By David Thomson | Thompson on Hollywood October 23, 2012 at 1:06PM
That summer of1974, Spielberg was twenty-seven. Born in Cincinnati, he was raised in Phoenix, Arizona, and he had been making “amateur” films since childhood. There is a still of him shooting Firelight (1964, a two-hour effort, on 8mm) at the age of seventeen—staring past the tiny Bolex camera at his actress—that is the epitome of the narrow intensity of a film-mad kid with a one-track mind. Anyone who has taught film knows the look, and realizes that it is both awesome and alarming.
Under an early contract with Universal, he had made a television movie, Duel, in 1971 (it was later released in theaters), that is a perfect diagrm (with terror) and a sign of what was to come. Dennis Weaver is an innocent motorist on a desert road pursued by a malignant truck. The irrational menace comes from horror films, but it is also part of being a kid in the atomic age, when demons may lurk in the desert. Duel earned him promotion, and in that summer of1973, Spielberg was doing The Sugarland Express (1974), another film about transportation, at Universal for Brown and Zanuck. It is the story of a young mother (Goldie Hawn), just out of jail, who frees her convict husband and then kidnaps a cop in order to rescue their baby from an adoption home. Involving an immense police pursuit, the film is a triumph of informational logistics, and a tragedy— the husband will be killed, the baby cannot be freed, the woman is devastated.
The Sugarland Express had excellent reviews. Pauline Kael called it “one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies,” but the film did poorly, and left Spielberg very disappointed. The look on his face in that still photograph was not ready for critical glory without a payoff. That’s why Spielberg is so instructive: he has always wanted to be a comprehensive American success, and never seemed to notice how that commodity might turn suspect. So he was not obvious casting for Jaws. Lew Wasserman was surprised when Brown and Zanuck proposed the kid. He thought that Sugarland had been a “downer,” and bosses mistrust that gloomy tendency in young talent. It can be a sign of doing a project for its own sake—the fatal kiss of privacy. So John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960; The Great Escape, 1963) was talked about as director, but he may have been put off by the producers saying they thought Jaws was just a small picture, doable for $1 million. Despite the producers’ backing, Spielberg was uncertain. He said he didn’t want to get known for just trucks and sharks. He had liked the Goldie Hawn character in Sugarland. He had a wide sentimental streak, but Wasserman told him that in casting Hawn, he had set the audiences up for the lovable kook from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a woman who’d end up happy. Spielberg had decided he didn’t much like the characters in Jaws (there was romantic and sexual betrayal in the book), and was ready to side with the shark. You can feel that in the opening sequence, when the shark goes at the skinny-dipping kid in a way that releases our energy.
When you know how Jaws the film turned out, it’s hard to grasp how nearly it foundered. A very young director, without a hit, was allowed to extend the schedule from 55 days to more than 150, and the budget from $3.5 million to close to $12.0 million. He thought he was going to be fired. He wanted to quit. The elaborate work to build and control a mechanical shark (named “Bruce”) produced insoluble problems. In the script (by Carl Gottlieb and Benchley, but with other hands enlisted), there was a climactic scene where the shark was meant to leap out of the water and crush the boat. The production controller, William Gilmore, recalled:
The shark was supposed to come out of the water with tremendous energy. Take one was no good. The shark came out of the water kind of like a dolphin walking along the water and fell on the boat. We assumed it was a rehearsal and that the second take was going to be better. It wasn’t. The shark sort of came up like a limp dick, skidded along the water, and fell onto the boat.
That scene never happens in the film, of course, and that’s part of why the schedule was tripled. At one point Spielberg resolved that a lot of the time we need not see the shark (because “Bruce” couldn’t act and couldn’t be engineered). He called that going “the Hitchcock way,” doing it by suggestion. To this day, the possibility remains that the crew came back from the shoot off Martha’s Vineyard with a mass of shaky material that was then made into a movie by the editing of Verna Fields (she was raised to be a vice president at Universal after Jaws), by the throbbing underwater menace delivered in the score by John Williams (the closest we get to the shark’s mind), by the perseverance of Brown and Zanuck (and Wasserman), and by Spielberg, of course, who may have felt lost on many occasions but who proved an indefatigable learner.
At the level of vivid comic book characters, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider gave astute performances, while Robert Shaw made an authentic cliché sea dog (in the school of Robert Newton’s Long John Silver) out of Quint. Quint is half man, half sea creature, and in his long speech on the sinking of the Indianapolis in 1945 (originally written by John Milius, but rewritten by Shaw himself), Jaws comes the closest it will get to human interest. Quint must die—but he knows it. Otherwise the film is about mechanical triumph, suspense payoff, and “mission accomplished,” a phrase that will grate one day, though it suggests how many presidents learned leadership at the movies. The jubilation of the survivors at the end of Jaws comes from the ethos of comradeship in Second World War films. George W. Bush was honorably discharged from the Air Force Reserve in 1973.
There were great doubts over the picture; there always are—making a picture can be a matter of ignoring or defying them. Spielberg would tell the press, “It’s a disaster movie only if it doesn’t make money. Then it’s a disaster.” Peter Benchley had seen or heard enough of the script and the filming to share misgivings with the Los Angeles Times: “Spielberg needs to work on character. He knows, flatly, zero. Consider. He is a twenty-six year-old who grew up with movies. He has no knowledge of reality but the movies. He is B-movie literate. When he must make decisions about the small ways people behave, he reaches for movie clichés of the forties and fifties.”
There was one of the first warnings about the generation of young directors who had been to film school, or only to the movies all their life—was it possible they knew too little to deal with human realities? If so, there was an available answer poised: delete the complexity of the realities. Spielberg had impressed Zanuck and Brown with his skill and zeal, but also because his inexperience in life kept him in synch with the young audience they anticipated. So be it, but the contrast with what Orson Welles knew and felt at twenty-six (his age when Kane opened) is hard to avoid.
Jaws was previewed in Dallas on March 26, 1975, and the reaction was so intense that the Medallion Theatre decided to put on a second screening later that night. The audience screamed when they were supposed to; they laughed at the right moments. The shark worked at last. Robert Shaw had guessed this: his salary was up to $300,000 by then with overages, and he offered to trade most of it back for just 1 percent of the profits. Brown and Zanuck were tempted, but their nerve held.