Jaws screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, who also played newspaper editor Harry Meadows in the movie, shares reminiscences of the making of the film — the building of mechanical sharks and transporting a dead shark via private jet, among others — in his best-selling book “The Jaws Log.” An excerpt.
“Bruce, the Shark.”
(May 17–June 1, 1974)
Whatever their other talents, production crews are not noted for their satiric taste or sophisticated humor; under severe pressure, they will come up with gems, but given time to think about it, their jokes run to the obvious. A time-honored classic in the industry (very clever the first time out, about fifty years ago) is to call to a brother crew member who’s standing in range of the camera when a take is about to roll, “Lick your lips!” (a reminder to look moist and dewy-lipped for the camera; it’s something models and actresses do, and hairy grips and electricians don’t). Ho ho and ho again.
So it was inevitable that of all the names in the world for the monster shark, the boys in the would love “Bruce.” In fact, he was named after Steven [Spielberg]’s attorney. (Bruce Ramer, still a powerful and influential Los Angeles attorney specializing in entertainment law.)
To everyone’s credit, once we were in production, the shark was more often referred to as “that sonofabitchin’ bastard rig,” or something equally direct. As much as I’ve told you about Bruce up to now could have gotten me a severe reprimand and maybe even a dismissal during the filming. The only reason this is being written now is because the book will be released a little after the movie, and many of you will have already seen what we’re talking about so the mystery won’t be destroyed for you if we tell you a little bit about how it was done. (It’s a truism that everyone has two professions: his or her own, and show business. On the subject of popular entertainment, never have so many known so much about so little. In 1975, nobody could have predicted the modern era of accessibility, where the details of every aspect of the entertainment industry are widely publicized. What used to be the exclusive province of the industry trade press and voyeuristic tabloid journalism has crept into mainstream news. Weekend box-office grosses, budget overruns, and actors’ salary demands are as likely to be featured as the latest sex or substance abuse scandal. And with vertical integration, television entertainment news shows devote a suspicious amount of programming time to the film and television releases of their parent or affiliated studios. If these programs lean towards self-promotion and sunny optimism, and fail to include any serious investigative reporting, remember that Disney owns the ABC television network, Paramount owns and distributes Entertainment Tonight, and the CBS News division has a family interest in seeing Survivor prosper. The efforts to protect the “secret” of the shark seem a quaint anachronism today, when the special and visual effects would be featured in hours of promotional material and “Making of” pseudo-documentaries.)
Steven, and producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown all thoroughly agreed on at least one thing — the shark was to remain a mystery. There was to be no press about the elaborate mechanical models that were to be used, and certainly no pictures of the great beasts as they hung lifeless in their cradles, or were towed patiently out to sea in their special barge. A guard was summarily fired when an enterprising reporter for the Christian Science Monitor snuck into the boat shed where the sharks were kept and took pictures. We all believed that an audience’s enjoyment of the picture would be severely diminished if they had read for months in advance about how the shark was just a mechanical contraption. Audiences being what they are, we felt sure they’d be thousands of wise guys pointing to the screen, saying, “Look, you can see it’s not real—there’s the machinery, there’s the operator, hiding inside. See how it’s up out of the water? No real shark would do that,” thereby thoroughly destroying the illusion for that happy majority that has willingly suspended its disbelief in order to enjoy the story at the moment. Half the time they would be wrong, pointing like yahoos to real sharks filmed at considerable risk, exclaiming, “Look, it’s phony!”
When the picture was finally edited, dubbed, and scored, it was shown to Ron and Valerie Taylor, the world’s leading experts in photographing the great white shark, and, indeed, the camerapersons who had recorded our own second-unit footage in Australia. They couldn’t tell their own footage from ours, so perfectly did everything match. It was only when they saw Bruce in action with the principals that they could be sure what was theirs and what wasn’t. So if your smart buddy, or your own smart self, wants to go back and look at the movie to pick out the mechanical shark shots, good luck, and remember people almost got killed making it look real for you. If you want to get tough about it, most everything that’s ever thrilled or delighted you in the movies has been an illusion of some sort. A lot of The Exorcist’s magic is gone when you repeat to yourself “Campbell’s Split Pea Soup” during the spit-up scenes. And nobody really got killed in The Godfather, you know, so don’t be like some folks and insist on knowing how everything is done. I’ll tell you, but try and be cool about it, and when you see the picture after reading this, relax and watch the clouds in the background, if you have to watch something other than the action and emotion.
With these cautions out of the way, I will now describe some of the mechanics of shark operation, some of the frenzies they caused, and how everyone related to the great whites we had on Martha’s Vineyard. You will have to hunt pretty far for any photos of phony sharks, however—the still department’s choices of shark pictures have been deliberately kept confusing, and you won’t see any mechanisms anywhere.
Special effects are called “gags,” and when James Caan is splattered with a hundred machine-gun bullets, that’s called a gag. (Like in a joke, not like in choke.) A major special effect (the destruction of Los Angeles, say) is a series of gags: i.e., the chandelier-fall gag, the ground-opening-up gag, etc.
