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Building a Better Bruce : In the Belly of Universal's Newest Beast

July 19, 1987|JOHN E. MCCOSKER | Dr. John E. McCosker is one of the world's leading authorities on great white sharks. Divemaster Dick Anderson assisted in the research for this story.

BRUCE IS BACK,and he's smaller than ever. Yes, it's Jaws season again this summer, but the shark shrank. Universal Pictures, which has made more than $382.5 million domestically so far on the original "Jaws," is banking this time around on ultra-realism. The strategy of Sidney J. Sheinberg--president of MCA Inc., parent company of Universal Pictures--goes something like this: The original "Jaws" was a smash because it was frighteningly believable--almost too believable, psychologists tell us; "Jaws 2" was so-so because the monster grew and became just another hokey fish; "Jaws 3" (yes, there was a "Jaws 3," although it was not produced by Universal) was a 3-D dog that deserved extinction. The experts agreed that the allure of the first "Jaws" was its realism, and they set out to create a great white shark even more frightening and true-to-life.

Last fall, producer / director Joseph Sargent, associate producer Frank Baur and writer Michael De Guzman visited the Steinhart Aquarium, a division of the cavernous California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, where they were given a cram course in sharks. They were aware of the BBC-TV and PBS-TV documentaries that cinematographer Al Giddings and I had created titled "Jaws: the True Story," and they were suitably impressed that Carcharodon carcharias , the largest flesh-eating fish on our planet, requires no hyperbole. They were equally fascinated by the trivia of science and scientific data gathering--shark-stomach temperatures, palatoquadrate extensions, eyeball rotations, crystal-coded diodes and transmitters, and even how one gets grants; in brief, the not-so-pretty side of shark science. Sargent wanted it all to be reflected in the screenplay, and writer De Guzman soaked up the nuances and refined the script until it read like a PBS-TV special with teeth. At the same time, mechanical-shark makers were carefully analyzing the films and photographs of living white sharks so as to capture every articulation and postural detail of the swimming and attacking shark. They examined shark carcasses in the academy's research collections with the attentiveness of a Noguchi necropsy. No detail was ignored--save one, the sex of the shark. Bruce (named, incidentally, for Spielberg's attorney on the original "Jaws"), like his--actually her--predecessors, lacks claspers, the pair of five-foot-long intromittent organs used by male sharks to inseminate their mates. The majority of the views in the film will not allow one to look from beneath and behind, but elasmobranchologists (ichthyologists who study sharks and rays) with a keen eye might catch that detail. Still other anatomical details, such as the size of the shark, are frighteningly accurate. Bruce 1 was close to 40 feet long, and clumsy. The new, improved model is 25.5 feet long, only four feet longer than the Cuban specimen caught in 1945 that weighed 7,302 pounds. White sharks larger than that have been seen but none yet captured. In the film, such details as the size and precise number of the teeth, the movement of the lips and jaws, the rotation of the eyes, and the speed and behavior of the attacking shark are all accurate and credible.

Ichthyologists will have the most difficulty with the title: "Jaws The Revenge." Such a title might suggest that Bruce is enraged; I prefer to think that Universal is merely exacting revenge upon the box office with this thriller.

Without divulging too much of the plot, I will say that the animal's behavior on screen does not imitate that of a chain-saw murderer with fins. Bruce didn't necessarily follow the Brody family to the Bahamas. That just happens to be where Michael Caine's character, a laid-back bush pilot, hangs out. What the shark does in the film is what Carcharodon carcharias does in the sea. What Michael Caine does is what Robert Shaw did in the original film, only better.

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