J. Michael Roddy was only six years old in the summer of 1975, but like the rest of the country, he developed shark fever after seeing Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. “There are two things that are really cool to a six year old boy, and that’s dinosaurs and sharks,” says Roddy. “I begged my parents to let me see Jaws, and it was the first time I remember being completely lost in a film. It changed my life.”
Roddy isn’t alone. Jaws changed a lot of people’s lives, beginning with the then 28-year-old Spielberg himself. But in The Shark is Still Working, the splendid Jaws documentary that Roddy produced that’s a bonus on the remastered Blu-ray version of the film available next week, a generation of filmmakers who shared Roddy’s fascination — including Kevin Smith, M. Night Shyamalan, and Bryan Singer — delight in the nerdy details and lasting legacy of Hollywood’s first summer blockbuster. “The intensity of the passion is what surprised me,” says Roddy. “Because it made us feel like, ‘Okay we’re not crazy. Everyone loves that film.’”
The documentary grew out of JawsFest, the 30-year anniversary celebration on Martha’s Vineyard that Roddy helped create in 2005. (JawsFest 2012 begins tomorrow and runs through Sunday.) “I met all these people that lived on Martha’s Vineyard that were in Jaws whose stories had never been told so I started out interviewing them,” says Roddy, who crafted some of the amazing Universal Orlando live-shows and once played a Ghostbuster at the theme park. The Shark is Still Working is peppered with Amity flavor, like the story of Lee Fierro, the local actress who played the grieving Mrs. Kintner, who has been asked by thousands of fans to slap them in the face, just like her character struck Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody.
As it turned out, Scheider had remained close to many of the island’s residents and once they got to know Roddy and trust his team’s intentions, they helpfully pointed them in Scheider’s direction. “Roy was an amazingly generous man,” said Roddy. “He said, ‘What do you need?’ and that opened a lot of doors for us. Then we said, Let’s shoot for the stars. Let’s really make this as exhaustive as possible. Let’s track down the stories that we haven’t heard. We’re doing this for the fans, by the fans. We wanted to make the documentary we always wanted to see. So no stone was left unturned.”
That ultimately included wonderful sit-downs with Richard Dreyfuss, John Williams, the late David Brown and Richard Zanuck, the last interview with Peter Benchley before he passed away, and, yes, Spielberg. “We had heard at that point that Steven didn’t like to talk about Jaws because it had been a very hard time for him,” says Roddy. “We said we don’t want him to relive the production of Jaws; we wanted his commentary on how this film changed culture and how it was the first film where you started to see the Steven Spielberg style that continued through E.T. and Jurassic Park.”
Spielberg agreed, and proved especially candid about the hold Jaws still has on his own dreams and nightmares. The Oscar-winner confirmed the old rumor that he would occasionally sneak away from work to catch a few quiet moments alone on the Orca that was moored on the Universal backlot — before it was chopped up for scrap wood — and reflected on the film’s crucial role in establishing his career.
All they needed was a narrator, and Roddy and his fellow producers had some great voices in mind. They checked in with Scheider, who was sick with cancer, and asked his opinion about a few names they were bouncing back and forth. “And he was like, ‘Well, what about me?’ And it clicked,” says Roddy. “Here’s the man that was our gateway. He’s our Everyman. We took his journey on Jaws. Why not let him take us on this journey on the impact and legacy of Jaws?”
Just four months after recording the narration, Scheider lost his battle with myeloma in February 2008.
The Shark is Still Working premiered at the Los Angeles United Film Festival in May 2009 — an exhaustive version that ran more than three hours. Based in part on the feedback of their Jaws insiders, the filmmakers trimmed it down to a tight 100 minutes. “What you have now on the Blu-ray is the definitive,” said Roddy. “This has never been seen before. Now that Universal has given it a home, we love the fact that we’re part of the mythology. We’re part of Jaws.”