Bob Mattey, the special effects wizard, had devised a number of shark gags, conceived by Steven, made into visual continuity by Joe Alves, built and operated by Bob Mattey’s crew, supervised by Bob or another special effects man if Bob was busy. Bob was busy a lot, working in an area where we had rented a fenced shed and boat landing and some spare property, in order to erect the East Coast edition of Shark City. Shark City was where the sharks were built, over at Rolly Harper’s lot in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, and when they had been shipped to the Vineyard it became appropriate to call their new home Shark City, too. (Rolly Harper’s catering trucks were there as well, feeding our cast and crew.) Shark City included a shed to house the equipment; space to tie up the floating barge that held the air compressors, tanks and related tools and equipment to operate and maintain the beasts; and all the material that was necessary to support the sharks at sea: coils of pneumatic hose, welding tanks, torches, ropes, generators, extra structural steel, ballast tanks, copper, iron, steel, plastic, electrical motors, pneumatic motors, and hydraulic rams. It was a real gadget-lover’s paradise. There was a floating cradle for the shark itself, with a ramshackle wooden superstructure on which hung flapping tarpaulins and sheets of plastic to hide the monster from prying eyes. The special effects crew felt they had enough to do without serving as security guards too, so screening the shark from tourists became a sometime thing. But there it all was, quietly attracting flies and attention.
All during the first weeks of filming, the shark was being hastily made ready so that it would work when it was called. Unfortunately, due to the press of the schedule and the brisk start, Bruce had never been tested in ocean water. There had been a few partial tests of paint and rubber, but nothing definitive, like plunging the whole creature into the ocean. Since Joe and his painter, Ward Welton, were in Martha’s Vineyard when the sharks were completed, the fish were shipped unpainted, with a creamy yellow neoprene plastic exterior. There were, all told, three full-scale models of the twenty-five-foot great white. Each one was made of welded tubular steel, with flexible joints hinging moving sections. The tail swung from side to side, the sides rolled, the fins waved: the models moved like real sharks. One was entirely open on the left side, one was open on the right side, and one was solid and complete. The open ones would always present their complete side to the camera, and would be attached to the steel platform sunk on the bottom of the ocean, riding the trolley along specially greased rails, simulating swimming action. They could dive, surface, look to camera, bite, snarl, chew, flop their tails, and carry on most realistically for sixty or seventy feet of travel. The closed shark was attached to a “sea sled,” a complicated submerged mechanism consisting of rudder planes and bracing, like a skeletal submarine. This baby could maneuver freely along the surface, guided by scuba divers with oxygen tanks riding the sled around below the waves, working the fins and planes.
Each shark weighed about 2,000 pounds complete and had an internal welded steel skeleton, over which was fastened “flesh” made of neoprene foam with closed cells (nonabsorbent), over which was a polyurethane skin reinforced with nylon stretch material at the flexible joints. Inside, fastened to the skeletal armature, were twenty or thirty pneumatic rams and motors to drive the moving parts: lashing the tail, opening and closing the mouth, rolling the eyes, and the like. It was designed to be of neutral weight in the water, but with the pneumatic mechanisms there was a constant ebb and flow of compressed air, changing the underwater dynamics constantly. In addition, some of the plastics would absorb water after a few hours of submersion, so the shark would put on about 10 or 12 percent of its own weight with every outing. The one-sided sharks were no problem for flotation, since they could equalize pressure immediately through the open side. The sea-sled shark was trickier, and it was vented through the tail and the belly, where the rush of bubbles would be invisible in the wake and turbulence of its movement.
The skin was a special problem. There is no known substance that has the elasticity and flexibility of real flesh and skin, so the art department had to invent it. There were a few special formula paints that formed a rubbery surface when dry, and these were made up to specifications and applied. No good! Real sharkskin has a sandpapery texture all its own, like a cat’s tongue. Running your hand along a shark from nose to tail, it’s smooth and sleek and hydrodynamic. Run your hand the reverse way, and you’ll scrape it raw on the tough-textured skin. In the South Seas, local boatbuilders use shark’s skin as sandpaper, working on Philippine mahogany with it. Our sharks had a polyurethane skin, which when painted took on the sheen of a plastic model slot car. No good.
Joe and Ward discovered that #40 silica (sandblasting sand) added to the paint with a separate blower would blend to give the skin a texture and feel not unlike the real thing. Water wouldn’t bead on it unrealistically, and it would catch the light like a flesh surface, and not like an artificial one. So there they stood, two paint-spray blowers in hand, applying $30 per gallon special paint with one hand and sand with the other, all in the name of art. The paint itself had a brief shelf life and would self-destruct three weeks after formulation at the factory, so it was flown from California to Martha’s Vineyard in the Universal pouch, along with the dailies and executive correspondence. Later, during an emergency, Ward had to patch a rough spot at sea and discovered that a $1.98 can of spray paint and a handful of #40 silica would give the same effect over small areas. And once, underwater, Ward took an instant scuba lesson (he had never dived before), borrowed some Pan Stick (actor’s greasepaint) from the makeup man, and gave the shark an instant touch-up, underwater. When the clock is on and the film is shooting, time and money must be saved, and there’s no limit to the ingenuity and inventiveness of a pressured crew.
But all the ingenuity in the world can’t fight physical fact, and the first crisis point was the failure of the paint to stick to the new sharks. Panic! Tests had been conducted in California, but on Martha’s Vineyard the temperature and humidity were all different, and adjustments had to be made. And they were, and work went on. We were shooting away, slowly completing those pages in which the actors acted with each other on land, relentlessly approaching the day when there’d be nothing left to shoot but the shark. Work went on feverishly at Shark City, and Richard Zanuck and David Brown carefully stayed away, not wishing to see anything less than perfection, being as how this entire project rested on the believability and workability of these never-been-done-before machines. Bob Mattey enthusiastically reported fair progress on the fishes; Dick and David were satisfied, Steven curious. “How’s the shark coming?” “Be ready when you are.” “Let’s hope so.” But before the big babies could be tested there was a live shark crisis to contend with.
Excerpted from “The Jaws Log – 30th Anniversary Edition.” Reprinted by permission of Newmarket Press. Copyright © 1975, 2005 by Carl Gottlieb. All rights reserved.