6 October 2021
The Shark Is Broken: Jaws feud was ‘legendary’
A new play about the famously troubled production of Jaws attracted a sea of five-star reviews when it premiered in Edinburgh in 2019. The response made one thing clear to the producers: we’re going to need a bigger theatre.
The Shark Is Broken, which is about to transfer to London’s West End, offers a glimpse at the strained relationship between the three stars of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film.
Jaws was notoriously difficult to make. It went way over budget, the production ran behind schedule, and the mechanical sharks they were using frequently broke down – something which ultimately inspired the play’s title.
The delays meant the three principal actors were often sitting around, under-stimulated, waiting for filming to resume. And it was during these long gaps that tensions would run high. The conflict between Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss in particular would later become known as one of Hollywood’s greatest feuds.
“For the people who work in film and are interested in film, it is a legendary story,” says Ian Shaw, who co-wrote the play and stars in it as his father Robert. “In documentaries they’ve done about the making of Jaws, Steven Spielberg speaks quite candidly about it, as does Richard Dreyfuss.
“We went through the source material and did as much research as we could – documentaries, press clippings, books, anything we could find. My own family have stories, my step-mother Virginia particularly, because she was there.”
Here’s a quick summary for anyone unfamiliar with Jaws: a man-eating shark is on the loose in the waters surrounding beach town Amity Island. Police chief Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider) tries to close the beach after the shark kills several swimmers, but the local mayor insists on keeping it open because the local economy depends on it.
Oceanographer Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss) is brought in to help assess what kind of shark it is and how much danger it poses. Meanwhile, a slightly unhinged local fisherman named Quint (Shaw) offers to catch and kill it for $10,000.
The first half of the film takes place mostly on land, with the locals and holidaymakers becoming increasingly distressed as the bodies start to pile up. But the second half sees the three men set off together on Quint’s boat, determined to find and kill the shark.
These later scenes were the toughest to film – it was unusually ambitious for a major movie to shoot so extensively on water. The intense working conditions exacerbated what Spielberg later referred to as “the great Shaw-Dreyfuss feud” – the pair didn’t see eye-to-eye and the former would often taunt the latter between takes.
Dreyfuss described Shaw as “an enormous personality” in the 2010 documentary Jaws: The Inside Story. “In private, he was the kindest, gentlest, funniest guy you ever met. Then we’d walk to the set, and on our way to the set he was possessed by some evil troll, who would then make me his victim.”
“[Shaw] really thought Dreyfuss needed a slapping down, [that he was a] young punk with no stage experience,” recalled Scheider. “It got ugly,” Spielberg confirmed. “But it was also Quint and Hooper living out that relationship as Shaw and Dreyfuss.
“Robert would basically humiliate Richard into taking a chance. For instance, Robert would say, ‘I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you climb up to the top of the mast on the Orca and jump off into the water.'”
Some critics have since suggested the conflict ultimately improved their acting. “The thick tension between old, hardened Captain Quint and young, sarcastic oceanographer Matt Hooper is due in part to the actors’ real-life on-set rivalry,” said Screen Rant’s Andrew Housman.
Ian Shaw suggests his father “was in battle-dress to some extent” while shooting the film. “Nobody was quite sure whether he was doing it to get a better performance out of Richard, or whether it was genuine animosity,” he adds.
Was he tempted to soften his father for the play? “I had to be careful, because he did have a soft and gentle side,” Shaw explains. “He was a very interesting man. At home, we frequently saw a different side – he had a tremendous sense of humour and was a very loving person. So I hope that there’s a hint of that in the show.”
Ian Shaw was still a child when his father died in 1978, but he hopes the show, which is directed by Guy Masterson and co-written with Joseph Nixon, captures him fairly. “A couple of my sisters have seen the play, he had 10 children in the end, and they, to my relief, gave me the thumbs-up,” he says.
The critics gave similarly positive reviews of the show’s Edinburgh debut. Ann Treneman of The Times awarded it five stars, writing: “Get ready for this play to make some waves.”
Liam Rudden of the Edinburgh Evening News described it as a “fascinating insight into the fragility of even the most lauded performers”, adding: “Immaculate performances and a sublime script make it one of the easiest five stars I’ve ever awarded.”
Liam Murray Scott, who will reprise his role as Dreyfuss in the West End, says: “The reaction in Edinburgh completely blew us all, forgive the pun, out of the water. There was a little bit of buzz before we went up, but by the time we got there we did two previews and it was sold out from then on.”
There seems to be considerable public appetite, we note, for stories of feuds in the entertainment industry. “It’s because Hollywood is beautifully fronted,” says Scott. “It’s not necessarily voyeuristic, but it’s behind the scenes, it’s the other world which is not as shiny as it appears.
“These are real people with real emotions, real tensions and real relationships, [and occasionally] you do meet someone that you don’t get on with, and they are work colleagues.”
His co-star Demetri Goritsas adds: “I watched Marathon Man, which is a movie that Scheider did after this, which had the famous collaboration between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman, which was a further clash of a British classical theatre actor and a young American method actor.
“That’s what I love watching [Shaw and Scott], it’s the two generations and their approaches to this art, and how they’re not matching, they’ve got to find a way to match, and it spills over into their personalities.”
Scheider was perhaps the most amicable of the three actors on set, which means Goritsas brings a slightly different energy to the play. “Scheider always said he had so much fun on Jaws, so I think there was a sense of adventure, and like they were doing something different. The idea of shooting on the sea was probably a really big thing then.”
Much like The Crown, the events of the play are based on real life, but many of the conversations are imagined. “Everything we’ve fictionalised is spiritually true, either rumour or we felt that it fit,” says Shaw.
The actor and writer had some memories of visiting the set of Jaws as a child, where he got to see the shark. “Even though it was lifeless, lying there, it was alarming,” he recalls. The shark had been nicknamed Bruce by the crew of the film, after Spielberg’s lawyer.
Later in life, Ian Shaw crossed paths with Dreyfuss. “I met Richard when he was directing Hamlet at the Bristol Old Vic, and when I met him I thought I’d mention that I was Robert’s son,” Shaw recalls. “And he was visibly shaken, as if he was reliving something.”
It’s taken a lot of time, and a lot of convincing, for Shaw to write the play – partly due to not wanting to be too tied with his famous father.
“At my age, when you hit 50, I think that that’s less of an issue, because I’ve already had my own career now, however humble it is,” he says. “I’m proud of my career which is separate, and now it just felt right.
“I was very hesitant initially, I’ve come to terms with it because people seem to be enjoying the show, but it took my friends and family to persuade me to even write the thing. I was very reluctant, I thought it was a crazy and silly thing to do, but I oddly feel comfortable doing it now.”
The Shark is Broken opens at The Ambassadors Theatre in London on Saturday.