Jaws The Revenge
A Tale of Hollywood Folly
Jaws The Revenge - the most reviled and mocked of the series, but were the odds stacked against the film from the very start? Freddy Fenech finds out...
“Since time immemorial, events have taken place with no evident reason for their happening. Such phenomena has been man’s dilemma and the subject of constant philosophical discussion. When there is no factor motivating an event, no case of cause creating effect, what triggered the action: fate or circumstance? What you are about to see concerns such an event. Maybe you can determine whether we are dealing here, with circumstances, or fate.”
– Narrator, Jaws The Revenge (televised version)
An American in Rome
When John D. Hancock landed in Rome in the summer of 1977, cowed and bruised by his experience in attempting to turn Jaws 2 into a film apart from the Steven Spielberg original, a study of people – of a town – in mourning, he could hardly have known that one late-September evening, a decade later, Sid Sheinberg would pick up the telephone and announce his intention to revive the Jaws franchise and make a movie more about people than sharks.
Hancock’s denied vision for Jaws 2, set on an Amity Island still coming to terms with the tragic events of the first film, could have heralded a rewarding future for the Jaws franchise. Jeannot Szwarc’s version of the sequel was a perfectly serviceable and, often exciting, film, but Jaws 3D proved to be an abject failure (artistically, despite excellent box office returns); far too reliant on gimmickry – the 3D affix an attempt to crest the ultimately fruitless second wave of three-dimensional technology – and lacking the substance that made Jaws more than the sum of its parts.
By 1987, Universal – having suffered a plethora of box office disasters, none more so than with George Lucas’s Howard the Duck – was running out of ideas. Sheinberg began to scrutinise the company’s back catalogue for suitable properties to exploit until his eyes fell upon Jaws. Here Sheinberg figured, with a colossal level of hubris, was a franchise he could make work.
During John Hancock’s ill-fated tenure on Jaws 2, Sheinberg had scowled at the news of the dailies the director was returning, eventually flying to Martha’s Vineyard – not to fire him personally, but ensure that producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck did. This time, however, the Universal president resolved to keep his counsel and allow creative direction to map its own course. Following the poor showing for Jaws 3, Sheinberg was also keen for the film to follow the lead of Spielberg’s Jaws, with a “quality people picture” at its core. This ostensible level of freedom was likely to be intriguing to any director willing to tackle such a gigantic franchise. But the keys to the kingdom included a caveat; the film had to be ready in less than a year, with the premiere slated for the summer of 1987.
Regular protocol at the time for a mainstream Hollywood movie was a gestation period somewhere in the region of 18-24 months, so the 10-month turnaround Sheinberg insisted upon was ambitious, to say the least. At this point, there wasn’t a script, not even an inkling of a story, and the pieces needed to fall into place fast. So, Sheinberg picked up the telephone.
It was Joseph Sargent who took the call from Sid Sheinberg in the autumn of 1986. He listened to the Universal head’s patter and, despite some obvious reservations about taking on a Jaws film, liked what he heard: “It’s your baby, you produce and direct,” Sheinberg said. Sargent had pedigree, having directed one of the great crime thrillers in The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, and his future boss had just given him carte blanche to do things his way:
“Sid Sheinberg seduced me completely into the deal by making me, not only the director but executive producer. I could call all the shots, hire the writer, hire the crew, do everything; it was my baby. How do you walk away from something like that? Even though I knew this was enemy territory.”
Sargent had seen the mess that Jaws 3D became under Joe Alves and made the conscious decision to ignore the film entirely, not least because there was a feeling at Universal that the third movie had failed due to the lack of returning stars.
Sargent hired Michael de Guzman to produce a draft which paid deference to the first two films, and installed Sheinberg’s wife, Lorraine Gary, as the main star. Whether this was another Sheinberg mandate or not is unknown, but it’s fair to suggest that since Gary had played Ellen Brody in the Jaws and its sequel, it made continuity and narrative sense from Sargent’s point-of-view to retain her for the new film.
