The Rewriting Of Jaws – Carl Gottlieb Tells Bleeding Cool How It Came To Be, What It All Means

Carl Gottlieb‘s relationship with Jaws began when he was cast as Meadows, the newspaper editor. Pretty soon, the editing role spilled into real life and he got to work overhauling the screenplay. A lot of what works in the film was produced as a result of this process.

I got to speak to Gottlieb recently, in time for the DVD and Blu-ray re-release of Jaws, and the republication of his production memoir, The Jaws Log. Here’s what he had to tell me about reworking the screenplay, where Robert Shaw’s great speech came from, and what the whole thing means anyway.

I was working as a story editor on a comedy series in the US at that time but I was friends with Spielberg. We were pals since I’d acted in a couple of his television movies and he thought that if I had an acting part in Jaws I could be around and contribute a couple of jokes and make it interesting. Steven has a good sense of what makes a popular film, and Jaws – which was a kind of potboiler horror film with an interesting main character in the shark – but the script that Steven was given was pretty straight forward. Steven asked me to look at the script and give my opinion as a writer.

I gave my analysis of the film, and what I would change if I was working on it, and Spielberg showed that to the producers, [Richard] Zanuck and [David] Brown. We had a long conversation together at breakfast one Sunday, just two weeks before shooting started, and Zanuck and Brown asked me to come on as a writer also and do a dialogue punch up, move some things around.

Steven said “I’ve got a house where I’m going to be living during the filming. There’s plenty of room and I’ve got a cook and a housekeeper. You should stay there and we can talk about the script during filming.” I packed up and went off with him.

I started changing the script, and one change led to another and pretty soon the whole movie was being rewritten. The script evolved and changed and some plots dropped out and things that had been in the novel got left behind. After the dust had cleared, I shared the screenplay credit with Peter Benchley who had written the first draft.

We removed two big subplots in the novel that were in the original script. One was a clandestine love affair between the oceanographer and the police chief’s wife, the other was the mafia subplot about why the mayor needed to have a good summer season. As we were working on the movie, and when Dreyfuss came on board, the affair just became unthinkable. And the mayor would be a much more sympathetic, and pathetic, character if he was just trying to do well by the town.

Shaw did not improvise the Indianapolis speech. That’s a highly structured scene and a highly structured speech that was introduced into the screenplay by Howard Sackler, the intervening writer between Peter Benchley and me. In the novel, Quint has no motivation. He just hates sharks, period.

Sackler, who was a Navy veteran as well as a good playwright and screenwriter, was aware of the Indianapolis incident and he put that long speech into the script. It’s two pages of dialogue, it goes on and on, so Steven was very nervous about it. He asked everybody “What would you do with this?” He asked Paul Schrader, he asked John Milius, he asked Bob Zemeckis. A lot of writers sent in notes and Shaw collected all of this material.

But Shaw, everybody forgets, was a novelist and a playwright, besides being a classically trained actor. He sat down with all of this material and cobbled together the speech and read it to us one night. It was a compendium of work by Howard Sackler and Robert Shaw.

In the end notes of my book The Jaws Log, I devote several pages to the genesis of that speech. It has been routinely attributed to another writer, and I was upset about that. I’ve always had to ask people “Who do you believe? The guy who wasn’t there who said he wrote it? Or the guy who was but says he didn’t?”

I take this position as a writer: if an actor does an interesting ad lib or improvises in the moment, and it’s not just the actor’s ego at work, then the writer can claim a lot of credit for that. When you create a plausible character that the actor inhabits, when the time comes for that actor to make something up on the spot, they’re improvising in character. They’re saying what the writer would have said if the writer had more time.

There were times when we were shooting the film that we called it Moby Dick meets Enemy of the People. What it’s really about, on a macro level, is what’s good for a community versus what’s right for a community. The good thing for Amity would be to have a good summer season and cover up the shark attack. The right thing to do is to publicise the shark attack and close the beaches. That’s Brody’s dilemma – how to accomplish that.

On a more personal level, it’s a story about three very different men with very different philosophies of life forced to co-operate or die because of this monster they’re confronting just by themselves. Most films will have an antagonist and a protagonist, but in Jaws, there’s no bad guy, there’s just three guys and one’s a creature of intellect, one’s a creature of animal passion and one is an everyman that has to mediate between them so that they might stay alive. That’s what Jaws is about: co-operation by individuals and the consideration of the welfare for a community.

Jaws 2 was, in its time, the most successful sequel. The challenge with that film was that, again, I wasn’t involved in the writing of the script until they got into trouble and they fired a director and his busy body wife two weeks into production. They called me and asked to do what I did in the first one – to live on location and to rewrite. The big set pieces were built, so I couldn’t rewrite the ending, I couldn’t rewrite the killer whale, but I was able to rewrite most of what happened in between.

There’s an iron law of sequels which is this: only the last one loses money. There’s a Jaws 4 but I’m happy to say I had nothing to do with that one.

You know, one day they’ll remake or reboot this series. It’s inevitable.

Thanks to Gottlieb for his time.

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