He was a working director, but a long shot for a big-budget film based on a novel. He was ready when the opportunity came his way, as revealed in BLOCKBUSTER.
Steven Spielberg was 26 years old, and ambitious.
He'd dropped out of college at Cal State Long Beach a few years earlier to take a job directing different smaller projects for Universal Studios.
Those films — namely DUEL and THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS — both earned some recognition from critics, but failed to make a big impact, and Spielberg felt he was ready for more.
He needed a "big winner." And he'd heard about Jaws. In fact, he'd gotten his hands on the "galleys" — a term used for early proofs of novels. Peter Benchley's novel Jaws was yet to come out, but the rights had already been acquired by Universal.
Unfortunately, producers Dick Zanuck and David Brown, who'd bought those rights, felt uneasy about someone as young as Spielberg. He was just a kid, and this would be a thriller worthy of the great Alfred Hitchcock. Or at least someone with a few big pictures under their belt.
John Sturges was the first director paired with JAWS. He had directed THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, a 1958 adventure film based on an Ernest Hemingway story. While he showed some promise, this plan fell through.
Then, Zanuck and Brown turned to another filmmaker, Dick Richards, whose film THE CULPEPPER CATTLE CO. had come out the previous year. Richards seemed like a great fit for JAWS, if for one thing: He always referred to the shark as a "whale."
His habit of describing the story as a whale adventure worried Zanuck and Brown, who believed the shark posed a unique threat to a thriller film that was very different from a whale. Richards didn't seem to understand their take on it.
After some weeks, Richards was dropped from the film.
Enter Steven Spielberg, who'd been nagging Brown and Zanuck to give him a shot at the film. He'd met with them several times, and in June 1973 finally had his big break.
Zanuck and Brown offered him the job.
Spielberg plunged in immediately, noting that he'd need mechanical sharks to make it convincing enough to audiences. This added a significant cost to the production, but Zanuck and Brown had faith in Spielberg's vision.
Of course, those mechanical sharks would have plenty of problems ahead, and in the end would barely make the final film — an embarrassing shortcoming that led Spielberg to pursue a different approach in portraying the shark: having composer John Williams create a musical theme to signal the danger.
The production of JAWS, STAR WARS and the long-running friendship between Spielberg and George Lucas is explored in detail in BLOCKBUSTER. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, as well as Spotify and all other podcast platforms.
BLOCKBUSTER has been painstakingly researched, compiled and referenced from thousands of sources, and details many of the events that led to the creation of JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and STAR WARS — and the very idea of "the blockbuster" film.
It's a story too incredible not to be told, with the richest, most immersive sound design ever created.
Put on your headphones, close your eyes, and enjoy.
This is a sonic experience that invites you into the offices, film sets and homes of the most influential dreamers, rebels and world builders in Hollywood film history. You won't just be listening; you'll feel like you're there.
It's free to listen. But please consider a donation!
We've made the decision to release Blockbuster for free and without ads interrupting the story. But this production did take about $80,000 to produce from start to finish, so if you enjoy the experience, please consider giving $10, and you'll earn some cool bonus perks in the process!