Comfortable and Furious

Jaws

DUHHHHN-DUH

DUHHHHN-DUH

DUHN-DUH-DUHN-DUH-DUHN-DUH deeleee-dee! DUHN-DUH-DUHN DUH-DUHN

Yes, I have it on good authority that’s how the famous danger theme of Jaws was written, by the same man who wrote the Star Wars score, John Williams…here’s a sample from his notebook entitled “Imperial March”:

“BWAHM-BWAHM-BWAHM-teedee-BWAHM-teedee BWAHM

(higher) BWAHM-BWAHM-BWAHM-diddliy-BWAHM-teedee-BWAHM (maybe a little ‘toodley-deedly’ here–ask George–too many BWAHMs?)”

–Honest to God!

Don’t be too impressed with creatives, half of what they do is dice rolls and bullet-ducks, anyway…unless it’s all dice rolls and bullet-ducks as in the case of Jaws, or as Steven Spielberg calls it: “The reason John Williams gets to stay in my house and use my wife whenever he wants, like an Eskimo”.

Peter Benchley, who has a cameo in the film as the news reporter, wrote a novel based on the 1916 New Jersey Shark Mageddon where a Shark slipped into the estuaries and nibbled a few day-boating teens. The studios bought the book which proved to be unfilmable because the high-tech mechanical shark they built for the dramatic attacks, named Bruce, wouldn’t work. So, they got something near five hours of B-roll out of that toothy contraption and then [smashing sounds, plunking springs, rattling jackhammer]…stupid thing wouldn’t work.

“Lishen, lady, I know you tink dish ish cute buh I haf a sheen to shoot! I’a actor! lishen jush lemme go and I’ll come back and take a shelfie later! Dere calling me! (Gah! you taysht like shuntan loshen and vinegar–why do you tayshte like vineger, lady, dash weird.)”

It’s a young near-rookie director who had to step up: the human element of the story would stay the same, roughly; a cop who’s scared of water looking to be Chief of Police of a little tourist village thinking it’ll be cream cheese compared to the blood orgy of New York, but finds there’s blood orgies everywhere. Also, man isn’t the only monster yada-yada…it’s kind of a stab at the hippies, who, at the time, were preaching a whole-grain-and-granola biomimetic morality, wherein we were the curse and nature held all truth. Sure, Shaggy, tell that to the teenage girl getting whipped back and forth like a bolo by three tons of tooth-bearing rebuke, I’m sure she’d be all ears…I’m sorry, actually she’d be two toes, a hand and a pancreas..BECAUSE THAT’S ALL THEY FOUND!…(stupid hippie)….

Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody was three gasps from a legitimate panic attack the whole film and you felt it,as his Sisyphean attempt to get what needs to be got done adds a level of frustration to the character that Scheider makes too understandably real. When they found the former-young-lady and packed her into a cigar box, a whole explosion of red tape grabs him like Pinhead’s chains in Hellraiser. It was an accident they told him to say, “You yell ‘shark;’, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the 4th of July.” We’re actually grateful for his wife, Ellen Brody, played by Lorraine Gary, who is the wife we all want but none of us get. A woman entirely devoted to her husband and children and sympathetic to the terrors of his work. Hey, no shrieking moralizing while clutching her toddler, and not a harsh tone came out of her except when she screamed for her son to obey his father and “–get out of that boat, now!”

The Mayor, played brilliantly by Murray Hamilton, didn’t care that something was making dead-girl-guacamole down at the morgue. All he could see was that sweet, sweet summer scratch, and he’d be damned if some girl who got caught in the prop of a fishing boat ruins that for everybody. Hamilton is the most criminally underrated character actor from the 50s and 60s, and Spielberg’s eye for “honest actors” as he calls it, has led to some of the most inspired casting ever.

Brody plays ball against his better judgment and what happens, a little boy gets all et up two days later. As the father of two boys, he’s driven to maniac self-loathing for trying to fit in.

Image credit Tooney Terrors Action Figures

Huckleberry Finn’s first draft had a very different, very…well, ‘abstract’ ending….and, like, 40% more n-words.

Enter the shark expert Matt Hooper, by the always-nasal Richard Dreyfus, as he confirms to the just-as-culpable Medical Examiner when he did triage over the bits-and-pieces in the cigar box that “This wasn’t a boating accident!” (three cheers for Capt. Obvious) Then when a crowd of half-drunk half-asses clog the docks to go get the shark and claim the bounty, he pisses on everybody’s campfire again when he reveals that what they did bring back couldn’t have killed the girl.

