CARL GOTTLIEB ON 'JAWS'

Carl Gottlieb is best known as the co-writer of one of cinema's most beloved blockbusters, JAWS (1975). He also acted in the film as newspaperman Meadows, and co-wrote the first two sequels. His book on the making of JAWS, 'The Jaws Log' has been described by Bryan Singer as 'a little movie bible'. Carl's background is in comedy, and outside the JAWS series he wrote the comedies WHICH WAY IS UP (1977), THE JERK (1979), CAVEMAN (1981) and DOCTOR DETROIT (1983), the last two which he also directed. I spoke to Carl about his early friendship and collaborations with Steven Spielberg, writing and making JAWS and how he came to work on JAWS 2 (1978) and JAWS 3-D (1983).   
   
How did you and Spielberg become friends and collaborators?
I saw his short film AMBLIN' (1968) and liked it. We had the same agent (Mike Medavoy) and became friends. It's one of those friendships that's lasted over the years where you barely remember the first 'Hello'. It's like I didn't know him and then I did. We used to go out to screenings together. I remember watching Brian De Palma's CARRIE (1976) with him. My wife and I had a house that was conveniently located in Hollywood and a lot of people used to stop by. I had filmmaker friends, and Steven was one of the frequent visitors. Hollywood was a much smaller town in those days. The era that Peter Biskind wrote about in 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' was just starting. There was a great sense of community. If you made movies, liked rock and roll and lived in L.A., you were part of this extended family.

Why do you think you became friends?
We kind of saw things the same way. In some ways I was kind of a mentor to him because I had been in town for a year or two longer than he had. I had a little more experience. I had been on stage in San Francisco and in L.A., and I had been working in television. I acted in two of Steven's television movies, SAVAGE (1973) and SOMETHING EVIL (1972).

Why do you think you collaborated so well?
For the purposes of collaboration we were relatively ego-less. I'd come from a tradition of improvisational theatre where collaboration was instinctive and necessary. We got on well and there was nothing to prove. We could simply concentrate on the work at hand, whether that be a spec script or a project we thought we could do. Steven was a bit of a loner and a techno-geek, and between the two of us we had a composite personality.

You and Spielberg worked on several projects that never came to pass before JAWS. What do you remember about them?
There was one about WWW1 American ace pilots overseas, and one about a guy working in a hotel in the Catskills. People liked the ideas and were receptive to the pitches, but Steven was always locked-in to direct so if they bought the pitch then they also bought Steven as director. Nobody was willing to do that at the time.

How did you get involved with the JAWS script?
Steven sent me the Howard Sackler rewrite to read. He also wanted me in the movie as Meadows. Steven wanted me around to improvise some humour, provide some naturalism and help with the townspeople he was casting in the film. When I knew I was going to be involved in the movie, I read the book and found it to be a very good 'beach read'. I thought Sackler's rewrite improved upon the book in some areas, but was deficient in others. I had a lot of thoughts about how to fix the script and I put them in a memo which Steven gave to the producers. We all sat down and talked and they decided I would do a 'dialogue polish'. I was paid the writer's minimum on a week's guarantee. It turned into twelve weeks!

What did you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the Sackler script?
It was an efficient re-telling of the novel with some story elements played down, but the characters were kind of cardboard. The thing I have to give credit to Sackler for is that he at least provided motivation for Quint's malevolence towards sharks. In the book there's no reason stated and Quint is like an existential being. Sackler was a sailor and he knew about the Indianapolis, which made a perfect backdrop to Quint. My task was to rewrite dialogue and concentrate on the relationships.

What did you like the most about the story of JAWS?
The beauty is in the complex nature of the heroes. It's this trio of primal man (Quint), intellectual man (Hooper) and Everyman (Brody). One of them working alone couldn't kill the shark but the three of them working together could.

Why was the love triangle between Ellen Brody, Chief Brody and Hooper removed?
The love triangle was still in the script almost up until the first day of shooting because story-wise it would have added interesting tension to the scenes at sea between Brody and Hooper. But once we started working with the actors we found that their personalities were not consistent with the characterisations found in the book. Hooper became a scruffy rich kid with an intellectual passion for fish. Ellen Brody became a very loving and considerate wife. In the book she allows herself to be seduced by Hooper to break away from the tedium of being an island wife after being a summer person. I was in the very enviable position of being able to write dialogue for specific actors, not an ideal of their characters. I was able to shape the story to the strengths of the very capable actors, and to talk with them every day and consult on any problems they were having with their characters.

