In Extremis: Jaws in the Third Dimension

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Jaws 3

In Extremis

Jaws in the Third Dimension

Jaws 3D was a box-office success but heralded the beginning of the end for the franchise. Freddy Fenech recounts the story of how it all went wrong...

The Monster and the Playmate

John Landis had an idea for a movie; a great one, he thought. He was going to make it in three-dimensional stereoscopic film, and he was going to get Jack Arnold to direct it. The project, a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon, would mark the return of Arnold, director of the original 1954 Universal Classic Monster film and – assuming things went to plan – Rick Baker would handle creature design. British screenwriter, Nigel Kneale, had already expressed an interest in crafting the script, so Landis just needed to convince Jack Arnold to come aboard.

Getting the original Creature helmer out of semi-retirement proved remarkably easy. The venerable director, seeing out the twilight of his career directing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and other early-80s television staples, was keen to work on a motion picture, especially one that held a place dear to his heart. Imagine the possibilities, he thought. With the latest technology available he’d be able to make a film to really stand the test of time. The perfect swansong. Arnold was in.

Things moved quickly. Since Landis was insistent that they’d film in 3D, numerous tests were undertaken using different three-dimensional processes, the best of which, it was agreed, was Polaroid’s. Steven Spielberg gave Landis’ team use of his pool to shoot some test footage and they employed Playboy Playmate, Gig Gandel, to swim (naked) while they filmed a monster’s hand reaching for her. Everyone was thrilled and proudly took the footage to Sid Sheinberg at Universal to get his seal of approval, before embarking on a full shoot.

Landis and Arnold exchanged excited grins as Sheinberg relaxed into a chair in the screening room, and nodded his head at the images in front of him. When it finished he turned towards both men. “This is fantastic!” the Universal president enthused, “but we shouldn’t do this with the Creature, we should do it with Jaws 3D.”

Jaws 3, People 0

Jaws 3 was originally intended as a spoof film. With Jaws 2 a sizeable hit, producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck wanted to go in a different direction and brought in Matty Simmons, whose National Lampoon’s Animal House had struck comedy and box office gold, to give Jaws a comic twist. Brown and Zanuck stepped into executive producer roles and let Simmons get to work. Hiring National Lampoon writers John Hughes and Todd Carroll to work on a script based on Simmons’ outline, the pair crafted a screenplay about a crew working on a Jaws film and being hunted by an actual Great White; a meta idea a long time before meta-horror became a going concern.

Joe Dante was approached as a possible director. His own killer fish film, Piranha, released in 1978, ran into troubled waters when Universal decided the film was too close to their own Jaws property and threatened injunctions. Their ire was particularly acute given that, at the time, they were due to release the first Jaws sequel and essentially wanted to be the biggest fish in the pond. In the end, it was, somewhat ironically, Steven Spielberg who came to Piranha‘s rescue, persuading Universal not to sue, describing Dante’s film as, “the best of the Jaws ripoffs.”

Even at this early stage, Universal were becoming increasingly nervous. The studio was $2.5 million dollars into the red on the film and was highly uncomfortable with the direction it was heading in. It was the considerable shadow that Spielberg still cast over the franchise, however, that killed it stone dead. Walking into Sid Sheinberg’s office one day, Spielberg threatened to walk off the lot altogether if Jaws 3 People 0 went ahead. The director took great exception to his legacy being tarnished with such a frivolous take on the Jaws story and the production came to an immediate halt. The studio believed that making the film would be tantamount to: “fouling in your own nest,” David Brown later revealed. “We should have fouled the nest. It would have been golden, maybe even platinum.” (1)

I am legend?

As David Brown and Richard Zanuck backed out, the rights to make the film were bought by Alan Landsburg Productions, whose interests up until that point had been solely invested in television movies and sitcoms. Alan Landsburg himself attempted to hire noted experimental director, Murray Lerner, due to his experience working with 3D. Lerner, however, took one look at a draft of the script and declared himself unavailable.

Next in line was Joe Alves, production designer on Jaws and its sequel. Alves almost filled half the director’s chair on Jaws 2 following the dismissal of John Hancock: for a brief moment it was suggested that Alves and editor Verna Fields replace the departing Hancock until it was determined that only a member of the DGA (Director’s Guild of America) would be permitted to take the reins. This time around, however, he was ready. And more importantly, willing.