While de Guzman toiled on the script, with Sargent overseeing, work began in earnest on the special effects. With principal photography due to commence in February 1987, Head of Special Effects, Henry Millar, and his team were dispatched to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, in mid-January to begin preparations. There was, as Millar discovered, one slight hitch – no available script.
A later press release on the film explained further: ‘two models were fully articulated, two were made for jumping, one for ramming, one was a half-shark (the top half) and one was just a fin. The two fully articulated models each had 22 sectioned ribs and movable jaws covered by a flexible water-based latex skin, measured 25 feet (7.6 m) in length and weighed 2500 pounds. Each tooth was half-a-foot long and as sharp as it looked. All models were housed under cover…in a secret location on the island.’
With the clock ticking, and continuous communication between de Guzman, Sargent and Millar paramount, the screenwriter and director finally hit upon an idea they hoped would kick the project into gear: “Out of a little bit of desperation to find something fresh to do with the shark,” explained Sargent. “We thought that maybe if we take a mystical point of view, and go for a little bit of…magic, we might be able to find something interesting enough to sit through.”
The portentous decision to centre the story on a shark motivated by revenge, a premise that Sargent knew was “preposterous,” would prove to be a challenging sell to any prospective audience. Sheinberg, though, was thrilled with the idea and encouraged Sargent and de Guzman to continue developing the story; all patently ignoring Dr. Elkins’ maxim from Jaws 2: “Sharks don’t take things personally.”
The resulting first draft, titled Jaws ’87, took an interesting narrative turn with its opening sequence. A returning Chief Martin Brody is killed by a huge Great White shark while removing some driftwood in the Amity Island harbour, leaving his grieving widow, Ellen, to pick up the pieces and, ultimately do battle with the marauding shark. The creative team also made the decision to move from a frozen Martha’s Vineyard to the more attractive climate of the Bahamas for the lion’s share of the shoot.
It soon became clear, however, that the character of Chief Martin Brody would not figure, after all. Roy Scheider, who’d only returned for Jaws 2 following a contractual dispute with Universal, had long since washed his hands of the franchise. Tentative talks with Scheider did ensue, but the studio baulked at his demand of a million dollars for what amounted to no more than a cameo, and contact immediately ceased.
Martin Brody’s ghost still loomed over the film, however, with portraits in the Amity Police station and the Brody family home, and, most fantastically, in Ellen Brody’s mental flashbacks to events she was never a party to – not least the moment Martin kills the shark in Jaws.
A hastily rewritten opening sees Sean, the youngest of the Brody boys, falling victim to the shark with Martin having instead passed away from a heart attack some months before. The deaths of both her husband and son provide the emotional heartbeat to a story that, despite its ludicrous main thrust of a shark bent on revenge (hence, The Revenge), occasionally flirts with deeper themes of grief and coming to terms with loss.
With Scheider now out of the running, and Richard Dreyfuss refusing to even literally phone-it-in (the plan to have his character, Matt Hooper, make a brief commiserative phone call to the Brody household quickly dismissed), Mitchell Anderson was cast in the brief but pivotal role of the ill-fated Sean Brody.
The sequence remains a high point in the Jaws franchise. Set against the backdrop of the festive season, Sean Brody’s death is devastatingly effective. As the film cuts back and forth between the agonised cries of Sean and the Amity Choir rehearsing The First Noel (contrasting a Carol of ‘great light’ with Sean swallowed by the black water) we see the child’s eyes in the man now confronting his mortality, recalling the much younger Sean in Jaws, innocently mimicking his father at the dinner table.
In an echo of father and son, Jaws The Revenge employs a motif from the original film with Michael Brody and daughter Thea, played by Judith Barsi. It’s a cheap, but charming callback to Jaws, drawing the viewer’s attention once again to the genealogical thread across the series.
