Interview: Jim Beller & Matt Taylor on ‘JAWS: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard’

JAWS, the blockbuster film based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, turns 36 this year. This is a movie that was made way before the advent of digital filmmaking, CGI, and other tools that would have no doubt made Steven Spielberg’s life easier at the time – but probably would have made for a far less interesting end result. The difficulties Spielberg encountered in making JAWS (uncooperative ocean, uncooperative mechanical shark), and, most importantly, the way he responded to those difficulties, helped him craft an adventure story that still resonates with audiences more than three decades later.

Photo copyright 1974 Edith Blake

Jim Beller and Matt Taylor are just two of the millions of fans who have a special place in their heart for Brody, Quint, Hooper and Bruce the Shark, and – lucky for the rest of us – they’ve poured that appreciation and love into a unique look back at the making of the movie. JAWS: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard is a behind-the-scenes book told from the perspective of the islanders who suddenly found themselves in the midst of a huge Hollywood production. At nearly 300 pages stuffed with over 1,000 photographs taken by locals given nearly free reign to observe (and, in many cases, become part of) the action, plus story after story told by locals who became integral parts of the production, it’s a completely different take on the making of a legendary film.

As the book’s June 20 release date draws near, Beller and Taylor took the time to answer a few questions about pulling this massive project together.

OC: What’s your earliest JAWS memory?   

JIM BELLER: I was a big monster film nut when I was nine and I remember it was the last day of school in 1975 and was waiting for the bell to ring to let us out for the summer. I went up to my teacher’s desk and saw a copy of the Time magazine with the “Super Shark” JAWS painting on the cover and asked her what that was. She told me that it was a movie about a “monster shark eating people while at the beach.” Well that was it. I ran home when school got out and begged my parents to go see it. My mom told me that she was going to see it that night with my dad and she would see. The next weekend she took my friends and me to see it in Boston and I’ve been an avid JAWS fan and collector ever since.

MATT TAYLOR:  I was only two years old when the movie was shot in 1974, but was on the island. I have these really hazy mental images that can barely be considered actual memories, but are there nevertheless, of family members talking about JAWS, or simply, “the movie.”  I saw it for the first time in 1979, at the Capawock Theater in Vineyard Haven, which was its final theatrical run before being aired on network television later that fall. I was absolutely mesmerized. For me, being just seven years old, the movie played almost like a documentary because I recognized so many of the faces in the movie from around town, and of course, swam daily at all of the beaches you see in the movie. It was funny because the studio actually left the Orca II on the island when they wrapped in the fall of ’74, and there it sat on the beach at Menemsha. I saw it nearly everyday as a kid. Most people when they’d come to Martha’s Vineyard would say, “Oh, look! There’s the boat from Jaws!” For me, when I saw the movie for the first time, it was, “Oh, look! There’s the boat from Menemsha!” I can remember my little seven-year-old legs kicking involuntarily at the seat in front of me during the scene where Quint is sliding into the mouth of the shark.

How did you two conceive this project, and how long you have been working on it? 

JB: My original concept was for a coffee table book that showed the making of JAWS only in photos which were taken from a couple of locals on Martha’s Vineyard, and then to have a foreword and epilogue. That’s it. Shortly after making trips to the island to gather these photos, I was looking for a writer and was introduced to Matt Taylor. He told me that he knew a number of people who were involved in the production and thought that it would be interesting to get some new stories from them along with their photos. I thought that Matt’s idea for a bigger, more comprehensive book was great, and so my original concept went right out the window. Once Matt jumped in, the book snowballed with more photos and stories from locals and the book became bigger and better than I could ever have imagined.  

Is it safe to say the locals at Martha’s Vineyard had unprecedented access to the making of a big studio movie? Can you see any movie allowing that kind of access now?