By this stage, screenwriter Guerdon Trueblood had posted a 41-page treatment featuring two key elements that would eventually become part of the final product: the waterpark and the inclusion of the Brody brothers. Trueblood’s script also made room for not one but two sharks, an idea that  was ultimately rejected. 

Meanwhile, author Richard Matheson had produced a draft of his own, though Universal had reservations about Matheson’s script and requested a number of amendments, including the inclusion of a role for Mickey Rooney. This was likely at the behest of Alan Landsburg who had produced Rooney to Emmy-winning success in Bill. Typically, Rooney became unavailable and the part was quietly written out again. The studio also insisted on retaining Trueblood’s inclusion of both of Chief Brody’s sons, an idea Matheson was unhappy with, considering the notion of another shark problem for the family several hundred miles away absurd.

With Matheson’s work complete, he said goodbye to the project, pleased with his overall work and believing he’d done the best possible job, only to discover later that the finished film – including a heavily revised script – was not to his liking. Matheson, not one to mince his words, was also unhappy at the choice of director and the use of 3D. Sometime later, he recounted: “…if they had done it right and if it had been directed by somebody who knew how to direct, I think it would have been an excellent movie. Jaws 3-D was the only thing Joe Alves ever directed; the man is a very skilled production designer, but as a director, no.” (2)

The Brody bunch

Screenwriter and Jaws (and Jaws 2) scribe, Carl Gottlieb, was soon invited back in the fold once more and began toiling away on a rewrite, while thoughts turned to casting. Early on in the process, Universal considered the prospect of Roy Scheider’s return, but the idea was given short shrift by Scheider, who’d had more than his fill of the franchise: “Mephistopheles couldn’t talk me into doing [it],” he said. “They knew better than to even ask.” (3)

While script had already been amended to include Chief Brody’s sons, Mike and Sean, in an effort to link the stories together, it also included a line of dialogue that seemingly cut Jeannot Szwarc’s Jaws 2 out of the canon altogether. In a seemingly throwaway moment, Mike Brody explains to Kay that Sean doesn’t go near the water due to a shark attack (singular) that occurred when the brothers were children. No mention is made of another rampant shark three years later.

Dennis Quaid took the role of Mike Brody, the eldest sibling, while John Putch was cast as younger brother, Sean. The role of the waterpark’s senior marine biologist and love interest of Mike went to TV movie star, Bess Armstrong. Lea Thompson, who subsequently rose to fame in Back to the Future, won the role of Kelly Ann Bukowski after being spotted in a Burger King commercial by Shari Rhodes, who’d also worked as casting director on Jaws. Louis Gossett Jr. fresh from an Academy Award-winning performance in An Officer and a Gentleman, rounded out the cast, along with two British actors, Simon McCorkindale – soon to star in the short-lived Manimal, and P.H. Moriarty.

For both John Putch and Lea Thompson, Jaws 3D was their first movie. Putch had plenty of previous acting experience with a recurring role on the sitcom One Day at a Time, but Thompson, a former ballerina, had just one previous credit under her belt, an interactive live-action video game called MysteryDisc: Murder, Anyone? Putch later recalled: “She seemed very excited to be doing Jaws 3D – I know I was! You kiddin’? We all thought it was gonna be ‘The Big Thing’!” (4)

Gill-man goes to Florida

In the spring of 1955, Universal released Revenge of the Creature, the sequel to their hit Creature from the Black Lagoon. The film, directed by Jack Arnold and shot in 3D (in fact, the first sequel to a 3D film also shot in 3D) follows on directly from the original. The Gill-Man, injured but alive after being shot several times at the end of Creature, is captured and transported to the Ocean Harbour Oceanarium in Florida for study and display as a tourist attraction. The Gill-Man soon escapes and panic ensues at the waterpark.

