Raft of the Medusa
John Hancock's Jaws 2
The dismissal of John Hancock from the set of 1978's Jaws 2 changed the face of the film and the franchise. But what a film it could have been...
The Deer Hunter absconds
Roy Scheider was not a happy man. He’d just left The Deer Hunter due to creative differences; the standard industry term for quitting or being fired. Unusually, in this instance, the differences were very much of the creative kind.
“It’s completely implausible that anyone would go halfway around the world to save a friend,” Scheider declared(1). He felt trapped. Signing a three-picture contract with Universal Pictures was a mistake. The experience had been less than rewarding and, so far, he’d only made a single movie for them. The man wanted out. He wanted to tear up the lousy contract and start anew. But what he most definitely did not want was to make another shark movie.
Universal, though, had other ideas.
Scheider owed them. They’d been a fortnight away from the cameras rolling on The Deer Hunter when their star walked. Now, they insisted he pay them back. Universal knew a successful sequel was reliant on at least one of their stars returning; and Roy Scheider, due to his recent fit of pique, was currently without a job. Finally, Universal made him an offer he couldn’t refuse:
‘Ok, Roy. You’re contracted for two more movies. You let us down on The Deer Hunter and that’s unacceptable. But you make the Jaws sequel for us and we’ll go our separate ways once the movie is done. Call it a two-for-one.’
Scheider thought about it for a moment. He didn’t want to do a sequel but he was determined not to get stuck making another two movies under contract. Who knows where he’d end up next – Jaws 3? He just had to suck it up for a few months and walk away, scot-free. Scheider liked the character of Brody, and even if he didn’t want to re-tread old ground, they were making it in the summer and he’d be the headline star. Hell, he could even work on his tan.
‘Ok,’ Scheider sighed. ‘I’ll make one more shark movie.’
A cynical cash cow
The success of Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) was as unprecedented as it was psychologically destructive. The film paved the way for what became the summer blockbuster; a hysterical period of high concept, escapist cinema that allowed the theatre-going public to shrug off the humdrum of everyday life for galaxies far, far away. The effect of Jaws on even the most casual viewer was instant and infinite. Never again could one enter a body of water without a modicum of trepidation regarding what might lurk beneath.
By the end of the summer of 1975, box office takings for Jaws were showing little sign of slowing and producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck, the current toast of Hollywood, began discussing next steps. Both were keen to strike quickly in order to capitalise on Jaws’ success despite concerns a follow-up might be viewed as nothing more than a cynical cash cow. Nonetheless, Brown reasoned, someone else would produce a sequel if they didn’t.
Playwright Howard Sackler, an uncredited writer on Jaws, set to work on the first draft. Sackler’s plan was to take Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech from the first movie as a basis for a prequel, so he set to work.
Meanwhile, keen to consider all options, Brown and Zanuck explored an idea involving Quint and Brody’s sons hunting a shark. The producers discarded this along with a fantastical idea from science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, involving the shark being controlled by a mysterious alien orb in the Indian Ocean.
Sackler quickly turned around his script and the producers met with Universal president, Sid Sheinberg, hoping to get the project greenlit. Sheinberg, though keen on making a sequel, passed on the prequel draft and Sackler was sent back to work with a different brief – keep the action and characters located on Amity Island.
A cheap carny trick
With Sackler busying himself on the rewrite, Zanuck and Brown began casting the net in search of a suitable director. Steven Spielberg, basking in the glory of Jaws, was already embroiled in a personal project he’d long dreamt of bringing to the screen. Spielberg’s script Watch the Skies would soon transmogrify into Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and his focus would be on that for at least a year. Besides, he’d already made his feeling clear on sequels, dismissing them as nothing more than cheap carny tricks.