Photo copyright 1974 Andy Fligor

JB: Yes, they really did, and that really wouldn’t happen again to the same extent. I think that a lot of that had to do with the crew wanting to be nice to the locals so they wouldn’t have any more trouble with zoning laws, or raising the prices for supplies that they needed to buy locally (laughs). Seriously though, I heard from a number of locals that the crew was fantastic and let them come right up as close and take as many photos as they wanted, just so long as they didn’t get in the way. But as soon as the crew began shooting, the locals with the cameras had to stop because all of the clicking would have ruined the shots!

How important was Martha’s Vineyard – both as a location and as a group of people – to the success of JAWS?

JB: It was very important. As Joe Alves, who found the island while scouting the east coast for locations, has said, “The Vineyard was just perfect—there was such order with the clam-shelled driveways and white picket fences. It was the perfect place for a shark to come in and destroy.”

Why do you think the movie continues to resonate with fans old and new today?

JB: Well, I always say that it’s a film that has everything. It has great drama, suspense, horror, action, comedy, and a soundtrack that no one can ever forget. Plus, there is always the possibility that the events of the story could actually happen. It’s not outside of the realm of possibility. I still don’t go swimming deep in the ocean. I don’t like not knowing what’s swimming beneath me.  

Why do you think movies that try to imitate that formula – including the JAWS sequels – continue to fall flat?

MT: Well, first, as far as JAWS sequels, you can only use the same, basic storyline so many times—once, really—before it fails to resonate with audiences. I mean, how much can people maintain their suspension of disbelief?  Second, I firmly believe that despite all of the ingredients that went into creating JAWS, and all of the hard work of so many wonderfully talented people, it was the vision, and natural born talent of Steven Spielberg that made that movie what it was. Without his artistry, and just raw, gut feeling about how to tell that story, we’d essentially have had Deep Blue Sea twenty years earlier. That’s not to say Deep Blue Sea is a bad movie—it just doesn’t have that magical quality that JAWS has. JAWS without Spielberg would have been like the 1980s Boston Celtics without Larry Bird, or the Beatles without McCartney.   

Were there things you wanted for the book that you were unable to get? Were there things you wanted to include but ran out of room for?

MT: Yes—I had to trim somewhere around fifty pages from an early draft just to get the book down to a manageable and affordable print size. I’d love to one day publish an expanded edition, as there are many more stories I’d like to include. The stuff that was cut had a lot to do with the shark being damaged on set out in Cow Bay, and focused a lot on how they’d repair it on a daily basis. Lots of technical, nitty-gritty-type stuff with Roy Arbogast, and how, exactly, the shark was damaged—coming up with various combination of chemicals to make the skin look more realistic.

Some of that stuff survived the final edit, but at the end of the day, our book is mainly about the Vineyard people involved with the production. I tried to use the material from the Hollywood contingent only when we didn’t have local stories. Lynn and Susan Murphy were two locals heavily involved with operating the sea sled shark—the one that was towed behind Lynn’s boat, and so in keeping with the book’s local flavor, I decided, in the end, to focus more on their stories about the sea sled shark because they tied in with the whole local angle. And, there are just as many great sea sled shark stories as there are ones about the platform shark.    

How easy was it to get people to come forward with stories and photos for the book?

Photo copyright 1974 Jackie Baer

MT: In some cases it was very easy, and in others it was a complete nightmare. People who have lived on Martha’s Vineyard for a long time tend to become very set in their ways—ways that are generally not in sync with the ways of the mainland as far as schedules and meeting deadlines. In some ways, the island is almost too laid back. And so getting many of the book’s participants to show up for their interview, or to find a photo—things that could have been done in an hour—in many instances, took months. I interviewed around 120 people, though, and so that was not the case with everybody. People like Lynn and Susan Murphy and Joe Alves were just great. They made the book.

Is the filming of JAWS looked back on as a positive experience by the people of Martha’s Vineyard?

JB: It all depends on who you talk too. There are some locals who loved it, like the business people, and the ones who landed roles in the movie, and there are some who loathed it because there were these big studio trucks blocking their streets and they had to deal with listening to saws & hammers in the middle of the night while building the ORCA or fixing the sharks.

