December 18, 2011

The making of JAWS (1975) - books and documentaries

Jaws is a movie that just keeps on giving. A huge new book and yet another documentary are still unravelling its mysteries. There's a fascination about almost every aspect of the film's production - the script, the acting, the music, the special effects, the cinematography, the logistics...

In September of this year we went on holiday to Massachusetts, staying in Boston and Provincetown, with a deliberate detour to Martha's Vineyard. The latter is the island that stood in for Amity, the fictional location of the community with a shark problem. In 1974, the island had the very real problem of a huge Hollywood film crew that invaded for five months to shoot Jaws.

To try and get the most of this out-of-the-way destination, I went through everything I had on the making of Jaws to pinpoint the main filming locations. What's left to see? Someone must have done an exhaustive location tour of the island by now, but darned if I could find a complete guide online. I will of course share our  photos of what we found with you, but first, here's what's out there about behind-the-scenes of Jaws.


I went back to the two books originally published in 1975 about the making of the film. These helped form a rough guide to where everything was shot.

At the time of release, photographs of the making of the film were very restricted - you'd more likely see photos of a real shark than the mechanical ones. 'The Making Of The Movie Jaws - On Location On Martha's Vineyard' was written by islander Edith Blake, who took publicity photographs and followed the crew around. This is all from the islanders' perspective and particularly good at naming when and where locations were used.

Scriptwriter Carl Gottlieb wrote the view from inside the production team - 'The Jaws Log'. He candidly talks about how the production scraped through by the skin of its pointy teeth. Starting shooting without a complete script, with unproven special effects, on a project that hadn't been attempted before - a story of the sea that was going to be shot at sea, instead of in a studio tank. Over schedule, over budget, with many physical special effects proving so impossible that they had to be 'shot around' and 'written around' until they simply had to work or there wouldn't have been a movie!

Shooting downwards, the camera angle didn't give away that they're in a lagoon
The bays around the island are shallow enough to enable the crew to set up the underwater tracks level for the shark to run on. They could also rig lights, sink boats in the relative safety of shallow water while appearing to be far out to sea. The bays were also wide enough to offer a clear horizon. Shot from the right angle, there would be no coastline visible. It was like the largest studio tank ever. The shape and depth of the bays was the crucial reason why the island was initially chosen.

Having chosen this as a key location, the production then looked over the island for every other building and beach needed for the story, for interiors and exteriors. The town hall, police house, Brody's house, docks, ferries, beaches were all on the island.

Both those books have since been revised and republished in slightly larger paperbacks. But now the best ever book on Jaws is 'Memories From Martha's Vineyard' which has exhaustively checked around for all the photos taken at the time by the islanders. A hefty coffee table book awash with behind-the-scenes photos.

The islanders who found themselves cast in the movie are also all tracked down, interviewed and presented as they are now! Even if they just had one line in the movie... "Pippit! Pippit!"

A large map helped pinpoint some more locations, but it also reveals some scenes that weren't shot at Martha's Vineyard at all. I've been duped again! Turns out that the Jaws ride at Universal Studio in Hollywood was actually a location - for instance, the reshoot of the discovery of Ben Gardner's boat (a scene originally shot at sea, far less effectively in broad daylight) as well as a lot of underwater footage, like the prop shark attacking the cage, and the upwards shots of kicking legs.

But the book is mainly about the epic island shoot, sifted from hundreds of photos taken by islanders who found that there was little preventing them from getting close up to the action, even unwittingly photographing scenes that never made the final cut, or were reshot later. If you got the deluxe version of the book, there's also a DVD of 8mm footage, like the 'Teddy attack' that was rejected by Spielberg as too much...

But the multitude of rare photographs are more revealing than the documentaries, especially about the technical trickery used for many classic sequences. Like revealed is the rig used for the 'shark entering the pond', the elementary woodwork used to support the camera for so many recognisable scenes.

An astonishing book, from fans who didn't even get to see it in the cinema first time round.
Interview with the author of Memories From Martha's Vineyard here

I bought this on the island but didn't have time to read it there. There's a very useful map in it though.

