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By Michael Schilf · June 28, 2011
Screenplay by: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, from the original novel by Peter Benchley
In this examination of the opening pages of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 summer blockbuster Jaws, screenwriters Benchley and Gottlieb do a masterful job delivering the 5 major rules within the first 10 script pages. In fact, they do it in 4.
Note:The following analysis comes from the final draft of the script, not from the feature film. And even though some of these early scenes were omitted from the final cut of the film, they are still instrumental in establishing tone and atmosphere for the “reader” to understand the world of the story.
WORLD OF THE STORY (Page 1-2)
The screenplay opens:
Sounds of the innerspaces rushing forward.
Then a splinter of blue light in the center of the picture. It breaks wide, showing the top and bottom a silhouetted curtain of razor sharp teeth suggesting that we are inside of a tremendous gullet, looking out at the onrushing under- sea world at night. HEAR a symphony of underwater sounds: landslide, metabolic sounds, the rare and secret noises that certain undersea species share with each other.
The visuals of the opening paragraph, highlighted by the “symphony of underwater sounds,” help to set up the atmosphere and world immediately: we’ll be experiencing the deep blue sea. And the when we see the “silhouetted curtain of razor sharp teeth” we understand, more specifically, that what lies beneath is dangerous.
This then is followed by three non-character establishing scenes all used to illustrate the location and expand the world of the story:
EXT. LIGHTHOUSE – NIGHT
Caught in its blinding flash, the light moves on, fingering the fog. A lone buoy dongs somewhere out at sea.
This scene, although brief still embodies tension and conflict. The “light” represents hope, safety, and goodness. But it’s surrounded by the “fog”, which creates an eerie atmosphere: fear of the unknown. And the “lone buoy” illustrates the isolated, single-minded, murderous beast, just out of reach. Clearly, danger is lurking underneath.
EXT. AMITY MAINSTREET – NIGHT
The quaint little resort town is quiet in the middle of the night. A ground fog rounds a corner and begins spreading toward us. It fills over sidewalks and streets like some Biblical plague.
And choice words like “quaint,” “little,” and “quiet” juxtapose the monstrous violence that will be launched upon the “resort town.” And again, the “fog” filling like a “Biblical plague” reminds us of the looming and inevitable danger, all of this creating great atmosphere.
EXT. THE SOUTH SHORE OF LONG ISLAND – NIGHT
It is a pleasant, moonlit, windless night in mid-June. We see a long straight stretch of white beach. Behind the low dunes are the dark shapes of large expensive houses. The fog that has reached Amity proper is seen only as a low-hanging cloud that is pushing in from the sea. HEAR a number of voices sing-ing. It sounds like an Eastern University's Alma Mater.
And again, “the fog” is used to symbolize the dark forces just at bay, or more accurately in the bay, that is inching closer to unexpected victims.
ANOTHER ANGLE – BEACH
A bonfire is blazing. Gathered around it are about a dozen young men and women who are merrily trading fight songs from their respective universities. Two young people break away from the circle, Chrissie almost pulling a drunk and disorderly Tom Cassidy behind her.
The scene then morphs into a few short scenes, following a visual flirtation between Chrissie and Tom.
CLOSEUP – CASSIDY
makes a clumsy try at kissing Christina but she laughs and ducks away.
ANOTHER PART OF THE BEACH
The fire, now one hundred yards in the b.g., silhouettes Chrissie running up a steep dune. Once there, she pauses to look at the ocean that we can only hear. Cassidy plods up the dune behind her, grossly out of shape.
Chrissie runs down a few steps, leaving Tom Cassidy reeling on the summit. Chrissie's dress, bra and panties fly toward Tom, who can't make a fist to catch them. The dress drapes over one half of his head. Soggily aroused, Cassidy struggles to get his shoe off.
But Chrissie is already in full flight toward the shore. In she goes, a delicate splash, surfacing in a cold ocean that is unusually placid. Chrissie pulls with her arms, drawing herself into deeper water.
No dialogue is needed as the two depart from the group, running along the dunes, with Chrissie leaving Tom behind as she dives into the water with a “delicate splash” and swims out into “deeper water.” We understand the world of Amity and the status quo of the beach life community, at least until now…
That's when we see it. A gentle bulge in the water, a ripple that passes her a dozen feet away. A wave of pressure lifts her up and eases her down again. Her face shows the beginning of fear.
This paragraph alone says it all: the bulge, the ripple, the wave. We anticipate the worst, and so does Chrissie as her face fills with fear, a fear that is the launching pad for the dramatic situation.
DRAMATIC SITUATION (Page 2)
CLOSE – CHRISSIE
Her expression freezes. The water-lump is racing for her. It bolts her upright, out of the water to her hips, then slams her hard, whipping her in an upward arc of eight feet before she is jerked down to her open mouth. Another jolt to her floating hair. One hand claws the air, fingers trying to breathe, then it, too, is sucked below in a final and terrible jerking motion. HOLD on the churning froth of a baby whirl-pool until we are sure it is over.
The ferocious attack. The savage violence. And then the calm after the storm. This is what we – and the town of Amity – are in for. And this same beat will rear its ugly head again, and again, and again.
