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How Malfunctioning Sharks Transformed the Movie Business

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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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Giovanni Rufino - © 2012 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved
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XOXO: 20 Things You Might Not Know About Gossip Girl
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Giovanni Rufino - © 2012 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Ten years ago, Gossip Girl became appointment television for America’s teenagers—and a guilty pleasure for millions more (whether they wanted to admit it or not). Like a new millennium version of Beverly Hills, 90210, the series—which was adapted from Cecily von Ziegesar’s book series of the same name—saw The O.C.’s Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage trade in their west coast cool for New York City style as the show followed the lives of a group of friends (and sometimes enemies) navigating the elite world of prep schools and being fabulous on Manhattan's Upper East Side. In honor of the series’ tenth anniversary, here are 20 things you might not have known about Gossip Girl.

1. IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A LINDSAY LOHAN MOVIE.

Originally, the plan for adapting Gossip Girl wasn’t for a series at all. It was supposed to be a feature film, with Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino writing the script and Lindsay Lohan set to star as Blair Waldorf. When those plans fell through, the producers approached Josh Schwartz—who was just wrapping up work on The O.C.—about taking his talent for creating enviable high school worlds to New York City’s Upper East Side.

"The books are a soap opera, and TV makes a lot of sense," executive producer Leslie Morgenstein told Backstage of the decision to go the small-screen route. "When we made the list of writers who would be the best to adapt Gossip Girl for television, Josh was at the top of the list."

2. PENN BADGLEY INITIALLY TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF DAN HUMPHREY.

Barbara Nitke - © 2012 THE CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Though he was hardly a household name when Gossip Girl premiered, Penn Badgley had been acting for nearly a decade—and had a lot of experience working on first season TV shows that never took off—when he was offered the role of Brooklyn outsider Dan Humphrey, and his initial response was: thanks, but no thanks.

“The reason I turned it down initially was because I was just frustrated,” Badgley told Vulture in 2012. “I was frustrated and I was broke and I was depressed and I was like, ‘I cannot do that again. I can't.’ … Stephanie Savage, the creator [of Gossip Girl], she said to me, ‘I know you might not want to do this again, but just take a look at it.’ And I actually was like, ‘I appreciate so much that you thought of me. I just don't want to do this. Thank you for understanding that I wouldn't want to do this.’ And then they couldn't find anybody for it—which is weird, because a million people could play Dan Humphrey—and she came back around, I was about to get a job as a waiter, and I was like, ‘Okay.’”

3. ULTIMATELY, BADGLEY PROBABLY WISHES HE HAD FOLLOWED HIS INITIAL INSTINCT.

Badgley told Vulture that, “I wouldn't be here without Gossip Girl, so I will always be in debt and grateful. And I've said some sh*t that ... I don't regret it, but I'm just maybe too honest about it sometimes.”

But executive producer Joshua Safran had a different view on the situation. “Penn didn’t like being on Gossip Girl, but …. he was Dan,” Safran told Vanity Fair. “He may not have liked it, but [his character] was the closest to who he was.”

4. THE CREATORS GOT THE IDEA TO CAST BLAKE LIVELY FROM THE INTERNET.

According to Vanity Fair, when it came time to casting the show’s main roles, they cruised some of the online message boards related to the Gossip Girl book series to see which actors fans of the books were suggesting. One name they kept seeing for the role of Serena van der Woodsen: Blake Lively, who had starred in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. “We didn’t see a lot of other girls for Serena,” Schwartz said. “She has to be somebody that you believe would be sitting in the front row at Fashion Week eventually.”

5. LIKE BADGLEY, LIVELY WAS ON THE VERGE OF QUITTING ACTING.

© 2008 Warner Bros. Television

Like her onscreen (and eventually off-screen) love interest Penn Badgley, Blake Lively was also considering leaving Hollywood when Gossip Girl came calling, so she turned the producers down.

“I said, ‘No, I want to go to college. Thank you, though,’” Lively told Vanity Fair. “Then they said, ‘OK, you can go to Columbia [University] one day a week. After the first year [of the show], it’ll quiet down. Your life will go back to normal and you can start going to school. We can’t put it in writing, but we promise you can go.’ So that’s why I said, ‘OK. You know what? I’ll do this.’”

As for that going back to school and life going back to normal? “When they say, ‘We promise, but we can’t put it in writing,’ there’s a reason they can’t put it in writing,” she said.

6. LEIGHTON MEESTER DYED HER HAIR TO GET THE PART OF BLAIR.

Because Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen were both best friends and occasional enemies, it was important to the show’s creators that the characters did not look like the same person. That fact almost cost Leighton Meester the role of Blair.