Almost 30 years later, Jack Arnold and Joe Alves were both in the early preparation stage of their respective films; Arnold on the aforementioned remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon and Alves on Jaws 3. The two men had struck up something of a friendship, neither seemingly aware that Arnold’s film would be swept aside in favour of a third Jaws outing, though the idea of a creature running amok in a waterpark seems uncomfortably similar to the premise of Jaws 3D. Carl Gottlieb believed any similarities were completely unintentional and, in Gottlieb’s defence, he came to the project late on with a brief to “punch up” the script and hadn’t spoken to Alves or Matheson regarding original intentions for the movie, so simply made the best of it.

In hindsight, it’s interesting to note how Spielberg’s Jaws optioned a number of segments from Creature from the Black Lagoon, notably the shot-from-underneath sequence of Kay Adams swimming in the Lagoon, which Spielberg utilised to devastating effect with the doomed Chrissie Watkins’ venture into the ocean. Gottlieb’s protestations notwithstanding, it’s not only the setting for Jaws 3D that seems – however unintentionally – cribbed from Revenge of the Creature but some of the sequences and plot points too. For example, in one particular scene in Revenge,  Joe (the Gill-Man’s keeper) leads the creature around the tank to push water through its gills while ichthyology student Helen explains that this will help it better breathe, much like a shark. In Jaws 3D, Kay attempts the same procedure to help revive a baby great white.

The third dimension in terror

The decision to use 3D was as much an economic decision as an artistic one. Once Sid Sheinberg had witnessed the possibilities via John Landis’ and Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon footage, it made perfect financial sense to push into production the next Jaws film and piggyback on to the revival of three-dimensional cinema. Though 3D had never really gone away; the technology’s golden age was 30 years earlier, during a period of films that included Creature and its sequel (a third film in the series was not made in 3D), It Came from Outer Space, The Charge at Feather River, and Alfred Hitchcock‘s Dial M for Murder.

By 1983, however, any thoughts of Jaws at the forefront of the next three-dimensional wave were tempered by the release of a number of films looking to capitalise on the trend, not least Friday the 13th Part III, released on August 13th 1982. Nevertheless, Joe Alves thought that 3D would give him “an edge” and so forged ahead with the plan, even going so far as to develop a title card idea. Richard Matheson then incorporated points in the script where he believed 3D might be best utilised.

Alves employed Chris Condon’s StereoVision to shoot the film in 3D. Within a week, however, Condon’s team were dropped in favour of Arrivision’s 3D system due to its supposed superiority and a wider variety of lenses. To achieve the 3D effects, a specific twin-lens adaptor was attached to the camera. The film itself was to be shot in 35mm format and the twin-lens divided the film in half along the middle, the upper half would record left eye footage and the bottom the right eye in a procedure known as over/under. 

The whole set up enabled the film to be shot on one camera as opposed to two, eradicating the need for two sets of equipment and stock. 3D technology at the time had a tendency to blur or ghost, leaving audiences with headaches and dizziness. Arrivision, Alves reasoned, would be able to solve that problem, leading to superior 3D experience.

Despite StereoVision losing out to a competitor, company president, Chris Condon, a pioneer of the medium, opted to stay on in order to aid Arrivision in development: “Choosing the camera for the film was not easy,” explained second-unit director, Rupert Hitzig. “We flirted with Optimax, Condon, and then decided to work with Arriflex to develop a lightweight camera that could shoot over and under on the same frame. Chris was helpful and not at all upset when we moved away from his system. He was a gentleman, and a brilliant engineer when it came to 3D.”

The shark is still working

The creative decision to film most of the water scenes in a tank ensured that, unlike the first two Jaws films, the shark wasn’t subject to the rigours of a tidal sea, saltwater and inclement weather, particularly as the film was shot in the balmier climes of Florida.

Roy Arbogast, the visual creative consultant, was charged with creating the sharks and went to work building two full-size fish, a tail, rear and side sections. His job was made simpler due to his work on the first two films, and he understood the pitfalls of creating a believable-looking Great White. At one point another Jaws alumni, Kevin Pike, stopped by and observed what he described as the best shark of any of the movies, both in look and practicality.

While the assembled cast and crew worked diligently while on set, it was (mostly) during downtime that problems arose. Dennis Quaid, at the time married to P.J Soles, began an illicit affair with Lea Thompson, all the while spending most of his waking hours feeding a cocaine habit so powerful that he would later admit he was high in every frame of the film in which he figured in.

