Jaws Turns 43! How the Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Almost Ruined Him
Seven surprising facts about the five-month-long shoot that left a mark on director Steven Spielberg for years afterward.
It’s been over four decades since the terrifying image of monstrous jaws emerging from a calm ocean left audiences reeling in theaters across the country.
Directed by the now legendary Steven Spielberg, Jaws’ spine-tingling premise, iconic score and startling performances turned it into the movie that launched the summer blockbuster in 1975.
Despite Jaws becoming a huge success, behind-the-scenes was rocky to say the least.
In fact, according to Wondery’s “Inside Jaws,” a gripping series of Apple podcasts detailing the filmmaking process, the film underwent so many hurdles, no one could have expected it would, to this day, hold second place in the American Film Institute’s most thrilling movies of all time.
Read below for some wild facts about the movie.
- They couldn’t get the shark to work — for months
It was a repeatedly malfunctioning shark that gave those yellow barrels seen throughout the movie their emblematic status. Every time the shark wouldn’t work, they would use the barrels to symbolize its arrival or presence. In fact, the shark doesn’t make an appearance until an hour and 20 minutes into the two-hour film.
- What was supposed to be a 50-day shoot became over 155 days
Spielberg’s shoot went way overtime due to the difficulties of shooting in the Atlantic Ocean. The budget was imploding, and producers threatened to pull the plug towards the very end. At one point, the Orca (the boat used in the film) actually started sinking with the cast and crew on it due to a leak, but they were able to send a rescue boat and salvage the footage.
In what was perhaps the most humorous and indicative moment of filming, captured in the Jaws making-of documentary, The Shark Is Still Working, Spielberg is seen yelling, “Get the actors off the boat!” — to which sound engineer John Carter replies, “F— the actors, save the sound department!”
- Spielberg would have recurring nightmares over the broken shark
According to Carl Gottlieb, Jaws’ screenwriter and Spielberg’s roommate throughout the shooting, Spielberg would rarely sleep over nightmares of a shark pouncing towards him at the bottom of the ocean, only to have it malfunction—its eyes roll to the back of its head, and its body begin to float. Spielberg even tried sleeping with celery in his pillow, so that the aroma would calm him.
- Spielberg had a panic attack in the middle of an airport after wrapping up
In October 1974, Jaws’ prolonged shoot finally ended, and Spielberg was on his way back to Los Angeles. However, the director experienced a panic attack at Boston Logan Airport from the months of debilitating production. The budget had blown up to $9 million, over twice as much as the original goal, and the feedback from Universal Pictures was less than favorable. That is, until they reaped the $470 million reward worldwide.
- The script was rewritten nearly every day
Because of the on-set struggles, Gottlieb needed to re-write the script throughout the day, and Spielberg had to improvise multiple elements on the spot, including the barrels. Spielberg would often read the scripts in the morning over tea, and then head off to set. Unrelated to the grueling logistical hardships, arguably the most famous line in the movie, Roy Scheider’s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” was also entirely improvised on the day of the shooting.
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- In the famous opening scene, the actress was yanked by the crew
When sweet and innocent Chrissie (played by Susan Backlinie) became the first gruesome victim in the movie’s opening sequence, Spielberg decided to authenticate the moment by adding an element of surprise. She wore a harness attached to ropes that the crew was ordered by Spielberg to yank without telling her when they would do it, so that her reaction of shock would feel more genuine on camera.
- Spielberg went back to revisit the lot with the Jaws boat for years to get over his trauma
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the director opened up about his battle with mental trauma following the movie’s completion. “I would work through my own trauma, because it was traumatic. I would just sit in that boat alone for hours, just working through, and I would shake. My hands would shake,” Spielberg said. Even after the film’s widespread success, Spielberg made these trips for over two years. He went on to explain that the film’s success did empower him to take more risks and tell his own stories. “The experience gave me complete freedom for the rest of my career,” he added.