On June 20, 1975, the movie Jaws hit theatres - and changed the film industry forever.
The first time I saw Jaws was in the mid-1980s. My mom rented it from the public library, and I remember my older sister thought it was so scary (even at the start) that she covered her head with my mom’s chocolate brown afghan and nervously watched through the holes. It didn’t help that she had the same name as the first casualty in the film – Chrissy.
I hadn’t seen Jaws for years, but got curious about it last year when I saw memes that compared the Mayor in Jaws to the announcements certain politicians were making as they dismissed the severity of the coronavirus.
The big story of Jaws was the success of its young director, Steven Spielberg. His success with Jaws was before my time, but like Dawson, Spielberg was key to the love of film I developed in childhood. (Shout out to other fans of E.T. and The Goonies!).
And even those who’ve never seen the film know the haunting score by John Williams.
But there’s another person whose skill contributed greatly to the success of Jaws. Whose name and work is not as well known…
Allow me to introduce you to Verna Fields - and her contribution to Jaws.
When Jaws was being filmed in 1974, it was plagued with problems.
Actors showing up drunk to set. Actors fighting with each other. Weather problems that delayed shooting. The shoot was so troubled by mishaps that some crew members referred to the film as ‘Flaws.’
And the budget was blown when Spielberg purchased three life-size mechanical sharks.
And none of them worked properly. They were meant to elicit feelings of terror, but onscreen appeared more comical than menacing.
Spielberg thought his film career might be over.
But then film editor Verna Fields stepped in with a creative solution.
Instead of cutting together footage of the shark, she opted for footage without it. This created tension – and let the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks.
[Ed: You can see how the tension was created in this great scene on the beach - notice how you barely see the shark in this 4-minute clip.]
At age 56, Fields was a veteran film and sound editor when she joined Jaws, with 37 films under her belt. She was affectionately called ‘Mother Cutter’ – known for her editing skills as well as the maternal disposition she brought to the much younger directors she worked with (including Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich, and George Lucas).
Editors were originally called ‘cutters’ as the job was to literally cut film with scissors, and then glue the pieces together. Before digital editing was available, filmmakers often hired women because their smaller fingers were seen as ideal for the job.
But Verna was different from other editors at the time. She took the ‘somewhat unusual approach’ of working on location and in close collaboration with her directors. That allowed her to understand more of the story as well as the director's vision.
“Verna had been there with us all the way, sharing meals with Steven, discovering the intent of the footage he was shooting, contributing to the very construction of the story, in cinematic terms,” said Jaws screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb.
When the filming finished, Fields and Spielberg worked together in Fields’ editing suite at her San Fernando Valley home – and used their creativity to film additional footage of one of the scariest scenes in the movie. The scene where Ben Gardner’s head is discovered was actually filmed in the pool at Fields’ house. The murky feeling of the Atlantic Ocean was created by adding milk to the pool.
Fields’ work on Jaws shows the power of editing – and creative thinking.
Jaws went on to break box office records in 1975, and Fields was recognized with an Academy Award for her editing. Within a year after the film’s release, she was offered an executive creative consultancy role at Universal Pictures, which she held until her death in 1982.
BONUS FUN FACT: Even if you’ve never seen Jaws, you may know this famous line:
Here’s the interesting backstory on it.
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