It’s too darn hot for “Dancing in the Street!” Alternatively, summer’s here and the time is right for watchin’ sharks on TV! That’s right, “Shark Week,” the Discovery Channel’s annual programming block showcasing nature’s niftiest predators is almost upon us (starting June 26), but just a couple of weeks ago Phoenix Comicon got an “Air-Jaws” sized jump on the Selachimorpha celebration with a couple of the coolest panels ever held at PHXCC.
On the second day of this year’s convention (Friday, June 3, 2016) there were two panel discussions featuring the film Jaws, the movie that started the shark craze 41-years ago. And both events (one of which was a screening of the film with live-commentary) featured the co-writer of the movie, Carl Gottlieb, who also had a small part in the film and wrote the entertaining and definitive book on the making of the movie, The Jaws Log.
Mr. Gottlieb is an actor, author, screenwriter, and comedian (see his hilarious Jaws impression.) He wrote for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, together with Steve Martin, and he won an Emmy for the show in 1969. He also worked on The Bob Newhart Show and M*A*S*H, and, in addition to co-writing the Jaws screenplay (together with the book’s author, Peter Benchley), he also co-wrote a couple of the funniest movies ever made: Caveman and The Jerk. He jokes that all his hits begin with a “J.”
Both of the PHXCC Jaws panels were moderated by ASU Film Professor, Joe Fortunato, whose 15-year career in the entertainment industry includes work on The Today Show, Murphy Brown, and, more importantly, The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show. For the past eight years he has been a film and screenwriting professor at ASU, specializing in the study of Steven Spielberg.
The Friday afternoon “You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat: The Science of Jaws” panel also included ASU Neurobiologist, Miles Orchinik, whom studies stress and how hormones influence behavior; and Marine Biologist, Amanda Mozilo, an ASU graduate who specializes in marine ecosystems and conservation education.
Having attended hundreds of pop culture convention panels over the years, I have to say that the Science of Jaws at Phoenix Comicon is one of the best and most entertaining I’ve seen. It was well prepared; the guests were all extremely knowledgeable and affable; I learned, laughed and I fell in love, all over again, with one of the greatest movies of all time.
For the uninitiated, Jaws hit theaters in 1975 and is credited with establishing the Hollywood “summer blockbuster” model that has endured ever since. It remains one of the biggest money-making movies of all time, and has made generations of moviegoers think twice before going into the water.
Here’s what we learned about Jaws, sharks, fear and filmmaking at Phoenix Comicon 2016:
- During Jaws’ infamous “Come on down here and chum some of this (excrement)” line, the hiss noise you hear when the shark appears is actually an air hose giving way on the mechanical shark. The noise survived all of the movie’s sound-mixes. According to Amanda, “Sharks do make some kinds of sounds; however, usually they’re not in the range of hearing that we can understand.”
- The size of the Great White Shark in Jaws (25 feet) is not too far-fetched, but the studio execs originally wanted the shark to be 30 feet. Mr. Gottlieb commented that, due to the length and width ratios of a shark’s body, “It’s not going to look graceful or dangerous. It’s just going to look like a big, fat, mean fish!” Jaws’ Production Designer, Joe Alves, eventually convinced the execs that 25 feet would work just right.
Steven Spielberg used a dinosaur roar from a 1930s’ Universal movie as the dying shark sinks into the sea. He also used this same sound in his first movie, Duel, when the villainous truck goes over the cliff.
- On John Williams’ Jaws score, Mr. Gottlieb joked, “I always tell people, ‘If you hear that music, get out of the water.’” Later, in a more serious vein, he commented, “Music is a primal language. For all we know rhythm is linked to fetal heartbeat – it’s that basic in our systems – and composers have created themes that evoke surprise and shock and anxiety and happiness. All cultures have music that creates and amplifies emotion and it is great shorthand.”
- Could the events in Jaws really happen? Ms. Mozilo explained, “From a biology standpoint, a lot of the actions that the shark shows in the movie Jaws are pretty on cue with what a Great White would do in the wild. From the test bumps to just kind of nudge something, and then they’ll come back for a bite, and then come back for another bite.” But she added, “The number of people who have actually been eaten by Great Whites is disputably low; so maybe not so accurate there.”
- Why do people fear sharks? Beyond the obvious, Professor Orchinik said that people have an innate fear of animals that manifests in the amygdala area of brain (as seen in brain imaging.) He stated that spiders are very good at eliciting the fear responses, and he humorously noted that in a certain fear study “One of the control slides they showed was Steven Spielberg, and people did not react that way to Steven Spielberg.”
“Is it cosplay or is it going to kill me?”
– Carl Gottlieb, Phoenix Comicon 2016
- Carl and Miles discussed how sea creatures from the “deep, dark unknown” scare us because they are primitive, unseen and uncontrollable. Professors Fortunato and Orchinik mentioned that if we saw one of these things on the street or at Comicon it wouldn’t be as scary. To which Gottlieb joked, “Is it cosplay or is it going to kill me?”
On differentiating fear from anxiety, Professor Orchinik said, “Fear is something that is very directed towards an event or an object, and it’s typically short-lived, except for people with phobias. Whereas anxiety is a longer term process that we see when there seems to be a risk of losing a lot. Fear is more muted and really more primitive. Anxiety requires brain processing to a greater extent, and ‘how much do we have to lose’ is a component. We know there is different brain regions involved in fear versus anxiety.”
- Regarding the mechanical problems with the shark (known as ‘Bruce’) and keeping the monster hidden for much of the film, Mr. Gottlieb said, “When using the shark became problematic we made a conscious decision to show the effects of the shark, which would be just as terrifying, in fact more terrifying, because you’re not seeing explicitly what’s happening.”
- According to Ms. Mozilo, the majority of shark bites happen in waist-deep or lower water. Sharks are going to look for something that is easy to catch and most “attacks” that occur in the surf area are cases of mistaken identity.
- On Jaws’ author, Peter Benchley, and his story’s impact on our culture, Mr. Gottlieb said, “Peter was perpetually dismayed by the after-effects of the film; and he spent the last third of his life actively trying to make up to the shark population of the world for this irrational fear that had been created.” The author strived to make the world aware of the shark’s role in the environment and their importance as a predator.
- Speaking to the importance of storytelling, Mr. Gottlieb said, “All of what we as storytellers do is, basically, share narratives that enable us to thrive prosper, survive and avoid disaster. Sometimes we’re good at it and sometimes we’re not and sometimes a false narrative is extremely damaging, because if you can’t tell it’s a false narrative you give it the same weight that you give to the truth and then you make life-threatening choices based on a false narrative.”
- The Gottlieb written Jaws scene that he is most proud of is the wordless click-click-clicking of Quint’s fishing reel just before the Great White runs away with the line.
- When making Jaws, Gottlieb and the rest of the filmmakers had no idea that their work would affect pop culture the way that it has, or that he would still be speaking about it to crowds of fans over 40-years later.