So, it's finally here. The Blu-ray release of JAWS has washed up on UK shores at last and I spent the weekend relishing the experience of rediscovering my favourite film of all time in high definition. Universal have done an impeccable job remastering the film as it looks utterly incredible. And THE SHARK IS STILL WORKING? An excellent documentary, I only wish we could have seen the full three-hour cut rather than a 90-minute condensed version. Still, we finally have access to it after all these years.
Another positive about the release is that I can finally publish my interview with co-writer Carl Gottlieb. It was a true honour to share a phone call with this man, and now, three months later, I can finally share our conversation with you.
CARL GOTTLIEB: Hey, Adam, how are you?
BRITGEEK: I'm good, thanks, how are you?
CG: I'm well, thanks.
BG: Well, it's an absolute pleasure to be speaking with you today.
CG: Oh, well, pleasure for me too. Just a quick question, Ain't It Cool... the historic website/blog Ain't It Cool News that [Harry Knowles runs]. Any connection?
BG: Yep, it's that website [laughs].
CG: Yeah, 'cause I've always enjoyed reading him even though he upsets the Hollywood community from time to time. I always enjoyed his take on things.
BG: Oh right, excellent, I'm sure he will be thrilled to hear that.
CG: Well, what I can tell ya?
BG: JAWS is my favourite film of all time.
CG: Well, thanks.
BG: So any chance I get to discuss it with someone who was involved as intimately as you were is quite the honour.
CG: I guess I should refer you to my book, THE JAWS LOG, have you read that?
BG: Oh yeah, I've certainly read that [laughs].
CG: THE JAWS LOG is back with a slightly expanded edition. I've seen it already on Amazon UK, so it's out there. Anyway, so I'm just putting in a plug for my book, if you don't mind.
BG: No, that's absolutely fine, I was going to ask you about that anyway. What new material is in the expanded edition?
CG: I don't know if they've added anything since the 30th anniversary. I know in the previous latest and greatest, they had a new introduction by [Peter Benchley] and the end notes were expanded slightly, and they're working from my manuscript on the notes. It may have some new artwork in it, I'm not sure. I couldn't tell you. It might just be a new cover ... It's still the best-selling book about the making of a movie ever. There [have] been bigger grossers [sic] than JAWS [since it] came out, but there have not been bigger books.
BG: Yeah, absolutely. It's still quite amazing how, in this digital age where every DVD has a making-of feature-
BG: -and even though there are documentaries on JAWS itself, yet your making-of book-
CG: On the Blu-ray there [are] two documentaries that are very thorough and interesting. I loved watching them and I'm in them – I show up as a talking head, of course – but both THE SHARK IS STILL WORKING and the A&E making-of are long form documentaries. I've never watched them all at once. I'm pre-DVD age so I will watch the movie and I don't get all the additional features the first time round. The Blu-ray is going to have two companion pieces, long and very thorough. The weird thing about iconic films is when you make them, you’re just making a movie. Sure, I don't put us in the same league as CASABLANCA, but at the time they were just trying to get a movie made in the time allotted [laughs], and 30 or 40 years later you realise, holy shit, it really grabbed people and continues to do so. I never fail to be amazed [by it].
BG: Yeah, it just kind of exploded.
CG: Yeah. The best thing you can do as a writer, and I had another kind of iconic comedy hit with Steve Martin, THE JERK, and you realise there are people who were not born when the film was made [who] quote dialogue from it and study it frame-by-frame on DVD, freeze frame and play it back, watch it in slow motion. When the movies came out, you watched them once in the theatre and if you wanted to see it again you had to buy another ticket and go back into the theatre. Now the fans study film in a way that was never possible before, which leaves a lot of questions about stuff that I, over the years, had to catch-up on my knowledge of the film because I was being asked questions that I hadn't thought about in 30 years. I like to come up with answers and I don't want to blank on that stuff. I dredge my memory and I look at my own book to find things, to find answers [laughs].
BG: For reference [laughs]. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing THE SHARK IS STILL WORKING, I've been dying to see that for years.
