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How Malfunctioning Sharks Transformed the Movie Business

Before Steven Spielberg became Hollywood royalty, he was just another young director with a giant shark problem.

It was July 1974, and 27-year-old Steven Spielberg was sure his career was over. He’d been on location in Martha’s Vineyard for three months, waiting for the overdue star of his new movie Jaws. And now, as he watched the first lunges of the $250,000 mechanical shark in action, Spielberg’s heart sank. The beast was anything but menacing. His eyes crossed. His teeth were too white. His jaws didn’t close properly. And he had a big dimple that made him look like Kirk Douglas.

The shark was just the latest of Spielberg’s setbacks.

Before Jaws, movies weren't shot on the ocean. Hollywood studios simply tossed a boat in a tank and projected moving scenery behind it. But Spielberg wanted realism. And he paid for it. Boating mishaps and near drownings had almost killed several cast and crew members.

Rough waters and drifting tides made for chaotic filming. Most days, once the crew had anchored the 12 tons of rigging into place and waited out unwanted boats on the horizon, Spielberg was left with just two hours of afternoon light to shoot. As Spielberg burned through his $4 million budget and 55-day shooting schedule, the cast and crew turned mutinous. Angry locals left dead sharks on the production office’s porch. Studio execs worried the film wouldn’t deliver. And Spielberg lived in constant fear of having the plug pulled. Word in Hollywood was that the young director was finished. But Spielberg, who felt “like Captain Bligh” on a sinking ship, was determined to complete his movie, shark or no shark.

A Picture Book of Fears

When a Long Island fisherman caught a 4,500-pound great white in 1964, author Peter Benchley took notice. “What would happen if one of those things came around and wouldn’t go away?” he asked. Ten years later he turned the idea into the bestselling novel Jaws. Benchley’s book sparked an immediate bidding war in Hollywood, with Universal coming out on top—all before it even hit shelves.

Spielberg wasn’t the studio’s first choice as director. Universal initially approached Dick Richards, but when Richards kept referring to the story’s predator as a "whale,” the producers lost patience. Enter the young and ambitious Steven Spielberg. His résumé included more TV movies and episodes of Columbo than feature films. And his one stab at the big screen, The Sugarland Express, had drawn critical raves but tanked at the box office. Still, the suits were impressed by his confidence. Spielberg’s vision for Jaws was part high adventure, part horror: “a picture book of fears, phobias and anxieties.”

Spielberg had his own doubts about the project. As a new director, he had art-house aspirations and dreamed of making critically acclaimed films. But he knew that one more flop would torpedo his career. He had to make Jaws a blockbuster.

To do that, he needed a truly terrifying shark. Producers wanted Spielberg to hire someone to train a great white—an impossibility. The director toyed with rubber props before ultimately deciding the only real answer was to build a remote-controlled mega-shark—a 25-footer that could swim, leap in the air, and munch on human prey. Every special effects company in Hollywood called the task impossible. Undeterred, Spielberg lured effects guru Bob Mattey out of retirement. Famous for designing the giant squid in the 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mattey assured the director he could build the perfect monster.

With three sharks in production (collectively nicknamed Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer), Spielberg focused on the screenplay, which had gone through four writers and five drafts. The script was still unfinished as shooting began, so Spielberg hired his friend Carl Gottlieb to do the final polishing on set. Though it made the studio nervous to use a sitcom writer whose credits included The Odd Couple and All in the Family, Gottlieb proved to be one of the movie’s secret weapons.

Each night he sat with stars Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, taking notes as they improvised unfinished scenes. In Gottlieb’s hands, a straight monster flick became a character-driven film. And many of the flick’s most memorable lines—including “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”—came out of his process.

During the first three months of production, Spielberg focused on bringing fictional Amity Island to life. Whether orchestrating hundreds of extras through a beach panic scene or refereeing an off-screen battle of egos between Shaw and Dreyfuss, the director remained calm and confident. But as he prepared to take his cameras onto the high seas, one question remained: Where was the shark?

