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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Summer of Spielberg: The Young Gunslinger

Part 1 of 8

Whenever you talk to Steven Spielberg about the subject of Jaws (which I haven't), he describes it as a time when he was “young and stupid.” That does not mean he isn’t fond of the film. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Spielberg is fond of his Jaws-era work because that film could only have been made by a filmmaker who was certifiably insane/too young to know better. Where an older, more experienced Spielberg would have likely found a more reasonable way to go about creating the film, the young Spielberg—flying by the seat of his pants—was able to create one of the great thrillers of all time. Like Hitchcock’s Psycho, it remains to this day a perfect example of how to keep an audience on their toes. This wasn’t just the film that shot Spielberg into the stratosphere, but it would also prove to be one of the key films in shaping the modern Hollywood landscape.

If Jaws were Spielberg’s first film, it likely would have been one of the most blindsiding debuts of all time. However, even Mr. Spielberg would need to warm up for a few films first. Besides the television film Duel—which I was unable to find through the usual film-watching venues—Spielberg’s true feature film debut came with The Sugarland Express. Watching the film doesn’t feel like a Spielbergian experience per se, but there are several elements throughout that hint at the great filmmaker who was about to explode. You probably wouldn’t guess that had you seen it back when it was released, but in hindsight the film certainly seems to lay down several building blocks.

The plot—think Bonnie and Clyde meets Dog Day Afternoon—tells the story of a redneck couple who kidnap a police officer on their way to pick up their baby, who has been put into foster care. Of course, none of this goes according to plan. As they travel across Texas, their crime ends up being one of the hottest stories in the area. The line-up of police cars giving chase only grows as time goes on, the media is doing everything they can in order to get the story, and all the while the couple (played by Goldie Hawn and William Atherton) is focused only on getting to their child. Stupidly, they don’t even realize that there’s little chance they’ll ever get away from this. They’re just enjoying the ride.

The Sugarland Express is a far better movie than people may expect. Some may even choose not to see it; dismissing it as “that early Spielberg movie.” It certainly isn’t one-tenth the film that some of his later work would be—heck, even his next film—but it has its moments that make it more than worth the while. Best of all is Goldie Hawn, who plays a character so thoroughly stupid without turning her into an all-out caricature. On the whole, this film deserves recognition for not becoming a redneck-hating comedy. The decisions made by the central couple are nothing but horrible, and while Spielberg does get a few laughs out of the material he’s more concerned with playing it relatively straight. These are real people he’s dealing with here. Dumb people, but real. When the events turn weightier at film’s end, the results aren’t as jarring as they likely should be. It feels like a natural climax that the film was building up to.

The film is least effective when it tries to become an action film, which is odd considering the man at the helm. The crash-filled car chases seem awfully generic, and the sequence at film's end adds more violence than is really necessary, but The Sugarland Express is good when it matters. That said, very little about the film can be described as Spielbergian, with the exception of a few shots involving the dozens of cops following the central couple. Even more puzzling is the score by John Williams, who seems intent on just using a lot of harmonica. For a man whose work is usually more grand and melodic—and occasionally oppressive—The Sugarland Express provides an interesting look at the man in a slightly more minimalist mode.

After directing Express for producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck, they gave him his next task, which they knew would be a challenge. Spielberg was to direct an adaptation of Jaws, a 1974 shark-attack novel by Peter Benchley. The book was chock full of subplots—including an adulterous affair between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper—but Spielberg and company decided to dump all of that in favor of a straightforward suspense story. Everyone involved knew this was not going to be an easy shoot—filming out on the water is never a picnic, and then there was the question of depicting the shark itself—but most were convinced that Jaws could make for a pretty exciting movie. They were right, but the road to the finish line was long and painful. Emphasis on the painful.

First and foremost, the film essentially had no script. Benchley wrote the first few drafts himself before quitting, so screenwriter Carl Gottlieb was forced to essentially write most of it during principal production. (John Milius was also involved in the writing process.) Even the actors themselves were occasionally forced to create their own character’s dialogue; the most notable example of this is apparently Quint’s (Robert Shaw) Indianapolis speech.