You touched on your choice to limit stories from the professionals involved with the movie – was that in keeping with a specific tone you wanted for the book?

JB: We really didn’t involve many of the Hollywood crew in this book because that story has been told already a number of times through various books, magazine articles and documentaries over the years. Matt wanted to focus on stories that hadn’t been told before. But the handful of Hollywood participants that we did involve were fantastic, and shared all kinds of new stories and photos that JAWS fans are going to love.

MT: I wanted the book to feel local—a “Hollywood comes to Mayberry” type feel. The more Hollywood names we involved, the more we’d lose that “hometown” feel. I think we have a good blend. The book is mostly told through the perspective of the local islanders who were involved. The Hollywood personnel I interviewed were the ones who worked most closely with the locals involved with the production. Joe Alves worked a lot with local artisans. Bill Gilmore worked tirelessly in helping to clear up zoning issues with the selectmen, and of course Carl Gottlieb spent considerable time absorbing local color and characters into the script. Shari Rhodes, who was the location casting director, was fantastic. I was really upset to learn of her passing last year. I got to know her quite well during production of the book, and she contributed tons of great material. She coordinated all of the locals who appeared in the movie.

What’s the response to the book been so far?

JB: It’s been incredible. It’s great to finally hear people’s reactions to the book. As a JAWS fan who has read and seen mostly everything that has been out there on the making of this film, I can honestly say that Matt Taylor has done something that no one has done before, in digging down deep into the Vineyard community and dredging up these old stories that were at risk of being forever lost. JAWS fans are really going to be blown away by what they read and see in this book.

Have you come across things about JAWS in putting this book together that surprised you? 

MT: The order in which a lot of the scenes were shot. That is something our book offers that no one else has ever recorded—the production in chronological order from beginning to end. Also, the degree to which Lynn Murphy, a local mechanic who worked on the movie, influenced Robert Shaw in his portrayal of Quint. People always thought it was just a local guy named Craig Kingsbury. But it was Lynn, too. Perhaps just as much so.

Will you be doing anything special for the book’s release? A launch party in Martha’s Vineyard, perhaps?

'JAWS: Memories from Martha's Vineyard' will be released on June 20th by Moonrise Media.

JB: Yes, on July 2nd there will be a Book Launch and Signing in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. Joe Alves, the production designer will be there to do his “Making Of JAWS” lecture, and there will also be a locally produced, narrated slideshow called “Inside JAWS” that hasn’t been seen since the ’80s. Plus, there will be many locals who were either in the film or on the crew in 1974, who will be signing the book. We’re working on getting the entire local cast and crew reunited for the book signing. You can go to  mvmuseum.org  for more information on the event.

JAWS: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard is scheduled to start shipping on June 20th. You can preorder it now at the book’s official website, where it’s available in two editions: a $59.95 paperback and a limited, $250 “Collector’s Edition” hardcover that comes with an actual piece of the Orca  II and a DVD containing behind-the-scenes footage shot by Martha’s Vineyard resident Carol Fligor.

I’d like to give a special “thank you” to the good folks at Moonrise Media for providing the pictures that I’ve run with this interview. I’d also like to point you in the direction of an excellent interview with Steven Spielberg over at Ain’t It Cool News conducted by JAWS superfan “Quint.” If you’re like me, and you can’t get enough of JAWS, there are some great tidbits in there, including some long-awaited news about the upcoming Blu-ray edition of the film.

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4 thoughts on “Interview: Jim Beller & Matt Taylor on ‘JAWS: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard’

  1. Pingback: October Country: Interview with Jim Beller & Matt Taylor | JAWS: Memories From Martha's Vineyard

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  3. Pingback: Review: ‘Jaws 2: The Making of the Hollywood Sequel’ by Louis R. Pisano and Michael A. Smith | Cemetery Dance Online: Horror News, Fiction, Reviews, Interviews, and more!

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