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Joe Alves Explains Making The Most Famous Movie Monster

Steven Spielberg topped box office charts last weekend with two of his biggest creations, in more ways than one. The director’s blockbusters Jurassic Park and Jaws roared back into theaters amid a pandemic that ended new film releases for months. Jaws is celebrating its 45th anniversary with a 4K UHD set featuring Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, so the return to a top spot on box office charts is timely. As part of the celebration for Jaws and its lovely remastered home release, I spoke with production designer Joe Alves about his work making the most famous movie monster in history in Jaws, his work building another shark for Jaws 2, his new book, and more.

The reason Jaws returned to theaters is to celebrate the 45th anniversary, to help promote the 4K UHD home release, and because in summer it’s always popular to screen Jaws a few times. Likewise, audiences have lacked anything new at the box office for months. So it’s no surprise that these factors helped bring Jaws back to audiences at this time, and resulted in modest success.

However, there’s a deeper reason Jaws — and Jurassic Park, too — might feel particularly relevant and resonant to viewers at this moment in history.

A deadly, seemingly unstoppable natural force threatening innocent people who are unprepared for the danger, after the people in power who could’ve stopped it and who should’ve prevented it fail to do so and in fact make the situation worse, needlessly costing lives in the process. Sound familiar?

Jaws in particular speaks to where we are and how we got here in many ways. Consider the great Murray Hamilton’s sublime portrayal of Amity Island’s mayor Larry Vaughn, who refuses at first to admit there’s even a threat of shark attack and later clings to the false claim that the danger is passed; who refuses to shut down beaches because he wants businesses to remain open and tourists to show up; who covers up the first death; who still refuses to take stronger action after a child is killed; who doesn’t want the expense or bad publicity of paying to solve the problem; who lies about the death toll to mitigate the negative media coverage; and who refuses to accept responsibility and plays “victim” when his lies are exposed and he has no more choice but to hire Quint. That’s not to mention his “used car salesman” appearance and conman personality. Again, sound familiar?

Jaws is about the need for science, professionalism, patience, and the human will to join forces and save people from a threat they didn’t expect, don’t want to admit, and can’t control. The menace doesn’t care who you are, where you’re from, your age or sex or gender or skin color. Hippy college girl, young boy, professional middle-aged fisherman, athletic man in his prime, experienced shark hunter — it only cares that you’re close enough to kill. The incompetence of those in power caused most of the deaths, putting people in harms’ way until the only solution was a more drastic one.

It’s a film that resonates time and again, because such situations — dishonest leaders, public danger, coverup, profits before people — repeat themselves endlessly in our real lives. Sometimes, though, the situation is so big and the comparisons so stark, it makes Jaws especially important and relatable.

“Are you going to close the beaches?” We still live — and die — within the context of that question, and the failure of those in power to take action sooner.

And now, without further ado, here is my interview with esteemed production designer Joe Alves…

Mark Hughes: Did you start out thinking in terms of how the shark needed to function, when you were first coming up with the design for it, or were you strictly thinking in terms of the visual realism of the shark without worrying about the practicality of how it would work?

Joe Alves: It’s a whole combination. First I started with concept sketches based on the book, before we even had a movie, and that gave me an idea — and then, talking to Steven [Spielberg], the fact that we wanted to do it in the real ocean with a 25 foot shark. Then I worked with an ichthyologist, did a four foot clay model to get it absolutely right on how a shark should move, and I talked to Ron Taylor [shark expert and underwater cinematographer who filmed the underwater sequences in Jaws] from Australia — who did Blue Water, White Death — on the movement of it.

Then with [special effects artist and designer] Bob Mattey, who I got to build it. He did 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the giant squid. So not only did you have the physical thing of what it looked like, then you had to make certain compromises for the movement. Because the mouth opened and closed, so you had to have certain skins that would stretch and not break.

We had three sharks. Two would be pulled with the open side [with mechanical parts exposed and visible] away from the camera, so there was a left to right and a right to left one. And there was one on a giant platform that would sink — it needed 25 feet of depth — that would be on a crane and run on a track.