In conversations with Brown and Zanuck about prospective directors, Sackler recommended a friend he’d worked with in theatre, John D. Hancock. Hancock was a wildly left-field choice for a production of such magnitude. While his stage work was exemplary – Tennessee Williams remarked favourably on his skill as a theatrical director – Hancock’s filmmaking résumé only extended as far as the award-winning short film Sticky My Fingers…Fleet My Feet (1970); a psychological horror, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971); and a sports drama, Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), starring Robert De Niro.
Still, Brown and Zanuck had taken a chance on the unknown Spielberg and Brown was a fan of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, so there was every reason to suggest lightning could strike twice. Hancock, who was just finishing work on his third feature, Baby Blue Marine (1976), was approached, and a deal was done. The director was suitably impressed with Brown and Zanuck’s overtures, especially when they informed him they wanted to top the first movie.
Rewriting the rewrite
Hancock quickly made the decision to rewrite Sackler’s script. With all the other pre-production tasks he’d need to undertake, Hancock didn’t want to work on it by himself, so offered the job to his wife, Dorothy Tristan, a successful actress who’d written several screenplays, albeit unproduced. When Sackler discovered that his supposed friends were dismissing his script, however, he was furious at the treachery.
In Tristan’s revised version of the script, Amity Island is suffering from economic meltdown following a series of shark attacks four years earlier. The once-thriving community is reduced to near-deserted streets, dilapidated storefronts and vacant beach cottages. A new venture, Amity Island, Inc. aims to return the island to its former glory, but a series of unexplained deaths offshore lead Chief Martin Brody to believe a shark is the cause.
Get Ellen on the boat
Tristan’s spec script was immediately given the seal of approval and, within weeks, location scouting and casting began. Of the original triumvirate, only Roy Scheider, courtesy of the singular deal struck with Universal, would be returning: Richard Dreyfuss had followed Spielberg to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Robert Shaw’s character, Quint, was dead.
All of this had been taken into account in Tristan’s script rewrite. What it hadn’t accounted for, however, was the hubris of Sid Sheinberg. The Universal President was married to Lorraine Gary, the sometime actress who’d played Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen, in Jaws and was due to return for the sequel.
One evening the Sheinbergs invited Hancock and Tristan over for dinner. A major plot point in the script involved Chief Brody taking a boat out to save several Island kids, including the Brody boys, Mike and Sean, from a makeshift raft as the shark circles them. The Sheinbergs thought it would be a good idea to have Ellen join the Chief on the boat, and during the course of the evening, they repeatedly pressed the point home. Hancock, a close friend of Zanuck, confessed the following day and the producer, still wounded from losing a previous battle with Sheinberg over which of their wives would play Ellen Brody, responded with righteous indignation.
Loyal to the man who’d hired them, Tristan and Hancock decided to turn in another draft, minus Ellen on the boat. Shortly after, Hancock took lunch in the Universal commissary and noticed Sheinberg refused to meet his eyes.
Somewhere on the distant horizon off Amity Island, storm clouds were beginning to gather.
On Martha’s Vineyard
18 months is a long time; in the movie-making business, it may as well be an eternity. When the cameras finally cranked into action on Martha’s Vineyard on the 6th June 1977, fingers and hearts were crossed that the shoot would be a smooth one. As was, and still is, often standard for movie production, scenes were filmed out of sequence. Following the initial attack on the scuba divers, to be shot in a tank at a later point, the script introduced Chief Martin Brody for the first time. Tristan’s screenplay(2) clearly demonstrates the tone the film was looking to adopt:
EXT. AMITY ROAD – DAY
Martin Brody’s squad car speeds past the Amity billboard, weather-stained, peeling and flaking in the strong May sunshine. Over the wind we hear snatches of a speech-making voice on a P. A. system.
INT. SQUAD CAR – BRODY
has the look of a survivor who will never shake off the memory of what he survived. He passes:
5 BEACHSIDE COTTAGES
closed and in disrepair. A faded upside-down FOR RENT sign in one of the windows.