CG: They got access to a lot of stuff that had never been seen. They actually went to [Martha's Vineyard] and lived there and just asked everybody for their home movies, for still photographs or snapshots taken that summer, and they've assembled a lot of footage no one had seen before, which is great.
BG: I think between your book and the two documentaries on the JAWS Blu-ray, fans are pretty much set for discovering the film if they haven't before.
CG: Oh yeah, there's a lot of material there. And some questions, I think, will remain forever unanswered because memories occasionally are conflicting and everybody has their own version of history. I was lucky 'cause I got to write it all down and make notes, so I think my version... Benchley liked the book a lot. He did me a great favour in writing a new introduction, just before he died actually, for the 30th anniversary edition of THE JAWS LOG.
BG: And have you seen the Blu-ray remaster of the film yet?
CG: I have not seen it yet. I guess they're just finishing it. I will probably see it in the next week or so and I'm really looking forward to seeing what it looks like on my big hi-def screen at home.
BG: Over here it's just about to get a limited theatrical run again and I've never seen it on the big screen, unfortunately, so I'm really looking forward to that.
CG: It's quite an experience and it's wonderful to see it with an audience. When it came out, you know the scene where the head appears in the boat and everybody shrieks and jumps?
CG: My then-wife and I and Steven would go out for dinner after the film was out playing the theatres and I knew a manager of one of the theatres in Hollywood who would let us in, so we would look at our watch and say, 'Oh, it's almost time for the head, let's go,' drive to the theatre, the manager would let us in, we'd stand at the back and we watch 1,200 people jump. You literally could see the whole audience rise up, you'd hear that kind of a thump as 1,200 bottoms hit the chair again, and of course that huge shriek and the nervous laughter that follows it, and week after week we'd go to the theatre just to see that moment because it was so visceral, it was so real, that audience reaction, that you could never fake that, you can't buy that, you can't construct it any better than Steven did. … So, when you see the movie, I want you to surrender to the film, but if you go back for a second showing, kind of sit off to one side and as that moment approaches, watch the audience, and 30-something years later, they will still just jump. Any collection of people in a dark room watching a big screen, that moment is sure-fire.
BG: I guess it's almost the ultimate response to your film and just knowing that you succeeded really.
CG: Yeah. Obviously when you see a successful film, and I've been connected to more than one: I was an actor in the film version of M.A.S.H., I acted in and co-wrote THE JERK, I wrote and directed CAVEMAN, so I've seen the audience reactions. Just attending movies in theatres, when the audience is with something, the palpable air in the room, you know that everybody's enjoying it, but when you physically move an audience – jump or squirm or guffaw with laughter – that's a wonderful feeling, knowing that you've succeeded in that. You try for that every time, and of course, till this day, it's a mystery, it's non-formulaic. You see a lot of people try, but if we could make a hit every time it's all we would do. We don't tell the audience what's a hit, they tell us. You'll enjoy it with an audience, there's that shared sense of community.
BG: I'm definitely looking forward to that. Originally you were working on the film as an actor and then, I believe, you were brought in to add humour to the script, but then you ended up doing a full rewrite, so how did audiences react to the humour you brought to it. Were they too scared to laugh?
CG: Yes. The most gratifying thing about watching that movie with an audience who had never seen it and never heard of it... there were two sneak previews. Nowadays with the internet, excerpts of the film and people leaking tapes and trailers, there's very little mystery to a film, but when JAWS was in pre-release, the first public screenings, audiences didn't know what they were going to see. You went to a theatre that advertised a Hollywood preview - “a blockbuster novel is brought to the screen” - and you would get basically two films for the price of one. You would go to see whatever was playing at the theatre and then you'd stay and see this film about which you knew nothing, and of course studio executives and artists involved, the director, the editor, the composer, we're all watching to see what actually happened. Did we do our job or not? It was a pretty unnerving moment. Steven was so nervous going to the screening in Lakewood, Orange County, we shared a car, a limo the studio provided, and my wife and I made a big Thermos of camomile tea just to calm him on the trip down.
