Monday, December 3, 2012

From the Cafe's Bookshelf: "Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard"

While typically not a fan of coffee table books, I recently quite enjoyed  Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard, an updated edition of Matt Taylor's exhaustive collection of fascinating photographs and anecdotes surrounding the making of the 1975 blockbuster. What makes Taylor's book unique is that--instead of a bunch of publicity photographs--it consists of:  photos snapped by Martha's Vineyard residents; extensive insights by the film's crew; the locals' recollections of the film's production (many of them appeared as extras); newspaper articles from island publications such as the Vineyard Gazette and The Grapevine; and, of course, a foreword by some guy named Spielberg.

A young Spielberg.
Although Spielberg's challenges with the mechanical shark are legendary, author Taylor highlights other significant obstacles that threatened Universal's $3.5 million production (yes, that was the cost of a blockbuster in the 1970s!). Initially, the islanders were hesitant about a big Hollywood film being shot in their backyard. Five years earlier, the media had descended on the area in the aftermath of the Chappaquiddick incident and that left a bad flavor in the mouths of some residents. There was also concern that the film's production, scheduled to start in May 1974, would create traffic and lodging problems impeding the tourist season that typically began in July. A potential Screen Actors Guild strike, which could have compressed the production schedule, was narrowly avoided. And, on the eve of the filming's start, Universal had to reach last-minute agreements to resolve local zoning problems.

Working on Bruce the shark.
The most entertaining chapter in Taylor's book naturally focuses on "Shark City," the nickname given to the corner of Oak Bluffs Harbor that belonged to the special effects crew. Although the mechanical sharks weren't built there, that's where they were maintained and continually rebuilt during the filming. One of the biggest challenges was repairing the damage caused by salt water electrolysis. Eric Ropke, a 27-year-old local carpenter, remembers: "After the initial problems of electrolysis had been solved, corrosion wasn't so much of an issue as learning how to get the shark to run through all its motions in a coordinated fashion. It would come up, break the surface, the jaws would start snapping, but maybe the eyes wouldn't roll the way they were supposed to. Or only one eye would roll and the head would move too slowly from side to side."

Roy Scheider takes a break.
By the time the production ended in late September, prop construction foreman Marty Milner noted: "There was a real psychological crash in everyone's lives after the movie ended. It had almost been a military campaign, like a band of brothers who had lived through this incredible experience together. It took everyone's complete attention, every minute of every day through the entire spring and summer."

Jaws fans will love Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard, but it's also recommended for any film buff interested in learning about the creativity and hard work behind the magic of cinema.

Titan Books provided a review copy of this book. The photographs appearing in this post cannot be reproduced and are included here solely as representative content of Matt Taylor's book.


  1. Rick, I very much enjoyed your review of JAWS: MEMORIES FROM MARTHA'S VINEYARD. It's amazing what a difference a few decades made; heck, it's amazing when you realize how much farther $3.5 million went back in the 1970s! I could empathize to a certain extent, remembering my own experiences with low-budget film-making, though of course, Steven Spielberg & Company had more people and F/X at his disposal! :-) Great post!

    P.S.: Read "It's Not Just A Job, It's An Adventure" if you want to see how the indie-half lived back in the day! :-)

  2. What an interesting post! I loved the photos especially and that is what I tend to appreciate the most in coffee table books. It is also fascinating to read the back story on the making of a film. And it made me smile to see the picture of a very young Spielberg, remembering my own youth at that time.

  3. The mechanical failures of the shark are legendary, aren't there? I can't imagine how frustrating that would be!

    Thanks for an interesting look at this iconic film.