It's considered one of the greatest film scores, but Spielberg at first thought John Williams was telling him a joke.
It was 1974, and Steven Spielberg had just returned from a disastrous shoot on location in Martha's Vineyard. The mechanical sharks hadn't worked, the ocean was far from reliable, and there's a very good chance Steven's career is over — after nearly tripling the budget he was given by Universal Pictures.
Steven was rattled. Worn by the long shoot and studio pressure, and panicked about the initial responses he was hearing to the film. People thought it looked silly and snickered at the shark.
Enter John Williams. The composer was 42-years-old, yet to make a big name for himself in Hollywood, and was just coming off the devastating death of his wife of 18 years, Barbara Ruick.
Contrary to Steven's suggestion to have a sweeping, more-romantic score, John played the two-note theme at the piano.
"Ha, you've got it," Steven laughed. He thought it was a joke. John quickly explained it wasn't.
The most powerful thing, John said, was the simplest idea. The two notes, which could be played in many ways by the orchestra, represented the danger even when the film wouldn't show the shark. Instead of Steven's suggestion of something tuneful to smooth out the edits in the film, John's score was "primal" and heightened — or even created — the tension.
"And I'll tell you something else," John said in BLOCKBUSTER. "When we do see the shark, we won't score him, so the audience doesn't see it coming."
In the end, the simple technique was enormously effective. Steven credited it for at least half of JAWS' success. It also was the first film for which Williams would win the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
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