Spring 2019

Blood in the Water

David Yates waxes nostalgic on the mix of horror, humor and ingenuity in Steven Spielberg's Jaws

By Adam Dawtrey

(Screenpull: Universal Pictures)

In a chilly suite at the De Lane Lea sound studio in central London, David Yates is reliving the day that changed his life. Steven Spielberg's Jaws is playing on a big TV screen, and as the camera drifts across partygoers around a campfire on Amity beach to settle on the girl who will become the shark's first victim, Yates is transported back to the ABC Cinema in St. Helens in the summer of 1975.

"I was 12 years of age," he recalls. "I'd read about this movie coming to the U.K. It was the first time I was aware of the feeling of an event around a film. People would queue around the block. My dad was coming home for a few days from the sea, so I went to see it with him. It just blew me away. I came out of that cinema and I just turned to my dad and said, 'I'm going to make films.'"

His mother bought him his first camera shortly thereafter, and he made his first film at 13. Four decades later, with four Harry Potters and two Fantastic Beasts behind him and the next in preproduction, Yates is firmly established as a leading purveyor of movie magic. But it all started with this film, whose one big special effect was a source of continual headaches.

"Even at age 12, I knew it was a plastic shark," he laughs. "But the film had been so thrilling and involving up to that point, you forgave all of that and went with it, because you were fully invested."

Spielberg had to use his own brand of magic when his beast proved to be not quite so fantastic. "When the shark didn't work, Spielberg realized he had to play with the audience's imagination a lot more, by not revealing it. While they were waiting for the weather, or the light, or for the shark to work, he'd improvise with the actors. A couple of months later, I read The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb, and this making a virtue out of necessity inspireIn a cd me even more to become a filmmaker."

DGA Quarterly Spring 2019 Screening Room Director David YatesFor the adolescent Yates, the resonance of Jaws was personal and specific. "My father was a seaman, and he was away often. From my earliest memories, the sea was part of my life in some way; it was the reason my father wasn't always there, so I was intrigued by the portrayal of men in Jaws. Suddenly this hugely popular film arrived, and its leading character wasn't this regular hero—he felt imperfect, out of his depth, trying to keep order in this chaotic New England town. I found it fascinating that this movie, which was reaching so many people, was built around someone who felt real and fallible."

Yates didn't only recognize his father in Chief Brody, played by Roy Scheider. Robert Shaw's shark-hunter Quint was just like the kind of salty seadog he saw at the swimming pool in nearby Liverpool, a great port city whose public baths seemed to attract all the old sailors. This sense of authenticity, of multi-layered realism, is what strikes Yates afresh. It's achieved, he says, by an elegant combination of casting and camerawork.

"You've got several planes of story in one shot: Roy Scheider on the phone chatting with someone, in the background his wife dealing with a cut on their son's hand, having conversations at exactly the same time," he notes, "so you get this wonderful feeling of three-dimensionality to the drama. You're aware that the foreground story is surrounded by multiple stories, all with their own reality. It puts you right into that credible world."

In the police station, the camera glides from the shell-shocked boyfriend of the dead girl in the foreground, to the starchy old secretary arriving in the background, and follows her smoothly into the back room where Brody is typing up the report of the shark attack. "Spielberg is very clever with the way he uses the camera to take you from one plane of focus to another," says Yates. "And there's something about the characters who are cast around our principals: They feel authentic in a vivid way—it feels like Spielberg walked into town and saw someone with real personality and presence and cast them in the movie."

Yates has muted the sound so that he can talk, but it doesn't matter, because every word, every sound effect and music cue is etched permanently in his memory. He actually hasn't seen the film in full since his teens, but that summer of '75, he went back time and time again. After a while, he stopped watching the screen, and started watching the audience instead.

"I was intrigued. I would just observe the audience at key moments," he recalls. "Look," he pauses to point as an old sailor hovers into view. "This is the chap whose disembodied head we see later on, that wonderful moment when Richard Dreyfuss goes swimming underwater searching for clues, and suddenly comes across a severed head.

