Shark Tale: An Interview With 'Jaws' Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb

Left to right: Roy Schneider, Murray Hamilton, and Carl Gottlieb

Without qualification, Jaws is one of the great pieces of sustained tension in film. No argument, I'm not even willing to hear it. Actors Roy Schneider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw were a perfect trio to match wits and wills against a murderous shark while Steven Spielberg's direction created a beach side community in sleepy Amity that was plausible and therefore all the more fraught with danger off its shore.

But it's Carl Gottlieb's screenplay that made the story and its characters a human one. For as much as it's a man vs. beast tale, Gottlieb's script (based on author Peter Benchley's novel) is about three real men facing a monster out in the ocean.

Spielberg's film turns 37 this year, and Universal recently released the film with an all-new transfer on Blu-ray last week. and we spoke to Gotttlieb about grabbing your audience by the throat, drinking with Robert Shaw, selling the shark without showing the shark, and the film's lasting legacy.

MTV Geek: When’s the last time you got a chance to sit down and watch the movie?

Carl Gottlieb: Recently I’ve seen it projected twice in a beautiful theater setting—once at the Billy Wilder Museum and another at the Alex Theater in Glendale. Great settings and beautiful projections. And the print, which is struck from the Blu-ray negative, is gorgeous, as good as the release print was.

And the audience still screams and jumps at the same places as they did 37 years ago when the film came out.

Geek: Revisiting it, were you struck by anything you might have forgotten or little details that you maybe haven’t noticed over the years?

Gottlieb: Yeah, it’s interesting how it plays because the audience experience—I haven’t recorded my viewings of it from 10, 20, 30 years ago—but every time I see it, I’m struck by the universality of it. The opening scene grabs the audience, they’re in their seats, laughing and shrieking at the same places. There somehow is a timeless quality to the film. I’m amazed by it.

No one’s texting during the movie, you don’t see any computers or cell phones, and you see a few hairstyles that are somewhat dated, but that island, Amity, could be out there right now floating in the Atlantic stuck in the time and the story would be just as good.

Geek: That opening scene will always go down as just a masterful piece of sustained tension. What was your approach to adapting it? What were your thoughts on fleshing it out before it hit the screen?

Gottlieb: Or de-fleshing it, if you will [laughs]. It’s also the opening scene of the novel and it also defines whose point of view you’re going to be telling the story from—in this case, the shark. And we always knew we had to grab the audience from the start. The opening scene of the novel is the shark feeding and we decided to do that—lighten it up with the party scene beforehand, they’re running into the water nude to swim and the awful consequences.

And we were able to do it without showing the creature. [We] just saw the creature’s point of view and saw the devastating effect. Partly because we didn’t have a functioning creature in the moment when we were filming that scene; but more importantly because it was better left up to the imagination rather than displaying it the way you could now with CGI.

Geek: And there’s a great sense in that scene of the shark as a stalker and not just some hungry animal while avoiding it being some kind of super-intelligent monster. It’s very methodical and it’s got a process to it.

Gottlieb: Yeah, as Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the oceanographer says in the movie, “It’s an eating machine.” It eats, swims, and makes baby sharks—that’s its job.

Geek: When you started writing, how much did you actually know about sharks or shark attacks?

Gottlieb: Well there wasn’t that much to know at the time. They hadn’t been extensively researched. There’d been an incident off of the coast of New Jersey in 1916 which was kind of similar. There were shark attacks, of course, off the coast of Australia in the Great Barrier Reef. There’d been a great shark documentary made called Blue Water White Death [1971] which Peter Benchley had worked on. Peter himself was a diver and an oceanographer.

So the research was fairly simple: I could talk to Peter, I could talk to shark experts, I could read different papers on the subject and watch Blue Water White Death. But that was all there was to know about sharks.

Besides what we made up.

Geek: And yet Hooper sounds so authoritative in the script—he’s there rattling off facts and giving us insight.

Gottlieb: Well, in order to fear the shark, the audience has to know dangerous it is. And to deliver that information in dialog and story without resorting to text books or files or a documentary within the film or any of the corny devices you use to communicate information, that’s the screenwriter’s challenge.

That’s where my job comes in: to get all of the information in front of the audience in a way where they don’t feel that they’re being lectured to or don’t feel like they’re going to be quizzed later. The more they know about sharks and how dangerous they are, the more they are fearful for our heroes, they more they sympathize with our swimmers and the greater the empathy with the audience is.

