‘Jaws’: Steven Spielberg Was Not the First Choice as Director, and He Almost Walked Away

Steven Spielberg wasn’t even 30 years old when he ventured into the realm of Jaws. With this film, he created a classic and set the bar for what Hollywood would deem “a blockbuster.” Though it was not his directorial debut, Jaws skyrocketed Spielberg’s career, enabling him to make features such as E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Raiders of the Lost Ark. As history has it, Spielberg was not offered the Jaws gig first.

Steven Spielberg on set of the film 'Jaws', 1975
Steven Spielberg on set of the film ‘Jaws’, 1975 | Universal/Getty Images

‘Jaws’ producers eyed 2 other directors before Steven Spielberg

Peter Benchley published Jaws in 1974, and film producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown moved to secure the film rights with Benchley on board for the screenplay. Spielberg snagged a copy of the book from their office and loved it. He even dreamt of ideas on how to make it a cinematic masterpiece.

Brown and Zanuck backed his feature debut, Sugarland Express. That movie wasn’t out when Jaws first dropped on the table, but they had confidence in Spielberg’s skills. Still, they did not offer him the director’s job. Jaws writer Carl Gottlieb chronicled the movie’s process in his book, The Jaws Log, and recalled how the producers sought out two other directors first.

One was an experienced engineer who had an old-school style of filmmaking. That didn’t work out, so they met with a second candidate with experience in action adventures. Zanuck and Brown were put off by the fact that he kept referring to the shark as a whale. They knew Spielberg’s pedigree because of The Sugarland Express, and they circled back to him.

Spielberg had doubts about taking on ‘Jaws’ project

Something about the story captivated Spielberg, but he had misgivings about the book and tackling the job. According to Gottlieb, “Steven was having second thoughts about his enthusiasm for the book. He was afraid of being typed as an action director who specialized in contests between brave men and insensate killers,” he wrote. As a director, he didn’t want to be known for “trucks and sharks.”

Once Zanuck and Brown made their offer, he didn’t turn it down. However, he did not anticipate the rigorous production that would accompany it with the shark and boat mechanics, cinematography on the water, and finding a great white that was 25 feet long. Benchley was still working on the first draft when Spielberg signed on.

He and the cast and crew spent months out on the water to shoot. They traveled to Australia and then spent their time in Martha’s Vineyard where most of Jaws was filmed. The filming process took about six months, with much of it on water.

‘Jaws’ went over budget, but it taught Spielberg something

Several years after Jaws hit theaters, Spielberg visited The Dick Cavett Show and reflected on making the film. He recalled how they shot footage of an actual great white in Australia, along with other scenes in the Atlantic Ocean with Bruce the mechanical shark. Looking back, there is one thing he would have changed.

The boats’ anchors kept moving every time the wind blew, throwing off the cameras and lighting. When Cavett asked Spielberg what he would do over about the movie, he said, “I would’ve shot the film in a tank actually, a lot of the more difficult sequences. There’s a tank at MGM that’s huge — biggest one in the world. I think I would’ve shot most of the close-up work in a tank.” He acknowledged it would have saved money.

Fans can watch the feat that is Jaws by streaming it on Peacock or Amazon Prime.

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