It heralded the birth of the ‘summer blockbuster’ and is widely regarded as one of the most influential and memorable movies of all time, but completing Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking thriller Jaws was far from plain sailing.
Ian Shaw, the son of legendary actor Robert Shaw who became a household name thanks to his iconic portrayal of gruff sea shepherd Quint, has taken to the stage to offer fans a welcome glimpse of the inner workings and behind-the-scenes relationships that help forge the undoubted onscreen chemistry between three very different but equally charismatic leading men.
This new play ‘The Shark is Broken’ currently enjoying a hugely successful stint at the Edinburgh Festival is set to go on a national tour, with fans revelling in the hilarious anecdotes and often simmering tension that accompanied the notoriously challenging production of this classic film.
We caught up with Ian to discuss his memories of late father Robert, meeting the infamous animatronic Bruce on a tour of Martha’s Vineyard, the truth about the well-documented clashes between Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, and how this truly original play was conceived.
The MALESTROM: Hi Ian, so we really like what we’ve heard about the play, tell us a bit about this all came about?
Ian Shaw: Well the first point of oddity for me was when I did a drama-documentary called Hiroshima and I played Colonel Tibbets who was the pilot of the Enola Gay and I just thought that was a bizarre little thing.
I’d always loved my Dad’s speech in Jaws about the USS Indianapolis and delivering the bomb and here I am picking up this ghastly mega ton thing from my Dad, of course, not literally, Quint is a fictional character.
It sort of put a strange connection between me and Quint in my mind, but, I didn’t think anything about it. And then a couple of years ago, I was looking in the mirror, I had a moustache for a role I was doing in theatre, and I just thought I look like Quint.
Obviously it was starting to germinate in my head and I remember reading the ‘The Jaws Log’ by Carl Gottlieb, it’s one of the best books I’d ever read on filmmaking and he talked about the difficulties they had filming and the personality clashes that were going on, so I thought there’s something here.
I started to sketch out an idea of what a play could be and then I became a little bit nervous about it and thought this is potentially exploitative of my Dad and wondered what would my family think? I’d always tried to avoid the connection and make my own way, however humbly.
But, then my wife Rachel and my friends were urging me on, so I spoke to my great friend Joseph Nixon, who is an experienced writer and has done several plays, and he was excited about it, so we fired some emails back and forth.
I really liked what he wrote and I started to go a bit deeper into finding out more about Roy Scheider’s background and Richard Dreyfuss and my own Dad’s, of which I didn’t know everything, and that was an interesting journey.
TM: Was that a difficult thing to do?
IS: It wasn’t easy to do; some of it was quite emotional. It’s a funny thing because I lost him when I was eight years old and I remember grieving for him in bouts for a decade or so.
When I was about eighteen I had a night where I woke up at about 3 am and I cried my heart out and that seemed to be it, the last time I cried about my dad dying and then I realized as I was researching that there was a last little bit of emotion left.
Who knows? These things are very mysterious. It was definitely therapeutic and I feel like I know him better, but, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I know him extremely intimately because these things are all fragments.
TM: Of course. And these diaries, what part did they play in all of this?
IS: Well, my sister found his diary and although I haven’t put very much of that into the play, it was a source of inspiration. Basically, it was a drinking diary, so it documented his struggles with alcohol and the difficulty he had with giving it up, which is a theme of the play. That was too personal to actually directly put in.
But, it was definitely a subject that was very important to touch upon. The play is non-judgmental I would hope, but at the same time, everybody knows that my dad was a drinker and I think everybody who made Jaws remarked on that.
I mean that was the norm for a lot of those actors, the English actors, the stage actors, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and all that lot, they were all heavy drinkers.
TM: Did you actually get to visit your Dad on set, or were you too young for that?
IS: Yes, we went many times. As far as Jaws goes, I remember going to Martha’s Vineyard and seeing the shark. I had no idea how privileged I was because nobody got to see ‘Bruce’.
I was smuggled in and one of the technicians pulled back a piece of cloth and there was the face of the shark. I did find that scary, I know a lot of people think, compared to special effects these days, that that’s one of the weaker points of the film. I would have been like four or five and even though the shark wasn’t moving, I was definitely scared.
TM: When you watched the film, that obviously terrified so many people, did that actually then take away some of that fear, having seen the prop?
IS: That’s an interesting one again. I probably saw it aged seven, before my Dad died and I don’t think that… what am I talking about I was terrified! I was scared, and that wonderful moment when the head pops out of Ben Gardner’s boat, I jumped out of my seat like everybody else.
It did give me a fear of the water, and I had nightmares about sharks swimming around my bed, but then I wasn’t frightened to the point where… I’d be calling for my Dad and he would come and snuggle me, so obviously I didn’t think, well he’s been eaten. I was able to compute that it was a fictional character that he was playing for fun, you know?
TM: Right, yeah, because it must be weird watching your own Father die…
IS: It triggered a real fear of the actual Great White’s that are out there, which I still have a little bit of that. When I’m swimming in the sea I still think, is there a shark in here?
