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November 15, 2011
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August 25, 2011
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JAWS Screenwriter & Cinematographer Appear at Hollywood’s Master Storytellers Series at The Arclight
FILMRADAR is now presenting a series of interviews!
While most interviews posted on FILMRADAR are one-on-one sessions, the set-up for this event prohibited such an opportunity. The following write up is based on questions that were posed by host, Dennis Michael, formerly of CNN’s “Hollywood Minute”, and the remainder were posed directly by the audience. Special thanks again to Gordon Meyer and Arclight Cinemas for putting together such a great program. The entire Master Storytellers schedule, held every other Tuesday is just as impressive, and available at FILMRADAR.com.
On Tuesday, April 20th, JAWS fans were triply treated to seeing this classic film on a giant stadium-theater screen, along with a discussion featuring screenwriter Carl Gottleib and legendary cinematographer Bill Butler, who provided insights into the film’s production. The screening was hosted by Dennis Michael, who led the discussion following the screening.
CARL GOTTLEIB was originally hired as an actor on JAWS, cast as local newspaper editor “Meadows” before being called upon to rewrite the screenplay. As an actor, Gottleib’s previous experience included appearing as “Ugly John” in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. Gottleib later co-wrote The Jerk with Steve Martin, and wrote and directed the film Caveman, starring Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach (it was during this shoot that Starr and Bach met and eventually married). Gottleib is now serving as Vice President of the WGA, a huge task considering the current, volatile contract negotiations with the Producers Guild.
Gottleib spoke about the task of adapting Peter Benchley’s novel (for which, Benchley himself adapted early the screenplay drafts), which included paring away subplots that digressed from the central story. Plot threads involving land developers and the Mafia were quickly jettisoned, as was a subplot involving an affair between Brody’s wife (Lorraine Gary) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). Says Gottleib, “I couldn?t imagine someone as nice as Lorraine having an affair. She and Richard were too nice for that.”
Gottleib also mentioned how the casting of Dreyfuss helped solve a minor storytelling problem. Ichthyologist Hooper is called upon to deliver much of the film’s technical exposition, imparting information about sharks which is necessary to the plot. The charm and quirky humor that Dreyfuss brought to the character made the scenes involving this information far more entertaining; instead of having their eyes glaze at getting bald exposition, Dreyfuss’s take on the character (and the massaging of the script for this actor) instead left audiences entertained and amused.
As a writer, Gottleib saw the scenes aboard The Orca as a chance to explore the dynamic between the Aristotelian-ideal thinking man (Richard Dreyfuss’s “Hooper”), the Dionysian natural/animalistic-man (Robert Shaw’s “Quint”), and the balanced mediator who synthesizes the two qualities (Roy Scheider’s “Chief Brody”). Thus, Gottleib used the Orca scenes to highlight a hero balances the different qualities within himself.
Gottleib discussed the film’s climax, in which Brody destroys the shark by using a scuba tank as an explosive; the ending is inherently problematic, because such an explosion could never actually happen. However, as Steven Spielberg pointed out during the shoot, if the audience is with you by that point in the movie, then the plot contrivance won’t hurt the story. Simply put: everybody wants the shark do die, and they want him to die in a spectacular way. (In the novel, the shark’s demise is far more anticlimactic, dying in a way that would never “play” on a movie screen.)
As mentioned earlier, Carl Gottleib was first hired as a actor first, and was then hired to retool the screenplay as they shot on Martha’s Vineyard. Scenes were devised and rewritten during the entire run of the shoot, as production problems began to arise. The biggest obstacle they faced: the shark itself. Many of the scenes in the early part of the film were supposed to actually feature the shark. When the mechanical prop refused to work in salt water (malfunctioning, freezing up, and even sinking!), scenes had to be written implying the shark’s presence without actually showing the shark onscreen. Thus the use of the broken dock tethered to the shark, the POV shots from the water’s surface, and the use of the barrels during the Orca sequences.
