Friday 3 July 2015

July 4th - On Jaws 40th Anniversary - I speak to Carl Gottlieb

"You're gonna need a bigger boat..."

On the Fourth of July 2015, some 40 years after Steven Spielberg's summer blockbuster Jaws exploded into the world's cinema and psyche, it's worth recalling a line in the movie spoken by Amity City's odious mayor Larry Vaughan (played by Murray Hamilton) to Roy Scheider's police chief Brody, as the mayor summed-up the impact of a shark attack on his seaside town's summer season.

 "I don't think you appreciate the gut reaction people have to these things.., it’s all psychological....
You yell 'Barracuda!' everybody says 'Huh? What?'  
You yell 'Shark!,' we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."

Memorable words penned by gifted American screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, who in one movie gave the world both a fabulously structured fable and some of the most oft-repeated movie-quotes of all time. 

Gottlieb was kind enough to take some time to talk with me and as an LA late bird, his preferred local time to speak on the phone is around 1am. So it was that early on a foggy London morning I found myself speaking with the man whose Twitter name says it all: @JawsWriter

JB:    Tell me about the genesis of your Jaws screenplay?

CG:    I had read the book and had a good understanding of the story and started working on the script maybe three weeks before principal photography commenced.

I kept writing just ahead of the schedule. The text is mine and although the structure of the movie is mine and Steven's, he is the author of the film.

I don’t think anybody had any notion of Jaws' global impact. In telling a story that was to be plagued with mechanical difficulties, we were trying to get through it un-damaged and be faithful to the idea of making a good movie. That’s all we wanted to do.

JB:    Peter Benchley's novel included a passionate love affair that develops between oceanographer Hooper and Ellen, Brody's wife. Why did you excise that from the film?

CG:    I made the decision to remove the love interest. When we started filming, the love interest was still in there. But it quickly became apparent from the performances that the idea for thee affair was all wrong and misplaced the actors' motivation. The three principals are so likeable and attractive, I couldn’t imagine Hooper cuckolding Brody. So we said it muddies the waters, lose it. And we did.

JB:    Over the years, many observers have commented that the movie's plot marginalises women. Was this an intentional thread?

CG:    1974 was to see the first real wave of American feminism, with consciousness of the issue only starting to emerge. Neither Zanuck and Brown (Jaws' producers) nor the studio had their consciousness raised and it was only myself and Richard Dreyfuss (who played Hooper) that had mixed in the same circles in which this new paradigm was emerging.

In our storytelling it was men against the sea and to be fair, there isn't a strong woman in the novel. It wasn’t in our minds at the time, we were making an adventure movie. Three guys - and that’s how it appeared. Post-analysis has asked: where was the feminine angle? In 1974 that was a long way from being anyone's concern. 

JB:    You just referenced Jaws as an adventure film, yet increasingly it has been badged as horror, with the American Film Institute including it amongst their Top 100 Horror Movies. What genre would you apply to it?

CG:    Its true genre was probably horror. In 1974, no mainstream studio made horror per se except the rarely scheduled items such as The Exorcist or Psycho. The horror genre was widely considered exploitative.

JB:    The quality of writing and performance, make it very much a drama movie.

CG:    (laughing) Moby Dick meets Enemy Of The People!

JB:    Jaws is widely credited as being a seminal and influential piece of cinema. Do you ever see your work in Jaws being reflected elsewhere?

CG:    I think so, yes. I was simply following the basic principles of good story telling as I understood them, but remember, my background was in comedy. I knew the value of humor both in adding dimension to a character and in setting the audience up for a scream or a shock.

The wise cracking action hero has kind of become the template but that’s not to do with me. Burt Lancaster did a wonderful send up in 1952 with The Crimson Pirate, a perfect parody, yet at the same time an excellent action piece. The use of comedy and laugh lines to lull the audience off guard, so that they can be shocked a moment later has become part of the vocabulary of the action film, to varying degrees of success depending upon the cleverness and the sense of humour of the writers and directors.

In some cases, there is no sense of humour, because the director is pre occupied with big things banging together.

JB:    Your line - and a classic- "You're gonna need a bigger boat ". Does that characterise your comedic approach?

CG:    Yes – that and a little earlier, when the shark makes its first full-face appearance which comes straight after the laugh line, "you come on down and chum some of this shit”. The shriek when the shark appears, works better because of the line that came before it.

I wrote those words, or I wrote something so close, that when the actors were ad-libbing, which is of course a tribute to the writer. A character has been written so completely, such that when the actor inhabits that character and goes “off book", he will ad lib in character.

I also want to pay a tribute to Howard Sackler who located the Indianapolis episode (in which Robert Shaw's shark-hunter Quint tells of a shark attack on the survivors of the torpedoed USS Indianapolis) and who is very little remembered for that contribution. Good writer, sailor and navy man.

JB:    In the evolution of mobile story telling over the last 40 years, who has impressed and who has disappointed you?

CG:    CGI (computer generated imagery) storytelling has devolved rather than evolved. We are seeing great stories in low budget pictures, whilst studios, in order to protect multi-million dollar tentpole movies, continue to offer sequels / prequels / reboots / reimaginings or comic book adaptations. In large budget films, there is often very little story telling going on. Frequently the narrative is a stupid hero's journey, with some guy having to fight titanic forces, that explode across the screen in ever increasing CGI complexity, with no doubt of the plot's outcome.

JB:    How easy do you think CGI makes the task for the writer?

CG:    CGI makes some things easier - but in terms of storytelling which is character and relationships, a good writer is still very much in demand. The screenwriter is more concerned with telling a compelling narrative, with interesting characters in interesting places in complex relationships. Tentpole action, genre film doesn’t do that. Andrew Marlow, the screenwriter, has described big action as like writing a libretto for opera, where the crash and burns are the arias and the narrative is the recitative and typically out of 100 pages, maybe only 40 are dialog and character with the rest being a description of explosions.

It is simpler (and more simple minded) to write a series of interstitial scenes between explosions. The challenge remains to write that in an interesting way. Probably one of the few films that has managed that successfully was Iron Man 1 where Robert Downey Jr brought a certain charisma and wit to the performance. 

The writers who I admire now, like perhaps the Wachowski brothers, don’t write in that genre, whilst the old masters of the big action genre are not even being hired to write the new movies.

The writing profession is being split in two. Today it's guys who can construct a big action narrative and who get used by the handfuls on each major project. The other half is writers who compare about narrative and dialogue and for that you need a longer slower movie, or at least a more literate one, where actors can speak actors and compellingly. I use compelling a lot, because much of what I am seeing now is not of interest.

JB:    Carl - Thank you very much.

Jaws is widely available to download.

On July 4th the movie will be screened in London at The Prince Charles Cinema and in LA at The New Beverly Cinema

Carl Gottlieb

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