If one reads the book, Richard Dreyfuss would seem like an offbeat casting choice for Hooper. How did he get cast?
I came onboard two weeks before shooting began and they still didn't have a Quint or a Hooper. The studio (Universal)and the producers (Richard Zanuck and David Brown) wanted Jan-Michael Vincent as Hooper and Charlton Heston, or maybe Lee Marvin, as Quint. I would have liked to see Marvin play Quint but he was on a real fishing trip and didn't want to cut it short to do a movie. We were scrambling and we managed to get Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss. Richard had turned the part down before I came on the picture. He had said to Steven the famous line "This is a movie I'd rather see than be in." I saw his name on a list and said to Steven "I know Ricky. Let's give him a call and get him up here. I'm sure he'll do the picture if you really want him." Steven replied "Sure. I wouldn't have offered him the part the first time if I didn't want him." So I called my wife and she tracked him down in New York City
. He came up to Boston for the afternoon, and he walked into the hotel looking like Hooper - he had the rimless glasses, the scruffy beard and wool watch cap. Steven and I looked at him and then at each other and said "Don't change a thing!" Richard told us "Wait a minute! I haven't said I'm going to do this movie yet." He told us that he couldn't do "all this hero shit." We talked to him about the character and what he needed as an actor to be persuaded to get involved. I reassured him that the role was now more likeable and more humorous. He knew I could handle humour because of my comedy background.

How locked in was the script once shooting began?
It was not at all locked in. We had enough to start shooting the first ten days. I was writing frantically ahead of schedule. Steven and I were sharing a house on location and we just lived the movie. If I wasn't on call as an actor that day I was holed up 
in the cabin writing the rest of the movie.

When the shark started acting up did you write new scenes?
We gave a lot more care to the Mrs. Kintner story, and the mystery of whether the shark had indeed been caught or not. We also added the scene with the two fishermen escaping the shark at night. All these problems were solved on location as we went. It's a terrible way to make a movie but there are other classic films that were made under that kind of pressure.

 
As problems ensued were you ever worried about your own part getting reduced? Was it ever a temptation to ensure you had a lot of screen time?
The scene where Brody and Hooper go out to sea and discover Ben Gardner's boat was originally a daytime scene in which my character was involved. There was an accident and I fell overboard. It threw us behind schedule for an hour or two in the day so we decided to keep filming and come back to it later. As the film evolved we realized that my character didn't have to be in the scene. We felt the discovery of Ben Gardner's boat would be much scarier if we did it at night. The hardest thing I ever did as an actor was to write myself out as a writer! It's a mark of how selfless we all were whilst making the movie that I didn't immediately try and think of other things for Meadows to do. Murray Hamilton was a wonderful actor and as personified the conservative spirit of the town council so well that I felt Meadows was superfluous a lot of the time. Meadows ended up being a 'yes man' standing to the side of the Mayor. It was painful but everybody was just trying to make the best movie we could. There weren't a lot of concerns about "Oh, my line count has gone down."

How much of you is in the character of the newspaper editor Meadows?
I had been a journalism major and I had worked in newspapers so I was actually equipped to play Meadows. Dialogue such as burying the reward ad to the back of the newspaper was based on my experiences working on a newspaper in Syracuse, New York. There's an in-joke in the film. When the photos are being taken of the shark that has supposedly killed everybody, I say "Call Dave Axlerod
in New York." Dave is a college friend of mine and he is always tickled when he hears that line in the movie.

How much of an influence was Craig Kingsbury (who also plays Ben Gardner in the film) on the character of Quint?
In many ways he was the model for Quint. He was an old fisherman and handyman who lived on Martha's Vineyard. Steven told me to hang out with Craig because ''...he has a mouth on him." Sometimes I would simply transcribe what Craig said and put it into the mouth of Quint. Shaw would then put his own spin on it. Shaw built his own character but he took the attitude and dialogue from Craig. Craig was probably the only man in the whole of New England to have been arrested and spent a night in jail for drunk-driving
a team of oxen!

How did he and Robert Shaw get on?
Craig didn't like actors. He saw it as a sissified way of making a living because he had worked with his hands all his life. But he and Shaw were very similar and they got on well together. Craig was an outsider on the island and that suited Shaw, who had his own house and kept to himself whilst making the movie. They both liked the grape!

Were you surprised by the great chemistry between Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss?
One of the miracles of the film is that the chemistry between the lead actors suited the chemistry between the fictional characters. They had some of the same quirks
and since I was writing for those specific actors I was writing for attitudes that were half in place already. I could amplify them and write to the actors' strengths. Their great chemistry is one of those ineffable accidents that you really can't control. You hope and pray it will happen and on JAWS we were lucky.

