Jaws is one of the most recognizable films ever made. Despite its simple premise, director Steven Spielberg managed to execute the film in such an exceptionally competent way that this little movie about shark attacks became the highest-grossing film in history for two years. Having multiple Oscar nominations and wins under its belt (though none for Spielberg himself, funnily enough), the movie gives an impression that it was so good, it have been one of the best shoots anyone working on it ever had. That couldn’t be further from the truth, though, as making Jaws was an almost comically bad experience for everyone involved — including Spielberg.
The shark in ‘Jaws’ barely worked
Directing Jaws was one of the worst experiences of Spielberg’s career. It ended up being so bad that he suffered symptoms of PTSD and swore off shooting movies involving water from that point onward. Famously, he promised that, “There won’t even be a bathroom scene,” in his future movies. While this didn’t turn out to be true (Close Encounters of the Third Kind did, in fact, feature some bathroom scenes), it does demonstrate just how much he hated making this movie.
Much of this hate came from the movie’s “star,” the shark. Nicknamed Bruce after Spielberg’s own lawyer, the trio of animatronic sharks caused a fair amount of trouble for the filmmakers. Though fairly sophisticated for the time, Bruce simply didn’t work right. Not only were the motions of the shark stiff, it frequently burned out due to excess weight taken on by water and the salt water damaging its gears. It would frequently need to be hauled out of the water at the end of each day, including the very first day of shooting, after it sank to the bottom.
Even before the movie started, the shark was already causing problems. While visiting the effects shop that created Bruce, Spielberg tried to jokingly scare fellow director George Lucas by making the animatronic close its jaws while his head was inside its mouth. A malfunction occurred, trapping Lucas inside the shark.
Shooting the movie was just one disaster after another
In addition to Bruce’s antics, almost every other aspect of the film had something go wrong with it. Shot on the water at Martha’s Vineyard, Jaws had little pre-production time in an effort to get the crew out there to film during the beautiful summer weather. This backfired, though, as it almost immediately started to storm once they got there. As a result, most of the people on set — actors and crew alike — were frequently wet, tired, and seasick throughout production.
As for actors, Robert Shaw frequently clashed with his costars while on set due to his struggles with alcoholism. Though it did lend authenticity to his character and the others butting heads during the movie, it made shooting a nightmare for everyone. Almost getting stuck in a shark cage probably didn’t help keep him sober, either.
To make matters even worse, the boat used during the film and for filming seemed to be constantly under attack by actual marine life. A real shark tore away the shark cage for one scene, nearly sinking the ship in the process. In another instance, an accident started to sink the boat for real, nearly drowning Spielberg and writer Carl Gottlieb, as well as almost ruining the film stock.
Spielberg wasn’t planning to direct ‘Jaws’ at first
Despite being one of his most famous films, Spielberg wasn’t the original director for the movie. Initially, Dick Richards was set to helm the project, though his pitch for the opening shot of the film displeased producers enough that they fired him on the spot. Afterwards, Spielberg would be hired on to replace Richards because of his work on the TV movie Duel.
As production for Jaws went on, though, Spielberg almost faced the same fate as Richards thanks to the movie’s ever-expanding budget and shooting time. Were it not for Universal COO Sid Sheinberg having his back, it’s possible a third person would have been called in to finish the movie. Many of the executes regretted greenlighting the project to begin with as this went on, not having read the book it was based on that might have foretold many of the disasters faced during shooting. By the end, Jaws went nearly 300 percent over budget and 100 days over schedule, costing $9 million to make and 159 days to shoot.