The Shark Is Still Working
Director : Erik Hollander
Screenplay : James Gelet
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2006
The title of The Shark Is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of Jaws is taken from a story that costar Richard Dreyfuss has used for years to summarize the myriad technical problems that delayed the production of what would become one of Hollywood’s legendary blockbusters. In interview after interview, Dreyfuss has recalled sitting around the location site on Martha’s Vineyard, the island off the coast of Cape Cod that doubled as the fictional Amity Island, waiting for the mechanical shark, playfully dubbed “Bruce,” to work while walkie-talkies crackled with voices repeatedly stating, “The shark is not working. The shark is not working.” The way Dreyfuss tells it, exaggerating his nasal tones by speaking into his cupped hands to replicate the static-laced sounds of technicians relaying the continual bad news, is extremely funny, and it’s not surprising that he has told it so many times.
By turning Dreyfuss’s amusing anecdote about the troubled production on its ear to suggest Jaws’s enduring legacy--the mechanical shark may have had difficulty working, but the film works just as powerfully today as it did nearly 35 years ago--the filmmakers have picked what may be the perfect title for their feature-length documentary about the ’70s primal thriller. Despite all the advances in special effects technologies and digital wizardry, that big, clunky mechanical contraption in Jaws is still working on the minds and nerves of virtually everyone who has seen the film, both first-timers and longtime fans. I screen Jaws during the final week of the History of Motion Pictures course I teach every spring, and I am continually surprised and elated by the response it gets from jaded college students, many of whom seem to think that any movie made before they were born (which is well into the 1980s) is dusty and boring. The shark is definitely still working.
At this point, though, it would probably seem that there is little left to say about Jaws. Its production woes, humorously chronicled by the film’s cowriter Carl Gottlieb in The Jaws Log, which was published before the film was even released, have long since become the stuff of Hollywood legend. Most everyone knows that the film was entrusted to a 27-year-old newbie named Steven Spielberg who had only two feature films to his credit. The film’s rapturous reception and box-office bonanza are also old hat, and anyone with a passing knowledge of Hollywood history understands the pivotal role that Jaws played in helping to create the summer blockbuster mentality, but also what an impressive feat of filmmaking it is--a heady mixture of visceral thrills, interpersonal conflict, and social commentary.
Yet, the filmmakers--director Erik Hollander, writer James Helet, and producers Jake Gove and Michael Roddy--have managed to make the Jaws story seem almost brand new, largely by taking an all-inclusive approach to the material that covers virtually every angle of the film’s production, initial reception, and enduring legacy in the kind of detail that will tickle longtime Jaws fans but also introduce a new legion of viewers to both the exhilaration and the trauma of what Spielberg claims is still the most difficult production with which he has ever been associated. The story of Jaws is told in a way that is more organic than chronological, skipping around the film’s multi-decade history in a way that is both playful and meaningful. The filmmakers move back and forth between present and past, showing us how all the difficulties encountered in the film’s production were ultimately beneficial to the final product (much has been made of the fact that the mechanical shark’s being kept off-screen for much of the film due to technical problems heightened its effectiveness once it was finally revealed).
Again, while much of this is old hat, the filmmakers have also dug up some enticing new material, including home movies by Spielberg and various Martha’s Vineyard residents involved in the production and unused footage that never made it into the film. There is also a heavy dosage of footage from “Jaws Fest,” a 2005 festival organized on Martha’s Vineyard, and, most importantly, all-new interviews with literally every living soul who had a hand in the creation of Jaws, from Spielberg, to composer John Williams, to producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck, to almost forgotten locals who played pivotal roles, like Lee Fierro, who played Mrs. Kintner (she tells the alternately hilarious and disturbing story of how hard-core Jaws fans love nothing more than to have her slap them in the face in homage to the smack she delivers to Chief Brody). All of the main actors also show up, including the late Roy Schieder (who also narrates), Richard Dreyfuss, and Lorraine Gary, and the film’s continual influence is attested to by various Hollywood filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Bryan Singer, and Eli Roth. The filmmakers even bring out often neglected contributors like voice actor Percy Rodrigues, who provided the narration for the film’s unforgettable trailers, and Roger Kastel, who painted what is easily one of the most iconic one-sheet images in film history. We get to see the swimming pool where the infamous Ben Gardner shock moment was filmed, the remote beach where the Orca sat for decades and slowly rotted, and the junkyard where one of the Bruce sharks still resides. Virtually nothing has been left out.
What is most impressive about The Shark Is Still Working, though, is the fact that it was a true labor of love, entirely funded and produced by a quartet of Jaws fans who wanted to make the ultimate documentary about their favorite film, and succeeded. Their film pulsates with the kind of admiration and genuine love for film that is all too often dismissed as overeager fanboy veneration and not recognized as the kind of passion that keeps art alive and kicking. Jaws has been with us for so long at this point that it is all too easy to take it for granted, and the best thing about The Shark Is Still Working is that it reminds us with startling clarity just what a unique achievement it really was.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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