Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: Jaws turns 40 this weekend with a theatrical re-release and on Father’s Day it is appropriate to give a shout out to Steven Spielberg, the patriarch of the modern day blockbuster. Jaws is credited with ushering the era of the tent pole, where studios spend bigger and bigger amounts of money on films designed to play on as many screens as possible, throwing off as much cash as can be made in two or three weekends around the world. As Jurassic World demonstrates, when it works, the blockbuster business generates revenue faster than most businesses. But I wonder if, given the repetition, the fixation on superheroes and sequels and films dumbed down to reach the widest possible audience, did Spielberg launch a good thing for moviemaking as an art form, or the opposite? In a recent Deadline interview, Woody Allen called these movies “ear drum-busting time wasters.” What has father Steven wrought?
BART: My key argument with you is when you say Jaws and its successors were “designed” as blockbusters. To me what distinguished the first cluster of blockbusters was that they were, in fact, personal movies, not pre-designed tent poles. I mean films like The Godfather, Star Wars, Close Encounters etc. In the case of The Godfather, for example, Coppola agreed to shoot a “gangster movie,” (as he called it dismissively) only if he could interpret it as an art film. The film came in at $7 million. To George Lucas, Star Wars was a personal film, not a pre-ordained blockbuster. The blockbuster became a more businesslike (or cynical) exercise with the birth of Batman. That movie was pitched first to marketing executives at Warner Bros. The ad campaign and the merchandising and marketing preceded the movie itself.
FLEMING: I’m sure you are right about Batman, but Tim Burton and Chris Nolan lived up to that Bat-hype in turning a cheesy 60s TV show into something dark and wonderful. Since you helped put The Godfather together with Robert Evans at Paramount, I’ll trust your memory in its role in birthing the blockbuster. I didn’t gravitate to The Godfather until later (I watch it every year), but I will never forget the immediate impact Jaws had on my life. I was a 15-year old kid in Bay Shore, Long Island who spent summers digging clams on the Great South Bay. I had a 16-foot leaky wooden boat with a 20 horse outboard engine and you would stand there with a rake (a huge metal basket with teeth) affixed to telescoping aluminum pole extensions with a T-handle you held so you could churn up sand and mud as the boat drifted along. Every 15 minutes you hoisted that pole, 50 feet straight up in the air (it was really fun during lightning storms), and dumped your catch into a cull box. It was a hard job but you could earn you $100 a day cash if you filled an onion bag with 500 clams, and maybe half fill another one for about 750 little neck clams in total. The key was relying on your imagination to occupy your brain and distract it from thinking about a monotonous, tedious repetitive backbreaking raking motion. Then I saw Jaws, and imagination ceased being my ally that summer. The waves and tide rocked the boat as you struggle to pull this rake, with no one else around, the wind is whistling in your ears and that theme song plays in your head and you are convinced some shark is going to capsize you, and eat you before you can swim several hundred yards to shore. I have watched Jaws over and over since then and never tire of it. People say the shark looks cheesy but that never bothered me. What I love is how Spielberg let Carl Gottlieb’s script breathe to accentuate the character development and the interplay between Roy Scheider’s grizzled sheriff Brody, Richard Dreyfuss’ arrogant but irresistibly charming marine biologist Hooper, and Robert Shaw’s crusty shark hunter Quint. The male bonding scene in the cabin of Quint’s boat Orca, culminating with Quint telling the chilling story of the USS Indianapolis, well, if there is a better scene in a movie, I can’t think of it.
BART: The story of Jaws is well known – a modestly budgeted thriller to be directed by an inexperienced director (Spielberg). The shoot got out of control. Spielberg was almost fired. I remember running into Richard Dreyfuss on the Martha’s Vineyard location (my family lives there) when he asked me “who do I have to fuck to get off this picture? “ I smiled before I realized he was not kidding. The film was great but, again, there was no “design.” I think movies that begin with a marketing plan – like many superhero movies now on the drawing boards– are doomed to failure. A movie needs a passionate filmmaker behind it who wants to make a personal statement. It cannot start with a marketing plan explaining how to sell the movie in Russia and China.
FLEMING: I am not surprised by what you said about Dreyfuss. I remember Jim Cameron telling me that Hemdale’s John Daly cut him off and wanted Terminator to end when Michael Biehn shoved the dynamite in the tailpipe of that tanker truck driven by the T-1 robot, which was the second to last scene. Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd had to raise the money for the final killer scene in that automated factory, which ends as Linda Hamilton presses the button and crushes her nemesis while she delivers the famed “You’re terminated, f*cker” line. It wouldn’t be the same movie without that scene. This reminds me that some of the most successful franchises weren’t pre-programmed to be that way. After you saw Ridley Scott’s amazing Alien, who could have imagined where Cameron took the sequel, raising the stakes in spectacularly satisfying fashion, same as he did with the Terminator sequel. None of this stuff was pre-ordained, it was based on the outsized talents of a few filmmakers. Put Peter Jackson in there with Lord of The Rings, hanging on by the skin of his teeth after Bob Shaye risked everything to make that trilogy in one shoot, and then the studio threatened to sue Jackson when the budget escalated.
