Verna Fields : The Unsung Hero of Jaws (1975)

Verna Fields has an interesting story. Despite working on several Oscar nominated films, such as American Graffiti (1973) and Paper Moon (1973), she is mostly remembered for just one film, for which she won the Oscar, Jaws (1975). I think we all know Jaws? Big shark keeps eating people? We’re gonna need a bigger boat? Inspired a generation of people to be too scared to ever go in the ocean? What some people may not know is that the filming set of Jaws was plagued with many troubles. As a former film student, I know that my classmates and I could very much relate to dealing with problems while shooting and then having to find creative ways to edit around those problems, an art mastered by Fields. The Jaws production was plagued with just about every problem you’ve ever heard happen on a film set. Actors showed up drunk, actors were fighting with each other, the director (Steven Spielberg) was self-admittedly both a perfectionist and an inexperienced director, and to top it all off the filmmakers had to deal with a malfunctioning shark animatronic. Despite all these problems, Fields managed to cut together a terrific film. A film whose success is owed in no small part to the editing. Take for example the beach scene. Here is a clip for reference, now sadly I could not find the whole scene but it gives you an idea of what I’m talking about:

  Chief Brody is still suspicious and worried that there is a shark in the water, despite the mayor’s instance that there is nothing to worry about. The scene involves Brody sitting on a crowded beach with his family. Everyone else on the beach is having fun but Brody.

During this scene, Fields includes many quick cuts from Brody’s face to people having fun back to Brody’s face. Fields also resists the urge to use John Williams famous score until the perfect moment, creating an eerie silence. The way Fields cuts this scene, leaves the audience knowing that something bad will happen. They don’t know when or to who, but something bad is about to happen, you can feel it. The scene is full of tension, on first viewing the audience is on the edge of their seats waiting to see who will be eaten by the shark and when they will be eaten. At one point we see something black start to poke out of the water swimming towards a woman, but nope, it’s just a guy wearing a swimmers cap. A woman starts screaming, but nope she is just playing around with her boyfriend. People start blocking Brody’s view of the ocean to talk to him as he frantically tries to see around them. Then children start screaming, but they are just having fun it seems. Finally, a man starts calling for his dog whose gone missing. Fields then shows the stick they were playing with earlier floating alone in the water. The viewers are left wondering, was this the only attack in this scene? Was Brody paying too much attention to the people that he didn’t even see a dog get eaten? The audience starts to relax a little. That must be the end of it. But then Fields cuts to an underwater shot as the famous score starts to play. Is this a point of view shot of the shark? Of the dog? Of a person? Is this another fake out? Nope, suddenly a shark pops out of the water and bites down on a child, there is a mad rush to get everyone out of the water and the scene ends. A lot of build up and then a climactic finish all in under five minutes. Fields true mastery comes to light after the shark finally attacks. After the shark attacks, the audience is barley shown the shark, instead the shocked and horrified faces of the people on the beach are shown, letting our imagination fill in the blanks. Which, in my opinion, makes it scarier. The shark is shown twice in this scene but in only quick cuts. Just enough to terrify the audience and let them know that its not just a shark but a big shark. She has said she tried to use shots of the shark as little as possible because the animatronic always looked weird and wasn’t doing what it was supposed to. But, as far as I’m concerned, it was for the best. In fact, the shot she does use of the shark, according to interviews with the cast and crew, is one of the shark animatronic malfunctioning. I admire Fields and am drawn to her work on Jaws, because she took a film with a troubled production that could have otherwise survived in mediocrity and made it truly something special and worthy of still being discussed over forty years later. Her work is one that filmmakers today should still look at. As she shows that master pieces can be created from the otherwise mundane.

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