And part of the tragedy will be the utter denial to come – shark attacks, death and destruction from the jaws of the deep blue sea not occur at resort/tourist town of Amity off the South Shore of Long Island, and certainly not over the Independence Day weekend. And this point is foreshadowed in a simple scene with Tom Cassidy back at the beach immediately after Chrissie’s death.
ANGLE – CASSIDY
in his undershorts, laughing, turning in slow stoned circles, a prisoner in his orange windbreaker that seems to have him in full Nelson. He stumbles to his knees.
The truth is that he doesn’t even know she’s gone. And he’s too drunk to care. Amity is a resort town after all: a safe place, for leisure, for fun. And this short scene is a great aftermath to juxtapose Chrissie’s death, as it not only illustrates the care-free beach community attitude of “nothing ever bad happens in Amity”, but it also foreshadows the communities ignorance and denial to come.
GENRE & THEME (Pages 1 &2)
We’re only two pages into the screenplay by this point, and not only have the screenwriters clearly set up the world of the story and the dramatic situation, but we also understand the genre: thriller.
The theme is obvious: Man vs. Nature (Beast).
So of the five major rules that must be accomplished in the first 10 pages, screenwriters Benchley and Gottlieb knock out four in two pages. Now all that’s left is to introduce the main protagonist.
CHARACTER INTRODUCTION (Page 3 & 4)
INTERIOR – MARTIN BRODY'S BEDROOM – DAWN
Giving weather bulletin: marina weather, westerly winds, light chop, etc.
A pair of bumps under the bedsheets. There is a rustling and two stockinged feet swing up and settle heavily on the floor. Follow them as the pad along from hardwood floor to bathroom tile. A light pops on and the feet arrive at a scale, board it.
INSERT – SCALE DIAL
In a blur it goes to 191. Then, as if by magic, the numbers float backward to 160.
Martin Brody at forty-two, stands rigid, lifting himself from the sink counter-top with both hands. Satisfied, he turns toward the mirror, squinting in the light, measuring himself up and down. Advancing waistline, receding hairline. Gray around the ears. Martin Brody makes another silent promise to get his act together — tomorrow.
Okay, so he’s middle-aged with a “receding hairline” and “gray around the ears” but he’s only 160 pounds, still pretty fit for a forty-something. This is important to create immediate audience connection. We can relate because, like us, Brody is not perfect.
He reaches for the sliding mirror and opens the medicine cabinet. There is a travel brochure of Arizona attached to the shelf. Brody shakes his head and removes it. He closes the mirror which now reflects his wife, Ellen Brody, pert and poised off to one side.
And before we even hit a single line of dialogue, not only do we relate to Brody’s imperfection, but also we can empathize with his situation: his wife (not so subtlety) illustrates her desire to take a trip to Arizona:
ELLEN: Martin. Aren't you tired of Maine lobster, Long Island duckling and Ispwitch clams. Just once couldn't go for a Big Mac at the bottom of the Grand Canyon this summer?
BRODY: Look at me, I'm not even awake.
ELLEN: You've had no time off in two years, Martin.
BRODY: Living here is time off.
Brody opens the shower door to turn on the water. Ellen has scotch-taped a travel folder for exotic Mazatlan, Mexico on the shower head.
And we end the scene with a repeat joke: a trip to Mexico. This illustrates a playfulness in their relationship, which makes Brody (and Ellen) both immediately likable. This is a couple we want to cheer for. But the beauty of the scene the writers still found a way to introduce conflict – not major conflicts, but conflict none the less: she wants to travel; he doesn’t. And we also get some backstory: he’s a workaholic (at least for the last two years) but he considers his work (and life) in Amity as a vacation.
A few short scenes follow: more of the husband/wife dynamic, we’re introduced to the fact that they have kids (two boys), and of course they have a dog. The Brody’s are the all-American family. How can we not like them? And then, at the end of the next scene:
The sunlight catches Brody's Police Chief badge as he slips on his shirt, and we discover why he can't go anywhere.
Brody is a husband, a father, a dog owner, and now we find out he’s also a cop. But not only his he honorable because he serves his community, most importantly, his life is ordinary and real: we can relate.
So we’ve had two pages to set up the World of the Story, Dramatic Situation, Tone, and Genre and two more to introduce the Main Character and his status quo. Only four pages in and we’ve covered the five major rules, so it only makes sense to move the story forward, connecting both our protagonist with the dramatic situation, hence… the phone call.
INTERIOR – BRODY'S KITCHEN – MORNING
Brody, ripping open a twenty-five pound bag of Kennel Ration as five hungry mutts somersault around his feet. The telephone rings, and Brody one-hands it as he attempts to sow all five doggy bowls with missed double-helpings.
BRODY: Mornin' Hendricks. What's what?
He listens, sours, and takes a breath.
BRODY: First goddamn weekend of the summer… great start! (beat) No… take him back to the beach. Maybe she washed in.
And that seals it: the resort town, the girl Chrissie, the shark attack, and now on the “First goddamn weekend of the summer” Brody is thrown in the mix. The likeable family man and law officer who serves for the greater good has no idea what he’s in for, and it’s impossible for us not to care, not to worry, not to hope he makes it through alive, while at the same time, fear that he, like Chrissie, will meet his fate to the jaws of a great white.