Tag Archives: jaws

Show Me the Way to Go Home

Jaws celebrates its 35th anniversary this week.

There are all sorts of things worth remembering about Jaws; its fabulously rocky production history, its massive impact on the business of selling movies and the culture at large, and its composition, which is really about as good as it gets, a paragon of the “nothing is wasted” school of efficient storytelling. Take any sequence, go through it shot by shot, and you’ll see a Jenga tower of suspense on film. Removing a single block would likely topple the whole thing.

But for all of that, Jaws has something more, something we don’t often talk about when we talk about scary movies – it cares deeply about its people. Take another look: this is a movie about community. Not just Amity Island, but smaller bands of friends and families, which run through the picture like a vast chain of interlocking arteries. There are the Brodys (Roy Scheider’s family); The Kinters (boy Alex was last seen on the inflatable yellow raft); the intrepid team of Brody, Quint, and Hooper (Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss); and most tantalizingly, the off-screen, long-dead members of the USS Indianapolis, whose story is related in chilling detail by Quint himself.

The film goes to great lengths to ensure that we really feel close to these people. It wants us to understand them as individuals and also as members of groups bound together by – a funny word when talking about Jaws – love. Take another look. The reason the shark is so dangerous, and indeed frightening, is that, unlike regular old monsters that just kill, Jaws tears people apart – in all senses of the term.

This is unquestionably Spielberg’s achievement. Casting the right actors and giving them the right moments is the job of any director, but it are only directors of Spielberg’s sensitivity – a funny word when talking about Spielberg – who think to find those moments where no one else would look. E.T., for instance, is full of such moments; it’s what gives the film its inner illumination, the sense that all of the unreal really is real. Credit is due to everyone on a great film, but in the case of Jaws, it was the captain who ensured that the whole thing, moment to moment, was reduced to its common denominator: feelings of fear and loss. And everyone, no matter what sea they swim in, can understand that.

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Goodbye, David Brown

“In this business,” said producer David Brown, who died Monday at 93, “you’re either an artist or a salesman. When you fall in between it becomes problematic.”

David Brown fell in between. He came to power in the 1970s, at a time in Hollywood when the industry was losing its first generation, and with it, it’s old-world, old-fashioned power hierarchies. “Things had changed,” Brown said. “Actors were telling the Studios how to make a movie, agents were just as powerful as producers. The Moguls didn’t understand that world and couldn’t tolerate it. It was a Hollywood Darryl F. Zanuck wanted out of.”

The system was in flux. What it needed was producers who could help the young talent translate their ideas – ideas not customarily associated with Hollywood fare – into studio terms; producers, in other words, with one foot in the old and one foot in the new. That was David Brown. To see him you would see good taste. And that’s where you wanted your money.

He was from New York, a journalist, Columbia educated, and he looked like it. He looked like the kind of man you wanted on your side, a gentleman equally at home in boardrooms as he was at Le Dôme. His battles, after all, we waged on both fronts.

It took the vision of an artist to see in the unproven Steven Spielberg the makings of a giant, and it took the chutzpah of a salesman to get the ridiculous proposition of Jaws into production. Everyone in pictures has to fight, but on Jaws, David Brown did double duty in two wars, against the studio and against the Spielberg, the sharks and the shark. Rather than make him seem duplicitous, Brown had a finesse, an air of suave in style and substance, that made his wrangling invisible, or if he got caught, justified, putting him in that ultra rare echelon of Movie Generals, who not only knew which battles were worth fighting, but how to win them.

An artist and a salesman. The salesman saw The Verdict, Driving Miss Daisy, and A Few Good Men to their maximum box office potential, but the artist saw in The Player, Michael Tolkin’s Hollywood novel, a “true authenticity,” and bought the rights. Movies about movies never do business. But Brown was in the business of quality.

As if making a movie of The Player wasn’t risky enough, Brown agreed that Robert Altman – renowned for his temper, the liability he brought to his productions, and his recent succession of flops – was flat-out perfect for the job. “Bob,” he said to Altman, “I agree you were born to direct this, but you have to be a good boy and play ball.” “I will,” Altman said. He didn’t.

Altman might have smirked to himself as he got off the phone with Brown, thinking he pulled yet another fast one on yet another suit, but chances are the fast one was on Altman. At that point, after forty years of finesse, Brown knew what he was getting himself into. He knew Altman thrived on resistance, so he gave it to him, and in the space of a few words, the artist transformed into the salesman, which proved he was a better salesman than he’d ever let on.

David Brown, September 25th 1916 – February 1st 2010.