So basically, if you’re going to have a real threat and it’s going to be a credible threat, you’ve got to tell the people what they need to fear.

Geek: And could you elaborate on some of the ways you brought that knowledge to the viewer?

Gottlieb: We were able to do it with pictures where Mrs. Brody is looking through a picture book her husband has been studying—seeing some of the antediluvian shark jaws big enough to hold six scientists posing—there’s a couple of horrible autopsy photos that she looks at. And immediately, the audience can see over her shoulder.

And there’s the descriptions that Hooper gives of the victim when he describes the horrible physical damage that’s been done to a human being. And later, in a long speech to the mayor when he’s trying to explain just how dangerous the shark is, he’s arguing with passion. And that’s a great way to communicate—with passion, people will absorb a lot of information without realizing or cataloging it in their heads. “Oh, I’m being lectured to.”

So my job as a screenwriter is to get all of the data out there but in a way that’s absolutely compatible with the story, but doesn’t interfere or slow down the story.

Geek: Outside of your own part as Meadows, was there a particular character in the script you had an affinity for? Or I guess, any particular character that you latched onto and just loved writing?

Gottlieb: Well, the character of Quint [Robert Shaw] was a joy to write because he was so eccentric and quirky. And we had a live model on the island: there was an old, salty fisherman on the island named Craig Kingsbury. He actually plays a part in the movie, Ben Gardner whose unfortunate severed head makes an appearance in the movie.

That man, Craig Kingsbury, was a model for Shaw—they used to drink together and Shaw would pick up on his vocal mannerisms and I would pick up on some of his vocabulary. Now there was a shark fisherman who worked off of Montauk, Long Island who tried to go sport fishing for sharks named Frank Mendez, who was a truly salty character.

Quint was just colorful.

And Hooper was more my kind of guy: a real intellectual, an observer, a rational man and scientist but with this over-weaning love for sharks as creatures. And in part, that was Peter Benchley himself speaking. And Richie Dreyfus who was a friend of mine in those days, I was writing to his strengths—he was always a smart aleck kid. So we used all of those features for the character’s dialog.

Geek: I think what’s so appealing about Hooper is that he has a healthy fear of the shark whereas you don’t see him do the movie cliché of the scientist/intellectual endangering the other characters so he can better study the monster.

Gottlieb: Yeah, the Quint character has an unreasonable—well, it’s not unreasonable because of his experience on the Indianapolis—he has a real hatred for sharks, he’s just motivated to kill them. It’s the reason he’s boiling off the hundreds of jaws of sharks that he’s obviously processing for sale and that he’s obviously taken pride in killing all of these creatures.

And Hooper just loves them as living creatures. That’s the big difference.

Geek: What do you feel like the film’s lasting legacy is and where do you feel like your place is in that?

Gottlieb: There’s a couple of legacies. The first is the business model of the distribution which survives to this day—the idea of a big summer release on multiple screens. That was very revolutionary in its time [and] there’s a whole business side to the equation that we haven’t dwelt on.

But the other lasting legacy of that movie is—and I always hoped people would take it to heart even now—is that there’s no substitute for great story and great characters. You can have mechanical contraptions of incredible complexity—I watched The Avengers on the airplane and watched all kinds of mechanical creatures get beat up by superheroes. But the lack of empathy that you feel for the people you see onscreen, the victims are essentially nameless. They just get killed or eaten or destroyed or vaporized.

[In] Jaws, you cared about every victim, you cared about every survivor, and you cared about the three guys on the mission. And you felt bad that Quint died and you felt good that Hooper survived, you felt glad that Brody came out of it unscathed.

To me, the lasting legacy of Jaws is that good characters need a good story well-told and by a master director. Now we know Steven in a genius, he’s proven it 30 times. But Jaws was the first chance he had to demonstrate those skills and abilities that make him a filmmaker for the ages. You wonder if Steven would have had the opportunity to make the movies he made if he hadn’t done Jaws first.

There’s a huge legacy to a film like Jaws. I could probably talk to you for another half hour about the movie.

Jaws is on Blu-ray now from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

Learn about how much the cast ad-libbed in this exclusive clip from MTV Movies:

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