“She came in and she was really funny, and really smart and played vulnerable,” Schwartz recalled of Meester’s audition. “But there was one problem: she was blonde. And Blake was blonde, obviously; Serena had to be blonde. So, [Leighton] went to the sink and dyed her hair. She wanted it.’” (Sounds like something Blair would do.)

7. THE NETWORK WORRIED THAT ED WESTWICK LOOKED LIKE A “SERIAL KILLER.”

Giovanni Rufino - © 2012 THE CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Ed Westwick, who originally auditioned for the role of Nate Archibald but ended up playing bad boy Chuck Bass, almost didn’t land a role on the show at all. Though the show’s co-creators, Schwartz and Savage, loved the darker edge that Westwick brought to the group of friends, The CW worried “that he looked more like a serial killer than a romantic lead.”

“He's menacing and scary, but there's a twinkle in his eye,” casting director David Rapaport told BuzzFeed. “You want to hate him, but you would also probably sleep with him. He's one of those guys you hate for always getting away with things, but you also want to hang out with him and see what he's up to next. He's the guy that's going to give you a joint for the first time or get you drunk for the first time, so you know he's wrong for you, but he's fun.” Fans clearly agreed.

8. WESTWICK CHANNELED HIS INNER CARLTON BANKS TO PLAY CHUCK BASS.

In order to perfect his posh American accent, Westwick—who was born in London—looked to another iconic American television character for help: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Carlton Banks (Alfonso Ribeiro). “There’s a slight thing in Carlton Banks,” Westwick told Details Magazine in 2008, “that kind of über-preppy, that I did pick up on.”

9. GRETA GERWIG AUDITIONED FOR THE SHOW … IN OVERALLS.

In 2015, Golden Globe-nominated actress Greta Gerwig—who just wrote and directed Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan—talked to HuffPost Live about the mistakes she made early on in her career as an actress. “I have had moments when I was starting out when I was auditioning for things like Gossip Girl," she said. “And they would look at me like, 'Why are you wearing overalls to this audition?' And I'd be like, 'They said she was from a farm!' and they would be like, 'Well, this is Gossip Girl.’” (The role she was auditioning for, Eva Coupeau—a love interest for Chuck—eventually went to Clémence Poésy, who played Fleur Delacour in the Harry Potter movies.

10. BLAIR WALDORF HAD TWO MOMS.

© 2008 Warner Bros. Television

In Gossip Girl’s pilot episode, Blair’s mom—popular women’s clothing designer Eleanor Waldorf—was played by Florencia Lozano. In episode two, and throughout the rest of the series, Eleanor was portrayed by Margaret Colin.

11. IT WAS ONE OF TELEVISION’S FIRST STREAMING SUCCESS STORIES.

Years before House of Cards changed the way we watch, and even define, “television,” Gossip Girl served as a sort of precursor to the streaming generation. While the show’s Nielsen ratings were mediocre, New York Magazine reported that, “New episodes routinely arrived at the No. 1 most-downloaded spot on iTunes, and then there were the hundreds of thousands who were downloading free week-old episodes on the CW's site. Even executives at Nielsen threw up their hands and admitted that Gossip Girl appeared to be speaking to an audience so young and tech-savvy they hadn't really figured it out just yet.” (Lost and The Office had followed similar tracks.)

12. THE SHOW WAS BANNED BY SOME NEW YORK CITY SCHOOLS.

Giovanni Rufino - © 2012 THE CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

According to Vanity Fair, some of the elite New York City private schools that might have shared some similarities with the show’s fictional Constance Billard and St. Jude's banned their students from watching it. (Which, the outlet noted, “only served, in all likelihood, to make the students want to watch it more.”)

13. THE SERIES TURNED ITS CRITICISMS INTO A MARKETING CAMPAIGN.

Even by 2007’s standards, Gossip Girl—for a show about high schoolers on what was mainly known as a teen-friendly television network—seemed to relish in pushing the boundaries of what might be acceptable. It didn’t take long for parental advocacy groups like the Parent Television Council to take very public, and vocal, issue with the show's in-your-face sexuality. When it was criticized as being “mind-blowingly inappropriate” and “every parent’s nightmare,” the show turned those critiques into a marketing campaign to help promote viewership.

14. A WRITERS STRIKE HELPED THE SERIES GROW ITS VIEWERSHIP.

While the show struck a chord with certain audiences immediately upon its release, the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America Strike proved to be a boon to the series. “The CW, because they couldn’t just run repeats or game shows, [Gossip Girl is] all they had,” Schwartz told Vanity Fair. “They kept re-running the show during the strike so more and more people were watching.” Which led to even higher ratings when the show returned for a second season.