Spielberg chips in
One of the early scenes in Jaws 2 was actually the idea of Steven Spielberg. Ahead of taking the job, Hancock had met the director for lunch to talk over the challenges ahead. The meeting proved to be a very positive one, arming Hancock with a number of ideas, including one that Spielberg described in great detail: the shark swimming into the harbour.
The scene is indicative of the ominous feel Hancock was looking for. As night falls, a huge fin breaches the water’s surface as the shark silently cruises into the harbour before slipping back into the inky blackness. There are no actors in the scene and no dialogue, but it’s dark, brooding and full of quiet menace – a demonstration of the potential of a film never realised. It’s also one of the only scenes Hancock shot that remains in the film.
A storm gathers
But there were darker forces at work than the menace of a Great White shark. Power struggles were rife. Sheinberg and Zanuck were at constant loggerheads: Zanuck’s barely concealed disdain for the Universal president spilt over on a daily basis. Meanwhile, Hancock and Tristian found themselves sandwiched between the two warring factions which had begun to impact the couple’s decision-making on set.
Weather issues were also affecting progress. Within four days of arriving on the island, a storm blew in, forcing production inside. In a perverse irony, Sheinberg’s wife, Lorraine Gary, arrived with it. Conversely, a week later, with temperatures rising amid a cloudless sky, Hancock was becoming flustered as he pursued a depressed look for the community and resorted to calling in fog machines and a fire engine to soak the streets. It was becoming apparent that it wasn’t only the elements against Hancock; by the third week, the director was once again informed that the shark wasn’t ready.
Universal, go home!
Off-camera, another powerful voice was making herself heard. Verna Fields, the formidable editor of Jaws, now a Universal Vice-President, was not impressed with the darker tone of the film, as exemplified with the dailies Hancock was returning. It was no secret that Fields had been rejected for the director’s chair and still coveted the spot – but she was not a member of the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), thus the role would remain elusive.
With the strain clearly beginning to show, a fairly rudimentary scene involving Ellen Brody walking through a crowd towards an ambulance collapsed into farce as several takes were ruined by extras stepping into her path. Hancock’s levels of tolerance were being tested daily and clashes with extras continued as a number were sent home to change; their clothes being too bright which smacked against the director’s desired look.
Minor issues aside, there was still the difficult prospect of relocating the entire cast and crew to Pensacola, Florida, for the remainder of the shoot to film the shark attack scenes in warmer waters. By this time, a number of businesses on Martha’s Vineyard were actively petitioning due to production designer Joe Alves’ set design plan. Only a few would allow their shop windows to be boarded up, while a number went as far as printing t-shirts which exclaimed, ‘Universal, Go Home!’ There was also a rumour that Sheinberg would be visiting the set imminently. Pensacola couldn’t come soon enough.
Finally, and with sad inevitability given the struggles mounting, Hancock was relieved of his duties. He immediately left with Tristan and headed for Rome, and production shut down. Hancock had, to the point of dismissal, gamely forged ahead in the belief that everything in front of the camera was working out fine. Following approximately a month’s worth of shooting, a Learjet arrived on the island with Sid Sheinberg onboard. An emergency meeting was held between the Universal hierarchy and Hancock, not invited to the meeting, was unceremoniously fired despite not exchanging a single word with the Universal head, who by that time was likely halfway across the country.
It is a minor tragedy that John Hancock’s film and his vision of a community struggling to overcome severe trauma never came to pass. While replacement director Jeannot Szwarc’s wholly decent sequel is the one forever committed to celluloid, there’s a nagging feeling that, perhaps, Hancock’s Jaws 2 could have set the standard for sequels had he been afforded the opportunity to see his work through.
Some years later, David Brown would state that Hancock was ‘ill-equipped’ for such a high profile film and it is possible that the director genuinely wasn’t up to the task. Regardless, only a handful of shots from the abandoned Hancock movie still exist and Jeannot Szwarc’s name is on the credits.
