Sunday, September 27, 2015

Jaws 2: The Making of the Hollywood Sequel, by Louis R. Pisano and Michael A. Smith


 I've been a fan of JAWS since I was a child. I vividly remember nagging my mother to take me to see the film when it was first released in 1975. (She wisely turned down the chance to permanently scar a four-year-old, choosing instead to let the permanent scarring occur when it first aired on TV a few years later.) Somehow, I never made the mental connection between the film that had terrified me and my frequent summer trips to the Jersey Shore, until I was bumped by a shark when I was 10, and that was all she wrote for me and the ocean. I haven't been back since, and I doubt I'd even go in a lake or river at this point. (Thanks, RIVER MONSTERS, for showing me that NO body of water is safe.) Hell, if I close my eyes for too long in the shower I can almost feel the jaws of Carcharodon Carcharias closing around me....brrr.


 My point is, I'm a mark for JAWS....the film, the novel, the toys, the score by John Williams..I love it all. I've probably seen the film over 300 times, and that's a conservative estimate. It's one of those films that I'll stop on every time I surf past it on TV, and I still pop in the Blu-Ray with alarming regularity. I've even recruited my six-year-old son Mikey, who has become a JAWS fanatic. (He bought the set of JAWS 2, 3, and THE REVENGE, for four bucks, WITH HIS OWN MONEY!!! That's my boy!) I'll watch JAWS 3 (The film formerly known as JAWS 3-D..) and JAWS: THE REVENGE whenever they're on, because they're monster movies, and I love me a good (Or in these cases, not-so-good) monster movie. As for JAWS 2....

 JAWS 2 is, in my opinion, an unfairly maligned film. Is it as good as Spielberg's film? No, but how many monster movies are? As far as sequels go, it's probably one of the better ones ever made...I watched it again this morning, after finishing reading JAWS 2: THE MAKING OF THE HOLLYWOOD SEQUEL, and it is still immensely enjoyable. The effects are great, the story is similar enough to evoke the original, yet different enough to not feel like a complete rehash, and the cast all acquit themselves admirably. Director Jeannot Szwarc had some huge shoes to fill, but he made the film his own, and he delivered some truly suspenseful moments.

 I had been vaguely aware of some kind of behind-the-scenes turmoil on JAWS 2, but never really registered any of it until I read an excellent overview of the JAWS franchise in a recent issue of HORROR HOUND magazine, penned by Michael A. Smith, co-author of this book. The article had just enough detail to whet my appetite for this book, which I learned of thanks to an ad in that same issue. Since the book was a few months away from release, I filled my time by reading JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT IT WAS SAFE: A JAWS COMPANION, by Patrick Jankiewicz, which gives a fairly complete account of the entire franchise, book, films, rip-offs, unmade sequel ideas...everything. There's also some wonderful pre-production art and storyboards from the first film.  Although JAWS 2 doesn't get a lot of space in the book, it did fill in the details on the original plans for the film, which was massively retooled after a break in production mid-filming. I looked forward to JAWS 2: THE MAKING OF THE HOLLYWOOD SEQUEL, which runs a whopping 346 pages, giving fans the full story.

 The book starts off with a pair of chapters titled  "More Jaws" and "Martha's Vineyard", which briefly (The second chapter ends at page 23...) tells the troubled story of the film: Howard Sackler's dark screenplay, which finds a financially devastated Amity Island once again under siege by a gigantic shark; Director John Hancock and his wife, who rework the script into something even darker, which is ultimately deemed unacceptable to Universal Studios, leading to yet another rewrite by JAWS screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, and the firing of Hancock, who was replaced by TV director Jeannot Szwarc. 

 As I noted, this all takes place in the first 23 pages of a 346 page book. You literally get all that you need to know, and all that the authors have, in those first 23 pages. The rest is devoted to on-set photos (Some of which are very interesting, most of which feature the backs of shirtless crew members standing on ladders.), storyboards (Very interesting), and cast and crew interviews, ad nauseum. The authors left no stone unturned, speaking to virtually every surviving member of the cast and crew, most of whom have the exact same thing to say, which is a variation of "I spent a few weeks at Martha's Vineyard, then they fired the director, and I had no idea why. We stopped filming and went home, then I was called back to Florida a month later, and we filmed  for a few months. Everyone was great, and I had a great time." It's interesting, at first, but after reading a few hundred pages of this, you realize that none of these people really have anything different to say. There are a few tidbits to be had, here and there, but the most interesting ones are never really followed up on by the authors. (Ricky Schroder was originally cast as Sean Brody, and his involvement is barely touched on, and a few interviews allude to some truly creepy behavior by the director and his wife, who had the teen-aged cast over to their rental house to have "make-out rehearsals", which consisted of the kids practicing making out while Hancock and his wife gave input and watched. A few of the interview subjects seem to hint that this incident, in particular, was what led to Hancock's dismissal, but the authors never really pick up that ball and run with it, and if they questioned Hancock about that subject, it didn't make it into the book at all.)

 In fact, I'd hesitate to call Pisano and Smith "Authors" at all...they're more like compilers,  having conducted hundreds of interviews and just laying them out there, with no real context or editing done to get to the substance of the subject matter. These people drone on and on, repeating stories that can be found, in some cases, a dozen of more times in the book. It's really a mess. I'm fanatical about filmmaking...I sometimes buy Blu-Rays just to watch the "Making of" documentaries. I eat up books like this, but I had a VERY hard time slogging through this one. There are people, Peter Biskind immediately comes to mind, who can take hundreds of hours of interviews and weave them into a spellbinding sequential  narrative about the making of a film. Pisano and Smith are not among them. They shoot their load within the first two dozen pages, and then spin their wheels for the next three hundred plus. Also, and this saddens me to say, because I'm a huge fan of BearManor Media's film books, but this one is a mess of grammatical errors. Misspellings abound, the ends of paragraphs drop off and vanish, the layout is occasionally sloppy. Towards the end of the book, the spelling errors are so egregious that I found it tougher than usual to keep going. I'm an occasional semi-professional proofreader, and...it's really not that hard to find people who can spell and form a sentence properly. This book should never have been released into the wild in this state.

 I was really looking forward to reading this, but it turned out to be one of my top two literary disappointments of 2015, alongside Clive Barker's SCARLET GOSPELS.. JAWS 2 deserved better.