The problem I have with today’s blockbuster is that the price of admission to launch those films is around Tomorrowland’s $180 million budget, and another $125 million to market globally. They are studio-authored creations that requires you to appeal to the widest possible audience and so creativity is measured not by spectacular imagination and originality, but by how cleverly you operate within a tight box. The original Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale in which we learn that despite the ability to manipulate DNA, you cannot control nature and it’s a terrible idea to build a theme park with resuscitated dinosaurs even if you can clone them. In Jurassic World, not only did they forget that lesson, they have gone beyond boring dinosaurs to genetically engineer even larger and more vicious monsters to draw bigger crowds. We open with an homage to Jaws, when a large shark is held over a water tank and a giant underwater dinosaur–a Shamu-asaurus?–jumps up and devours what looks like a tasty sardine. And then they steal James Cameron’s groundbreaking plot from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, when he switched Arnold Schwarzenegger from bad to good guy, and they put the white hats on the Velociraptors. Is that inventive? We ran a gallery of congratulatory ads that Cameron, George Lucas and Spielberg bought each time they were one-upped by the other ‘s record breaking performance. But those ads really were hat tips on raising the bar on creativity, the triumph of imagination matched with developing visual technologies, with an emphasis on imagination. I just don’t see that much imagination in these summer films and I wonder how long audiences will be content to watch regurgitation. These summer movies now, you forget about them on the ride home, and if I think about them at all after I’ve seen them, the focus is on the inane. I saw Mad Max: Fury Road and was obsessed by this guitar playing mutant whom the villains strapped to a wall of speakers on a truck so he could provide a heavy metal soundtrack as they chased Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron on their road trip. I wondered: when the bad guys stop to eat, does this apocalyptic Eddie Van Halen set the mood with some nice dining music, perhaps even power ballads like Every Rose Has Its Thorn? That movie was a crazy fun spectacle, but there is little else to ponder.
BART: Let me stumble from your deep thoughts on Mad Max and back to these filmmakers and their issues. No one can pre-plan his legacy – even someone as calculating as Spielberg. Yet when you take him through the forty years from Jaws to Jurassic, Spielberg’s legacy is as clear cut as it is unplanned: A legacy of mega movies and mega money. Only a few people know what Spielberg’s total take will be from the sequel, or the theme park (one source pegged Spielberg’s take this year from Jurassic and the theme park at $160 million), but it will certainly handsomely augment his already monumental $4 billion fortune. Further, Spielberg’s blockbusters have indirectly made it more difficult for filmmakers to make smaller pictures. Even Spielberg’s own company, DreamWorks (or rather the remnants of it), which once made some excellent small and mid-budget movies, has fallen into a malaise. Michael Wright, the new head of DreamWorks, refuses to peek out from his bunker to talk about his plans (if any) for the company. Wright, who succeeded Stacey Snider, has a background in TV and lacks credentials for the film business. Theoretically he has some co-funding from Reliance (an Indian conglom) and perhaps additional support form Participant Media but, again, no one will explain what all that amounts to. Spielberg himself, of course, is caught up in making three back-to-back movies and is, as usual, thinking big. But DreamWorks is not. And it’s all reinforcing the Spielberg legacy as the King of the Megamovie but the inadvertent enemy of the smaller budget movie.
FLEMING: Given the obsession with global tent poles, if they carved a Mount Rushmore of the most accomplished blockbuster directors, Spielberg is first whether DreamWorks makes another movie or not. Cameron and Lucas would be next to him. You would have to put Peter Jackson up there, for his spectacular realization of JRR Tolkien’s written rendering of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings. Ridley Scott belongs there too. Chris Nolan, in my view, is one great original movie away. Even if the next Star Wars lives up to its advance hype, JJ Abrams doesn’t make it because he spends too much time resuscitating flatlined franchises (Star Trek and Mission: Impossible preceding Star Wars) and not breaking new ground. Spielberg’s accomplishment dwarfs all, from Jaws to E.T., Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, or the ones he godfathered as producer like Poltergeist, Transformers and Men in Black, the latter of which is currently being melded to 21 Jump Street for another franchise resuscitation. He’s the father of the blockbuster, and films like Jaws hold up remarkably well. I still hear that theme song in my head when I’m on the water, but I took Roy Scheider’s advice and got a bigger boat.