I adore coffee table books! I had to say that and preface why Jaws: Memories From Martha’s Vineyard is both the best and most diverse of the coffee table books out there. I know friends like to display their books and show how snooty they are (I’m generalizing) but I’d be happy to put this on my table and find someone fascinated by the photos and story enough to sit on my couch and read it and ultimately save me from having to entertain them. Author Matt Taylor makes this second edition of the book a beautiful read and journey filled to the gills (pun totally intended) with information and photos I’d never seen before, all wrapped up in a sense of community and 1970s innocence you can’t get anymore. The story of a small town terrorized by a shark is told through the eyes of the small town infiltrated by Hollywood. This is a book worth picking up and displaying proudly!
Jaws: Memories From Martha’s Vineyard follows the inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard as they lived under the shadow of Steven Spielberg and a giant shark terrorizing their waters. The book follows the filming from the arrival of the film crew to the film’s première on the small island and showcases the local residents who appeared in the film, helped with the production, or simply saw it being filmed. Throughout it all the book shows how the residents of Martha’s Vineyard came to love and hate Jaws, and ultimately showcasing how they all helped make it the success it was!
Like the majority of film fans I’ve seen Jaws and I felt proud being able to see the segment of the Universal backlot tour devoted to it, but all that pales in comparison to the residents of Martha’s Vineyard who lived through the filming of it. The book itself is an expert blend of the anecdotal and the technical, combining funny stories of malfunctioning sharks or capricious kids trying to get into the scenes, with the technical stories of the various systems that created (and caused trouble) the mechanical menace himself. I knew that Martha’s Vineyard was put on the map by Jaws, I just didn’t know how much. Not only does the book showcase the numerous local residents who appeared in the film (such as the young boys who played Chief Brody’s sons) but also goes into detail on how several of those residents went behind the camera to make movie history.
Memories From Martha’s Vineyard isn’t interested in retelling the making-of the film so you won’t see interviews from Spielberg or the actors involved. Instead the book shows the film from the resident’s perspective and the crew behind the scenes. You get the sense that shooting in a small town wasn’t necessarily easier as the studio came up against the Martha’s Vineyard zoning board but thankfully gained helped from local residents (all of which is documented in telegrams and other notes that are copied into the book). Sure the book follows the filming, telling events in a chronological order by filming dates, but it also has sections devoted to specific residents who were vital to the completion of the film like fisherman Donald Poole who played the Amity harbor master or Herschel West who was Quint’s first mate. Each person, both big and small, young and old, have their own insert in the book amongst all the memorabilia and pictures of the filming. There’s also fun anecdotes detailing what some of these people were famous for on the island, such as selectman Phil Dube, known for crafting the brick sidewalks within the town. Interestingly I want a book published on resident Craig Kingsbury. He’s one of the inspirations for Robert Shaw’s portrayal of Quint and boy is his life fascinating in this book. The highlights of his life include being bitten by a black widow and being hit by lightning three separate times and surviving!
The overarching theme of the book is in showcasing the simplicity of not only small-town life on Martha’s Vineyard, but filming in the 1970s. Numerous people interviewed mentioning finding solitude within Martha’s Vineyard or finding new careers through chance encounters with people associated with Jaws. Case in point is the story of Marty Milner who was struggling financially before lying his way into a job pre-fabricating sets on the film. You see the fun and innocence of this community within the pages as those who were children at the time recall being allowed to play around the props or just be able to hang out on the film set and know the film crew would watch out for them. Spielberg himself was known to bond and hang out with the area’s children. There’s also reproductions of the town’s newspaper and the articles that were published during filming all providing local color and acting as a diary of events. Numerous locals praise the film for putting Martha’s Vineyard on the map (before Jaws it was famous for Ted Kennedy‘s infamous Chappaquiddick incident) and turning it into a tourist attraction during the off-season.
Simplicity extends all the way towards the technology of the time too. The 1970s were obviously pre-CGI so even the simplest tasks had to be achieved manually. Included in the book are photos of the sweeping away footprints on the beach to preserve continuity (it didn’t help as changing weather kept making the sea and surf change). The technical side is explored in showcasing the various techniques used on the shark which were unseen at the time such as giving the mechanical shark two different sets of teeth depending on the item it was biting, the eyes having their own separate controls, and the skin being sprayed with rubberized paint mixed with walnut shells and silica. There’s a ton of photos of the shark, both full-length and various close-ups to allow you to see how these details paid off. A few shots of the shark from far away are terrifying and people who were in the water with the shark said they were aware it was fake but they still were frightened to see it coming at them. The construction photos of the shark in various stages of development (complete with early sketches by Joe Alves) are beautiful to look at in the full pages of this book!
From the beginning director Steven Spielberg wanted as many local actors as he could get, feeling it “added a layer of small-town authenticity to the movie that we never could have gotten with trained actors or extras” says Shari Rhodes (183). It is this small-town atmosphere that truly permeates this chronicle of the making of the film as all the people interviewed are truly humbled to have been a part of such a momentous occasion. Many of the interviewees say they’d have worked for free and had no idea that the film would be as big as it was. Several of them are quoted saying they’d had seen such a big-city atmosphere permeate their town (the majority had moved to Martha’s Vineyard to get away from the city in the first place).
With the benefits of hindsight the sweetest stories have to involve director Steven Spielberg. All the residents cite how personable he was, none of them knew what a big shot he’d be (I’m jealous of the ones who scored autographs) and in many ways its apparent Spielberg himself was a kid in a candy store. The book includes candid photos of Spielberg and it’s obvious he’s having fun including riding the mechanical shark at one point, thank goodness there’s a photo of that. The various photos of him show him not looking like a director at all, complete with long hair and wearing shorts and yet those interviewed said he knew when to get serious during filming.
There’s also several fun stories involving the main players of the film such as Roy Scheider sun tanning throughout filming. Robert Shaw has the most stories told about him. Shaw truly came to reflect the old sailors he hung out with and his mannerisms and vocal patterns reflect that in the finished work. It’s a well-known fact that Shaw loved booze and who doesn’t love a story about Shaw drinking at 4:30 in the morning and still able to deliver his lines! Richard Dreyfuss has one story told about him. It involves his inability to pronounce the scientific name of the shark and having to glance off-screen to a blackboard with the name spelled out phonetically which you can see in the film. There’s even photos of the cast playing baseball with the island residents!
The book is quite literally covered with information, not one area of blank space is seen. It’s filled with text and pictures to show you things that ended up in the film or ended up on the cutting room floor. Several people still have souvenirs from filming like Jaws production t-shirts (I want one) and other souvenirs. I’m only touching the surface of this book (I’m done with the puns I promise) but for the price you get a lot of information. The book is beautiful, sturdy and opens with a map of Martha’s Vineyard to orient the reader. Within the 310 pages you’ll learn about the island itself, the film, it’s residents, and how difficult that damn shark was to work with. Jaws: Memories From Martha’s Vineyard is a lovely book about a time gone by, a sleepy little town, and a terrible shark that turned into a blockbuster success!
Thanks to Titan Books for sending me a copy of this gorgeous book (now I need to buy a coffee table).
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.