Tragically, Judith Barsi and her mother, Maria, were murdered just a year after the film’s release. As Judith slept, her father, József, aimed a gun at his daughter, fatally shooting her in the head before murdering Maria and incinerating their bodies. József, who’d become increasingly angry and erratic as Judith’s burgeoning career grew more successful, spent the next two days in the house before committing suicide in the garage. She was 10-years-old.
Hannah and Her Sisters
When Michael Caine joined the film as the pilot Hoagie Newcombe, its success almost seemed assured. Although no stranger to starring in the occasional flop – how could he not have met with the odd failure given his prolific output? – Caine entered the frame off the back of a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. He would go on to win the coveted statue but was famously unable to collect it due to filming commitments on the fourth film in the Jaws franchise.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Jaws The Revenge is Hoagie’s burgeoning relationship with Ellen Brody. This represents something of a departure for a Hollywood studio film at that time; not only because the main character was a female in her fifties, but also because the main love interest subplot was between two middle-aged people. This was, and still is, a peculiarly singular plot thread in what is ostensibly a horror film. The fashion of the time usually precluded adult characters from starring roles, often relegating them to the periphery as over-cautious, benign or sceptical parental units.
The courtship between Ellen and Hoagie; by turns coy, awkward and flirtatious unfolds amid the backdrop of Ellen’s nightmares about the shark and conviction that it will return. Where Martin Brody was brooding, spending every waking moment obsessing about the shark, Hoagie is his polar opposite; living in the moment, grateful for his lifestyle and excited by the next great adventure. His effervescence and philosophical attitude are clearly very attractive to Ellen. When she expresses concern about the shark wilfully seeking to destroy her family, Hoagie’s response is measured and logical: “Sharks come and go, Ellen. People have got nothing to do with it.“
Interestingly, where the film succeeds is when the focus is placed on the relationships between characters. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the intrusion of the Great White shark, it may have worked as an affecting take on reconnecting with people following tragedy. But the film is, obviously, about an enormous and volatile shark seeking to take inexplicable revenge on the Brody family. It’s ironic, then, that many of the scenes featuring the shark cripple the movie.
Killing the shark a different way
Despite the film’s strong opening, which uses quick edits revealing only the bloodied teeth of the shark as it devours Sean Brody, it is the reveal of the shark in its entirety which jars most, especially with the decision to parade the creature above the waterline when on the attack. This was presumably propagated by a desire to increase the spectacle at the expense of suspense. As Sargent later commented: “It’s amazing. When you make a choice artistically, despite whatever sophistication, whatever professionalism you’ve achieved by that time, you can fall into a, sort of, romantic love affair with a notion that is so far out that it actually feels right.”
The fiercest criticisms of the film are usually reserved for the climax when the shark is finally defeated by Ellen ramming the bowsprit into its abdomen. It’s a difficult scene to defend, given that the sequence is clearly filmed in a water tank with an obvious matte backdrop and water lapping the end of the tank. Upon viewing the film several times it’s impossible not to deduce its obvious failings point more to a lack of time and preparation than artistic skill on the behalf of the creative and technical team responsible for the finished product. Once again, Sid Sheinberg’s shadow looms large over the finale. Sargent’s mandate from his paymaster essentially boiling down to finding a new way to kill the shark.
Nothing kills a sequel faster than reverence
With the film finally ‘in the can’ and second-unit photography complete just a month before the film was due to hit cinemas, it fell upon the marketing team to ramp up promotion of the film.
An aggressive pre-release campaign only heightened suspicions that the film couldn’t possibly live up to the hype administered by Universal. In a seemingly desperate act, the studio went as far as disparaging previous films in the series. Joe Alves, director of Jaws 3D, and production designer on Jaws and Jaws 2 was not amused by the studio’s attempts to undermine his work: “When they came out with Jaws The Revenge press materials, they were knocking all three previous Jaws films, including the first one! They said, ‘This is gonna be the greatest and all the others were a piece of shit.’ It was very offensive; you don’t do that to fans who had gone to three of them. They were all financially successful and I don’t regret doing any of them.” 1
Despite this proactive, if risky, approach, the film opened to universally abject reviews, taking just $7 million dollars at the box-office against a budget of $23 million. The film would eventually go on to record a profit, but the damage had already been done.