The cerebral Jaws movie
Eschewing the more obvious thrills and spills of a shark attack movie was a bold, if ultimately and futile move. Hancock, via Tristan’s screenplay, wanted to tell a grittier story of a town in mourning; not just for its lost souls, but its own carefree past, with boarded-up storefronts, paint peeling from weathered, unused beachfront cottages, and a gloomy mist hanging, almost unceasingly, over its colourless streets.
Yet, it wasn’t to be an action-bereft mood piece, this was a Jaws film after all, and Hancock had a responsibility to ensure that the film horrified and entertained its audience, as well as cater to a more cerebral demographic.
Hancock was in no doubt, though, that the film should be edgier than its predecessor. At the time of his firing, Hancock’s vision was only just starting to take shape. He was particularly excited about the prospect of shooting some of the shark attack scenes. One that remained in the movie in an altered format, and shot by Jeannot Szwarc, was the water-skiing set-piece. Hancock had envisioned a more bloody and explicit scene than the one we see in the final film and would have shown the shark slowly eating two water skiers in grisly detail.
The cameras roll again
The movie-going public is now long-accustomed to films and franchises that ‘go dark’. But succeeding what is regarded as the principal summer blockbuster with a considerably more melancholic, character-driven follow-up would have been an unprecedented and bold move in the mid-1970s.
Brown and Zanuck, reeling from their mistake, and with an expensive production on hiatus and haemorrhaging money, needed a quick replacement. Despite not being a member of the Director’s Guild of America, Verna Fields was offered the director’s chair. Following a disagreement that culminated in a shoving match with the head of the DGA, Robert Aldrich, Sheinberg demurred. Production designer Joe Alves was also considered, but he too was not a DGA member.
And then there was the mooted return of Spielberg, which almost, but ultimately didn’t, happen. Sheinberg contacted Spielberg directly and asked him to consider taking the reins to save the film. Spielberg locked himself away over the Fourth of July weekend to hammer out a new script which he completed and met with Sheinberg to discuss further. On reflection, though, he realised he just couldn’t go back into the water.
The shark is still working
With time now of the essence, Universal plumped for Jeannot Szwarc, best known for ‘creature feature’ Bug (1975). The studio also managed to persuade Carl Gottlieb to rework the script to suit the new action-orientated direction the studio desired.
The result was a hugely entertaining, if workmanlike, film of spectacle over substance. It certainly does succeed in its aim of keeping the viewer engaged for the entire running time, and for the most part, the characters, especially the kids, are empathetic. Each set-piece is expertly crafted and Jaws 2 is horrific in parts, amusing in others. Though the shark is unmistakably artificial, it’s not without charm.
Jaws 2 also stands as one of the finest sequels in any genre, largely due to the return of Roy Scheider, who despite constant on-set disputes with Szwarc, seemingly channelled his energy into the performance. Most importantly, John Williams’ score compares favourably to the original, even partly surpassing it in passages, especially during the opening title theme, Finding the Orca.
Following the trauma of their brief tenure on Jaws 2, John Hancock and Dorothy Tristan moved on to other projects both on stage and screen, including Hancock directing his wife in California Dreaming (1979). A few years after the Jaws 2 debacle, in the most delicious of ironies, Hancock was asked to replace a director on a failing film, taking over from Michael Wadleigh on Wolfen (1981).
Despite Hancock’s continued professional success, the experience would have coloured his future career choices and, through no real fault of his own, he was never again given the opportunity to direct a franchise movie. Over 40 years on, and even with the benefit of passing time clouding his recollections, it’s still highly unlikely Hancock feels any affection for the three short weeks spent on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1977. Speaking about the experience several years later, he said: ‘I was caught between these huge forces like a babe in the woods and paid the price for it. Jaws 2 is a very bitter, painful experience that took years to recover from..(3)
(1) Roy Scheider – Telegraph Obituaries
(2) horrorlair.com – Jaws 2 final draft
(3) FilmInquiry – JAWS At 40: ‘DEJAW VU’
Further reading on the Jaws franchise:
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