"One of the reasons I think cinema will probably last forever is when you sit in a theater and watch that moment with 400 people, everyone jumps up in one scream of terror. There's something about being in the cinema, particularly with a film like Jaws, which has a lot of humor, a lot of horror, a lot of thrills, that allows you to feel a communal experience. Being in the theater somehow resonates and magnifies those moments, makes them bigger and more special."

Although production on Jaws was plagued by malfunctioning mechanical sharks, David Yates praised Spielberg's ability to turn lemons into lemonade: "Spielberg realized he had to play with the audience's imagination a lot more, by not revealing it," he says. (Photos: Everett)

We watch as the crowded ferry arrives in Amity for the Fourth of July weekend, and even with the sound down, Yates can hear the score in his head: "This is almost like a documentary, filming people pouring into this New England seaside town, with a beautiful piece written by John Williams, which I would play over and over again in my bedroom. Yeah, I was in deep."

And for all his rhapsodies over the Jaws score, it's the use of sound that moves him more.

"The moments of this movie that really stay with me are those quieter sections of the film," Yates explains. "For example, where Roy Scheider is on the beach watching and waiting for the shark to pop up, and you're just hearing the flap of [a flag] or the tumble and giggle of some kids running across the sand or just some slight splash in the water," he adds. "It's very lo-fi. There's a tendency nowadays to overproduce sound, in big movies particularly." Yates pauses to murmur an appreciative "yeeaah" as the shark bites off a dangling leg—"something wonderfully evocative about how the movie uses sound in the simplest way."

Again and again, it's Spielberg's meticulous, elegant attention to realism, to building a multi-layered, three-dimensional sense of authenticity, that Yates comments upon. On re-viewing Jaws 44 years after it became the first summer blockbuster, Yates is struck by just how unlike today's VFX-heavy studio behemoths it is.

"That's fascinating," Yates comments, as Brody, Quint and Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss) set sail for the third act's climactic encounter with the shark, and the action shrinks to a chamber piece. "It's literally just these three men on this small boat, and their tensions. It makes you wonder, would this film get made today? I mean, of course if Spielberg was directing it, but in no way does it perform to the mathematics of a big conventional blockbuster today, where things have to expand outwards and outwards evermore."

"This is why I wanted to make films," he explains. "What's really encouraging, coming back to Jaws after many, many years, is that it really isn't about the special effects, it's about a very primal human story. What is it that draws audiences and compels them to come back again and again to view the work that we do? It starts and finishes with strong primary emotional arcs of characters whom we feel we can believe in. That's it, and all the rest is sparkle. We lose that at our peril, I think, as storytellers, especially in a world that gets evermore competitive, as movies become bigger and bigger and we're all trying to outdo each other. We'll lose our way if we lose the fact that it's fundamentally about characters that we care about, and a sense of reality."

It's a lesson he has carried through to his own work. In a way, Yates has had two careers—first, as the director of urgent, award-winning TV dramas, such as Sex Traffic, State of Play and The Way We Live Now, and then as the helmsman of J.K. Rowling's extravagant wizarding world. The bridge between the two is built upon the meticulous, immersive attention to the authentic human experience—that of the characters, and that of the audience—which he first learned from Spielberg.

"There is a reality to this world in Jaws," observes Yates, "in the little things like the casting of the background world, and in the mixture of humor and pathos and horror. Those elements coexist quite closely together in the real world —quite scary moments are often attached to gallows humor. Of course, this is all wrapped up in a stirring adventure as well, with John Williams' beautiful music. But at heart, the social realism aesthetic is what I love, and if you can heighten things and make them feel more immersive, then all the better."

These days, so many of the problems that nearly sunk Jaws in production would be solvable by technology—whether that's the nightmare of continuity in an ever-changing seascape, the stubborn refusal of waves to take direction or a waterlogged shark. But there are dangers here, Yates warns.

