The Shark, the anniversary of the tension in cinematic waters

The Shark, the anniversary of the tension in cinematic waters

The Shark

With Lo Squalo (Jaws) it could be said that the consecration not only of its director, Steven Spielberg, hitherto still almost unknown to the general public, took place; but also of an entire filmic vein that has inspired (with more or less successful results) numerous other films that have followed in its wake. Spielberg's film, released in theaters in the United States exactly 46 years ago, also represented a turning point for cinema in the broadest sense: the special effects, the tricks adopted to overcome the technical problems on the set, a soundtrack that has become cult with only two notes, have certainly made school teaching that it is not necessary to have too many resources if the ideas and the will to make them real are solid. Especially the second one, since filming Lo Squalo seems to have been very difficult for all the staff.

The theatrical release took place on June 20, 1975 and, on the occasion of its anniversary, it can be interesting to discover everyone the background of Lo Squalo, a film whose celebrity is undisputed today, but which nevertheless hides many curiosities about its making. The film is also considered as the first summer blockbuster, released in theaters in a season in which generally the films were not distributed due to the low number of audiences, however, demonstrating an unparalleled success. So how was the cult born? How was the shooting with the “shark” shot? Why has your soundtrack become so recognizable over time?

A novel turned into a film

In the town of Amity, in New England, the mangled body of a young woman is found on the local beach: it seems to have been a shark that killed her. So while local police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) demands that beach goers be prohibited, Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) refuses and countless tourists flock to the town for summer holidays. After having devoured other victims undisturbed, a real hunt for the shark sets out to capture her. Participants are convinced that the issue is resolved when a tiger shark is caught; but marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) says the real predator is a great white shark, still off Amity. Brody and Hooper will then set off for the ocean, along with the tough and ruthless shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw), to track down the huge creature and put an end to the nightmare.

Before diving into the waters off the island of Amity through the images immortalized on film by Spielberg, the thriller of The Jaws came to life in the pages of the homonymous novel by Peter Benchley. Published in 1974, Benchley's work takes its cue from some real events: in 1916, in fact, several shark attacks were reported along the coast of the Jersey Shore, while in 1964 the fisherman Frank Mundus had caught a shark of about two tons off the coast of Montauk, a town near New York. Peter Benchley himself was hired by the production to make some drafts of the screenplay, however the events narrated in the novel were reworked when the writing was subsequently entrusted to the writer Howard Sackler with the advice of director Carl Gottlieb.

Although Benchley has no longer worked on the screenplay of the film, he can still be seen inside it in a cameo: the journalist who does his reportage directly from Amity's beach is the same author of the novel. However, some events present in the paper version have been eliminated from the film. For example, the mayor of Amity, Larry Vaughn, apparently was threatened by the mafia in the novel, to keep the beaches open for the shady economic interests that this had on the structures present. In addition, the biologist Matt Hooper hired to understand the behavior of the shark, in his paper counterpart had a love affair with Mrs. Ellen Brody, wife of Martin, the main protagonist of the work.

The choice of the players in the field

Changes and omissions aside, the new screenplay was written by virtue of a greater space for the film's thriller dynamics, increasing the tension in the most anxious scenes involving the inhabitants of Amity and the shark that lives among the its waters. Probably, however, such a tension capable of keeping the audience clinging to the chair for 46 years would not have been possible without the direction of Steven Spielberg. At the time, just over twenty-eight, Spielberg had not actually been considered right from the start as a candidate name for the direction of Lo Squalo. After reading the novel, producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown were interested enough to buy the rights for $ 175,000; their choice of director for the film to be transposed, however, was oriented, first, to John Sturges and then to Dick Richards. Only after seeing the film Duel, directed by the young and still rather unknown Steven Spielberg, the proposal was advanced to the director, who thus had the opportunity to stay behind the camera in a film that would have consecrated him forever.

Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw were also not considered, initially, for the respective parts of Matt Hooper and Quint. For the first, Steven Spielberg was interested in names like Jeff Bridges, Jon Voight and Timothy Bottoms, however at the suggestion of George Lucas, the director turned to Dreyfuss (who at first, however, refused). For the interpretation of the second, however, Sterling Hayden and Lee Marvin would have been perfect in the part according to Spielberg, however after their refusal, the proposal of Robert Shaw put forward by the same producers Zanuck and Brown was providential.

