Steven Spielberg sees the regular malfunctioning of his mechanical shark while filming Jaws as a cinematic gift, but says the fear the film drummed up against real-life sharks is something he wishes he hadn’t played a part in.
During an interview with the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, the director plays some of his favorite songs and unpacks his cinematic resume, the discussion spanning everything from his work on films like The Fabelmans, West Side Story, E.T. and Schindler’s List, to his own personal life and pop cultural influences like Bruce Springsteen and Alfred Hitchcock.
It’s the latter — a master of horror — that Spielberg credits as having helped him find success with the 1975 film. That and a mechanical shark that just wouldn’t work.
“I had to be resourceful in figuring out how to create suspense and terror without seeing the shark itself. Hitchcock did that and I think Hitchcock was a tremendous guide for me in the way he was able to scare you without really seeing anything,” Spielberg reflected. “It was just good fortune that the shark kept breaking. It was my good luck and I think it’s the audience’s good luck, too, because it’s a scarier movie without seeing so much of the shark.”
The scares he was able to scream up for his 1975 release, directed just at the age of 27, helped secure Spielberg’s place in the canon of Hollywood’s greatest directors. But the filmmaker says there was a downside to bringing terror to audiences so successfully and it’s one he regrets.
When asked about how he would feel being on a desert island with surrounding water inhabited by sharks, Spielberg addresses the impact of the film’s negative depiction of sharks.
“That’s one of the things I still fear — not to get eaten by a shark, but that sharks are somehow mad at me for the feeding frenzy of crazy sport fisherman that happened after 1975, which I truly, and to this day, regret the decimation of the shark population because of the book and the film,” he explained. “I really, truly regret that.”
Peter Benchley, who wrote the 1974 book that Spielberg’s film was based on, also publicly apologized for his role in the sharp drop off of the shark population, which George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research in Gainesville, told the BBC was like “a collective testosterone rush” that “swept through the east coast of the U.S.”
“Thousands of fishers set out to catch trophy sharks after seeing Jaws,” he told the outlet, while suggesting — similarly to other published studies — that the shark population was notably impacted by the release of the movie. “It was good blue collar fishing. You didn’t have to have a fancy boat or gear – an average Joe could catch big fish, and there was no remorse since there was this mindset that they were man-killers.”
For that reason, Benchley spent parts of his life after the book’s publishing working to campaign to save the oceanic creatures his book had vilified. “Jaws was entirely a fiction,” he reportedly told the London Daily Express in 2006. “Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today.”
“Sharks don’t target human beings, and they certainly don’t hold grudges,” he continued. “There’s no such thing as a rogue man-eater shark with a taste for human flesh. In fact, sharks rarely take more than one bite out of people, because we’re so lean and unappetizing to them.”