Flaws, Jaws And Genius

29th October 2018

During the course of 124 minutes, with the help of iTunes, I have returned to the scene of the crime.

This was, you must remember, no ordinary criminal. He was distilled from nature – a perfect killing machine that stalked the waters of Amity island through the arc of an American summer. In the course of that one season limbs were dismembered, heads would roll and blood, barrels of blood, was shed. That was the summer of ‘75, when a lone dorsal fin, carcharodon carcharias, cut the Atlantic surf and carved a timeless place in cinematic history. 

‘Jaws’ is a horror movie, wrapped in an adventure yarn, boxed in a booze-fest and tied together in comedy. It was made by the then 27-year-old Steven Spielberg, and was his third movie. His story of a great white shark laying claim to the beaches of a small New England community was an act of startling originality: it invented the summer blockbuster, advanced cinematography, and created a new visual and aural language for terror and suspense. 

Twenty seven. 

At that same age, Mozart composed his Mass in C Minor (K427); Einstein developed his theory of mass-energy equivalence. So much of human genius seems to emerge at age 27. Which makes me want to return to 1992, to a compound in Jeddah where I drank illegally-distilled sidiqi by night, created promotions for confectionery by day, and pondered my dreams in-between. 

I want to shake the bejaysus out of myself. ‘Wake up you meandering meat-head’, I might cry. ‘Get your teeth stuck into something special. You’re 27. Time is a-ticking!’

Spielberg needed no such prompting. He was on the case.

But ‘Jaws’ was no easy fish to fillet.

His movie was scheduled for 60 days’ shooting, but ended up needing 157. The problems were legion, circling mostly on the story’s star: the damned shark.

It wouldn’t work. Its pistons and rotary blades and buttons had been developed in fresh water but failed in salt water. Then they failed again in the widening yaw of Atlantic currents off Martha’s Vineyard, where the production took place. 

There was more. The screenplay didn’t quite hang together either. Spielberg would regularly come off a day’s shoot and sit with his word doctor, screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, to rewrite tomorrow’s script. He spent weeks under threat of being fired by the studio. His cast (most notably a drunken Robert Shaw playing Quint, and a cocky Richard Dreyfuss playing Hooper) were at each other’s throats. The shark’s appearance in the screenplay had to be delayed and delayed, because the mechanics just would not work.

The crew, among themselves, called the movie ‘Flaws’, in honour of its hiccups, flare-ups and fuckups. 

I am struck by such a narrative, so at odds with the God-like aura that now surrounds Steven Spielberg in whatever he does. Was he a hell-raiser who got lucky?

There is a moment in every creator’s life, when success is unclear and the doubters threaten to pull you under. This is a time of maximal danger, as the artist is probably feeling wobbly in his own head too. Creating something new is blighted by an unfortunate human truth: just before perfection is reached, that perfection is so easily abandoned. 

Spielberg, beset with mounting constraints by day, by threats from the producers by night, reported that he was having nightmares. 

And then, he began to roll with the punches. 

With his cinematographer, he invented ‘watermark camerawork’, where the lens is centred at the waterline, half above and half below. This had the effect of implying the presence of the shark without actually seeing the shark. 

He incorporated live footage caught by good fortune, of a massive shark attacking an empty cage. It was taken by a B-crew in Australia but was first considered un-useable as Richard Dreyfuss’ character should be seen inside the cage, painfully losing his life. The screenplay called for Hooper’s death, but Spielberg altered the ending of ‘Jaws’ to incorporate that incredible footage, and in so doing giving meaning to an empty cage. As the delays dragged, he invited the cast to his home, seeking their collaboration to shape the words that would come out of their own characters’ mouths. 

In the end, it was the utter chaos of the filming of ‘Jaws’ which made it such an explosive and compelling movie. The genius of Spielberg was in bending his vision towards the circumstances that presented. It was his ability to dance in the maelstrom that would establish him as the world’s premier movie director for the next forty years. 

So, next time you are confronted by ridiculous deadlines, impossible obstacles and feuding team-mates, find calm in the story of ‘Jaws’. Keep tranquil watch as bedlam swirls about you.

Within the flaws lie friends. 

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