Enter Quint, a grizzled Maine fisherman and haunted WWII sailor played to still famous excellence by Robert Shaw. Shaw was an English actor who never seemed to get his due, and his performance as Quint was the perfect mix of madman and macho blue-collar class warrior. Quint grumbles like a Republican is in office, as the unlikely trio set off to kill the shark.

–AND HERE’S WHERE BRUCE FUCKED THE WHOLE THING UP!–..or did he? Maybe calling in sick with a bad case of Chivas Regal actually made the picture better. When artists are constrained they must use that thing that makes them artists to defy the constraint, often to superlative and unexpected results. Speilberg earned his fame and the trust of the studio with how he handled the AQUATIC CLUSTERFUCK that was to commence once Quint’s boat putted out to sea, the midpoint of the film.

“Would you just talk to me for a second…can you look at me, just give me the courtesy of looking at me when I’m speaking. You’re just going to ignore–this is unprofessional Steven! You know what–good! I have other offers, I can still take that recurring role on Wagon Train!”

But not only the shark, the actors literally tried to kill each other, add to this the script felt off, Quint’s character didn’t make sense, why did he hate sharks, like it was personal, you can’t hate a dumb beast, isn’t that what Moby D…aw, shit. It was what Moby Dick was about, wasn’t it.

Spielberg Fee Justification #1: He had a script full of dynamic shark attacks that now could not happen– long, tense, Hitchcockian shots of a dorsal fin charging the boat. What could he possibly…Hitchcock!

forgetchargingforgetcharging…we imply his presence. Huh?

How do we imply where a three-ton twenty-five foot fish is moving around?

Heeee…[long pause]…has something…

Yes, please continue.

…that makes us see….

Uh-hunh.

…that he’s moving…like a hat or something….that we can see

You want the shark to wear a hat?

Nononononono….heeeee….

Uh-hunh.

….floats it, the hat. He floats it.

You want to imply a monster just under the surface by a floating trelby?

NO! Dammit, listen! It’s not a hat, it’s a …

Yee-esssss?

[big smile, arms open like about to make sense]…it’s a something else entirely.

[click] Donna, look in the special address book…the black one, yeah, the one I told you to eat if we ever get raided–look under ‘assorted minions’ then under ‘insurance pyros’, call Whalid, tell him I have work for him.

He gave the shark a hat…an ingenious cinematic device that makes ZERO logical sense if you think about it. For some reason Quint has barrels…empty barrels…on his bowsprit for a very boutique, in-house, cobbled-together method…of…tying those barrels to a speargun and uhhhh, shooting it at something, to uhhhh, have that something drag the barrel, which would ummm, win against it? I guess. My question is how many other three-ton sharks were necessary for Quint to devise this protocol, because unless he was harvesting whale blubber ala 1740, alone, in a trawler– I can’t imagine another animal that would have necessitated this bizarre keep-him-at-the-surface anchoring tactic.

Like I said, it’s a cinematic device, it’s giving the shark a hat so we can still feel scared of its tenacity…and it’s genius because nobody other than myself has asked the obvious question: namely, “Why the hell you do that?”

[intense whisper] FOR. FORTY. YEARS.

Now you didn’t need Bruce and his mechanical chicanery to make the movie exciting. There’s even an added darkness that arrives with the barrel-device, like The Birds, there’s a creepy omnipresence the barrels give the shark, ramping up the suspense till you’re white-knuckling your raisenettes. Truthfully, as a frequent practitioner of half-assery and Holy-shit-did-that-just-work, this one was elegant.

Spielberg Fee Justification #2: Keeping Robert Shaw from strangling Riichard Dreyfuss…literally.

Shaw [holding a paper cup of vodka on the aft deck of the Orca] [to Dreyfuss] You make me sick. You’re fat, at your age that’s criminal. You look like an unsheared billy goat.

Dreyfuss: No response.

French Voice: One day lay-tear…

Shaw [holding a paper cup of Rye, to Dreyfuss] Fat. Fatty, fatty two by four, can’t act his way through the bathroom door. [takes long gulp]

French Voice: Two days lay-tear.

Shaw [Holding a goblet of orange juice] Can fatty act today or is he too fat? Can you help me with your performance, give me something, or else are you gonna waddle out there and fat your way through another scene, fatty.

Dreyfuss: You want me to help you?

Shaw: If you don’t mind.

Dreyfuss: Okay, I’ll help you–[snatches goblet and throws it overboard]–You’re helped!

Shaw: [gasping] My mimosa! [Shaw snaps back after watching his beverage sink beneath the waves, the pen limply falls out of Speilberg’s mouth] [Shaw lunges, throttling portly (I guess) Richard Dreyfuss in the first of four attempted murders on-set. They are: 1. Mimosa Strangling 2. Whisky beheading 3. Plate Lunch Disembowelment and, oddly, 4. Greeting Card Kicking-into-a-Bait-Mincer.]