How did he handle the different temperaments of the three leads on such a long, challenging shoot?
Nobody wanted to be there as long as they were. Shaw was the one who was best compensated because he had escalators written into his deal. However bad he felt about having to go out on a boat all day for maybe ten seconds of useable film, he had a paycheque at the end of the week that would at least make him smile. When you're working strange hours and you're only friends are the people working with you, little things like the caterer providing the same meal three days in a row can take on huge significance. Steven was very good at listening to the concerns of each of the actors. I'm pretty sure each actor thought Steven was taking care of them personally. He had that knack. He wasn't asking anyone to do anything he wasn't willing to do himself. Steven never had a day off. He was there from the first day to the last day. When my work was done, I just got out of there. I bought a new car with my money from the movie and drove back with my wife to California in it.

Spielberg shows a definite gift for getting good performances from non-professional actors in JAWS. 
Had you seen this before in your previous collaborations?
No, because the two TV movies I did with him were done under strict TV conditions. But I quickly noticed on JAWS that he was getting performances from local, non-professionals that felt real, such as Peggy Scott who played Polly or the actors playing the town council members. You can see such performances a lot more in his earlier films.

What kind of actors is Spielberg attracted to?
Part of the genius of directing is casting - knowing with some certainty that an actor will give you a performance that's consistent with their character and the story, and can work with the other actors. Steven has that gift. He chooses to work with non-professionals, and extremely seasoned actors whom he trusts to do the actor's work and bring in a fully-realised performance. Some directors make casting choices out of ego. They pick an actor who might not be right for a part, but their ego tells them that they can get a performance out of them. Sometimes it can work, but it mostly doesn't. Steven isn't like that. 


As you were sharing a house whilst filming, did you have any insights into his frame of mind during the difficult shoot?
I watched him fret and I knew his insecurities and anxieties. I admired his ability, apart from me or two or three people, to keep them to himself. To the crew he had to be the captain pacing on the quarterdeck. The loneliness of command. He couldn't for one minute let the anxiety show through. Steven is such a good filmmaker and understands the filming process so well that when he asks for something or insists on something you can see it's not an ego exercise or anything other than a necessity for the art of the film.

Has Spielberg changed much over the years?
I don't see him often now. As I said in my book, he's like a volcano or the Pope now. You can only see him from a distance. When you're rich and powerful, your circle of friends changes and I understand that.

When did you realise JAWS was going to be at least a hit?
I'd been around audiences long enough to know that after the first paid preview it was going to be a popular movie. Of course I had no idea it was going to be a hit of the magnitude it was. The studio released it on an unprecedented 400 screens because it was a summer movie and they wanted to make as much money as they could before summer was over. But it kept on going. Nobody knows how the leap from hit movie to blockbuster happens. It happens very rarely. It's an accident of cultural history.

Is the success of JAWS down to the fact everybody collaborated so well?
Absolutely. The film won Academy Awards for Editing, Score and Sound. Those were huge contributions to the finished product. It really was a very happy and fantastic collaboration, with Steven, the auteur, as the guiding hand with the concurrence and sometimes advice of Richard Zanuck and David Brown. After the failure of 1941 (1979) and then the huge successes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and E.T. (1982), Steven was more willing to admit that were collaborators in the process of making JAWS. Previously he had been happy to accept
the credit as the wunderkind who had made the biggest film of all time and as the next Boy Genius after Irving G. Thalberg.


Was JAWS the best collaboration of your career?
It was actually the second best collaboration of my life. The first was when I was writing for The Committee, which was a satirical improvisational revue. We were doing thirteen shows a week, six days a week, making up improvised social satire and comedy as well as it's ever been done. When a live performance is over, it's over. The next day you have to do it again. JAWS just stays there.

Have you ever worked as hard on a project since JAWS?
The movie I wrote and directed in Mexico, CAVEMAN with Ringo Starr, Barbara Bach and Dennis Quaid, was a rewarding but tough shoot. It's interesting to have JAWS as your maiden voyage. After that nothing could be difficult!

How were the experiences of making JAWS 2 and JAWS 3-D?
They got into trouble writing the sequels and gave me a call. I was happy to do them and I got paid a great deal. I thought I did a very workmanlike, professional job given what I had to work with. JAWS 2 was in its time one of the most successful sequels ever and I'm pretty proud of it. The gimmick of having the kids replicate car cruising culture in sailboats was a great idea and I'm really happy I had it! I remember Scheider hating having to do the film but he was the only actor who had a sequel clause in his contract.

How do you feel about being associated with such a hugely popular film for so long?
When you're attached to an iconic film you have to be gracious about it and acknowledge that it has changed your life. It was a great experience and I'm very happy to be considered a part of it. As the years go by there's just Steven, Richard and I left from the above the line crew. It might have been more fun if it had happened a little later in my career because it's hard to top a film like JAWS. But you can work a lifetime in the arts and not have a success like that, and I'm so happy it became the iconic film it is.

I spoke to Carl by telephone on 29th November 2012 and would like to thank him for his time.

The website for the updated and expanded version of The Jaws Log.  

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