“Jaws” was never a small movie; Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name was already a swimaway bestseller by the time the movie version was being filmed off and on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in 1974. Despite producer David Brown’s assertion that Universal’s 1975 shark tale was “just a big indie film,” however, its unprecedented success originated the era of the summer popcorn blockbuster.
In the exhaustive two-hour documentary “The Shark Is Still Working” (a reference to the frustrating non-operation of “Bruce,” “Jaws”‘ centerpiece prop), filmmakers James Gelet, Jake Gove, Erik Hollander, and James Michael Roddy explore the effect this pre-CGI monster movie had on the people who made it as well as its cultural impact and enduring popularity.
“This movie…crashed into people like a speeding truck,” said Richard Dreyfuss, whose role as icthyologist Matt Hooper (a movie starring an icthyologist?) was made more heroic in the screen version than its homewrecking paperback counterpart.
Dreyfuss said the cast and crew were so wrapped up in the famously troubled production – even then the talk of Hollywood – that it wasn’t until the movie premiered that he realized how much of a hit it could be.
Among other tidbits for fans to relish, Dreyfuss says that the late Robert Shaw, who played salty Captain Quint, delighted in winding up the brash young actor, then in his 20s.
“He acted like he had my number,” Dreyfuss says. “And he did. He made me doubt things I already knew.”
Shaw would dare the young actor to dive from the mast of the Orca, the cast’s floating set, into frigid Vineyard Sound. “I bet you can’t do that,” Shaw would say.
Director Steven Spielberg, who in past interviews seemed reluctant to talk about the movie – the then 27-year-old had directed numerous television episodes and the low-budget features “Sugarland Express” and the truck-as-shark thriller “Duel” – here opens up with numerous anecdotes about the grueling five-month shoot (completed with underwater shots in editor Verna Fields’ tiny San Fernando Valley swimming pool) and seems to concede that, three decades later, it is foolish to continue to distance himself from the movie that made him famous.
“It gave me a career,” he says.
Composer John Williams details the crafting of his iconic score (“The theme was very simple,” he says), the late voiceover actor Percy Rodrigues says that he went for “deep” rather than “high” in his “Jaws” promos, and poster artist Roger Kastel finds his original shark research photos.
Spielberg, Dreyfuss, and Scheider were all interviewed for Laurent Bouzereau’s excellent “The Making of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’,” which has appeared on “Jaws” reissues since its laserdisc debut. But “The Shark Is Still Working” fleshes out these interviews and goes back to Martha’s Vineyard, where many of Amity’s supporting players are still living.
These interviews are a treat. Lee Fierro, who played Mrs. Kintner, the bereaved mother of shark-gobbled Alex, recalls that for years she was asked to replicate the slap she delivered to Roy Scheider when her character learned that Chief Brody knew a shark was out there, but didn’t close the beaches in time to prevent her son’s death.
“It was mostly young men who would ask me (to slap them),” she says. “I finally had to stop doing it.”
Fierro, now a children’s theatre instructor on Martha’s Vineyard, refrains from using her upstage hand.
In a quick sequence, we watch as Fierro wallops several male fans over the years. Oddly enough, she uses her left hand each time, though with Scheider she used her right.
We also meet Henry Carreiro and Dick Young, who played Felix and Pratt, two wisecracking Amity fishermen.
“They called us ‘Costello and Costello,’” says Young, whose famous line to Dreyfuss, “A wha?” is one of “Jaws”‘ most quotable.
Robert Shaw received coaching on what it was like to be a working class resort town fisherman from the late Craig Kingsbury, a Vineyard local who played the doomed Ben Gardner.
Kingsbury’s daughter says that her father mostly lied to Shaw, who would then repeat the stories in TV interviews.
Shaw does appear in archival footage in the documentary, but these are teasingly short clips, and this is where the doc can’t be all things to all fans. As a fan film, albeit a very professional one, “Shark” can still never be as comprehensive as the die-hard fan would like; in the same way Matt Hooper can’t produce the shark tooth from the wrecked hull of Ben Gardner’s boat for Mayor Vaughn, we don’t get to see Robert Shaw repeating Kingsbury’s whoppers on color TV.
And for this fan, there was simply not enough coverage of the iconic “Indianapolis Speech,” in which Quint reveals to Hooper and Brody both his hatred and respect for sharks. Quint tells them he was on the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which in the summer of 1945 delivered “the Hiroshima bomb.” On the way back from the Pacific atoll Tinian, the Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine and two-thirds of her crew were devoured by sharks.
“June 29, 1945,” Quint says.
That speech, not included in Benchley’s novel but introduced for the movie by uncredited scribe Howard Sackler (and revised by everyone from chief “Jaws” screenwriter Carl Gottlieb to “Apocalypse Now” screenwriter John Milius to Spielberg to Robert Shaw himself), gives a date that was more than a month premature; the atomic bomb was loaded onto the Enola Gay and dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, within days of its delivery by the Indianapolis. Why did Quint get the date wrong?
“Robert was a little drunk,” said Carl Gottlieb. As part of the United Film Festival debut of “The Shark Is Still Working,” Gottlieb attended a screening of “Jaws” at Hollywood’s beautiful Vista Theatre to meet with fans and sign copies of his own book, “The Jaws Log.” I cornered him at the popcorn counter.
“Sackler actually had the date right,” Gottlieb said, “and Robert did, too, at first, but that scene was shot many times over two days and I remember he got the date right in one version. But he had some drinks in him and the different versions got spliced together.”
So “The Shark Is Still Working,” which delivers the most comprehensive dose yet of the type of trivia and behind the scenes footage that unites Trekkies, “Buffy” geeks, “Star Wars” LARPers, and (lately) “Big Lebowski” fans in hand-fluttering information overload ecstasy, can’t possibly capture (as Quint says) “the head, the tail, the whole damn thing” of “Jaws” meta lore.
But maybe Hooper would say that “The Shark Is Still Working” gets close enough to the cage so you “can get him in the mouth.”
Narrated by Scheider, who also gave his final “Jaws”-related interview prior to his death in 2008, “The Shark Is Still Working” features more than 40 interviews with cast members and professional fans, including Kevin Smith, Bryan Singer, Eli Roth, Robert Rodriguez, and M. Night Shyamalan.
Principal interviews were conducted throughout 2005 and include footage from Martha’s Vineyard’s “JawsFest” of that year.
The filmmakers have not secured distribution, despite enthusiastic fan support and sold out festival screenings. At a recent Sunday morning encore showing in Los Angeles, producers marveled at the turnout.
“You don’t expect packed houses for documentaries at 10 a.m. in Hollywood,” one said.
With “Jaws” reaching its 35th anniversary next year, producers say this series of performances, for the United Film Festivals, is “strategic.” They wish, among other things, that their documentary be purchased for inclusion on future “Jaws” anniversary editions.
“We don’t understand why Universal doesn’t get how popular the movie still is,” one said. “We made this movie because we’re fans of ‘Jaws’ and we wanted to know everything about it.”