So you don’t really design something without figuring out how it’s going to work. And then with Steven I did the storyboards on various activities we wanted the shark to do. I had to go to Bob and say, “It’s got to come up and crash on the boat,” or, “it’s got to come into the cabin,” so it’s got to do various things.

It’s not one or the other, it’s not like drawing a picture and letting somebody else figure out how to do it. It’s a combination, and you work with the crew. I mean, I had a painter that we had to paint it with #40 silica sand so the water wouldn’t bead off, so it would come off more realistic, with a rough surface like sandpaper. So do you understand, it’s a total thing.

I have a book out this year called Joe Alves: Designing Jaws, and it’s the first book really that talks — as a technical thing — about the designing and the building [of the shark]. And you can see not only the sculpting in full size at 24 feet, and the technical drawings in there that Bob Mattey worked on with a set designer who was also an electrical engineer.

So it’s the function of what it’s going to do, how it’s going to do it, and make it look as real as possible.

Hughes: If you were designing the shark today, would you go strictly with CGI, or do you think you’d would still want to use practical effects to give it that sense of weight and realism? I don’t even know if there’ve been technological advances that would make it different to do it with practical effects like you did at the time.

Alves: I don’t know how anybody would like to do anything but CGI today. Because they sit there on the computer and they can make it look so real. The only time you need to really have a full-sized shark is maybe when it came into the cabin you’d need [it]… but I know they do that all on green-screen now, you know? So I don’t think they do much practical stuff, do they?

Hughes: No. I saw The Meg, about the giant megalodon shark, and it’s all CGI. But no matter how good it looks, nothing [compares to Jaws] — even watching Jaws now, I can show the film to young kids and despite all of the modern effects they’ve seen, it still holds up and looks real to them. And when they’re watching it, they can tell it’s not CGI, so they’re wondering how the hell they trained a shark to—


Alves: Yeah, exactly. Because it does have some flaws — I mean, in CGI they would make it so perfect, but sharks do have some flaws in real life and their teeth break… So, yeah, I would think it’s such a different world today than it was 47 years ago when I started on it.

Hughes: Did you do much to change the design for the second film, for Jaws 2? I know you couldn’t use the sharks from the first film. Did you stick to the same basic ideas when you were building them for the second movie?

Alves: What happened was, for the first film we had a big meeting in Marshall Green’s office — he was the head of production at Universal — with all of the department heads. And I showed them all my story illustrations and we asked the effects department if they could do it, and they said no. So it took a year and a half, and blah-blah-blah, Marshall said, “Go find somebody to do it, and take it off the lot.”

Okay, so on the second film, I’d just finished Close Encounters of the Third Kind and was coming back to the studio, and I talk to Verna Fields — the editor who won the Academy Award for Jaws — and she said, “They’re doing a Jaws 2, and they’ve already started building the shark.” I was the production designer and second unit director, I directed 85 days of second unit.

Let me just say this: The first one cost $250,000. When I got there, they already had a crew building it on the lot, and they’d already spent $3 million—

Hughes: Oh my goodness.

Alves: —because it was in the studio. So now you had a whole bunch of other people involved. “It’s gonna do this, it’s gotta do that.” The first director they fired was going to have the shark do flips. Bob Mattey was on it, but he had a crew from the studio.

So it was quite a different thing, and the studio got very involved. Because Jaws was such a big success, they figured it was the shark, so they wanted more shark, more shark. We had the kids in the boats and the shark breaking the transom and all that stuff. We shot so much shark, but then we ended up editing it out because it was overkill. But that was studio involvement, and it was much more expensive.

We had to build the sharks from scratch, because when we got back from the first film, we were not heroes — we were over budget and over schedule, they threw the sharks in the back lot and let them rot, they sold the Orca [Quint’s fishing boat from the first film]… so it was just a mess. The studio back then didn’t want anything to do with the first Jaws until we finished it and the audience went crazy, and then they realized, “Oh we have a big success.”

Hughes: Everyone thinks in terms of the shark itself, but your work as production designer was far more complex and overarching for the film than just the shark. You had to transform Martha’s Vineyard into a fictional Amity town the way Steven Spielberg saw it in his mind and wanted it to appear. And Jaws, as great as the shark is, the production design on Jaws — and on Close Encounters — are two of the greatest examples of production design that I’ve ever seen in film. Can you talk about turning Martha’s Vineyard into this completely different place and reach into Spielberg’s mind to extract what he wanted, visualize it, and make it happen?

