Steven Spielberg’s first most successful movie came out in 1975. Jaws pioneered the idea of a summer blockbuster and fed into people’s overblown fears of the unknown creatures of the ocean. Humans fear what they cannot see or understand; children are terrified of the dark and what might lurk inside the closet. Adults aren’t that much different; when people do hit the beach during the summer, there is always a small nagging thought in the back of their minds: ‘What if I go out swimming and get eaten by a shark?’ Sometimes this notion is a little irrational, especially when they are referring to a swimming pool; but that is the most extreme example of this irrationality. The only thing that is worse than our fears being proven to be true, is when our fears are not proven to be true, which is why we crave it in films, books or other forms of entertainment.
One of the things that made Jaws an instantaneous classic and still referenced by modern-day filmmakers is its use of suspense. If you think about it, the great white shark – affectionately referred to as ‘Bruce’ by the film crew on set, named after Spielberg’s lawyer – doesn’t appear until one hour into the film. Even after then, we don’t actually see the shark even though it’s there. How do we know about the shark’s imminent entrance? It is John Williams’ classic soundtrack theme that plays every time the shark is nearby. Whether or not this suspense was a happy mistake due to the film’s budget, it doesn’t matter; the film probably would not have worked as well if the shark was overused.
Spielberg and his crew created three gigantic prosthetic mechanical sharks, that were malfunctioning a lot of the time, which would explain why the movie took a lot of time to finish. For Spielberg, his first major hit film was very much like shooting in the dark. “I could have shot the movie in the tank or even in a protected lake somewhere, but it would not have looked the same,” he said.
It would say a lot about the filmmaker that even though he was comparatively unprepared, the film would go on to become such a cult classic as well as a blockbuster hit. He spent a lot of time on the details, the two biggest challenges lay in the location for the shoot as well as the casting. “I was naive about the ocean, basically. I was pretty naive about mother nature and the hubris of a filmmaker who thinks he can conquer the elements was foolhardy, but I was too young to know I was being foolhardy when I demanded that we shoot the film in the Atlantic Ocean and not in a North Hollywood tank,” Spielberg added.
As to who would play his three main characters, Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint, there were a lot of toss-ups, firstly with Quint. The author of Jaws (the story was first a novel) Peter Benchley had recommended major star names to play the three roles. Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen were all recommended by Benchley. Spielberg had offered the role of Quint to Lee Marvin, who politely turned it down. Next, Steven Sterling was a potential candidate for the professional shark hunter. It would turn out, that Sterling was in trouble with the IRS at the time. Eventually, Spielberg settled with Robert Shaw to play Quint, although bizarrely enough, Shaw had troubles with the IRS as well.
While it could not have been known whether Jaws would become the smash hit that it was, everyone surrounding the movie seemed to have a sense that this film was going to be the talk of the year. Actor Robert Duvall had a good relationship with Spielberg and encouraged the young filmmaker to make the movie to begin with and, in turn, had favoured Duvall to take one of the central roles of Chief Brody. Duvall would ultimately decline because of the same reason that Charlton Heston wanted the same part so badly.
Robert Duvall was inclined to think that the shark-oriented phenomenon would be a hit, and declined because he didn’t want to become that famous. On the other hand, major star and future NRA President, Charlton Heston wanted the part of Chief Brody. Spielberg turned Heston down because of how hot his name was at the time. If this actor, who always played the winning hero in other films, had starred in Jaws, the audience would sub-consciously associate Heston with the shark eventually losing the battle – the end of the film would be obvious, destroying any sense of suspension.
Heston, however, did not appreciate Spielberg’s sense of storytelling and vowed he would never work with Spielberg even if the opportunity arose.
Surely enough, when Spielberg was making his 1979 film, 1941, a period comedy about world war two, the filmmaker asked Heston to star as General Stilwell – Heston gladly declined. Looking back now, 1941, while it ended up making a profit, fared poorly compared to Jaws. As for Spielberg and Heston, the latter never forgave the filmmaker.