I received my BA in Film from Loyola Marymount University back in 2007, and while my focus in the last few years has turned to writing fiction, I still take great joy in reading books about film — actor and director biographies, how-to filmmaking books, tales of disastrous productions, etc. I love them all, and one text that’s been on my shelf for awhile that I was thrilled to finally read was Carl Gottlieb’s famous 1975 book, The Jaws Log, which tells of the problematic production of Steven Spielberg’s mega-blockbusters.
I had been wanting to check this book out for awhile not only because Jaws is one of my favorite movies ever, but because I’ve heard stories about the production from various sources but never in a big, well-researched book that goes into every last detail, from Peter Benchley writing the novel to the summer release of the finished film. This book took me on a wild, entertaining ride and I am so happy I had a chance to check it out. It gave me a newfound appreciation for Spielberg’s classic, and it showed in clear detail how a hundred problems in a film’s production doesn’t necessarily mean the finished product will suffer.
Gottlieb’s book, which features an introduction by Peter Benchley, as well as about thirty stills of the production, is written in the style of a journal, with Gottlieb, who worked with Spielberg on the screenplay and also appeared in the film as the reporter named Meadows, tells of the film’s backstory not in retrospect, not five years later from a place of reflection, but as each crisis is quickly happening, with seemingly no one having a clue how to correct each one. The book touches on every major problem that the cast and crew contended with, Gottlieb providing his analysis every step of the way.
He talks about how nobody really understood how this bestselling novel was going to be made into a movie, particularly in how the shark was going to actually move and open its mouth before the cameras. Gottlieb writes, “Let me repeat that. The production requirements of the shark action sequences in Jaws had never been done before” (43). Indeed, Gottlieb stresses how unprepared the crew was to deal not only with the mechanical shark in general, but how they were going to deal with it on the open sea.
It was one of the great gifts in movie history, it turns out, that the shark didn’t work well because it actually forced Spielberg to only use it sporadically, giving the film more suspense and a true sense of uncertainty. If the shark had worked beautifully from day one, the finished film would almost certainly not have been as effective.
Gottlieb also discusses how choosing Spielberg as the director was such a question mark at the time — he wasn’t “Steven Spielberg” the way we know him now back in 1974 — and it’s this aspect of the text that truly fascinated me, the unbelievable pressure Spielberg was under to not only create a great film but come in on time and on budget, both of which he failed at big time. In fact, if Jaws hadn’t become the giant hit of 1975, it’s likely he would have struggled finding another directorial job.
Imagine a young director like Spielberg, in his 20s, given the reign of his first major motion picture, hitting one disaster after another and having powerful producers ready, as Gottlieb says in his book, “had in [their] power to pull the plug [on the production]” (158). Spielberg was so behind at a point that the crew was “running out of things to shoot on land, June was rolling to a conclusion, and the original schedule was out the window” (110). He must have been going through hell, and while almost every movie lover can say that Jaws is still to this day one of Spielberg’s best films, the experience making Jaws is not something Spielberg would ever want to revisit.
Toward the end of his book, Gottlieb says that in the three months after wrapping production, “Steven would be troubled by dreams he kept having, that he was still on the water, still at sea […] still rocking to the relentless surge of the endless ocean” (174). Reading this book was such a thrill because it let me learned more about Spielberg’s rocky experience making the film and also about the nightmares he kept having night after night where he was back on the water, back filming his movie that he never believed would end.