Alves: Well, you know, I was very fortunate. I scouted all over the East Coast and I took a boat to Martha’s Vineyard. I was going to go to Nantucket, because Peter Benchley [author of the novel from which Jaws is adapted] said go there, but there was rough water so we had to turn back. There was a boat to Martha’s Vineyard, so I went there, and not only did it have Edgartown, it had the bay where we could shoot because it was the perfect depth.

And then Menemsha was this old fishing village. I went up and looked at it, and there was this old fishing shack, and there was an empty lot at the very end. I thought, “Oh my god, that would be perfect for Quint’s shack. I’ll make it bigger,” because he’s a character, a bigger-than-life character.

We bought a boat and totally redid it. Steven wanted bigger windows so we could see out. We gave it a lot of character, with a pulpit and all this sort of stuff. Then we had to make another boat, one that would have no bottom, so Bob could have these barrels that would sink and then bring it back up.

There was a lot of stuff. I didn’t have a crew, I took a painter and a carpenter and a lot of local help. They were great and very happy to get the work, you know? So it was a very small crew, and it was a very— I think they almost stopped the movie three or four times. They weren’t crazy about making this shark movie, but [producer Richard] Zanuck and [producer David] Brown were heavyweights and they proceeded to keep it going.

Hughes: Have you had a chance to rewatch Jaws in this new 4K UHD format?

Alves: No, I haven’t, and I know this is a big thing. I probably will see it soon—

Hughes: It looks beautiful.

Alves: This year I’ve been working promoting my book, with the old storyboards and stuff. So we’ve been doing book signings and Universal has been extremely helpful and let me use the logo and a lot of the stuff that they had. And Spielberg was too, Steven has been extremely helpful.

But I think this is great that Universal is doing something for the 45th anniversary. It still lives on.

Hughes: And it looks incredible. I’ve always appreciated the film and it stuck with me my whole life, it’s the film that began my love with movies. But as much as I love it — a year doesn’t go by that I don’t watch it, so I’ve seen this film dozens of times in my life — this 4K release gives me a whole new level of appreciation for the work you did maintaining a consistent design and look and feel for the movie, the island, the people there, just everything about it. It feels like a living, breathing place.

That level of realism and getting it across, so when the shark starts killing everybody and tearing the hell out of the town, we are emotionally invested in what’s happening. Credit to everyone — the actors, director, writer — and everything that went into it, but the production design you did really brings it all to life. And you can see that better than ever in this new 4K release.

Alves: And it doesn’t have a period look to it. The haircuts and clothes and everything, I think it works today.

Hughes: Yes, it’s timeless. Which is part of why, I think, the film resonates so well today. They show it here in LA every year, and I go.

Alves: Did you go to Catalina Island last year? At the museum there they had a six-month display of all of the Jaws stuff. My storyboards and illustrations, Greg Nicotero’s company did the three characters full-size, and the cage with the original damage. It was quite a deal.

Hughes: I wish I had, but I missed that. I didn’t even know about it, I could kick myself for missing that.

Alves: Well that’s too bad, because it was quite a show. I would have loved to see it.

Hughes: Did you have any sense at the time you were making Jaws, did it ever cross your mind that this was a film that might end up being nominated for Best Picture, in addition to the amazing technical achievements you all accomplished and were awarded for? Did it ever feel like, “We could be making a Best Picture contender here?”

Alves: To be honest, the focus was to get it done. And I thought people would laugh at the shark because it would make all of these funny noises before the music was added and the crew would laugh. But when I saw the first screening, nobody laughed. They started screaming. Then I realized, “Oh, I think we’ve got a big success here.”

I mean, we always thought we were making a good movie. But we were so concerned about getting shot after shot, that was the real focus.

Hughes: Well, thank you again for taking time to speak with me. Congratulations on a fantastic career, on having done some of the greatest production design work on film, and on making movies like Jaws that have stood the test of time and are historic moments in cinema history. On behalf of Jaws fans everywhere, thank you and congratulations.

Alves: Thank you, Mark.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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