Posted on April 29th, 2009 in At the cinema, screenwriting | No Comments »
When Reservoir Dogs was first shown on British television, it was accompanied by a very thorough and thoughtful documentary made for Channel 4. Among the interviewees was the redoubtable Robert McKee who opined that Tarantino had written and directed the perfect first film to the template that he often recommends to first-time directors. Take six actors, put ‘em in a house, and chop ‘em up. Cheap, exciting, quick and easy to shoot.
Many others have followed this template since. A few examples which spring immediately to mind are Cube, Severance, Cabin Fever and Evil Dead. But the template is no guarantee of success. It’s also not surprising that Dogs is rarely thought of in this category – although it certainly belongs – because there is so much else going on which elevates and enhances it. Any number of direct-to-DVD schlock quickies fit the template perfectly and next-to-none are actually worth watching.
One film which is often thought of as being a superior entry in this canon, I don’t think belongs, and that’s Jaws. Yes, Jaws is a wildlife slasher movie, yes Jaws heralded a new way for Hollywood to make money, being one of the first megablockbusters and one of the first movies to make a feature of hacking up pretty young actors in order to make the audience jump, but Jaws is richer, deeper and better constructed than all the others in the chop-em-up mould, and that’s because it’s following a different template entirely.
Consider the basic pattern of the chop-em-up movie. Assemble a small cast of characters. Trap them in a single location. Reveal enough about their personal lives to interest us. When the movie needs a lift, have one of them savagely killed. Repeat until only the most noble remain and escape, or if your worldview is bleaker, until none remain. And it’s true that Jaws does all of those things – but only after it’s done the opposite.
Small cast. Jaws has a very big cast. Apart from the central trio of Brody, Hooper and Quint – about whom more shortly – Brody has a wife and young son and a deputy. Brody is initially pitted against the town mayor who wants to keep the beaches open. Then we have Mrs Kintner who opens the bounty on the shark. Then there’s the mayor’s deputy. Then there’s Quint’s assistant Salvatore, the anglers who catch the tiger shark briefly thought to be responsible, and any number of townsfolk. You know what these supporting characters all have in common? None of them ends up as sharkfood. There’s a good reason why in the traditional chop-em-up movie, we have to learn about these characters and spend some time with them. It’s so we have a reason to care. We’ll happily watch any number of anonymous ninjas or security guards get gunned down in any James Bond film you care to mention, but when Diana Rigg gets a bullet in the forehead, most of the men in the room suddenly have something in their eye.
In Jaws, it’s totally different. None of the shark’s victims are proper characters in their own right. They are introduced only minutes before they end up as fishfood, are lucky to be given first names, and never have more than the most perfunctory dialogue – with the sole exception, of course, of Quint. So what the hell are writers Peter Benchley and Carl Gottleib playing at here? The answer is that the various shark attacks are not about raising the stakes for the remaining survivors or keeping the audience on edge because suddenly anybody is vulnerable. It’s simply establishing that this shark is a motherfucker. And that it’s still here.
Part of the reason for this is that a shark is lousy antagonist, compared to a boobytrapped prison, a demonic force or a mad axe-murderer. Don’t want to get eaten by a shark? No problem! Just don’t go for a swim. As long as you are on dry land it can’t get you. We like our heroes to smart and good at their jobs, so there’s no way they are going to voluntarily wade out into the shark-infested ocean, except as a last resort (and we don’t want to get them stuck out there by mistake, since that makes them doofuses). That’s why it takes so long for the movie to zero down to one location - which it eventually does, Quint’s boat.
So what is going on in the early stages of Jaws? Let’s work backwards. Jaws ends up where most movies of this kind begin – with three characters stuck in a boat with a fish to kill. A slasher movie would have seven characters and kill them off one by one. In fact, if you prefer to see that movie, you can – it’s called Deep Blue Sea. So the job of the first three quarters of that movie is to get them in the boat. But because that needs to take the first eighty or so minutes of the movie, it also can’t be easy. So each of them has a reason for not being in that boat. And now the structure of the film starts to reveal itself.
PROLOGUE: Shark. This is simply the initial shark attack on the skinny-dippers.
ACT ONE: Brody, Hooper, Quint. Each of these three star parts is given a wonderful entrance, strong contrasting attitudes to play, and each has their own interest in the shark. Brody, the police chief who’s afraid of the water (a hokey idea, delivered with subtlety and grace) is ultra-cautious. Hooper, the icthyologist, has been tracking the shark for months. Quint, the bounty hunter, will kill it if the price is right. Brody has the will, Hooper has the intellect and Quint has the brawn. Between them they could kill this motherfucker.
ACT TWO: Keep them off the boat. Brody won’t go, he’s afraid of the water and a useless sailor. Hooper has no standing in the town. Quint’s asking price is too high and by now the water is teeming with other fishermen.
ACT THREE: Get them on the boat. Brody has to step into the breach when Quint’s assistant refuses to go. Hooper wants to go, and when Brody is proven right and the mayor proven wrong, Brody has enough power to bring him along.
Now pretty much all anyone remembers is ACT FOUR – “On the boat”. They remember the USS Indianapolis, they remember “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”, they remember Quint’s gory death and they remember “Smile, you sonofabitch” – all of which is a really terrific thirty minute chop-em-up movie. But by reducing the number of characters from seven to three, and giving them goals to persue that we care about, attitudes we relate to, quotable dialogue (Dreyfuss is just brilliant as he performs his autopsy on the first victim, hammering out without pausing for breath “The torso has been severed in mid-thorax. There are no major organs remaining. May I have a glass of water, please?”) once we get to the three-men-in-a-boat-with-a-fish-to-kill stage, we really care about the outcome. Because for much of it’s length, Jaws is not a slasher film, it’s a character piece.
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