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The special effects crew prepares a mechanical shark for action in Oak Bluffs. The shark props generally remained covered between takes.

Martha's Vineyard Magazine archives.

7.1.11

On Location with Jaws

The new book Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard takes a behind-the-scenes look at the 1974 filming of the greatest shark movie ever, often from the perspective of Island residents who were there. The film’s Fourth of July beach sequence – a.k.a. the end of Alex Kintner – involved coordinating hundreds of extras in unpredictable and inhospitable weather, as this excerpt from the book attests.

On June 21, shooting continued on State Beach for the July Fourth scene, in which Islanders and tourists alike – their previous shark fears allayed by the widely reported killing of a twelve-footer in local waters – have descended upon Amity’s town beach for a fun-filled holiday. The great white’s return during the scene’s finale will obliterate any lingering hopes for a conventional and tourist-friendly summer and serve as the catalyst for the film’s rollicking third act. With a crew of forty, equipped with megaphones and loudspeakers to both manage and instruct the four hundred extras crowding the beach, the filmmakers had little reason to doubt the scene could be completed within the week it had been scheduled.

On the afternoon of June 22, however, the skies darkened, bringing gusting winds and temperatures in the mid to low sixties, conditions hardly ideal for the backdrop of a festive holiday in the sun. Equally problematic were the scores of adult extras who began losing interest in lingering day after day on the frigid beach. “Each morning began with all the extras being lined up by the cabanas, then being placed at certain locations along the beach,” extra Andy Fligor recalls. “It was remarkable how well they kept track of everybody. But when extras failed to return the next day because of the cold or the really long hours, it was a problem. Except for the thrill of maybe catching a glimpse of themselves on the big screen, there wasn’t a whole lot of incentive for people over eighteen to keep hanging around in the cold all day, even at $2.50 an hour. One day, an unassuming couple were placed about thirty feet from where [Steven] Spielberg was directing, close to the water. When we came back the next day, the assistant directors announced, ‘Okay, everybody remember your locations.’ When all of the extras had placed themselves, Spielberg looked around, then pointed to a spot on the sand and said, ‘Where’s the couple that sat here?’ That happened quite a bit and was a real problem for continuity. It forced them to roll back further into the scene because they’d have to start the shots all over again.”

“At least when the mechanical sharks had problems, we could troubleshoot and knew that with just a little more work, [Special Effects Supervisor] Bob [Mattey] could probably fix whatever the problem was,” Production Designer Joe Alves says. “But when that bad weather started rolling in over the beach, there wasn’t much anyone could do except to play around with different types of filters and lights to brighten the shots. Quite often, though, the weather was too gloomy to even do that.”

“By the time they began shooting on the beach, the realities of shooting a coastal picture in New England had really started to set in,” says Susan Murphy, who was present as both an extra and special effects operative throughout the Fourth of July scene. “From day one, they really had experienced it all: rain, fog, wind. New England weather is famous for its inconsistencies. It’s rainy one day, followed by three days of fog, then maybe a little bit of sun. But when you’re spending as much money as Universal was to film a scene that’s supposed to look like a fun, warm, sunny beach, and all you’re getting is clouds and cold wind for weeks on end, you’ve got serious problems. They had no choice but to keep all the extras and crew on the beach each day and pick away at whatever shots they could get because after July 1, thousands of real tourists would be arriving. Waiting until September certainly wasn’t going to work because all the kids they needed for the scene would be back in school.”

“The design of the film was such that we used a sort of ‘army/navy’ approach,” Production Executive Bill Gilmore explains. “The ‘army’ was used for any shooting we did on land, and the ‘navy’ for when we went to sea. The ‘army’ consisted of all of Universal’s trucks: the camera truck, grip truck, prop truck, wardrobe truck. Besides that, the Boston Teamsters had ten or twelve of their own large vehicles. And so the idea was to complete the land scenes and get rid of the ‘army.’ Then, when we’d go to sea full time to shoot the third act, we’d activate the ‘navy,’ where we didn’t need any trucks and could put all our equipment on the Whitefoot. That was a decision I made to economize by not having all these trucks and crew members sitting around on standby.

“I knew that when we went to sea, we’d be down to something like two or three trucks for the whole movie, and also, the crew would become very small. It’s not unusual, when you’re shooting on land, to serve ninety lunches. Shooting at sea, we’d only need to serve forty lunches. And so it was crucial to the economic well-being of the production to finish shooting on land as soon as possible. We certainly never imagined we’d be on the beach for three weeks, but the weather was just totally uncooperative.”

