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The making of a movie on the scale of Jaws, however, is a case study in the recklessness, stubbornness, blindness and bravado that go into a Hollywood superproduction. Like many extravaganzas before it, Jaws courted its own calamities. It is an unnatural law of film making that the larger the budget and the longer the shooting schedule, the closer the movie comes to the edge of catastrophe. Jaws flirted with disaster on land and water, in front of the cameras and behind. At one time or another, the film makers did battle with a recalcitrant mechanical shark, intrepid sailors and high-living yachtsmen, larcenous townspeople, tourists who were both curious about the movie and miffed that their vacations were being disrupted, striking labor unions and, inevitably, the elements. Spielberg says now, "Jaws should never have been made. It was an impossible effort."
One thing that kept anguished executives from shutting everything down and restaging the movie in the studio tank was that they were backing an adaptation of a proven commodity, a best-seller of numbing durability. There are over 5½ million copies of Jaws in print. Producer Richard (son of Darryl) Zanuck and his partner David Brown paid $175,000 for the movie rights and a Benchley script.
The war began with the script. There were five in all. Benchley (grandson of Humorist Robert Benchley) says he "lost the ego problem" after completion of the second. He wrote a third draft, which was subsequently reworked by such diverse hands as Playwright Howard Sackler (The Great White Hope), Director John Milius (The Wind and the Lion) and Carl Gottlieb, an actor who had played improvisational comedy with the California-based troupe, The Committee, and who had a small role in the film. The last version was rejiggered nightly out on location.
While Benchley was still trying to whip his screenplay into workable form, Production Designer Joe Alves was dispatched to the East to find a location for the fictional village of Amity. The Hamptons were considered and rejected as "too opulent" before Alves, en route to Nantucket, took a ferry to Martha's Vineyard instead. The island had handsome houses and stark, scrub-pine shore vistas. It boasted a handy harbor with the sort of 180° view of the horizon, all uninterrupted, that Spielberg was looking for. Alves thought the Vineyard was perfect for Jaws. The residents, however, were not so sure.
Pointedly suspicious of outsiders (roughly defined as anyone whose birth certificate is not on file at the local hospital), some Islanders suspected that Hollywood interlopers would wreck their tranquillity, ruin the tourist season and befoul their waters. Others pointed out that a film crew of 150 or so would pep up business considerably during a recession offseason. So the Islanders settled back to watch events with skepticism.
Spielberg and his three leading actors had all congregated by May 2 with a ten-week shooting schedule and a script that was still unfinished. The quartet were alike only in that none of them really knew what they were in for.