She was the first...and we explore that scene as our first ever behind the screams, charting how Jaws made it to our screens - something almost as legendary as the Steven Spielberg film itself Last weekend The Daily Jaws, along with lots - is that a shoal? - of other Jaws fans, got the chance to meet Susan Backlinie, who played first Jaws victim Chrissie Watkins. She was appearing at Collectormania 25 at the NEC in Birmingham, although thankfully she steered clear of having a dip in the canals the night before, you know, just to be on the safe side. Her opening scene set the bar high for the film and although we never see the shark we certainly know it is there and are left under no illusion that this was no boat accident.
That opening sequence doesn’t just set the scene for the movie; it also establishes its stylistic DNA: the use of John Williams’ ominous Jaws theme to alert us to the shark’s presence; the voyeuristic shark’s POV and deception. At first the scene has an initially humorous tone with Chrissie’s drunken suitor on the beach – that rug is soon pulled from beneath us. That attack is an assault on the senses and still takes your breath away to this day, in fact arguably only the equally iconic shower scene in Psycho can only really hold a candle to it. It certainly had a lasting impact on me, I even wrote a poem about it in GCSE English. As you do.
We all know the wince-inducing scene, but how did it come to be? We dive behind the scenes and under the water to discover how that iconic first Jaws death was made and how it helped make Jaws the first $100 million film in the US and the classic it is today. It’s a scene that’s been re-enacted in swimming pool the world over, the thrashing from side to side and then suddenly bobbing under water but as we’ll discover there was a bit more to it than just that. Backlinie was a stunt woman and had been drafted in for the job especially, she was strapped into a pair of Levi shorts that had a harness complete with three fasteners, one situated at the front and one on each hip. These had cables running through them under the water and up to the beach where they could be pulled back and forth on cue by groups of people – think of it like a human tug of war.
When she felt her hips go in one direction she’d throw her arms up as violently as she could, and then the same in the other direction. The unmoving camera during this scene makes her feel more helpless, almost as if she is being bashed against the frame. The viewer rooted to the spot, like the camera, unable to help or save her.
That final yank is of course down and in front of the camera. And, that final pull-down was done by Spielberg himself. It’s a great scene not just because of the editing or the primeval music by John Williams, but because Backlinie sells it so well, especially that final gulp as she vanishes beneath the water for one final time. Backlinie says that the water was very cold and they’d probably spend two to three hours at a time getting shots.
There have long been persistent rumours that the “it hurts” screams of Backlinie weren’t improvised, they were for real as she was hurt in the human tug of war, but the stuntwoman and actress says that this certainly wasn’t the case.
All of the beach scenes were of course shot at night but the actual attack was shot day-for-night, which means it was made to look like night in the processing. If anyone remembers the old VHS version of the film it was incredibly dark and you could hardly see a think but since the advancement of formats and the cleaning up of the film we can all experience the sheer terror.
The iconic attack scene was shot at two locations, the prelude – the beach party and the wonderful tracking shot as Chrissie runs across the dunes flanked by the teeth-like fences – and everything above the water was shot at Martha’s Vineyard. The one shot that wasn’t was the shark’s point of view from under Chrissie, that was filmed in the clearer sea off Catalina, Southern California. Some 40 plus years later and Catalina Island is currently home to the Jaws: The Art of Fear in Filmmaking exhibition, small world.
Despite ‘Bruce’ not taking to saltwater as he should there were never any plans for the shark to ‘appear’ in this opening scene, it was all designed as scene on screen by Spielberg, once again highlighting how the power of the unseen can be more frightening than what is seen.
What certainly wasn’t unseen by most boys growing up was that Chrissie starkers! For many it must have been the first time they’d ever seen a naked woman in a film, not that you see much and I can’t imagine many jumping for the pause button during that scene.
From the start of the attack to when Chrissie is pulled under only takes less than 45 seconds, even after all this time packs a punch like a train. It’s the perfect opener for a movie (indeed Spielberg even copied it himself of sorts in 1993 in the opening of Jurassic Park). It effectively sets the shark up as a Jack the Ripper like monster, with a thousand knives for teeth.
The noise, the screams and the music all blend to still create a sense of dread in the pit of your stomach. It’s also one of the most iconic, and oft-imitated, poster images ever. She was the first…and buoys and their (death bell) clanging have somehow seemed sinister ever since.
And you can’t watch The Shallows and its use of the buoy without thinking of poor Chrissie either, perhaps if she’d had a friendly seagull she’d be here today as well.