15. DESIGNERS WERE BEGGING TO SEE THEIR FASHIONS WORN ON THE SHOW.

Giovanni Rufino - © 2012 THE CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Just like New York City itself, the fashions in Gossip Girl essentially served as another character. According to a 2008 article in The New York Times, “Merchants, designers, and trend consultants say that Gossip Girl … is one of the biggest influences on how young women spend."

“When we came back with Season 2, so many designers were lining up and wanting to be a part of it,” the show’s costume designer Eric Daman told Vanity Fair. “They wanted their stuff on either Blake or Leighton.”

16. IT SPAWNED ITS OWN CLOTHING LINE.

To capitalize on the show’s influence in the fashion world, Daman and designer Christine Cybelle (a.k.a. Charlotte Russe) created a Gossip Girl-inspired clothing line.

17. KRISTEN BELL PLAYED AN ESSENTIAL PART OF THE SERIES, BUT WAS NEVER CREDITED.

Though viewers had to watch all 121 episodes of Gossip Girl to learn the identity of the titular tattler, Kristen Bell provided the voice for “Gossip Girl” for all six seasons, without credit. And while she sort of hoped that the finale would have revealed that she was indeed “Gossip Girl” all along, that ending was not meant to be. “I’m sure that it would’ve been really cool had I got to play some vicious part and actually come out as Gossip Girl, but I think it was appropriate for one of the main cast members to have surfaced as Gossip Girl,” she told Perez Hilton.

Though she was a key part of the series, she didn’t learn GG’s true identity until the very end of the show—and she was surprised. “I don’t know that I ever forethought it being Dan,” she admitted. “That was a bit of a shocker!" (If it makes her feel any better, Badgley reportedly didn’t learn Gossip Girl’s identity until that scene was actually shot.)

18. JANUARY 26 IS "GOSSIP GIRL DAY" IN NEW YORK CITY.

© 2008 Warner Bros. Television

At least it was in 2012, when then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed January 26 “Gossip Girl Day” in celebration of the show’s 100th episode. “I don’t have a whole lot of time to follow what New York magazine has called ‘The Greatest Teen Drama of our time,’” Bloomberg said. “But I am interested in finding out who the real Gossip Girl is—Serena’s cousin, maybe? And I don’t see how Blair could marry Prince Lewis while she is clearly in love with Chuck, although she and Dan became pretty close when they interned at that fashion magazine. And I just wish that Nate and Vanessa had been able to work things out, I guess Nate was preoccupied with everything that was going on with his father and Jenny and, I mean, it was a tangled web, I guess Dan would have ended up making their relationship impossible anyway, but I’m just a casual fan.” 

Super-fans of the show can still take a Gossip Girl tour of New York City.

19. IVANKA TRUMP AND JARED KUSHNER MADE A CAMEO.

Over the full course of the series, plenty of familiar faces popped up, but two in particular seem kind of funny in retrospect: Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner played themselves in a club scene. (Ivanka was apparently a huge fan of the series.) “They did it for the money,” a chuckling Schwartz told Vanity Fair.

20. IN AN ALTERNATIVE UNIVERSE, SERENA IS A SERIAL KILLER.

In 2002, von Ziegesar published a bloody take on her famed book series with Gossip Girl: Psycho Killer, which she said she’d love to see adapted. "I took the original text of the first book and whenever I saw an opportunity, I layered in this story of Serena coming back from boarding school as this coldblooded psychopath, which, to me makes total sense,” von Ziegesar told Entertainment Weekly. “She’s sort of like the Ryan Gosling of Gossip Girl world. She has that deadpan style, doesn’t seem to have much personality, and she’s really gorgeous, but then underneath she has this kind of scary ability to kill people. So she’s murdered people up at boarding school. She’s always had this dark side and everyone is a little bit scared of her.”

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Natasha Zinko
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This Just In
This Jeans-Inside-Your-Jeans Look Will Cost You $695
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Natasha Zinko

Besides a few updates here and there, the classic style of denim blue jeans hasn’t changed much since the late 19th century. Now, a London-based fashion designer wants to disrupt the wardrobe staple. Their revolutionary new idea? A second waistband sewed on top of the first one.

According to Mashable, these high-waisted double jeans from Natasha Zinko are retailing for $695. Wearing the pants makes it look like you forgot you already had jeans on and put on a second pair on top of them. But buying two pairs of designer jeans to wear at once would probably be less expensive than owning this item. The double jeans are actually one garment, with the high-waisted inner pair stopping at the hips. Boasting seven pockets, they’re not entirely impractical, but having to undo two sets of buttons and zippers sounds like more trouble than it’s worth.

Model wearing double jeans.
Natasha Zinko
There is a market for high-end blue jeans disguised as fashion crimes, as Nordstrom proved earlier this year with their $425 pants covered in fake dirt. The Natasha Zinko double jeans have already sold out on shopbop.com.

[h/t Mashable]

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