35 years ago this summer, arguably one of the greatest horror films in the history of cinema opened in theaters across the country. Directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and a stubborn mechanical shark nicknamed “Bruce,” Jaws terrified audiences and instilled Aquaphobia in an entire generation.
I was six when my father took me to the Strand Theater in Sturgis, Michigan for a Saturday showing. You may think that six might be a little young for a horror movie, but it was rated PG after all which meant that Parental Guidance was merely suggested. Parental Judgment, on the other hand, was of no interest to the MPAA. The experience changed my life.
How often are we present at the conception of nightmares? I could feel the neurons in my young, impressionable brain making new connections and associations that would prevent my body from going anywhere near a significant body of water.
As I’ve gotten older, the fear has given way to fascination; almost love. I’ve seen the film dozens of times and each time, as with any great work of art, I discover something new. Ironically, if the desires of every single person involved in the making of the film had gone according to their plan, it would have been a very different film, if it would have been made at all.
To begin with, the 27-year-old Steven Spielberg didn’t want to direct Jaws; his desire was to direct a different film entirely. And once on board, the film became a series of disasters, disappointments and accidents, nearly all of them revolving around submerging a mechanical shark in the Atlantic Ocean off of Martha’s Vineyard. The weather pushed the ship with the cameras one way while the tides pulled the ship with the actors another. A shark that sank perfectly in a fresh-water tank in California floated like a cork in the salt water of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, the salt water wreaked havoc on the shark’s transistors.
As the days and dollars ticked by, the cast and crew were left to shoot a film about a giant shark…without a giant shark.
In Spielberg’s words:
“All of these moments were really a kind of divine providence saying: ‘There’s another way, a better way to make this movie, and I better listen.’ And I did. I did listen.”
They invented cameras and played with angles that forced the audience to invest their own imaginations, and in doing so, created a film that was more suspenseful and terrifying than anything that existed on the storyboards. All because nothing went according to plan.
I have a plan, you have a plan, everyone has a plan. We all write the scripts that serve as the templates for our lives and our own personal films. Especially as I get older, the urgency to complete the film according to plan becomes more desperate, and the setbacks become more inconvenient. I become set in my methods, sure of my ways and mistake my habits for wisdom. I purchase my certainty with dues paid.
Could it be that we have no more control over the future as we have editorial power over the past? If so, perhaps all we have is the ability to do the best we can with what we have right now. As terrifying as that may be, if Jaws is any indication, there might be genius in that terror.