Off the shores of Joseph Sylvia State Beach in Oak Bluff, Mass., boats of tourists gathered along a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean to watch a fledgling shark's first swim. Submerged 30 feet underwater, Bruce prepared for his first attack. His sharp white teeth bared for a catch, a menacing gray fin signaled victims' impending doom.
A crew member pulled the hydraulic lever set to launch the 6,000-pound fish to the surface, watching as its highly anticipated ascent quickly turned for the worst. Tail first, Bruce emerged from the water, big white belly topsy-turvying from left to right as production staffers groaned in disappointment.
With gnashing sharp teeth and a looming, undetectable presence, the 25-foot shark glided onto movie theater screens on June 20, 1975 - the star of the blockbuster "Jaws."
The film franchise, inspired by Peter Benchley's 1974 novel, sought to bring to life the horror and intrigue of a shark terrorizing a fictional New York town called Amity Island.
- Barbie-mania: Did our Barbie dolls give us unrealistic expectations of beauty and body image in childhood?
- Matt Damon on the 'dumbest' thing he did in Hollywood
- Interview with Hollywood star Robert Downey Jr. on 'Oppenheimer' and why it's a significant film
- An already full-tilt movie franchise turns it up a notch in 'Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning'
There were three Bruces, constructed with a steel skeleton and polyurethane skin. They looked as true to life as any 1970s viewer could imagine. But in the months of production leading to his debut, his flaws outweighed his utility. The sharks were notorious for falling to pieces.
"The first mistake with the shark was that they made a big mistake and they built it for freshwater," "Jaws" director Steven Spielberg said in an interview on the "Dick Cavett Show" in 1981. "We never fixed the shark, and it was a total disaster."
"Jaws" started shooting on Martha's Vineyard in May 1974. The tranquil seaside beachscapes served as the perfect environment to reimagine the frightening 1916 shark attacks that inspired Benchley's novel. The story - with gnawed limbs, unsuspecting families and local politicians prioritizing tourism revenue over safety - provided the blueprint for a riveting drama led by an all-star cast. The production's challenges, however, posed several barriers to Spielberg's plan.
The production dragged on for seven months, far exceeding the anticipated wrap day of June 28. Each day brought new challenges with rough sea conditions, a dysfunctional shark and a script that had to accommodate their struggles. The shark had a hole in its side, the waves were too rough to maintain a steady shot, the weather was scorching and crew members were overheating. Producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck, and co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb were meeting at Spielberg's home daily, rewriting scenes and chipping away at the starring creature's screen time.
At one point, one of the three sharks sank to the bottom of the Nantucket Sound.
"We must have been complete idiots to have even expected to have an easy ride in the middle of the ocean making a movie," Spielberg said in a documentary, "The Shark Is Still Working."
The director had to pivot. Imagination could fill the gaps where the shark was absent. The film, driven by John Williams's bewitching musical score, activated a new fear of the mysterious ocean deep for audiences around the globe. The scarcity of its starring shark's appearances amplified its inherent suspense.
"Spielberg was a genius at revving it up into more of a sensationalized book," Wendy Benchley, marine policy advocate and wife of the "Jaws" author, told The Washington Post this month. "He knew how to, you know, increase the tension of the movie and to really make it into a great thriller."
His first step was to rev up the fear factor, enlarging Peter Benchley's original 15-foot great white to a ferocious 25 feet. He allowed audiences to see the world from a shark's point of view, using cameras to lurk and weave past the paddling arms and feet of bikini-bottomed human prey. Callbacks to the USS Indianapolis through the tales of a grizzled Navy-veteran-turned-fisherman offered audiences a glimpse into the torturous deaths of a 1,200-man crew whose ship was sunk by Japanese torpedoes, many attacked and eaten by sharks as they awaited their rescue.
For Spielberg, the task was not simple. Daily threats hiked up the budget and teased potential ruin for his burgeoning film career. Production staffers spent weeks on set away from their families, unsure when filming would end.
According to an interview after the film's release, Spielberg told stories about the cast and crew getting teary-eyed during a scene in which Roy Scheider's Brody, Richard Dreyfuss's Hooper and Robert Shaw's Quint sing "Show me the way to go home, I'm tired and I want to go to bed."
That "mantra," as Spielberg characterized it, applied to the actors as much as their characters. And they weren't the only ones fraying at the edges.
"The reason I never left the island in all those seven months of shooting on Martha's Vineyard was because if I left the island I was certain I would never come back," Spielberg said.
Cast and crew stuck it out, though, and would have a huge hit on their hands.
The film was Spielberg's first blockbuster, bringing in $100 million by the end of the summer on its way to setting the record for the highest-grossing film.
After "Jaws," sharks became a global phenomenon. Three "Jaws" sequels made their way to the silver screen, with shark films "The Meg" and "Deep Blue Sea" following in their wake decades later. The television program "Shark Week," hosted by Peter Benchley, premiered in 1988. An eight-episode podcast called "Inside Jaws" unpacked the lore of the first film.
That film sparked a fascination with the sea and its creatures for some viewers while others saw the movie as a call to stamp out a threatening population of monsters haunting beaches.
Wendy Benchley said she and her author husband were "horrified" by stories about people heading to East Coast beaches to fin, shoot and kill sharks.
"We both were horrified about the initial impact. People feeling that they needed to go out and kill sharks," she said.
"People are just absolutely terrified of sharks," said David Shiffman, a marine-conservation biologist at Arizona State University. "There's this widespread misconception that if you go in the ocean, a shark is going to eat your whole family. Part of the reason why everyone's so afraid of them is 'Jaws,' because, before 'Jaws,' people didn't really think about sharks that much."
Partly in response to the film's effect, the Benchleys dedicated much of their post-"Jaws" lives to ocean research and shark conservation.
Peter Benchley died in 2006, 30 years after he helped introduce the culture-swaying hit, but Wendy Benchley hopes his work will continue to intrigue readers and viewers.
"Isn't it amazing that you say 'Jaws' now and you think shark?" she said. "The resonance of this movie and book has been just really remarkable. What a spectacular, wonderful thing."