It’s a testament to Speilberg’s inherent dude-wrangling abilities…and his quick-twitch muscle fiber…that Robert Shaw did not commit massive blunt-force manslaughter on cocky, arrogant Richard Dreyfuss (I say ‘manslaughter’ because no drinker would vote to convict him of murder). Dreyfuss, who’d been acting since he was eight, (I saw him on Bonanza at fifteen) still hadn’t earned his dues according to Shaw, the English stage being like a pyramid of seniority while American thespian culture is more rankless and holistic. Something just rubbed him the wrong way about this kid, and he didn’t mind the prospect of 20 years in a Yankee prison, to set him straight.

“In my day we didn’t have any of this fancy buffet-tablein’, hour-for-lunch movie-makin’–In my day we shared a bag of Fritos between takes and if there were any crumbs on your mouth Howard Hawks would beat you with a Jimmy Stick–we called it that because it was Jimmy Cagney’s exhumed femur, filled with lead and wrapped in gaffer’s tape. I’ll tell you, it’d give you a wollopin’.”

Spielberg Fee Justification #3: His deep bench of talented buddies, his ability to ask ‘Do I Milius or do I not Milius’.

Remember when I said that as Quint and the Chief and Hooper putted out to sea at the midpoint that something was wrong. Mainly, Quint’s motivation? Well, that problem didn’t go away while Robert Shaw sprinkled arsenic into Dreyfuss’ Fresca. It was obvious a Captain Ahab parallel was forming next to Quint, but unlike Ahab, who had a clear reason to hate the whale and risk his whole crew’s life and treasure to find it, Quint only had vague professional pride to motivate him to, you know, smash the radio when Brody tries to call the Coast Guard. We have to know why Quint hated a dumb beast, for that he rang up an old buddy, John Milius, who at that time was wrestling three hookers playing keep-away with his new porcelain Glock.

Milius is the right-winger right-wingers want to be, brash, unapologetic, decisive in his search for the three Gs: “Girls, Gold and Guns”, all while having the writing chops to land a speech like a cinder block through an 8′ x 10′ sheet of peanut brittle. ‘Genius’ was a word attached to him early on…how early? About the time him, Spielberg and Scorsese were reading their scripts out loud in a semi-circle at UCLA. Spielberg didn’t need to wrestle with who could handle Quint’s back story; it could only be John Milius.

“Nnnnnno. I won’t be a genius until you give me my muffin. I want my muffin.”

He came back with an eight-page speech for Shaw, who, rightly, probably, cut it down to four: the result was the most memorable speech in a movie chock-full of memorable stuff, the famous USS Indianapolis speech. Try as I might to find Milieus original eight pages, but Shaw’s four-page edit should do just fine:

“Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief–we were comin’ back, from the island of Tinian to Laytee, just delivered the bomb–the Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water, vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour– tiger–thirteen footer–you know how you know that when you’re in the water, chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know…was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent…they didn’t even list us overdue for a week–very first light, chief, the sharks come cruisin’, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know it’s kinda like ol’ squares in battle like, you see on a calendar, like the battle of Waterloo–and the idea was, the shark comes to the nearest man and that man, he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away…sometimes he wouldn’t go away.

Sometimes that shark he looks right into you–right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes–black eyes, like a doll’s eye– when he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’, until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white and then–ah then–you hear that terrible high pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.


By the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men–I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand–I don’t know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday mornin’ chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland–baseball player, boson’s mate–I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up, he bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top…up-ended!–He’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, a young pilot–a lot younger than Mr. Hooper…anyway, he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up–you know that was the time I was most frightened, waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.

–So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945. 

–Anyway. We delivered the bomb.

BAD. ASS.

Honorable mention as everybody saw this as luck and not the talent of the director: They sent a second unit to Australia to engage with Great Whites and shoot the underwater scenes with Hooper as he descended suicidally into the water in a shark cage. To magnify the size of the shark they hired a scuba diving dwarf to stand in the cage…and boy did that sell the picture.  THEN the Great White they were shooting got stuck between the cage and the surface and began thrashing violently…THAT WAS THE MOMENT! This film truly became real, Spielberg said it saved the film, giving credit to the second unit director, out of modesty ignoring his own plucking of nads out of the blazing cauldron that ensued before.

Jaws was the first blockbuster. It made Steven Spielberg into Steven Spielberg™. But other than its notable story and blood-pressure-raising suspense, it was a crowning achievement of Just-give-me two-more-weeks-I-can-figure-it-out and for all students of that dojo this stands as the evidence that we could–

–So long as John Williams is still writing the score.


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