Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Jaws: The Revenge Production Analysis, Part 1: When The Shark Jumps The Shark




When you become a devoted fan of monster movies, it’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself watching many average, below average, and WAY below average movies (including sequels, spin-offs, rip-offs and remakes) in between the classics and above average movies. It’s just par for the course, an inherent part of any fan’s search for obscure cult classics and under-appreciated cinematic diamonds in the rough. For that reason, I’ve developed a pretty high tolerance for—and even sort of an appreciation of—monster movie schlock. A very high tolerance, to be sure ... but not limitless.

So, in honor of the 35th anniversary of one of my favorite movies, Jaws, I’ve decided to devote this three-part post to one of the films that I find to be completely insufferable: Jaws: The Revenge, the last and least of the Jaws movies. There is no shortage of negative reviews for this turkey (including a priceless comedy monologue by the late Richard Jeni which deftly describes everything that’s wrong with Revenge), so I’ll be taking a different approach by attempting to pin down the behind-the-scenes details which led to the production of the sequel in the first place. Consider this post to be an example of Titans, Terrors & Toys CSI: Cinematic Schlockiness Investigation. (Cue intro music by The Who.) Read on ...

In retrospect, I find it baffling to think how anyone at Universal could think that Jaws: The Revenge would fare as good as or better than either of the other Jaws sequels, either critically or financially. Revenge doesn’t even sound good on paper—a story about a monster shark seeking revenge against a New England island resort family whose patriarch killed another, previous monster shark—let alone work on the silver screen. Within the film itself, the shark never becomes an intimidating presence and only does whatever the script demands that it do at any given plot point. For example, the shark is smart enough to set a trap with a buoy and a piece of wood for Sean Brody, a police officer, but it’s not smart enough to set a trap for Mike Brody, a marine biologist who spends most of his time in the ocean. The shark is fast enough to swim from New England to the Bahamas in less than a week, but it’s not fast enough to keep up with Mike during an underwater chase scene. The shark has psychic ties to Ellen Brody (she even has visions of the shark) so it can follow her to the Bahamas, but it doesn’t seem to notice when Mike tags it with an electronic beacon so it can be tracked.

In addition to having a perfunctory predator fill the role of the title monster, Revenge also planned on including Jaws vets Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss as part of the Revenge cast as well—but only as secondary, peripheral characters. Scheider was to reprise his role as Amity Police Chief Martin Brody, the shark killer in the first two Jaws movies, so he would be the first to be eaten by the vengeful shark in the opening scene (which takes place during Christmas, no less). Dreyfuss’s character Hooper, the marine biologist in Jaws, was written into one draft of the script as a brief cameo which has Hooper talking on the telephone to Mike. Both actors declined, and Chief Brody is killed off screen by a heart attack while Hooper is never mentioned. However, if both actors decided on a quick paycheck and did it anyway, Jaws fans would’ve been left with a sequel where one of their favorite characters is killed in the beginning and the other absent when it comes time to kill the aquatic beast. With such odd creative decisions, particularly for a blockbuster monster movie franchise, I could only look towards production information—articles, interviews, scripts, and so forth—to piece together the creative process behind the film.

Hunting down production information for Jaws: The Revenge hasn’t been easy. While there is absolutely no shortage of information about the production of the first Jaws movie, the amount of available production information becomes increasingly scarce for each successive Jaws entry until there’s very little left over to gain clear insight and incontrovertible conclusions regarding the behind-the-scenes workings of Jaws: The Revenge. Nevertheless, I think that there is enough evidence available to understand why the fourth Jaws turned out the way it did, and why it was released when it was—in other words, why Jaws: The Revenge was released in 1987 instead of in place of Jaws 3-D, which was released in 1983, particularly since Revenge removed Jaws 3-D from series continuity.

Some things to consider when pondering what prompted certain creative decisions during a film’s production is the film’s budget, production schedule, and release date. When you look at the budgetary and production date data for Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, and Jaws: The Revenge it becomes apparent that of the four movies, Revenge had both the largest budget and the smallest production window at less than a year. Jaws and Jaws 2 both ran over schedule and over budget due to problems encountered with the malfunctioning mechanical sharks and location shooting on the ocean. In contrast, Jaws 3-D remained on schedule and on budget because it was the only Jaws film that didn’t do any location shooting on the ocean; however, additional production time was required to complete 3-D effects work. The first three films also completed shooting at least six months before release, allowing for a sufficient amount of time in post-production; Revenge finished principal shooting in May 1987, with less than two months of post-production before release.


