was the camera platform that could move with the tide and go above or below the surface of the water. He also had a special box where he could put his camera and film in the water, but he reconfigured it so he could still pull focus. I wanted this movie to be at water level and have the camera right down to where the human point of view is most accustomed to being when you’re swimming—I’d say 25 percent of the film was shot using that box that Bill Butler reconfigured for us.
Let’s talk about the mechanical shark, Bruce, who was affectionately nicknamed after your lawyer Bruce Raymer.
That’s a much-maligned shark, and I am kind of responsible for creating a lot of bad mouthing about it because the shark was frustrating. It didn’t really work all the time—it didn’t work hardly at all. I got mad at the shark and at the people who made it, when in fact, Bob Mattey was the best special effects man alive. Nobody else but Bob could have made the shark work as well as it did. So, he did a great job. It was just that we were shooting out on the Atlantic Ocean, and not in a lazy lake—the way Hollywood movies were usually doing it.
We had tides to contend with. I would often set up a shot and suddenly the barge holding our electrical generators would start drifting that way, the camera barge would drift in another direction, and the Orca would move around its two anchors. Before you knew it, we were completely out of position, and it would take another hour to reset. When we were finally ready, a bunch of tourists on sailboats would show up, cross the horizon, and ruin our shot. It was just frustrating and tough on all of us—I’d get very angry, and of course, I’d blame the shark. It seldom worked, so it was an easy target. Yet it worked well enough that we, for a while, had the biggest hit of all time. So, in the end, I really owe the shark a lot more than I want to take away from it right now. And I owe Bob Mattey and his team an apology and all my gratitude.
How did you kill time while you waited for the shark to work?
I was only getting two shots on some days. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make this movie, sitting around for seven, eight hours, waiting for the shark to work, or waiting for the barrels to sink without coming right back up. I was getting one shot before lunch and one shot before five o’clock in the afternoon.
Sometimes, we all just sat around. I had these kind of old-fashioned radio headphones with two antennas. I looked like Ray Walston in My Favorite Martian. I wore them all the time. What was very strange was that in 1974, when we shot Jaws, the runaway hit song was Abba’s “Waterloo”—and it was playing over and over. The title of the song was strangely prophetic given that at that point I felt that Jaws would be as great a defeat as Waterloo had been for Napoleon. And I was no Napoleon but could imagine never getting hired again.
There’s a famous night shot of the Orca with a shooting star in the sky.
There was something so primitive about this battle, this duel between these three men and nature, that it brought the cosmos into the equation. I wanted to do something that was otherworldly, even if a meteor in the sky is not a supernatural phenomenon. In fact, there’re two shooting stars that I added optically to underline the shark becoming almost a mythic character. I also added phosphorescence on the surface of the water when the barrels are moving around the boat at night. hat was also an optical effect, and it contributes to the movie reaching a mythical level. It was essential that it happened after Quint’s speech about the Indianapolis.
I love the scene between the guys comparing scars. I heard that the bit with Shaw showing his broken front tooth was an improv and a real thing.
Yeah, it was real. That was Robert Shaw’s idea. I had come up with the guys comparing scars and Robert said, “I got this fake tooth.” He pulled the cap off and asked, “Can I take it off as an addition to the scar-comparing contest?” All the lines in that scene leading up to the Indianapolis speech we did right there on set.
And John Milius, your friend, and the great writer/ director, contributed to the writing of that famous speech.
The Indianapolis speech about the delivery of the atomic bomb is my favorite part in Jaws. It was conceived by [uncredited Jaws screenwriter] Howard Sackler—who only wrote a one-page monologue as Quint starts to talk about one of the reasons he hates sharks. It was a wonderful scene and I kept trying to get Howard Sackler to expand it, but he felt that shorter was better and never would extend it. One day, I was talking to John Milius, and I said, “Could you make this a speech?” And John said, “Sure, it’s a great idea. I’ll try.”
So, John sat down and wrote page after page, in long hand I believe, a very, very long speech for Quint. It was essentially too much but pared down I knew it was going to be great. When Robert Shaw, who was himself an accomplished writer, read it, he said, “It’s too hard for me to play. There’s too much John Huston in some of this monologue. Huston could say this, but I can’t do it as well as he would. Let me have a chance at rewriting it.” So, Shaw rewrote Milius, who had rewritten Sackler—the final speech in the movie is basically Shaw’s version of Milius’s version of Sackler’s version!
What are your memories of completing the film?
Being on Jaws became a living nightmare, and not because I didn’t know what I was doing or because I was struggling to find the movie in my head. I knew the film I wanted to make. I just couldn’t get the movie I had in mind on film as quickly as I wanted. When we got out to the ocean, a lot of the crew got seasick, and once that passed, a kind of lethargy set in because we weren’t seemingly getting anything done. The end never seemed to be in sight, and yet I was the only person who could reassure the crew that there would be an end to this some day.
But it got me greedy. Earlier, when Hooper goes underwater to explore a half-sunken boat and “encounters” Ben Gardner’s severed head, we didn’t get any reaction, and I was wondering how to improve on that moment. In the meantime, the numbers were the highest in Universal’s history, the executives were happy, the audience loved the movie, we were all happy. But I was greedy, and I said, “There is one more scream we can get in this movie, if I can figure out this thing with Ben Gardner’s head.”
Even though the studio was ecstatic with the film, they wouldn’t give me any more money. They said, “It’s fine, don’t fix something that’s not broken. The movie works. Don’t mess with it or you’ll improve it into a failure.” So, I went and spent three thousand bucks of my own money to have the art department build the side of Ben Gardner’s boat out of balsa wood, to match the one we had shot before. We cut a hole in it, used the same head, and filmed it using a double for Richard Dreyfuss, in the swimming pool of my editor Verna Fields.
Originally, the head was just there, so I shot it coming through the hole about nine different ways. We edited several versions and tested it on my sound effects and music editors and dubbing team, who were still working on the film following our first preview. There was one take where they all said, “Wow, that one surprised me!” We put that cut into the film and took it for another preview in Long Beach at the Lakewood Theatre. That moment got a humongous scream, way bigger than the one with the shark coming out of the water in the Dallas preview. People came out of their seats even higher, and I was thrilled.
Our scores in Long Beach were better than the ones we’d gotten in Dallas. The studio was on cloud nine. On the other hand, audiences had a much lesser reaction to the shark bursting out of the water at the Long Beach preview than at the one in Dallas, and I kept wondering why. But it was obvious: After the new success of the scene with Ben Gardner’s head, the audience was on alert, constantly expecting another shocking moment, and their guard was up from there till the end.
How did the success of Jaws change your life and career?
Jaws was the first time I’d made any significant amount of money in my entire life, and it gave me a kind of independence. But that wasn’t important to me. I was a director. I was making movies. That’s what was important then and still is today. I didn’t change my lifestyle, although I just couldn’t believe that I was going to be making this kind of money overnight.
The success of Jaws gave me final cut on every movie I’ve made since then. It gave me a chance to make Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I had written the story. I was writing the screenplay. No one wanted to touch it until Jaws became a phenomenon, and suddenly Columbia said, “Go make your movie.”
So, ultimately, Jaws was the gift that kept on giving.