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Jaws and seasickness

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Operating on Jaws
Michael Chapman Film-maker
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When I finished [The]White Dawn in the fall or winter of '73, I guess, I came back and bummed around and did a commercial or two on this and that, and there wasn't a lot of work in the East at that time, and then in the spring of 1974 I heard that the Hollywood people were going to come and make this big movie, Jaws, from... from what had been a best... big bestseller which I had not read, but I knew... obviously knew what everyone knew about it, and the Director of Photography of the movie Jaws was a guy name Bill Butler, who had, years before, made a movie for Phil Kaufman, who directed White Dawn. So I called Phil and I said, 'Would you call Bill Butler and tell him that I'm a good operator', because I had operated as well as White Dawn, and he did, and Bill came to the East and we met and talked and he hired me, and I was the operator for Jaws, which I knew very little about. I mean, I knew that it was a bestseller, and I knew it was being directed by this hot young director named Steven Spielberg, whom I knew nothing about. I think maybe I'd seen [The] Sugarland Express – I can't remember whether I had or not... I guess I had – and I knew he was a sort of... vaguely I knew he was a sort of wunderkind, but I didn't know much about him. And so I... and also I had never been to the Vineyard... maybe I'd been there on a commercial... I think I perhaps had never been there, because I'd always... in the summer, since my father was a teacher and had the summers off, we'd always gone to the coast of Maine, where we had a little cabin, you know, near a little fishing village, and where... I mean, my father's family had come from Maine, and so we'd always gone there and we'd always looked down on Cape Cod and the islands as sort of effete Southerners. But when I got to Martha's Vineyard, once it warmed up... it was kind of cold in April, and... can I do this... is this... breaks continuity? It doesn't. That's alright. I realized it was really quite... quite lovely and the water was much warmer than Maine and you could actually swim in it without agonizing and it was very user friendly.

So I had a wonderful time, and I wish I could say that we knew that it was going to be this incredible blockbuster, which changed the way movies were made and the history of movies, or anything. I don't think we did – in fact, there was a sort of air of... not panic, but anxiety around because everything was taking much longer than it was supposed to take, and the shark... we didn't even get to the shark until well into July, because things took longer, and also because the shark... they could never get the shark to work and to show up. They finally did and we made... made some tests and we began to shoot with the shark and the shark would break down and... and have to fix it and it was all done by compressed air going 'psshhh' , pushing these valves and things back and forth, so you could hear the shark coming but that was the joke, you didn't have to be afraid of that shark, you could hear it coming a mile away, because you were 'pshhh, pshhh', and it was... kept breaking down, or it kept... and they would have to fix it and then when they would get another take and it would break down again, and the people back at Universal were getting more and more nervous, and we had booked rooms in hotels up to a certain time, based on an utterly unrealistic schedule, I guess, and then they had to kick us out of all the hotels, because they'd been booked for, you know, years in advance by Boston Brahmans and this and that, so they just gave us money and said, 'Go find places to live', and we found little hovels here and there, and little bungalows and things. And it went on and on and on and on, and then all sorts of people showed up and... with sailboats and things, and we'd be screaming, 'Get out of our ocean', and... but it was great fun; it was great, great fun. And once they... once they left the... the dock for the final hunt – the three of them, to hunt the shark – we were out on the ocean for... really a couple of months and everything or pretty much everything is handheld by then, so that I had a wonderful time; I had a wonderful time. I... I went back to just plain operating, you know, which was that... just is... just a joy if you do it right, and I was pretty good... as I said, really quite good.

Michael Chapman, an American cinematographer, has had a huge influence on contemporary film-making, working on an impressive array of classic films including 'Taxi Driver', 'Raging Bull', 'The Lost Boys' and 'The Fugitive'.

Listeners: Glen Ade Brown

British Director of Photography and Camera Operator Glen Ade Brown settled in Los Angeles 10 years ago.

He has been working on features, commercials and reality TV. He played an instrumental role in the award-winning ABC Family series "Switched" and is also a recipient of the Telly and the Cine Golden Eagle awards for Best Cinematography. He was recently signed by the Judy Marks Agency and is now listed in her commercial roster.

Tags: 1974, Jaws, The White Dawn, The Sugarland Express, Maine, Philip Kaufman, Bill Butler, Steven Spielberg

Duration: 4 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008