Bruce the Shark in his natural habitat
(photos courtesy of First Styke Productions).

Revenge’s unusually tight production schedule did not go unnoticed by some members of the press. In “‘Jaws Revenge’ – More Summer Fun”, an article in the March 28, 1987 edition of the Boston Herald, reporter Donna Rosenthal poses the following question: “What … would motivate Universal executives to compress the usual time it takes to develop a major film from idea to production – about two years – into a frantic nine months, aiming for a July release date?”

The sequel clearly suffers for the lack of production time. For example, a major criticism of Revenge is how fake the shark appears. On the basis of the tight shooting schedule, I would argue that the filmmakers had no choice but to use whatever mechanical shark footage that they could get (and whatever footage the script demanded), not the footage that they wanted. Specific shots of the shark swimming and emerging from the water are reused throughout the movie, and I suspect that two of the attack scenes were shot in slow-motion because there were no other ways available to get those scenes to look convincing at regular film speed. Revenge is also the only Jaws film that didn’t use a single frame of live shark footage to add realism to the mechanical shark footage. The effects crew that built the sharks for Revenge said that even though they were sent to the Bahamas in January 1987 to begin their work, they still hadn’t seen a complete script.


Stills from a slow-motion attack scene in Revenge,
where the shark 'jumps' out of the water.

In his interview for Just When You Though It Was Safe: A Jaws Companion by Patrick Jankiewicz, Lance Guest, who played Mike, shed some light on how bad the shark problems were. “The shark broke down a lot,” he said. “In fact, it broke down all the time! It’s hard to do, because to make the shark work, you had hydraulic jacks on the bottom of the ocean floor manipulating it and they had a hard time with the ocean; I remember having to go home a lot of days because the shark just wasn’t working.”

Guest also provided details on how the Revenge’s production in the Bahamas was scheduled. “We shot through most of the acting part of the film in about three weeks, so the acting and dialogue portion was shot pretty quickly, in less than a month,” he said. “I was pretty much on set all of the time. I had no days off, because the days I wasn’t acting, I had to do the underwater unit scenes fighting the shark, scenes where I’m diving and everything.”

Another way to understand how a film performs upon completion is to understand the motive behind making the film in the first place. Since Revenge is a sequel (a third sequel, to be exact), the motive would seem obvious: to make more money for Universal Studios by using an established blockbuster franchise. However, that oversimplified explanation sheds no light into the particular creative decisions regarding the film’s casting, plot, and direction.

Upon closer examination of the Jaws sequels, each has its own distinct reason for being produced. Jaws 2 had the most obvious reason, since it was the first sequel to the first film that earned the coveted title of “summer blockbuster”. In fact, until the arrival of Empire Strikes Back in 1980, Jaws 2 was the highest-grossing sequel to date. After Jaws 2, the motives behind the other two sequels become murkier than just the quick cash-in explanation. On the basis of what I have read, one of the reasons for Universal’s production and release of Jaws 3-D in 1983—even to the point of scuttling a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was proposed by the original Creature director Jack Arnold himself—was that it was their way of reasserting control over the Jaws brand name after the release of Enzo G. Castellari’s Great White (a.k.a. The Last Shark), a 1981 Jaws rip-off. There have been many, many Jaws rip-offs over the years, but what sets Great White apart is that not only does it closely imitate key scenes and characters from the first two Jaws movies, but it was also released in some countries (such as Brazil, Japan, and Spain) in ways that suggested that it was the official second sequel to Jaws. Universal was not pleased, and a plagiarism lawsuit ensued which barred its release in the US.


So what was the reason behind Jaws: The Revenge? My best guess based on available evidence: acting career resuscitation via franchise-name cash-in. See Part 2 of this production analysis to find out who expected Revenge to serve as a crowning career achievement, and whose influence made Revenge possible in the first place.



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