Book: Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard


This week, Titan Books released a paperback edition of Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard by Matt Taylor, a beautiful coffee table book about the making of Jaws. I’d intended to write about it earlier, but it took me a while to finish. The book is just over 300 pages long, and it’s packed with more than 1,000 full-color photos and images, many of which have never been seen before.

Memories from Martha’s Vineyard is more than your standard behind-the-scenes account of Jaws. While Steven Spielberg wrote the appreciative foreword, this book is told from the point of view of Martha’s Vineyard locals. These are men and women who worked on the film as extras, supporting characters, carpenters, effects people, seamen, and mechanics. These are stories about Jaws that you may not have heard before.

The book is not just a great companion piece to other making-ofs about Jaws. Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard is a great making-of in its own right, and what makes it memorable is the local color. It gives you a sense of how much Martha’s Vineyard is infused in the feel of Jaws, and why it had to be filmed on location rather than in California or Jamaica. Those other locations would have been easier, but the film might not have been worth it without the adversity and personality of that Massachusetts island and neighboring communities.

Quint’s last stand, and above it, young Steven Spielberg rides the shark.

Jaws was the movie that created the blockbuster, and it was the film that launched Spielberg’s career. Had Jaws bombed, the young captain would sink his future with his big dumb shark. The production was months behind schedule and millions over budget, and the 25-foot mechanical great white (Bruce) always broke down because of the salt water. Somehow the studio didn’t pull the plug. Prior to Jaws, Spielberg’s only other credits were some TV movies (notably Duel) and a mostly ignored feature debut, The Sugarland Express starring Goldie Hawn. Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard includes a March 1974 clipping from the Vineyard Gazette that heralds the coming of the film production. A typo sums up Spielberg’s low profile at the time: he’s referred to as “Stephen Stielberg.”

That’s one of the fascinating things about the book. No one who lived in or around Martha’s Vineyard had any idea that the movie shooting on location or the young director (only 26 or 27) would change the cinematic landscape. For them, it was a job, and it was just another movie that had to abide by zoning regulations, noise ordinances, and preserving the local habitat. One anecdote in the book recounts the film crews being especially careful about protecting the native seagrass even though locals were oblivious to the stuff and would tear it up all the time.

While many people in the area were helpful, there’s a fair amount of material about annoyed locals and embittered crew members. The latter makes sense since the movie dragged on and on well into September. (They started shooting in May and wanted to finish by the end of June.) John Alley, an extra in the film, recounts storming off the film in a huff because things were taking so long, and this was back in May. “You’re not paying me enough money, and it’s a boring, pain-in-the-ass job.” Alley still made the final cut of the film. The Selectmen in town weren’t too pleased with the slow production either, and on at least two occasions, locals had placed dead sharks at the front door to the Universal Studios office in town.

Even after principal photography had ended, Spielberg did guerrilla shoots during the editing process. These added bits (shot roughly in October) were done in pools and driveways with equipment smuggled out of the studio. Taylor likens it to the “backyard filmmaking techniques of [Spielberg’s] Arizona youth,” which was all about ingenuity and creativity on a small scale. It makes sense. I remember watching a featurette about Saving Private Ryan where Spielberg talked about an ingenious no-budget method of simulating a grenade explosion.

This may give you a sense of the book’s size. It’s approximately two Aquamans, which is a standard unit of nautical measurement.

Some of the people interviewed in Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard include Kevin Pike (effects man), Edith Blake (a local journalist), Lee Fierro (slapper of Chief Brody), Lynn Murphy (a marine mechanic), Sarah Murphy (Lynn’s wife and assistant), and Joe Alves (production designer). There are plenty of others, even people who didn’t make the final cut of the film. One scene features Quint making fun of a boy playing clarinet, and that boy (Paul Goulart) gets to share his brief story about getting cast on the spot by Spielberg and acting with Robert Shaw. Taylor provides his own text, but a majority of the book relies on anecdotes from the people themselves, which gives a greater sense of voice to the community and to the production.

Pike’s story might give the best sense of how a local life could be altered by the film. He was working as a waiter in Martha’s Vineyard, living at a boarding house, just barely making ends meet. (He says he was surviving off a bag of chocolate chip cookies he still had from his drive up from Florida.) After a chance run-in with Alves and other members of the film’s set and construction crew, he landed a job. First he did construction on sets, then, when not making screen print Jaws shirts for the crew, he was taken under the wings of the effects crew. Since Jaws, Pike’s worked as a special effects supervisor on more than 160 projects, including Return of the Jedi, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Fight Club. He might be best known for creating Doc Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean in Back to the Future.

Lynn Murphy is particularly important to the film. Not only did he help get Bruce to work, but he also served as one of the models for Robert Shaw’s portrayal of Quint. Shaw was doing his best to mimic the speech patterns of Yankee fishermen, picking up little turns of phrase and mannerisms from the seamen and locals he met while shooting. The main model for Quint, however, was Craig Kingsbury, a local hero. Kingsbury was a larger-than-life figure who stood 6’3″ and was known for never wearing shoes. Of his many colorful adventures (rum-running, blacksmithing, prizefighting, fishing), Taylor shares the following:

It was in 1941, after marrying for the third (and final) time and settling into family life on the Vineyard Haven farm he would call home for the remainder of his life that Kingsbury would commit his most famous infraction — drunk-driving an oxcart through the streets of Vineyard Haven, explaining to the arresting officer that while he had indeed been drinking, his cows, Bucky and Lion, were perfectly sober.

An illustration of the sea sled shark rig by Paul McPhee.

When I looked at Joel W. Finler’s book Hollywood Movie Stills, I really enjoyed the dazzle and glamour of the well-posed, well-crafted publicity still. There’s a kind of allure that says everything you need to know about the myth-making nature of Old Hollywood. That composed, meticulously staged sense doesn’t fit with what was happening with the American New Wave, however. I think the spontaneity and grit of the photos in Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard winds up capturing a certain kind of energy of that time — New Hollywood, still kicking and kicking hard, right before the start of the Hollywood blockbuster machine.

Jaws was a small picture that went big, and these photos have the same sort of quality. The harness that dragged the shark’s first victim (Denise Cheshire) around is just a pair of jean shorts rigged for cable; the control box for the mechanical shark is only a pair of toggles. It’s astounding because, like the box office success of the film, it’s unexpected. Also unexpected was the blasé reception the film received when it was finally screened in Martha’s Vineyard for the first time. Maybe some of the people were just sick of the shark and the crews that had been there awhile. When you’ve had a visitor crash for longer than expected, it probably tempers your opinion somehow.

There’s so much more in this book that I could go over, but that’d sap the fun from it. The little details come into focus, like kids trying to look at topless chicks when they’re supposed to be panicked, or the crew altering the Avis logo with duct tape to say “Jaws.” There’s also a great sign to keep people from snooping on the mechanical shark while it was stored on dry land: “Warning: genital devouring fungo bats.” To be honest, I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. I blasted through Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard, but I feel like reading the book and looking at the pictures should be like the film production itself — you should take a long time because it’ll be rewarding in the end.

One last bit of local color, though. August 2nd, 1974. A weekly Monday night lecture series held at a Methodist Church in Martha’s Vineyard was dedicated to the making of Jaws. Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw were there, and probably happy to be away from that malfunctioning shark at sea. With Joe Alves and others, they shared 80 slides from the making of the film as well as storyboards and other art. Edith Blake’s write-up in the Vineyard Gazette ends: “Next week, Johnny Cassel will again present his wild and wonderful combo playing good stimulating ragtime, which in the Methodist Church, with its great acoustics, will resound that full-bodied rhythm throughout the Island.”

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.