Also in a dither over the production’s prolonged stay on the Island were Oak Bluffs and Edgartown selectmen, each of whom was more concerned than ever about the potentially disastrous effects the already burdensome production would have on the Island’s soon-to-be tourist-crammed beaches and streets. Edgartown Selectman Ted Morgan told the Vineyard Gazette in late June, “We, as a board, are just going to have to take control of the situation. We have tried to be cooperative. We gave them the run of the town, we gave them a variance, we let them shoot in the town hall, the streets...” Bill Gilmore mollified the uneasy politicians once more by assuring them that, with the projected completion of the beach sequences in the days ahead, filming would be done almost exclusively at sea, leaving few signs of the production on the Island itself. Fortunately, selectmen from both towns granted the filmmakers a final – albeit skeptical – wave of approval. In the meantime, despite rain, fog, and generally miserable shooting conditions, Universal’s cameras continued to roll.

The extras speak

Bob Arcudi, Vineyard Haven: “I showed up to be an extra on my motorcycle and had my helmet with me on the beach, on my blanket. I was just one of hundreds of people, but the crew was so particular about everything being exactly the same for each take that on the second day, when I didn’t bring the motorcycle, they wanted to know where the helmet was.”

Fleeing the frigid water as the “Amity Patrol” chopper hovers nearby.
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Tom Dunlop, Edgartown: “I’d auditioned as an extra for the Fourth of July panic on the beach but didn’t get the job. So I rode my three-speed Raleigh out to the big bridge, left it by a dune, and just walked onto the set. I got myself into a few key shots, so the next day when they wanted to pick up where they’d left off, they had to invite me back – and pay me.”

Julie Flanders, Chilmark: “It was so cold on that beach that the cast and crew were passing around shots of brandy in little paper cups just to warm up. The extras got in on it too. Everybody’s lips were blue and chattering.”

Stephen Searle, Edgartown: “Universal had constructed a little concession stand near the cabanas. It was only a prop, so you couldn’t actually get food there, but there were always people who didn’t know any better lined up for a hot dog or soda. The video arcade was just surreal. That’d be the last thing you’d normally see on a Vineyard beach. The games were part of the movie but also, I think, a way to keep the kids on set occupied between shots. They were wired so you didn’t need money to play them. That may have done more harm than good because they had a hard time prying us away from them when it was time to get back in front of the cameras.”

Phil Regan, Oak Bluffs: “There were so many kids that were extras on that beach and from each of the Island’s towns. At the time, the Island was isolated enough that kids from one town usually didn’t know kids from another, so you had these town-versus-town rivalries going on. When they weren’t needed on camera, Edgartown kids would assemble on the Edgartown side of the State Beach channel, and Oak Bluffs kids would line up on the Oak Bluffs side. Then the two groups would start throwing rocks at each other. Only kids with really good arms could launch the rocks all the way across. Eventually, somebody from the production shut that down because we were making too much noise, and there were stray rocks hurtling dangerously close to all kinds of very expensive filmmaking gear.”

Beth Campbell, Chilmark: “[Assistant Casting Director] Jini Poole always had my sisters and me involved in her school plays. That’s how we ended up as extras. My mom would take us to the beach every day along with Lynn Murphy’s boys, Brian and Lee, who were extras too. Jini was always on the beach by the time we got there, organizing all the extras – and they weren’t all human. At one point, I was asked to walk a dog up and down the beach for a shot. After quite a number of takes, we stopped for a break, and I remember Steven Spielberg talking about how they had already done the scene with Pipit and that they maybe shouldn’t overdo the whole dog thing. They finally agreed that one dog and its disappearance would have much more impact without all of these other dogs running around in every shot.”

Director Steven Spielberg, center, preparing to film in Edgartown.
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Lydia Mello, Vineyard Haven: “The scene called for the mayor to finally convince us to go swimming, so the next thing we shot was all of us getting up from our blanket and holding hands as we walk down the beach and into the water. Because we’re going in, everybody else assumes it must be safe, and so they all rush in with us. We weren’t filming any of the shots of people actually swimming that day – just the five of us wading into the water and the crowd getting up off their blankets behind us. For each take, we’d get about three feet into the water, and they’d yell, ‘Cut!’ Then we’d have to turn around and come back out. That was the hardest part, because it was the first really warm day of the summer, and everybody on the beach wanted to swim for real. It was also ironic because on the days they actually needed us to go into the water, it was so cold you could barely stand it.”

Brad Fligor, Edgartown: “Because the water at State Beach is so shallow, they had all of us extras crouching down on our knees to make it appear as though we were in deeper water than we actually were. When it came time to do the very first shot of everybody stampeding out of the water, the assistant director yelled, ‘Action!’ and everybody literally stood up and started running. It was just about the funniest-looking thing anybody had ever seen and not realistic at all. For the rest of the shoot they had everybody swim out to deeper water.”

Will Pfluger, Vineyard Haven: “During one of the panic shots, everyone bolted from the water like they were supposed to except for one woman. She was just an extra but stayed in and began posing in all kinds of dramatic positions, waving her arms, screaming, and flailing all around. It was overly dramatic to say the least. Finally, one of the directors spoke into a megaphone and said, ‘Ma’am, that won’t be necessary. Please get out of the water.’ The entire beach was in hysterics.”

Reprinted from Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard by Matt Taylor (© 2011 Moonrise Media LLC), www.mvremembersjaws.com.

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