TM: (Laughs) I think we all do, it’s quite deep-rooted. So you’re taking on that iconic character (Quint), how have you found that?
IS: Well I’m only doing a little bit of Quint in the piece because it’s mainly my Dad, but it’s tremendous fun. He created a wonderful character that is kind of iconic really.
I’ve really enjoyed attempting to replicate some of what he did. Of course, I’ll never do it as well as he did, because it was a work of genius in a lot of respects, that’s possibly going a bit far…
TM: No not at all…
IS: Certainly people are obsessed with that character, and particularly the USS Indianapolis speech, which has become an iconic movie moment. So it’s been tremendous fun.
Playing him was interesting too. I look like him, I remember very clearly what his voice sounded like, he had a wonderful voice and he was at times a little bit theatrical because he was an actor and I’ve spent my life doing that myself, so it wasn’t a giant leap.
TM: Were you aware of his creative process, how he prepared for roles?
IS: No, Virginia Shaw reported all that to me, she’s my step-mum and Robert’s third wife. She told me about the way he prepared.
I think he did a lot of research on the character and thinking about the character, but I don’t think he locked down the lines until he’d be in the car going down to the set. And, because he’s a writer, he would change the lines on set.
TM: Was it true that he rewrote Indianapolis speech?
IS: Yes, that’s confirmed by both Carl Gottlieb and Steven Spielberg. There were three versions. Howard Sacker wrote a long, long, long version, then John Milius wrote a version – which I think is out there on the internet – and then my Dad edited it, reordered and wrote it into the form it is today. That is tremendous fun, doing a bit of that. It’s a beautiful speech.
TM: Your version is very good; do you replicate that in the play?
IS: Yes, at the moment.
TM: So are there plans to change that?
IS: Well, we’re going to go on tour, so we’re going to rewrite bits and reorder things. So I don’t know what form it’ll be in.
TM: What’s the rough format now, just for our readers, many of whom will likely want to come and see this play?
IS: We’re doing a seventy-minute piece without an interval. So, it’s chiefly the three principal actors, mainly behind-the-scenes trapped together while the shark is broken.
I can’t say too much, but basically, they’re three very distinct personalities. They clash, but I wouldn’t say that it’s always very serious, it’s quite lighthearted for much of it.
TM: There’s a lot been written about Richard Dreyfus and your Dad clashing on set. Is that what you found?
IS: Yes. They spoke about it. In 1994 I auditioned for Richard Dreyfuss when he was directing Hamlet at the Birmingham Rep Theatre. I would’ve been about twenty-four then.
And, I didn’t know or I’d forgotten that my Dad and Richard had any difficulties, so I just went up to him like a puppy and said “Hello my name’s Ian Shaw, son of Robert Shaw”, expecting him to give me a slap on the back or something, but, he drained of colour!
IS: Yeah, he looked like I’d just punched him in the stomach or something. And I thought this is not the reaction I was expecting. So I think at that stage Richard was still processing.
These days he talks quite fondly of my Dad, so he’s obviously made his own peace with it. I think the relationship was complicated. He maintains that Robert was very nice to him in private, but just wound him up in front of everybody else.
TM: But that tension must have helped create the onscreen magic…
IS: For sure, for sure. My Dad was quite naughty and would do things like that. I think he thought Richard was a bit brash and needed taking down a peg or two.
I think he thought he was a bit egotistical having not done a lot. Of course, we all look back and think Richard Dreyfuss is a genius himself and I’m a huge admirer of his work, he’s an extremely talented actor.
But, at the time he wasn’t famous at all and Robert and Roy were established actors. Robert took him down a peg or two, but that was their relationship in the film as well. Spielberg certainly never intervened at any point when there were disagreements going on because I think he thought this is gold dust.
TM: So that tension sort of spills over into the play then?
IS: Yes. There’s an explosive moment shall we say in the play.
TM: Sounds great. Maybe tell us who, other than your father, was your acting inspiration?
IS: Certainly on the stage, it was Mark Rylance who was the biggest inspiration and certainly the best actor I ever worked with. As a kid growing up, I’m a cinephile and I loved so many actors.
I liked Marlon Brando enormously, Christopher Walken, Robert De Niro, a lot of American actors. For the more obscure ones, maybe Rod Steiger, but I love films, I’ve spent my whole life watching too many films.
TM: Maybe we can finish with your hopes for the play?
IS: Well it’s already exceeded my expectations. I wasn’t expecting to sell out a theatre in Edinburgh, which is extremely competitive.
I’m very grateful for the fact that there are all these Jaws fans out there that still love the movie, and are fascinated about what went on and the making of it. And, they’ve been incredibly helpful on social media and just getting the word out there. We’re going to tour the show and I don’t know really what else.
There are people talking about making a film, which I’m not sure about. I have really great reservations about it. Because I just think Jaws is a flawless movie. I don’t want to tarnish any legacy that that has. So who knows?
TM: Well good luck Ian, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
IS: Thanks so much.
Book Tickets for The Shark is Broken HERE
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