My Journey for a Jaws Barrel
Over the course of my life, I have been a US Navy diver, a hardhat commercial diver, and an aquarium diver surrounded by sharks. Recently at the age of 50, I graduated the Tom Savini Special Makeup Effects Program and now make my living as a special effects artist.
I owe all of these accomplishments to a movie I saw in the summer of 1975 at the age of seven. A movie that made such an impact on me, it steered the course of my life forever. That movie was Jaws.
I would go back and see Jaws as many times as I could during its original release. Back in 1975, Jaws stayed in theaters for nearly a year. When it was re-released a few years later, I eagerly went back and watched it again.
Instead of walking out of the theater fearing the ocean, I was fascinated with it. I wanted to know everything I could about sharks. I bought and read every book I could get my hands on. All of my school science projects were about sharks. When Jaws aired on HBO I did whatever I could to watch it (my family didn’t have HBO, so I had to get my fix at my friends’ houses). When it aired on TV for the first time, my family did not have a VCR to record it, so I recorded the audio from the movie on my tape recorder and would sit and listen to it in my room. To say I was Jaws obsessed was an understatement.
What was it about this movie that would shape so much of my life? I think we can all agree Jaws is a classic. I think for me it is a movie that reaches us as humans at a primal level. It goes deep down into that reptilian part of our brains about survival. This fish actually exists and if you swim in the ocean this could happen to you. So there is a very real fear factor for all who see it, including myself. But as I saw it, you can either face that fear, or vow to stay out of the ocean. Jaws did instill fear in me, but that fear made me want to learn more. I wanted to understand everything I could about this animal in case I ever came across one (not that there was any likelihood of a great white shark attacking swimmers in Cincinnati, Ohio, but I wasn’t taking any chances).
The character development in Jaws is just as much the story as the shark. Steven Spielberg gave Peter Benchley a lot of credit for how well-written these characters were in the book and how well they translated to the screenplay written by Spielberg and Carl Gottlieb. The three main characters, Hooper, Quint, and Brody, come from different backgrounds, yet all are ordinary men in an extraordinary situation. This created dramatic tension between the characters, while also making them very relatable. I think when watching a movie like Jaws we find ourselves asking ‘what would I do in this situation?’ We can’t help but see a little bit of each of these characters in ourselves. In the end, all three had a role in killing the shark. It was Hooper’s scuba cylinder, Quint’s M1 Garand rifle, and Brody’s marksmanship and ability to perform under pressure that together defeated the shark.
Little did I realize back then the huge role Jaws would play in my life, even today. In high school I wanted to be an oceanographer, but by my senior year I was smart enough to realize that college wasn’t for me, so I joined the Navy. If it was good enough for Quint, it was good enough for me. This put me by the ocean, but I wanted to be in the ocean, so I became a Navy diver.
After serving five years in the Navy, I got out and went through commercial diving school and worked as a hardhat diver for many years. Later I would work for a public aquarium where I got to dive with sharks on a regular basis. I couldn’t dive in those tanks without thinking about Jaws and what a cool experience it was to be up close and personal with sharks.
As I was approaching 50 and had been doing the dive thing for a long time, I decided to pursue my other passion - making monsters and special effects. I have always been a creative person and had my hand somewhere in the realm of special effects in Halloween costuming and the production of haunted attractions. Of course the mechanical shark in Jaws always fascinated me as part of the making of the movie (which is another story all itself and another reason that I love Jaws). So with my wife's blessing and total support, I went back to school (feeling just like Rodney Dangerfield) to get my associates degree in Specialized Business at the Tom Savini Special Makeup Effects School in Monessen, Pennsylvania.
This was a dream come true. I had wanted to attend this school since I first heard of it 15 years ago. But back then I was a single father from my first marriage, so it just wasn’t in the cards. I met my second wife-to-be in 2008 when I started diving for the aquarium. She was the dive safety officer and a huge fan of Jaws herself, crediting it for her life-long love of sharks and passion to become a diver. Fast forward seven years to us visiting the school on a road trip through Pennsylvania, and she told me I was going to that school no matter what. Once again Jaws had brought something good into my life. So thirty-one years after graduating high school, I was going to college.
The school was high-speed low-drag. There was never a shortage of things to do. It was like anything else in life, you got out of it what you put into it, and I dove in head-first and never looked back. In my first semester sculpting class, we had to sculpt a bust of a famous person or movie character. I chose Robert Shaw as Quint, and for my first-ever bust sculpt, it looked pretty good. I was happy with it. This lead to more Jaws-themed projects while I was in school.
I was always looking and planning ahead for the portfolio review at graduation - a display of your best work at school. I was already visualizing my display. I knew that I would learn animatronics in fourth semester and planned to make the head of Bruce, the shark from Jaws. If I was going to do this as one of my major display pieces, I wanted to have more Jaws-related items to go with it as the ultimate homage to my favorite movie. So I created a number of props for my Jaws display. I made Chrissie’s severed arm out of silicone. I made the Beach Closed sign and the picket fence and added some sand and seaweed to recreate the beach in the opening scene. But I knew I needed just one more big item to complete this display. I thought one of the yellow barrels would be the perfect iconic piece. Something that when you see it you know exactly what it is and what movie it came from. So this started my journey and search for a Jaws-style barrel.