This website was the best guide to how the locations had changed in 35 years, and got us to the best sights. The guide, in two parts, is unfortunately incomplete, only covering the East side of the island.


They've little information on locations, but while I'm on the subject, here's a starter guide to the best Jaws documentaries.

The very best ever is the jawesome two-and-a-half hour documentary spread over three sides of the 1995 Signature Collection laserdisc box set. This was subsequently shortened for the 30th Anniversary DVD release. Laurent Bouzereau's epic programme included a few tantalising clips of deleted FX scenes - including a glimpse of that Teddy scene (the guy in the rowing boat - "You guys all right?"). I guess that the relatively small amount of behind-the-scenes footage indicates that Spielberg is still reluctant to demystify the movie too much.

The interviews, including plenty of Spielberg, are the main meat and extremely entertaining, mainly because Richard Dreyfuss is so much fun in it.

In The Teeth Of Jaws (1997) was made for a Jaws evening on the BBC. An hour long, it featured new interviews with Edith Blake, Peter Benchley, Richard Dreyfuss, Zanuck and Brown, though the Spielberg footage is taken from the laserdisc documentary. It offers contemporary footage of the surviving Orca and the film barge at rest in Menemsha (both have since been moved to a less public location). Plus there's a great account of all the writers who tackled the pivotal USS Indianapolis monologue, leaving Robert Shaw, himself a writer, to take all the versions of the scene and nail the final version the night before it was filmed.

The Shark Is Still Working (2009) is an independent production which includes a raft of new interviews designed to supplement what was covered in the 1995 laserdisc documentary. It includes newer interviews with many involved in the production who are sadly no longer with us. The above artwork is how it's planned DVD release would originally have appeared. (The Shark Is Still Working will now be included with the September 2012 Blu-ray release of the new Jaws restoration). Even after everything I've seen on the film, I'm still hungry for more and can't wait to see what they've done. The documentary has a page on Facebook.

Check out this interview with the producers of The Shark Is Still Working here on Cinema Retro...


I didn't see many serious articles about the making of Jaws in the UK. The usual sources that I'd normally rely on failed to reveal very much. The only detailed coverage I'd expect were Cinefantastique (which reviewed it) and American Cinematographer which did a small piece on it. Hard information about the special effects had to wait for the much later documentaries.

Here's one article that I have from 1976, for the UK release. They actually went and interviewed Spielberg! Because Jaws stayed in UK cinemas for months longer than expected, Film Review presumably ran out of 'puff piece' press releases and had to come up with new material!

It also talks at length about how the film avoided a more restrictive rating. In the UK, Jaws had an 'A' certificate. Anything harsher would have barred anyone under the age of 14 - if it had an 'AA' certificate. James Ferman, then head of the BBFC, is said to have considered the decision carefully, but thought that the second half of the film was an epic adventure film that 10 and 11 year-old boys would enjoy. Worried that younger viewers would get nightmares, Ferman arranged a special screening for children and consulted child psychiatrists. In the end the 'A' certificate was "reinforced" with an extra warning - on the poster is (a fairly small) tagline "May be particularly disturbing to younger unaccompanied children." Strange that the censors will bend over backwards for a blockbuster...

The same article mentions that Spielberg got three percent of the profits! Ker-ching!

A ton of US magazine coverage can be found here at

My review of Jaws is here - having seen it on its first run in the cinema and on every format since.

The first part of my photo-guide to Amity Island will surface shortly...


  1. READ: The Greatest White Shark Story Ever Told! "My Friend Michale" a true story about the real Jaws.
    It will warm your heart.

  2. AMAZING STUFF! Can't get enough JAWS.

  3. Stay tuned, Will. I'm preparing three photosets of our tour of JAWS locations, coming soon to this blog!

  4. I'm a little late to the party, but wow... great read! Just watched Jaws (for the billionth time), and now I'm itching to see it again. Also... I just put "Memories from Martha's Vineyard" on my holiday wish list.

  5. wonderful reveal-we are off to vineyard tomorrow and your work has made ours much easier-thank you - herb van dam, salem,ma