Roger Ebert called the movie both “stupid and incoherent” while the New York Times stated that “nothing kills a sequel faster than reverence, and ”Jaws The Revenge” has a bad case of ”Jaws I” worship, beginning with lingering shots of Roy Scheider’s photo hanging in the Amity Police Department and running through Ellen’s sepia-toned memories from the first film.”
Bizarrely, though perhaps fittingly, five days after the film’s release, Joseph Sargent was once again calling “Action!” on Jaws The Revenge. But how did this happen? The film’s US release featured the death of marine biologist Jake, played by Mario van Peebles, with the shark snatching Jake between its jaws and taking him to a bloody, watery grave. However, this was viewed as too dark by US audiences, so Sargent was ordered to hastily reshoot for the overseas release. Speaking to the LA Times, Sid Sheinberg stated: We thought the only thing wrong with the film was the ending. The impact of the shark dying and Mario dying was too much for the audience in one finale.”
The film has been accused, in turn, of being stupid, boring and comically bad. But what these reviews forget to do is place the film in context. Jaws The Revenge is not a good film, it is a barely competent one, but it is set against a backdrop of the most unreasonable of demands. Joseph Sargent was asked to build an entire film from the ground up, with very little steer, in less than 10 months.
Yes, it’s about a shark that seemingly knows the Brody family’s every move. It’s absurd, poor conceived and executed. And yet, buried within the wreckage there are some interesting ideas. Some of the abiding themes of the film are of loss, the grieving process and recovery. No matter how staggeringly clunky and ineptly assembled, given adequate time – with deference to the character piece of Jaws – the years since its release could have been kinder to Jaws The Revenge.
Fate or circumstance
Whether one believes in fate, or centres their belief system upon circumstance as a driver for future outcomes, either have the potential to impact upon the result. In the case of Jaws The Revenge, it’s permissible to view this either way:
Circumstance: The failure of the film was the demand for a new instalment in the series to be delivered in a time frame that would prove impossible to produce a film of more than passable quality, if indeed one affords Jaws The Revenge that adjective. With principal photography commencing a mere five months before the film premiered, the assertive marketing campaign that followed became one of necessity as, even if the film proved to be a disaster artistically (as was later proved), Universal may have sold enough cinema tickets to cry ‘Victory!’, no matter how pyrrhic.
Fate: The morning Sid Sheinberg’s helicopter landed on Martha’s Vineyard, in the summer of 1977, was the catalyst for the downward spiral of the franchise. John Hancock was removed from production and the Jaws story fell into a depressingly typical pattern of inferior follow-ups and diminishing returns, chasing the unprecedented success of Spielberg’s original, which would remain forever tantalisingly out of reach. It’s entirely possible of course that, had John Hancock finished Jaws 2, the film would have performed poorly at the box office anyway, the sequels would have really gone for broke with high-octane shark action, resulting in a briefly distracting but ultimately empty experience. Ergo, the film would have ended up even worse off, however unlikely that may be.
In the end, Sheinberg’s decision to shut down Jaws 2, due to disagreements on the Hancock’s vision of a darker, character-driven piece – only to make an about-face once Universal was in box-office dire straights – proved to be too little, too late. And his decision to fast-track the film’s release date, while handing Sargent a poisoned chalice under the guise of an opportunity to stamp his mark on the enormous Jaws franchise, resulted in a level of failure so disastrous it has since passed into Hollywood legend as a cautionary tale.
Joseph Sargent never directed another theatrically-released film. His career continued as a successful director of made-for-television films until his retirement in 2008. For the remainder of his life, the director often spoke with bemusement about Jaws The Revenge, as if he believed he would never quite live it down:
“How do grown me with rather good credentials, in terms of their training, in terms of their worldliness – or what they would like to think of as that – how do we get involved in something that idiotic?”
Joseph Sargent interview: www.televisionacademy.com
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