All this led to a film which was essentially improvised as production went along. Even the cast was chock full of second, third and fourth choices. Such names as Robert Duvall, Charlton Heston, Lee Marvin, Sterling Hayden, Jon Voight, Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges were all rumored to be part of the film at one point or another, but eventually Spielberg ended up with his main trio of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw. All had reasonable film careers up to this point, but only Shaw (From Russia With Love, The Sting) had a great deal of experience. This was a project in such disarray that it would need one heck of a director to make something out of it. Unfortunately, all they had was this Spielberg kid.

Anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. The film went considerably over budget, the prop sharks never worked or looked convincing, and at one point the Orca started to sink during filming. On the abnormally long “making-of” documentary featured on the 30th anniversary Jaws DVD, Richard Dreyfuss describes how filming would have to pause for long stretches of time if a sailboat were to be seen on the horizon. The shoot—planned to last only 55 days—was protracted to a length of 159 days. For perspective, principal photography on James Cameron’s Titanic lasted only a single day longer. Jaws was supposed to be little more than a quick, breezy suspense film without an ounce of brains that was barely supposed to make a cent. Yet it turned into one of the most troubled shoots in the history of cinema. Much like all the great early blockbusters (see: Star Wars), Jaws is an incredible achievement simply because of all the crap the filmmakers had to get through just to finish the darn thing.

Yet, as we will learn with a few of Spielberg’s other films, he is at his best with a gun against his head. The more challenges you place in front of him, the more likely he is to create gold. You don’t give him a workable mechanic shark? Fine! He’ll use other means. The most ingenious moment of Spielberg’s improvisation comes with the use of the yellow barrels which are attached to shark. They hint at the presence of the beast without us ever seeing what would likely be a horrible-looking robot. For contrast, take the Jaws sequels (please!). In each of them—particularly the later ones—we get a complete look at the shark far more often than not. Outside of a few genuinely scary moments in Jaws 2, there are barely any impactful moments to be found in these films. In fact, they work far better as comedies.

Spielberg is a filmmaker that understands a faceless monster is far more impactful than one that is frequently in full view. Too often when a film’s central monster/alien is revealed, the results are underwhelming. Even though we all know what sharks look like, Jaws is brilliant because the violence in the water has no real visible origin. It seems all the more senseless that way. We can’t see below the surface, so therefore we do not always know where the shark is. Any scene set on a beach provides a textbook example of how to slowly build suspense. One example is the sequence on the beach leading up to the death of the young Alex Kintner.

The premise of the scene is very simple: Chief Brody is convinced there is a shark in the water. He is the only one—outside of the audience—who knows the truth. Everyone else is going about their day of recreation on the beach. A scene chock full of regular people doing regular things becomes something far more sinister. We, like Brody, are watching every single development, no matter how potentially ordinary. There is the distinct feeling something is about happen, and in our heads we are guessing who the next victim might be. When it turns out to be one of the younger bathers, the film's message is clear: everyone is expendable.

Suggesting the presence of the shark without actually showing us the shark turned out to be something Spielberg was rather good at. In later films he would re-use this method of illustrating a film’s larger force through the use of something more earthly. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we never see the aliens themselves (not counting the dumb Special Edition), but we know they exist. When watching a film, questions are always far more interesting than answers. This is something Spielberg—at his best—understands, even if he learned it due to a technological malfunction.

These days, Jaws is seen as the film which led to the invention of the summer blockbuster. However, it doesn’t much resemble many of today’s overblown explosion-fests, though it’s everything a good popcorn movie should be. Hollywood today seems intent on bloating its films up with more special effects, more characters and, ultimately, a longer running time. Take the Transformers films (again, please), which take a simple premise of fighting robots and stretch it out to 150 minutes of ungodliness. Jaws is a simple movie, but that is because you don’t need more to make a classic thriller. In fact, you only need two things: an exciting premise, and a filmmaker who can survive a chaotic shoot and come out the other end with a masterpiece.

Next Week: Spielberg helps create two action/adventure franchises: the Indiana Jones films, and Jurassic Park.

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