I started doing my research and found out that they were 30-gallon plastic DOT barrels made in the early 1970s. I searched eBay and researched companies that manufactured plastic barrels, but could find absolutely nothing remaining from that era or that looked like the barrels in Jaws. The barrels in Jaws have a distinct look and shape to them, and I was going for authenticity. I was about to give up, but thought that I would check some Jaws forum sights to see if anyone in the Jaws community knew anything about the barrels, because I had seen people post them in pictures of their collections. I already knew the ones that were used in the movie had been in collectors’ hands for years, so where were all these other ones coming from? All my questions were answered when someone suggested that I try getting in touch with Susan Murphy.
I recognized her name from the book On Location….On Martha’s Vineyard by Edith Blake. Susan and her husband Lynn owned a marina in Martha’s Vineyard and were hired by Universal Studios to run cast and crew to the different filming sights during the film’s production. It was explained to me that there were many barrels used in the production of Jaws. Some were used to help float the shark, the cage, and the Orca 2. Since the shark didn't work most of the time, Steven Spielberg had the idea to take five barrels from the stock, paint them yellow and then stress them to look used. These would then be used to show the presence of the shark when the actual shark wasn’t available.
I Googled “Susan Murphy Martha’s Vineyard” and some links popped up showing a Susan Murphy in Martha’s Vineyard who grew and sold blueberries on the island. There was a phone number. So I dialed it. A woman answered, and I asked if this was Susan Murphy who worked on Jaws. She replied yes and asked who I was. I explained my situation and asked by any chance did she had any barrels left. She told me she had four left, which blew my mind that there were still some of these barrels floating around (pun intended) after 43 years. I could not pass up this opportunity to get my hands on an actual barrel that was identical to the barrels on screen and actually used in the production of Jaws. Susan preceded to tell me more about the barrels. She said one way to know you have an authentic barrel from Jaws is that the words “BORN FREE” are molded into the bottom of the barrel. She then went on about her and her husband’s experiences during the making of Jaws and that whenever you see the shark’s fin or barrels going through the water, it was them towing it. She also told me how her husband Lynn had to come up with ways to tow these things through the water in such a way that the cameras would not pick up the wake of their boats on film. I could have listened to these stories all day. So Susan and I made a deal, and she sent me the barrel.
The black barrel with BORN FREE on its bottom arrived on the doorstep of the house I was renting in Monessen. The first thing I did was make a five-piece mold in order to make replicas later. The mold was enormous and looked like a WWII water mine you see in movies. With the mold complete and ready for future use, it was time to make my barrel look like one used on screen. I coated the barrel yellow with Rust-Oleum spray paint, then with lots of reference pictures from the movie, I took assorted sand papers and Scotchbrite scuff pads and distressed the barrel to look like it came off the Orca. With the paint job complete, I got some hemp rope and used my knot-tying skills from my time in the Navy and put the finishing touches on the barrel.
My animatronic Jaws was coming along swimmingly. Actually, it was a lot like Bruce in many ways; it was a massive amount of work, gave me a lot of trouble, but it looked great in the end. My Jaws exhibit at my portfolio review was a huge hit at graduation, and the barrel now resides in my living room along with other Jaws memorabilia. I thought the mission complete until I learned that Richard Dreyfuss was going to appear at Supercon in Louisville, Kentucky. It seemed there was to be one final chapter in the story of the barrel - to get Hooper to autograph it.
My wife and I drove down from Cincinnati the night before in order to show up early on the one day Richard was scheduled to appear. We were told the hotel was just two and a half blocks from the convention center, but by the time we walked all the way around to the opposite side where the entrance was, I had dragged that barrel four blocks. In the pouring rain. Of course.
Once we made it to the convention center, we could tell the barrel was getting a lot of attention from other Jaws enthusiasts, and it became a photo op for many. It was great to share the story of the barrel with them and was great to see the many generations of people young and old that have the same love for this movie. Seeing families that were dressed up as the characters from the movie was a lot of fun, and even Ralph Macchio the original Karate Kid saw the barrel and shared his love of Jaws with me.
We waited in line for Richard and were not disappointed. It was such a surreal moment. Richard was his charming and funny self, and said that signing this barrel was a first for him. We hoisted it up onto the table, and in red ink he wrote his improvised line from his opening appearance in the film at the marina, “Eh, eh, they’re all gonna DIE!!” (Hooper) - Richard Dreyfuss. It meant a lot to me to be able to tell Richard in person how much this movie means to me and to thank him for his art of acting that helped make this movie the classic it is. He was very humble and very sincere when he thanked me for being such a super fan.
Now I can officially say mission complete on the barrel… unless I get a chance to get Steven Spielberg to sign it. You never just know. But whether SuperCon was the final chapter or not, it was a memorable one. It had been a long journey, a long day, and a long ride. Show me the way to go home…
By Steve Korb
If you would like to contribute a guest blog, please visit our ‘work with us’ page