"They had a nightmare, didn't they? Now it's so much easier. I think Spielberg always emphasizes the character and the story over the effect. Whether or not that was his initial design, that's the real triumph of the film. The danger in this expanding universe of blockbusters is feeling that you have to somehow top everyone else, by adding more spectacle."

"There's something really worrying about the limitless availability of some of these effects, and what you can achieve and execute now. So, as I'm preparing my next film, I'm channelling everything back through that thought—can we believe this, does it feel real? We want it to be grounded, because that keeps people within the story."

Movies that best succeed, Yates argues, "always offer something quite grounded emotionally. "With the Potters, I always felt we weren't making 'movies,' we were making films, with bits of action and spectacle and magic thrown in. But fundamentally I felt they were dramas. The spectacle and the magic was icing on the cake."

Yates praises the fine balance between Spielberg's rigorous architecture, his carefully and elegantly constructed frames, blocking and camera moves, and the hint of the unexpected and improvised that's always there. (Screenpulls: (Top and Bottom) Universal Pictures; Photo: (Middle) Everett)

As Yates watches Jaws, he notes how happy accidents bring a freshness that could never be replicated in a studio, let alone in front of a green screen. Two boys hoax the crowded beach with a fake shark fin, and as they tread water and make their excuses to the angry policemen bobbing in their dinghies, one of the boys gets a mouthful of water from a stray wave. "He can't say his line properly, but it's an authentic moment, so Spielberg keeps it in."

"What I've discovered on these big movies that of course, you prepare thoroughly because the resources you're deploying are significant, so you really have to do your homework with storyboards and previs cartoons and all sorts of things to figure out how you're going to get the best out of the material you've got. But often the best things, the most interesting things, will come on the day—things you haven't necessarily spent months thinking about. So, it's a balance between being absolutely thorough in your prep, but on the day being absolutely open to what the universe offers up to you."

The director notes the fine balance between Spielberg's rigorous architecture, his carefully and elegantly constructed frames, blocking and camera moves, and the hint of the unexpected and improvised that's always there.

Yates analyzes the scene where Brody and Hopper argue with the mayor about whether to close the beach, in front of a giant Amity billboard. "The film is filled with a very precise camera choreography that guides you through the story in very immersive ways, but there are some scenes that are covered with a simple one shot, like here. The figures come into frame, go out of frame, it finally takes you over to the Amity sign, there's the absurdity of the big fin, and I love Murray Hamilton's jacket with the anchors on it, just to make him look even more ridiculous. And Richard Dreyfuss being cut right at the neck there, and all of this is done in one long shot that extends to a couple of minutes, and all the choreography within the frame charts precisely who's gaining momentum in the scene, who's losing momentum, and all with very simple blocking, very little movement of the camera."

Or the scene where the dialogue between Brody and the mayor unfolds in front of a static camera on the car ferry as it crosses the creek, and the horizon moves behind the frame to create an unsettling effect that mirrors Brody's unease. "It's a very canny use of the frame," Yates notes. "He does this several times in the film, with the camera locked off; it's all about the blocking and the performances."

From his first viewing, Yates says he was aware of the guiding hand of the director—in part, of course, because the 26-year-old boy wonder Spielberg had been widely profiled in the advance hype. "Even as a kid of 12, I felt there's a real storyteller here taking me through this world, a really safe pair of hands, who wasn't afraid to scare the hell out of us and also to make us laugh, and I liked that generosity of spirit," he says.

"Coming back to the film that's somehow dictated the course of my life, that set me on this journey, makes me realize that the thing that stayed with me, before the Potters and after the Potters, is an investment in character and creating a world that is vivid yet true," Yates concludes. "But the other thing I've held with me is the idea of a filmmaker at the beginning of his career who was challenged every day with the weather, the light, the water, a mechanical shark that didn't work, and no doubt thousands of other problems along the way. Yet he held his nerve and often made a virtue of those challenges. That to me is as much an inspiration as the film itself."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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