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John Williams laughed when he first saw Jaws, and we get why

John Williams didn't have the reaction Steven Spielberg expected when he first watched Jaws, but the reason is more understandable than you might think.

Roy Schneider in Jaws

Legendary composer John Williams has contributed to many of the best movies ever made. Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, he’s written some of the most iconic themes in cinema history. While making Jaws with Steven Spielberg, he wasn’t exactly scared on first viewing, and that’s because the music needed his help.

“I temped Jaws with Johnny Williams’s score from the Robert Altman movie Images,” Spielberg reveals in the book Spielberg: the First Ten Years, via Vanity Fair. “It was a bit of an experimental score, but I thought it was very disturbing, and I thought the shark should be disturbing. But when John saw the movie with that score in, he called me laughing.”

Williams believed Spielberg had turned his shark movie into a pirate movie, and completed mucked up the tone. The composer thought the horror movie should be “primal”, and then came that classic melody.

“Six weeks later, he played for me on the piano the main Jaws theme – I expected to hear something weird and melodic, tonal but eerie – perhaps something to suggest the shark underwater,” Spielberg remembers. “And what he played me instead with two fingers on the lower keys was ‘Dun dun, dun dun, dun, dun, dun…’”

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Spielberg couldn’t believe it, and we’re not sure we would either. This was supposed to be a monster movie, what’s with the subtlety? But Williams knew what was up.

“I thought he was putting me on. It seemed too simple,” Spielberg says. “He said, ‘That’s the theme for Jaws!’ I asked him to play it again, and it suddenly seemed right. Sometimes the best ideas are the simple ones, and John had found the signature for the whole movie.”

We’re inclined to agree. Jaws is a masterpiece, one of the best Steven Spielberg movies, if not the best, and the score plays no small part in that success. The filmmaker knows it, too.

“Without that score, to this day, I believe the film would have been only half as successful,” he adds. Check out our new movies guide to more future classics, and we have a guide to the Indiana Jones movies in order if you want reminding of Williams and Spielberg’s power together.