Despite it launching and becoming an instant classic, going on to fondly be remembered among the best horror movies ever made, Spielberg says he got “greedy” when it came to shock and awe and added in the most grisly scene off of his own back. Shark movies are a nightmare to get right, so he wanted to give his as much staying power as possible.
In an excerpt from new book Spielberg: The First Ten Years via Vanity Fair, the director says he felt the way to make his project one of the best shark movies of all time was to ensure screams came at the right moments. The infamous scene where fisherman Ben Gardner’s severed head rolls out of a sunken boat was the scene he wanted to amp up.
He said, “When Hooper goes underwater to explore a half-sunken boat and encounters Ben Gardner’s severed head, we didn’t get any reaction, and I was wondering how to improve on that moment. In the meantime, the numbers were the highest in Universal’s history, the executives were happy, the audience loved the movie, we were all happy. But I was greedy, and I said, ‘There is one more scream we can get in this movie if I can figure out this thing with Ben Gardner’s head.'”
“They wouldn’t give me any more money,” he continues. “So, I went and spent three thousand bucks of my own money to have the art department build the side of Ben Gardner’s boat out of balsa wood, to match the one we had shot before. We cut a hole in it, used the same head, and filmed it using a double for Richard Dreyfuss, in the swimming pool of my editor Verna Fields.”
“Originally, the head was just there, so I shot it coming through the hole about nine different ways,” he continues. “We edited several versions and tested it on my sound effects and music editors and dubbing team, who were still working on the film following our first preview. There was one take where they all said, ‘Wow, that one surprised me!'”
He concludes: “We put that cut into the film and took it for another preview in Long Beach at the Lakewood Theatre. That moment got a humongous scream, way bigger than the one with the shark coming out of the water in the Dallas preview. People came out of their seats even higher, and I was thrilled.”
We can see why, that jump scare is an effective one that truly elevates the tension. Even then, Spielberg had a keen eye for ways to enhance his work and really give the audience everything possible.
For more of the best Steven Spielberg movies, check out this story about how John Williams laughed when he first saw Jaws, or peruse our list of the best movies of all time. Alternatively, get ready for The Meg 2 release date with our guide to the new movies coming in 2023 and how to watch The Meg 2.