The previews were done on a Friday and a Saturday night. Friday night in Dallas, Texas, Saturday night in Orange County, California. The Dallas preview had gone brilliantly. The audience laughed in all the right places, screamed in all the right places and it had the appearance of a hit. The next night... was that a fluke? Are you going to repeat the experience? Will the laughs be in different places? Will the screams be some place else? I had not been to Dallas, I was only at the Lakewood screening, so we went and, sure enough, it played as you would expect: the audience gasped when Chrissy was killed in the opening sequence, they shrieked when the head appeared in the boat, they laughed when Roy said 'You're gonna need a bigger boat,' they were in rapt attention during the Indianapolis speech. Everything played perfectly. One person got up in the middle of the film and left. Steven said, 'Oh shit, we got a walkout,' which obviously is the worst thing you can have in a preview.
But what it was was the guy was so affected and nervous from the film that he went to the men's room to throw up and then came back to his seat to watch the rest of the movie.
Adam, you know how JAWS kind of changed exhibition and distribution patterns forever, it had a business component?
BG: Oh yeah.
CG: At that Lakewood screening, at the conclusion of the showing, the President of MCA Universal, Sid Sheinberg, the head of publicity and marketing, the head of distribution and sales, and their assistants, so there were like 6-8 executives in suits, you couldn't hear yourself talk in the lobby because of the excited crowd leaving the theatre, so there was like an executive meeting in the men's room where these guys just stood and figured out that they were going to have to change the release pattern of the movie.
Instead of opening in a couple of hundred theatres and playing big cities and then going up the road, they were going to do the release that you saw, which was 400 or 600 screens, which was unprecedented at the time, the notion of the summer blockbuster that was released immediately, all over the place. That exhibition philosophy was born in the men's room in Orange County following the second preview of JAWS.
BG: [laughs] A unique place for a board meeting.
CG: Yeah. And the industry has had to live with the consequences ever since, because that is now the standard pattern for a blockbuster release: 3,000 screens, 5,000 if you're going global. It became the way to release a movie. Everybody forgets how it used to be.
BG: The first true summer blockbuster.
CG: Yeah, it was the first summer blockbuster, wide-release film, and it has its place in history artistically as a good film, and on the business side a case study for the London School of Economics on how movie distribution patterns evolved.
BG: With the changes that were made to your script compared to the book, have you ever had any fans come up to you and say that they actually thought that things like the Hooper and Ellen Brody romance and the mafia sub-plot would actually work better in the film?
CG: You know, I don't think anybody ever missed them. Some people said why did you cut the affair because if you considerate it as a writing exercise, the additional sexual tension of the husband and the oceanographer knowing that the oceanographer has slept with the police chief's wife, and then they have to be interdependent at the final confrontations with the shark, that would lend a really interesting element to the relationships, and we thought about that and the Hooper-Brody romance was in the script as I started to rewrite it, but then, when we saw Richard Dreyfuss' personality as an actor and Hooper's likeability as that odd little intellectual and his relationship with Ellen Brody, we said, 'She would never sleep with this guy!' It just wouldn't make sense.
We like her too much, she's just adorable as the mother of the kids and a loving wife. That whole plot in the novel is based on the fact that she was a former summer person who had married an islander, which we flipped on its head, we made both of them off-islanders who had come to Amity to live and were faced with being outsiders to the community, and yet having to make decisions that affected the welfare of their new home, their adopted community. So basically we said, given the personalities of the actors and the chemistry between them, it was improbable and unnecessary. It cheapens the wife and makes him kind of a cad, and of course in the novel he died, he's properly punished for his transgressions.
The moment when Hooper pops up at the end of the film alive, it's a nice thing for the audience – they're unsure when the shark attacks the cage if he survives or doesn’t, and that moment when the two of them start paddling to shore together, having accomplished the impossible, that could never have been if we kept that sub-plot.
When you explain to people that Hooper and Ellen wouldn't do that to Brody, people go, 'Yeah, you're right,' they get it. The mafia real estate developer, again, that was not only unnecessary, but the fact that it was absent from the script made Murray Hamilton a far more complex and pathetic character for insisting the beaches stay open, doing what he thought was right and as it turns out was a terrible mistake. Focusing on just one single storyline helped us and worked to the movie's benefit.
Thanks a lot to Carl for his time.
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