The Shark, a movie nightmare

Although The Shark is now unanimously considered a masterpiece (available here for immediate purchase), perhaps not everyone knows that to achieve this result the entire staff had to sweat a lot, struggling with tight budgets and tight deadlines. In fact, Spielberg had an initial maximum time of 65 days for filming, which extended up to 159 days, consequently increasing the budget from 4 to 9 million dollars, due to the multiple technical problems on the set. The same staff had renamed the film Flaws (literally "flaws") in a pun with Jaws. However, it seems that it was mainly the absolute protagonist of the film that caused them: the shark, nicknamed Bruce for the occasion by Steven Spielberg, who had thus given him the name of his lawyer. To shoot the film, three mechanical sharks were made by designer Joe Alves, which were moved through hydraulic devices that, at least in theory, should have made the large predators swim almost fluidly. In practice, however, the mechanisms underwent continuous malfunctions mainly due to immersion in brackish water, thus slowing down filming and production in general.

The looming presence of the shark in the film is pressing and a reason for constant tension for the entire duration of the film, however on closer inspection the marine creature is fully visible only for a few moments precisely to remedy the perennial failures. Steven Spielberg also had to run for cover by also adopting various tricks, such as the famous shark's dorsal fin that sticks out of the surface of the water or Quint's barrels that are moved on the surface, suggesting the passage of the shark even without showing it. Not all of The Jaws scenes were shot using mechanical creatures, though. Some shots, in fact, show the presence of real sharks filmed in the ocean depths off the Australian coast with the help of two experts in the field, the spouses Ron and Valerie Taylor. One scene, in particular, shows the shark "from life" in all its frightening majesty: the one that sees the protagonist Matt Hooper in a cage lowered underwater. Actually inside the cage was not the actor Richard Dreyfuss, but another actor of much smaller stature, Carl Rizzo: the difference in proportions thus allowed to give the illusion that Hooper was in the presence of a huge creature and terrifying.

Even for some of the cast members The Shark was a real nightmare (albeit, fortunately, without consequences). Susan Backlinie, the young blonde who first becomes a victim of the shark and whose body is later found in the sand, had to shoot the scenes of her "mauling" without having to act too much: the staff members, in fact, had tied cables around the legs of the poor actress who was then yanked left and right in the waves. Steven Spielberg had given precise instructions, among other things, so that the Backlinie was not warned the moment it was being jerked, so that his was a sincere and genuine terror.

The soundtrack most famous ever and other curiosities…

Impossible not to have the feeling that a shark is approaching when you hear the two notes of the main theme that is the background to the film. In fact, the theme created by composer John Williams is built solely on two notes, the E and the F, charged with all the suspense possible and now easily identifiable even 46 years after the release of Lo Squalo. They create a climax in which the tension increases more and more, accompanying the approach of the shark to the protagonists of the film; However, it seems that Steven Spielberg was initially very skeptical about the Williams score. Except then admitting, later, that his film would not have been the same without those two infamous notes. The theme composed by John Williams also allowed The Shark to earn an Academy Award for the best soundtrack, in 1976, together with the Award for the best editing and that for the best sound.

An uphill path , that of Spielberg's film, which with a budget of 9 million dollars (although initially it should have been "only" 4), has grossed the exorbitant sum of around 472 million dollars at the box office. At the time, Jaws was even the first film to gross $ 100 million, until its record was achieved by George Lucas' Star Wars. In addition to the financed budget, there would actually be $ 3,000 more self-financed by Steven Spielberg himself: the director wanted the scene in which the biologist Matt Hooper finds the head of a fisherman devoured by the shark, to be turned around so as to be more realistic and full of terror and "screams". Another particular scene also required multiple takes: the one in which police chief Martin Brody receives a slap in the face from Mrs. Kintner. Roy Scheider, however, on this occasion, did not get slapped once, but 17, in order to obtain the perfect "five"!

Another curiosity is linked to the place where Lo Squalo was shot. Amity is actually a fictional seaside resort, so the footage was shot in the town of Martha's Vineyard - the perfect place to film the coastline and allow the shark to move on the seabed more smoothly, thanks to a sandy bottom. shallow that goes up to about 20 km offshore. A good look at Martha's Vineyard is one of the places where the presence of sharks is recorded to a lesser extent than in other locations; However, Spielberg's film did not prevent the collective imagination from forming a real terror for these marine creatures and a tenacious stigma that sometimes leads them to be accused of being beasts that "haunt" the oceans. Peter Benchley himself, author of the novel, has dedicated himself in recent years to their preservation by taking action to prevent them from being drawn and making documentaries in which he swims with them.

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