Friday, June 03, 2005

The story of a great white shark left quite an impression

Go ahead, try to conjure a more deprived eight-year-old boy than Erik Hollander. It was the summer of 1975, and he was--so he claims--pretty much the only third-grader in the entire city of Jacksonville, Fla., who hadn't yet seen the new hit movie "Jaws," who hadn't thrilled to the story of a great white shark terrorizing an island resort community.

"My parents thought it was too intense for young children," recalls Mr. Hollander, who speculates that such overprotectiveness maybe, just maybe, had something to do with the fact that his family lived right near the beach.

It's safe to say that Mr. Hollander, a Nashville-based documentary filmmaker, has more than made up for lost time. Since the age of 12 when--finally!--he was permitted to join the mainstream and catch "Jaws" on its repeat visit to local theaters, he's seen the movie hundreds of times. When it was first on television--before the VCR era--Mr. Hollander made an audiocassette recording and played it daily until he'd memorized every word and every sound effect.

He has, in the intervening years, collected props from the movie, among them the duffel bag and diving mask used by Richard Dreyfuss's character, a "Beach Closed" sign, an oxygen tank, a gun and the treasure of treasures: the buoy from the heart-stopping opening scene.

"You walk into my house and it's like a 'Jaws' museum. There are posters on the walls and autographs of the movie's stars," says Mr. Hollander, who's currently at work on a documentary about the impact and legacy of his favorite movie.

This weekend he, along with an estimated 2,000 other fin-atics will be on Martha's Vineyard where much of the movie was filmed. The Vineyard served as the stand-in for Amity Island, and fittingly, it's the site of Jawsfest, the three-day 30th anniversary tribute to the movie whose $471 million world-wide box office take since opening day June 20, 1975, helped usher in the summer blockbuster and elevated the man-against-monster saga from bottom of the double feature to A-list fare. It also launched a wave of spoofs and moments of homage in movies as diverse as "Clerks," "Stakeout," "Big Fat Liar," "Caddyshack," "Finding Nemo," "Shark Tale" and "Open Water"--to say nothing of the immortal "Land Shark" skit on "Saturday Night Live."

Jawsfest, whose attractions will include memorabilia displays, a lecture by a marine biologist, elbow-rubbing opportunities with some members of the cast and crew, a beach bonfire (just like the one in the movie) and an outdoor screening, will offer ample ammo to those who want to get no closer to the water than a table at Red Lobster.

Landlubbers must also contend with the mid-June surfacing of the "Jaws 30th Anniversary Edition DVD," which includes an interview with director Steven Spielberg; the release of a "Jaws" video game; the 30th anniversary edition of "The Jaws Log," a chronicle of the production by the movie's co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, who will also be at Jawsfest; the publication of "Shark Life," a nonfiction book aimed at young adults by Peter Benchley, as well as the 30th anniversary edition of his novel "Jaws."

"I had spent days with my editor thinking of the title," recalls Mr. Benchley, who's scheduled to be signing books this weekend on Martha's Vineyard. He'd considered and discarded the rather Francoise Sagan-ish "A Stillness in the Water," as well as the apocalyptic "Leviathan Rising" and "Jaws of Death." "Finally I said 'well, we can't agree on a title, but we can agree on a word: 'Jaws.'"
"This is all so astonishing to me," Mr. Benchley adds. "It's breathtaking that 'Jaws' is remembered, let alone that is has a life as a phenomenon."

"It's unusual for a 30-year-old to have so profound an effect on the culture. It's more surprising when the 30-year-old is a shark," agrees Mr. Gottlieb, who like many others can't discuss the staying power of "Jaws" without aid of the word "primal." "Deep water with big nasty things that fight are ingrained in our primal brains. I think we're hard wired to be afraid of that stuff. If you're putting together a 'one kit scares all,' you've got to include a shark. In my files I have a memo to Spielberg that says, 'If we do this right people will feel about the ocean the way they felt about taking a shower after 'Psycho.'"

Perhaps Mr. Gottlieb succeeded too well. "For the last 29 years, every time I've told someone I worked on 'Jaws,' the response has been 'I didn't go in the water for a year,' 'I haven't gone in my pool.' You don't want to keep hearing that same compliment," he says. "The preferred compliment," clarifies Mr. Gottlieb, "is 'what brilliant dialogue and construction. You gave Steven Spielberg a lot to work with.' "

Talk primal fear all you want with "Jaws" co-producer David Brown. His terror had nothing to do with great white sharks and all to do with great empty movie theaters. There he was at the movie's first preview in a Dallas shopping center far from any salt water. The theater marquee read simply "Big Fish Story."

"This was in the days when preview audiences would fill out comment cards, and the only one I remember--I'm cleaning up the language--was, 'It's a great movie. Don't screw it up,' " recalls Mr. Brown. "We sat there and wondered if it could all be true. But we had heard the screams."
The second screening, this time in the Los Angeles area, alarmingly close to salt water, was equally grand, according to Mr. Brown.

Then, when the cast and crew, all witnesses to the malfunctions of the mechanical "stunt" shark, saw the movie, "and they were still jumping out of their seats--well, then we knew," says Mr. Brown, who recently saw the movie on television. "It didn't seem dated at all. It still resonated.
Scheduling conflicts will keep Mr. Brown on the island of Manhattan this weekend. But has he any fond memories of the Vineyard? Perhaps some cherished "Jaws" memorabilia? "No shark teeth," he says serenely. "I just have my checks.

"And a few municipal bonds."


Blogger Wednes Fri said...

Man...I would love to see some of that memorabilia!

Gottlieb is actually not the original screenwriter for Jaws though, he REwrote a script adapted from Benchley's novel. I beleive his draft was the third or fourth one considered.

12:35 PM  

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