Quaid managed to fulfil his contractual obligations, professionally if not maritally, but there was one challenge that was impossible to overcome. The story’s main plot involved a shark entering Sea World. Sea World Florida, unfortunately, was (and is) a landlocked park so location manager Carl Mazzocone was quickly dispatched to find an area close by that could serve as an entry point for the shark.

With this issue navigated, production continued apace, but despite coming in on time and on budget, in stark contrast to the previous films in the franchise – there were a number of political battles being fought, one of which lead to visual creative consultant Roy Arboghast ending his association with Universal and the Jaws franchise, citing ongoing politics as just one reason he couldn’t wait for the shoot to end.

Arboghast left the set on his final day with the shark still in the water and flew home. He was later accused of a number of misdemeanours and black-balled by the studio, though maintained he and his crew worked in perfect harmony, were always ready to go when called upon and never once encountered the shark breakdowns that had beset previous films. He was also accused of stealing the shark. His response was understandably incredulous: “How could I get it home, for god’s sake? I wanted that shark like I wanted a hole in the head.” (5)

Just look at the product

Once filming and post-production were complete, John Putch and Bess Armstrong were invited to a screening at Universal. Despite their initial excitement, the screening wasn’t quite the success they hoped it would be and both actors staggered out from the darkened screening room, blinking into the sunlight and determined to drown their sorrows at the nearest bar.

Despite fears that the film arrived too late in the 3D wave, the use of the technology, both in the film and the title, paid off with a $13,422,500 opening weekend. This, despite summer releases that included Return of the Jedi and Superman III. Jaws 3D‘s July 22nd premiere found it enjoying the fruits of a quiet month for new releases. Only Woody Allen’s Zelig made any waves critically while Staying Alive, the Sylvester Stallone-directed follow-up to Saturday Night Fever, and the Burt Reynolds vehicle Stroker Ace both bombed, leaving the door open for Jaws 3D to hoover up box office takings in their wake. Even a fair number of poor reviews, including Variety’s description of the film as ‘tepid’, had little negative impact as the film went on to make over $45 million in the US alone.

Jaws 3D is arguably the worst film of the franchise. While Jaws The Revenge is certainly more implausible, Jaws 3D is shark free for long stretches, with the killer Great White barely appearing for the first hour (though its pup is captured). When the shark does appear, its screen time consists of a mixture of special effects and, bizarrely, real shark footage in unnaturally high-tempo, presumably for a more fearsome effect. Meanwhile, the much-hyped 3D, as well as a number of 2D scenes, appear hazy and blurred.

For all its faults, Joe Alves’ attempt to make a compelling entry in the Jaws franchise is laudable, especially considering the daunting task of carrying one of the biggest franchises of the era. Yet, the relative success of Jaws 3D did nothing for the fortunes of Joe Alves fledgeling directorial career and he was never to helm another film. 

Was it a mistake to hire an inexperienced director to handle such a large franchise? Should Universal saved 3D technology for another project and let Alves simply work with a regular format without the need to concentrate on 3D ‘money shots’? Clearly, while it had a hugely adverse effect on Alves’ career, the box office doesn’t lie. Perhaps Sid Sheinberg could have let John Landis and Jack Arnold continue with their own project or at least inspected the 3D technology they were using.

In the end, Creature from the Black Lagoon was cancelled,  Jack Arnold didn’t get to make his swansong film and Joe Alves’ effort undermined his own career and started the Jaws franchise on a downward spiral from which it never recovered. Universal may well look back at Jaws 3D as a success and they’d be right, commercially-speaking the film did very well at the box office. But history has not been kind to Jaws 3D as an artistic or entertaining endeavour and nobody remembers box office gates aside from film executives and statisticians; the former being the very same people who made the decision to greenlight Jaws 3D in the first place.

You cannot underestimate the people who decide what gets done.” John Landis reflected later in an interview. “Just look at the product.”


Sources:

Collider
Jaws-3D.com
– The Making of Jaws 2 (DVD Documentary – 2002) 1
– Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Producers and Writers of the 1940s Through 1960s by Tom Weaver 2
– Roy Scheider: a film biography by Diane Kachmar 3
– Just When You Thought it Was Safe – A Jaws Companion by Pat Jankiewicz 4, 5

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