Designing Jaws–Production designer Joe Alves reveals concept art and more in new look at the 1970s blockbuster

Review by C.J. Bunce

As movies go, few successes were as unlikely as Steven Spielberg’s Jaws It was a film that from its inception never seemed like anyone knew how to get their arms around the project.  Spielberg’s driving force was refusing to film in a tank as seen in the Spencer Tracy clunky version of The Old Man and the Sea.  It was to be the real ocean or nothing.  And there never was any alternative to building a full-sized shark.  Art director-turned production designer Joe Alves partnered with Spielberg, and it was his first instinct to render his charcoal concept drawings explicitly to show the violent shark attack scenes, all for a set of pitch materials to help sell the idea of the film to the studios.  These drawings by Alves, his storyboards, his location scouting notes, and his pages of production outlines are now reproduced for the first time in Joe Alves: Designing Jaws, a new look at cinema’s original blockbuster.

A lot has happened since Jaws.  Would Paul Allen have taken on searching for and discovering the sunken USS Indianapolis but for the film sharing the sailors’ story?  Nearly 45 years later it seems impossible that a new book could be written about the adaptation of Peter Benchley’s 1974 hyped novel Jaws (reviewed here), which was (incredibly) being published at the same time the film was being made.  The definitive book for years about the making of the film has been (and remains) screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s insightful work The Jaws Log (reviewed here), but we’ve since seen periodic looks back at the production, as in Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard (reviewed here).  No doubt if there’s something more to learn about Jaws, the film’s fans (including me) are going to get our hands on it.  Access to something like Joe Alves’s personal archive of artwork and production notes is as surprising and rare as it gets, so Joe Alves: Designing Jaws is going to be a no-brainer for movie buffs to add to their bookshelves.

Jaws was by no means Alves’s first film.  He began in the cinema creating special effects for Forbidden Planet, and later Night Gallery, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and after Jaws he’d design films like Escape from New York, Freejack, and Geronimo: An American Legend.  Somehow all the competing ideas for Jaws would come together, and Alves would be best known for his work on the film.  His charcoal concept art illustrates how removed from the final vision the creators of Jaws began with, beginning with an assumption that Spielberg would actually be showing the shark a lot.  As readers will learn in this book, the film we know only came together in the editing room.

Spielberg ultimately would use few if any of Alves concept art ideas, opting to pull back on the visual horror and let the audience fear fill in the blanks, but the shark itself, the locations, the sets, the colors, Quint’s shack, and many of the storyboards came from Alves’s many contributions to the film.

Alves didn’t have much to work with–he had no script for the film, but he had a galley for the novel, which wouldn’t be published for several months.  Readers will find dozens of pages of storyboards created by Alves in Joe Alves: Designing Jaws.  The designs for the shark seem completely crazy–and the model building, implemented by others, resulted in disasters and delays.  Why did it work?  The takeaway seems to be that the players involved behind the scenes were all professionals with a job to do, and that job included solving problems and meeting deadlines.  Although missing deadlines became unavoidable, the film classic that resulted seems to even surprise Spielberg in interviews years later.

Here are some layouts from inside the book:

It’s a quality work, created and compiled by Dennis Prince, a showcase of artifacts from the art director and production designer of one of America’s biggest films.  Film students who want to dig into the nuts and bolts of one of cinema’s most trying productions, and fans of the film won’t want to miss it.  Joe Alves: Designing Jaws is available now here at Amazon, from Titan Books.

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