Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard – Book Review

Steve Spielberg’s classic 1975 Jaws, earned him status as an important filmmaker, raised the standard for commercial filmmaking and inspired the term “blockbuster”, and it’s enjoying a renaissance nearly two generations later. 

The film about a jaw terrorizing a beach community was so well made, so powerful that it drove people from the beaches and decimated tourism the entire summer of 1975.  Newscasts regularly reported on shark attacks, which were no more prevalent before or after.  Jaws was a sensation.  So was Spielberg.

A digitally re-mastered version was released on Blu-Ray DVD in August and Jaws screened theatrically in select cities to celebrate its return.   The film is a pop culture giant, and the phrase “We’re going to need a bigger boat” is part of the lexicon.   Almost as famous are the stories of the action behind the scenes.

And now the definitive insider story of the making of Jaws has resurfaced.  Matt Taylor’s fascinating photo essay Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard, in an expanded second edition, takes us right into the heart of the shoot, and into the mouth of the mechanical shark.  ***image3:center***

The players, filmmakers, the beach, the town and the citizens who appeared in or worked on the film that summer, the problems that beset the shoot and the local color make for a terrific read.

The Massachusetts seaside colony, known as Amityville in the movie, jumped in with both feet to be part of it, even though few had heard of Steven Spielberg.  Occasional political and civic problems arose but in all, the townsfolk were mesmerized by the presence of an honest-to-God Hollywood crew in their town.

They participated in small roles (chosen on the spot by Spielberg and his casting crew) built and secured the set, offered practical advice and had rare access.  The book features their pictures, newspaper stories and personal recollections alongside official memos and directives, and interviews with the filmmakers. 

Spielberg battled Universal studios for control of the shoot which was plagued by bad weather, rough seas and budget overages.  Actors Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss found themselves facing countless delays.  Shaw was drinking and argumentative.  So much information!

Three mechanical sharks, all called Bruce, of which only ones remains on a gas station roof somewhere in California, gave the filmmakers trouble from the beginning to the end of the shoot.  Detailed drawings and photos tell the story of their manufacture, malfunctions, breakdowns and successes from Oak Bluff’s Harbor, dubbed Shark City for the duration.  

Each of the sharks had its own unique “talent”.  One was fixed atop a massive cherry picker which would travel along the seabed.  Another was a head and shortened torso and a third manned a sea sled.  On screen, all problems disappeared; the shark was fearsome.

The detail in Taylor’s book is astounding.  Close-up shots of the opening sequence in which a local beauty is attacked and killed by a shark on a calm nighttime ocean, the construction of Orca, the boat, the cabanas on the specially prepared sandy beach, and the famous billboard that reads Amity Island Welcomes You which is defaced to show a shark coming after the girl splashing in the “friendly” ocean waters.

It’s amazing how well documented the shoot was – shots of the famous sequence focusing on Scheider’s face as he lies on the beach, the camera tightening on him when he sees something in the water, the explosive town hall meeting and the bloody fight with the shark contrast with shots of the cast and crew lying around enjoying the sun between takes, and children and pets who came around to the set and found themselves in the film.***image4:center***

We all know what happened.  Jaws went on to be one of the most influential, important and successful pictures of all time.  And Universal and Spielberg made up.  And here’s the story in pictures and words!

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