“I’ve been in a lot of collaborative enterprises. Jaws was one of the happiest collaborations of my life. Steven Spielberg wasn’t ‘Steven Spielberg’ yet,” said screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, the latest guest at UCSB’s Script to Screen series. Following a showing of Spielberg’s 1975 hit about a Great White terrorizing a Long Island resort town (considered the first modern summer blockbuster), Pollock Theater Director Matthew Ryan moderated a discussion rich with colorful anecdotes before 200 students.
Gottlieb, who described the Peter Benchley novel-inspired movie as “Moby Dick meets Enemy of the People,” had left his writing gig on the ABC hit The Odd Couple to work on Jaws. Then-super-agent Mike Medavoy paired Gottlieb with Spielberg, a director so green that no studio would hire him.
Gottlieb, 78, praised Spielberg’s genius directing and casting, down to the minor parts. He discussed the pain of hacking down his own role (“Meadows”) and how effectively Spielberg built suspense.
“That’s the beauty of the novel. The shark is a character,” Gottlieb said. “Unlike Freddy of Jason [from Friday the 13th], the shark is alive and it’s not thinking, it just wants to eat…an eating machine.”
Famously, the mechanical sea-predator malfunctioned after salt water rotted its circuitry (“He was the most difficult actor on the set,” Gottlieb said of Bruce the Shark). Spielberg serendipitously spun this bad luck to his benefit, milking drama by mostly not showing the shark (1951’s The Thing served as inspiration).
For years, Gottlieb (The Jerk, Dr. Detroit) refused to take credit for the iconic “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!” line until star Roy Scheider insisted Gottlieb scripted it. That’s how realized Jaws’ performances were. “When it comes time to ad-lib, the actors will speak in character,” Gottlieb said.
One of Gottlieb’s greatest revelations was how Quint’s motivation-glimpsing “Indianapolis speech” was written by neither Gottlieb nor Spielberg but the actor playing the grizzled shark-hunter: Robert Shaw. Everyone agreed Quint’s speech was necessary back-story but the dialogue wasn’t flowing. Spielberg sent the passage out to writer friends — John Milius, Paul Schrader, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. None cracked it. Ultimately, it was Shaw who succeeded.
“In addition to being an accomplished actor, he was an accomplished writer,” Gottlieb said of Shaw, who had won a Pulitzer for The Man in the Glass Booth. “He knew which end of the pencil was which.”
When composer John Williams first played those ominous two notes on the piano for Spielberg, the director got anxious. According to Gottlieb, Williams assured the fledgling filmmaker, “You’re gonna have to trust me on this!”
Indeed, once swelled by symphonic orchestra, that dum-DUM score achieved pop culture history. As Gottlieb tells friends, “If you’re out swimming and you don’t hear the theme song, you’re okay.”