What Would Hitchcock Do?

When Mattey finally delivered Bruce, Spielberg began to panic. On its first day on the job, the shark promptly sank to the bottom of Nantucket Sound. Within a week, saltwater had eroded Bruce’s electric motor, and he had to be refitted with a system of pneumatic hoses. Every night, Bruce also had to be drained, scrubbed, and repainted. Even by diva standards, Bruce was high-maintenance.

“I had no choice but to figure out how to tell the story without the shark,” Spielberg said. “So I just went back to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘What would Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’ ... It’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening.”

The idea of the unseen enemy completely changed the film’s direction. It shapes the opening scene where a girl goes for a midnight swim and becomes the shark’s first victim. We see her legs underwater. We hear the ominous notes of John Williams’s score. And then we watch as she’s yanked down and dragged violently through the sea. The crew achieved this terrifying effect by tying ropes around actress Susan Backlinie, then playing a game of aquatic tug-of-war.

The sidelined shark also prompted Spielberg’s creative use of the ocean itself. He wanted the water lapping at the lens to make the audience feel like they were not only “in the ocean, but about to drown.” Cameraman Bill Butler invented a “water box” with glass windows that allowed cameras to be submerged. Gottlieb deepened the constant state of anxiety by stirring humor into the horror. Almost every appearance of the shark comes directly on the heels of a joke—the careful orchestration of screams, laughs, and foreboding silence keeps the audience emotionally off balance.

An exhausted Spielberg finally returned to Hollywood 159 days and nearly $8 million later. But his work wasn’t over. With the help of veteran editor Verna “Mother Cutter” Fields, he pieced the movie together. The New England weather haunted him—the wildly varying light and changing skies made for endless headaches as they matched footage. Massive reels of Bruce had to be cobbled into cohesive bursts of terror. To add an extra scare, Spielberg reshot part of one scene in Fields’s backyard pool, dumping powdered milk in the water to approximate the murky ocean. But even after finalizing the film, Spielberg doubted the results. Would his shark movie scare audiences, or would it be the “laugh riot of ’75”?

Legacy

Spielberg didn’t know it, but his malfunctioning sharks were about to radically alter Hollywood’s business model. All the shooting delays meant that Jaws couldn’t hit its planned release date, right in the heart of 1974’s lucrative Christmas season. Instead, Universal made the gutsy call to hold the film until summer, a season that had traditionally been the dumping ground for cinematic afterthoughts.

Then something unbelievable happened. Test screenings that spring drew such positive reactions that MCA/Universal’s stock price shot up by several points. Certain that it had a hit, Universal seized the momentum with a marketing blitz. Studios had always shied away from using expensive television spots to market films, but Universal dropped an unheard-of $700,000 to saturate prime-time programming with 30-second trailers.

The opening strategy was equally aggressive. Traditionally, high-profile movies opened in New York City or Los Angeles before slowly spreading to other cities and then trickling into small towns months later. Wide releases were generally reserved for duds; studios would cast a wide net to maximize ticket sales before negative word of mouth killed a film. But after the ad campaign made Jaws the summer’s can’t-miss flick, Universal went all-in on the release, and the movie opened in an unprecedented 465 theaters on June 20, 1975.

The gambles paid off—Jaws grossed $60 million in its first month. It went on to become the first film to top $100 million, eventually hauling in an astonishing $260 million. Critics were just as enthusiastic. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael dubbed it “the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made.” The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and it won three other Oscars.

Spielberg would later say, “Jaws should never have been made—it was an impossible effort.” Yet all those frustrating days at sea and short-circuiting sharks got the young director exactly what he had always wanted. By creating the prototype for every summer blockbuster that followed, Spielberg earned the freedom to make artier films like The Color Purple and Schindler’s List. He went into his next project, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, armed with a bigger budget, more creative control, and the knowledge that sometimes the biggest obstacles were actually his biggest assets.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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