“We’re going to need a bigger boat.” It was an unscripted line, an off-the-cuff remark during a take that somehow grabbed hold of an entire collective consciousness. The phrase has become a linguistic shorthand for confrontation with insurmountable odds. It came from the 1975 film Jaws, a seemingly frivolous B-film about a Great White shark terrorizing a small beachside community. However, something about the movie tapped into a primal fear, generating an unconscious callback to those terrifying caveman days when we weren’t at the top of the food chain. The fear generated by the film also leaked out into the real world: people refused to go swimming in the ocean, and beachside resort towns felt the sting of needed tourist dollars going elsewhere.
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The 28 year-old director Steven Spielberg couldn’t have possibly known what he was getting himself into when he signed on to Jaws. He had seen the galley version of the eponymous novel by Peter Benchley in his producers’ office, and was drawn to it because of the thematic similarities to his 1971 TV film, Duel. He responded to the struggle between anonymous, unknowable evil and an every-man protagonist, and saw an opportunity in Jaws to do for water what he did for the open road in Duel. In the process, however, he’d inadvertently change the face of cinema forever.
“It’s really a movie about our fear of the water,” observed Steven Spielberg. “When you’re out swimming and turn to tread water, half of your body is under the surface and you can’t keep tabs on what’s happening down there around your feet.”
Making the principle photography a complicated endeavor was the decision to film in a real setting. “I wouldn’t want to do it in a tank because it wouldn’t be believable, especially today when pictures like The French Connection (1971)‚ and Midnight Cowboy (1969) are shot in a documentary style, on location.”
To effectively portray the live action, the filmmaker had a specific place in mind. “The real attraction of Martha’s Vineyard was the fact that it was the only place on the East Coast where I could go twelve miles out to sea and still have a sandy bottom only thirty feet below the surface of the water, where the mechanical shark could function.”
There was a significant creative reason for selecting the location. “It was very important that, no matter where my cameras turned, I didn’t want to see land. My fear was the minute the audience saw land they’d say, ‘Look, it is getting pretty intense out there, just turn the boat around and go toward that land we keep seeing in your movie!’”
Jaws was one of the most difficult shoots of Spielberg’s career, owing primarily to his insistence that the film be shot in the choppy waters surrounding Martha’s Vineyard. Between various instances of the shark animatronic malfunctioning, the cast and crew getting seasick, or even the Orca boat set sinking in the ocean, the production was literally a baptism by fire for the young director. What was initially scheduled to be a 55-day shoot ballooned to 159, and Spielberg feared that he’d never work again because no one had ever fallen that behind on a schedule before.
Despite the hardships, however, fortune was smiling on Spielberg and his beleaguered crew. Much like the accidental capturing on film of a gorgeous shooting star (which remains in the final edit), there was a magical quality to Jaws that fundamentally connected with audiences. When he was 18, Spielberg made a $1 profit from his film Firelight (1964). Ten years later, he found himself the director of Jaws: the highest-grossing motion picture of all time.