Long before there was “Sharknado,” there was “Jaws,” the classic 1975 monster movie about a killer great white shark terrorizing a small New England resort town. Growing up in Rhode Island, I can attest that the impact of that film had a dramatic effect on how we spent summers at the beach: “Don’t go in the water” became our mantra.
The only man probably not traumatized by “Jaws” was actor/screenwriter Carl Gottlieb. After all, he both starred in the film as the local newspaperman and co-wrote the screenplay adapted from Peter Benchley’s terrifying novel. I caught up with Mr. Gottlieb at The Hollywood Show to discuss his book “The Jaws Log: Expanded Edition,” why we’re fascinated with great whites and why he’s not the ultimate “Jaws” expert.
Cue the ominous orchestral string music.
Question: Are you the ultimate expert on “Jaws”?
Answer: No I’m not the expert. There is a Facebook page called “Jaws FINatics.” The moderators of that page are the experts. Those are the folks who have run the Blu-ray frame by frame and exchanged notes.
Q: Do people come up to you and ask questions about complex details of the movie?
A: Yeah. I try to explain, “Look, it was 40 years ago. I was doing a job. I had enough on my hands trying to rewrite the script on the fly — writing pages that would be shot the very next day — rather than note that even thought it was July 4 [in the film] there were no leaves on the trees.”
Q: How did you end up in “Jaws” as both an actor and as co-writer of the screenplay?
A: I was friends with Steven Spielberg. I had acted in a couple of his TV movies. He was aware of my stage work in L.A., and I had been writing on “The Smothers Brothers Show.” We had the same agent, and we were a natural fit. We pitched some screenplays together.
When he was prepping this picture, he asked me to be in it as an actor. Then he sent me the script with a note in it that said, “Eviscerate it!” The producers summoned me to a a Sunday meeting. We were there for six or seven hours. They said, “We are starting to shoot in three weeks. Can you leave on Tuesday with Steven and start the rewrite.” I said, “Yeah, OK.” It turned into a page 1 rewrite.
Q: Since the screenplay was based on a book, did you have to stay true to it?
A: No. We were just trying to make as good a movie as possible. That meant deleting a number of storylines and plot points from the book. And writing to accommodate the cast we had rather than the imaginary characters from the book. Once you had real people like [Richard] Dreyfuss and [Roy] Scheider, then you’re writing for their voice.
Q: Everyone has heard how difficult the film was to make. Give us some insight into that.
A: The mechanical shark had never been tested in salt water. So the minute they put it in salt water, everyone realized that affected the mechanics and wiring. And just the sheer wear and tear. After every day of shooting the shark had to go back to … be repainted and refitted.
It was as if you went out every day and broke your arm and had to have it reset and patched so you could go back to work the next day. It was insane.
Q: How did you come to write the your book “The Jaws Log”?
A: “Jaws” came out in the very early days of cross-promotions. Universal had just started a relationship with Dell paperbacks. They said, “It would be nice to have a ‘making of the film’ book to go along with the movie, lunchbox and T-shirt.” Originally I was going to ghostwrite Steven’s one third of the coffee table book. The producer and Peter Benchley were each gonna write a third. Then everybody got too busy. They said, “Can you do it, Carl?”
I said OK because it was fresh in my mind. I had just lived through it. About two weeks after the movie came out, the book hit the newsstands. It went through 23 printings and sold a couple million copies over the years.
To this day it’s the best-selling book about the making of a movie.
Q: Were you scared out of the water the way we all were after seeing “Jaws”?
A: No. I had done the research, so I knew I had a better chance of being hit by a golf ball or lightning than being bitten by a shark.
I don’t want to be in water deeper than what I can stand up in. It has nothing to do with fish.
Q: Why are people fascinated with sharks, and did that come from “Jaws”?
A: They touch a nerve in everybody. They are an apex predator. Same fascination we have with lions and tigers. They’re big and scary and they keep us humble.
There was a very successful documentary that Peter Benchley worked on called “Blue Water, White Death.” Between that and “Jaws,” great whites became part of popular culture.
With the heightened awareness a normal, local shark incident became a news wire feature because of “Jaws.” The publicity department at Universal couldn’t have planned it any better. The summer the film was released, the first week of July there was a shark attack in San Diego. Time magazine had a cover story: “Year of the Shark.”
Q: What is the strangest thing you have ever been asked to sign?
A: You mean besides breasts? There was a guy who came by yesterday with a big, yellow replica barrel similar to the ones we used in the film. He had it on a dolly — a 40-gallon barrel.