Casting notes: When the shooting on JAWS began, Richard Dreyfuss was not yet cast; having just finished The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Dreyfuss passed on JAWS, describing it as a movie he’d rather see than actually appear in. Originally, Charlton Heston was going to play Brody, with Jan Michael Vincent as Hooper. Lee Marvin was slated to play Quint; when Marvin was no longer available, Sterling Hayden was considered (although he had to pass because of tax problems he was having at the time with the IRS).
Roy Scheider was cast as Chief Brody having just played tough cops in The French Connection and The Seven-Ups. Playing the put-upon Brody was at times frustrating for Scheider, who wanted to know when he could stop wearing the wimpy glasses and start shooting at something. Robert Shaw, who was finally cast as Quint, was a noted novelist and playwright. He helped fine-tune the character, synthesizing elements from several different versions of the famous Indianapolis speech (written over time by a variety of writers) into its now-classic form. To capture the full intensity of the speech, Shaw insisted on playing the scene drunk. Spielberg, in turn, insisted that Shaw also film a separate version sober. The Indianapolis Speech as it appears in the film is a combination of the two versions.
Cinematographer BILL BUTLER’s illustrious career spans six decades, and includes a rich variety of classics including The Conversation, Grease, and Frailty. Butler worked with Steven Spielberg early in the director’s career, during many TV projects including Something Evil, a demonic possession film starring Darren McGavin that predates The Exorcist.
Butler’s vision for the shoot was to use a handheld camera for the duration of the Orca scenes. Instead of employing the industry-standard of tripods rigged with gimbals, pendulum-like devices which would eliminate the rocking of the camera on the boat’s deck, Butler proposed the far less cumbersome solution of having the camera operator (in this case, Raging Bull‘s legendary cinematographer Michael Chapman) simply hold the camera while shifting his knees to compensate for the rocking of the boat. Butler reasoned that keeping an eye on the horizon would be enough to keep the camera steady and stable. Spielberg was initially opposed to this idea, but quickly came around as the shoot progressed.
Butler pointed out how much of the power of JAWS comes from the low angle shots just above the water’s surface. The implied presence of the shark, somewhere down there, gives the film its edge.
Butler noted how the young director had the admiration and full respect of the crew. Spielberg’s displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, matched by equally a vast insight into all of the tools at his disposal. Butler saw that Spielberg’s enthusiasm and energy were contagious, inspiring his camera crew to add complex camera moves to already intricate scenes (such as the panic scenes on the beaches during the shark attacks) rather than merely simplifying them to make them easier to shoot.
Butler revealed that the shot of the sinking shark was not planned: the camera operator decided on the spot to actually follow the sinking corpse downward instead of merely letting it fall out of frame from the surface.
As an amusing aside, Butler mentioned that the sound the shark makes as its sinking to its death is the same dying dinosaur sound (taken from a Ray Harryhausen film, possibly One Million Years, B.C.) as Spielberg used during the destruction of the truck in Duel. The inclusion of the sound makes no literal sense… but in both cases it “sells” the dying of the monster.
Interestingly, Steven Spielberg wasn’t on location on the final day of shooting, when the crew filmed the explosion of the shark. The shot was scheduled for the previous day… but by the time the crew was ready, they had lost the sun. Spielberg had they hold the shot for the following day, and left as scheduled, trusting Butler and the crew to get the shot (and, as legend has it, not trusting them not to throw him into the ocean to celebrate the end of a long, often-arduous shoot!).
The Arclight Theaters have proven to be a wonderful resource, providing countless screenings of classic films, recently including Casablanca (with a full program including shorts, newsreels, and cartoons) and Planet of the Apes (featuring producer Mort Abrahams and actor Buck Kartalian, who played Lucius).
The Master Storytellers series, spearheaded by Gordon Meyer, brings in classic films along with their writers and directors. Past screenings have included Shane Black with Lethal Weapon and Penelope Spheeris with Wayne’s World.