Monday, September 5, 2011

"1100 Men Went In The Water, 316 Men Come Out & The Sharks Took The Rest": A Writer's Lesson From Jaws

I often complain about the fact that AMC shows the same films over and over again. Except for when Jaws is on. I swear they have shown that movie 10 billion times, and every single time I watch it. It is, without a doubt, the greatest film I have ever seen. It's a classic that has stood the test of fancy special effects, no computer enhancement. Just a great story, great acting, and great directing.

If you ever get the chance to watch the documentary The Making Of Jaws, don't miss it. It is absolutely fascinating. "The story behind the story" of the making of Jaws is unbelievable. Steven Spielberg was a brand new director....a youngster with no power in Hollywood. Nothing went according to plan for this movie. The biggest obstacle was "Bruce"--the mechanical shark. He was meant to be in the bulk of scenes for the movie, but he kept breaking down and messing up their shooting schedule. They were way behind schedule, way over budget, and Spielberg was getting unbelievable pressure from the Powers That Be. 

He had to take a step back and think outside of the box. Rewrite the screenplay while they were in Martha's Vineyard filming the damned movie. Bruce, who was supposed to the star of the show, was a big, broken-down piece o' shit. In fact, Bruce was supposed to be in the opening scene of the film--but he wasn't working at the moment. So Spielberg rewrote that scene without the shark.

How to make a shark attack scene without the freakin' shark? Would it work? Would it be successful?

That scene is one of the most dramatic, riveting and scary-ass opening sequences on film. Because of what's NOT there. We don't know what's happening to the poor girl in the water. We just know it's bad. It's evil. And it's inescapable. And Spielberg realized that.

Which brings me to the point of this post. This is a great lesson for writers (or really folks in any sort of creative field)....

Sometimes what you're leaving out of the story can be just as important as what you're putting in.

Spielberg's experience with this film is a great source of inspiration for me. When the WIP isn't working, take a big step back. Think outside of the box. Way outside of the box. Do you need a new POV for that scene? A different way of looking at things? How do you want your reader to feel? Can you elicit those feelings without an info dump, spilling all your secrets at once? How can you build tension and fear without a villain in the room?

If you are looking for something cool to do some afternoon, I highly recommend watching this documentary. The stories about the actors, Martha's Vineyard, and the scuttlebutt behind the scenes is fabulous. Here is a link for the 30th anniversary edition of the movie plus the documentary. Treat yourself!

And finally, here is a clip of the greatest single scene in all of film history: Robert Shaw's monologue about the USS Indianapolis. Another cool tidbit from the documentary--originally, Shaw got rip-roaring drunk before they filmed this scene, but it was a huge disaster. They filmed it again the next day and it was perfection. Here ya go.....

Feeling the need to watch Jaws again,


Unknown said...

Great post today! Definitely food for thought next time I'm doing some writing. :)

Jaws was a great movie.

Penny Watson said...

Thanks, Amber! Have a great Labor Day!

Darlene Marshall said...

This is a great post. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of thinking differently.

Penny Watson said...

Hi Darlene! I am a big supporter of thinking outside of the box. Good things always happen!

Nina Pierce said...

Jaws seems to come up when talking about all the things done right. Pacing. Characterization. Suspense. I feel the need to watch it again myself. Great post, Penelope.

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

I agree. One of the best movies I've ever seen. Can't swim in the ocean without hearing the music. Yes, the most frightening scenes were the ones without the shark. The mere idea of the shark terrified me - the first scene was stunning.

Yes, sometimes what you don't say is far more important than what you do say. Spielberg at his best.

Always, always think out of the box. Great lesson, Penny.

Penny Watson said...

Hi Nina! You're right....this movie is the total package....pacing, suspense, great story and characters. I read the book by Peter Benchley, and this is one time where the movie is actually better than the book!

Penny Watson said...

Hi Julia! Since romance novels are typically so formulaic, I tend to love the ones that are funky, quirky and push the boundaries a bit. Thinking outside of the box adds interest to the story and makes it stand out from the crowd!