In the summer of ’87, I was 13 years old and walking around with the book “Jaws” in my backpack. While not quite old enough to appreciate the nuances of its sub-story (man versus nature), Jaws was a page turner for me. I was engrossed by the great, white shark who seemed unaware it was supposed to dislike warm water or steer clear of humans.
Coincidentally, the fourth installment of the Jaws movie franchise was scheduled to be released later that summer but my mom, who was dead set against me reading the book fearing it may be too graphic, was not onboard with my watching the movie.
Out to prove I could handle my first horror film without running to her room in the middle of the night, I asked and my mom agreed to rent the original Jaws movie on VHS. That was the first time I watched a film based on a book I had read, and my expectations were high.
Once we rented the movie, I was surprised by three things:
1) For a shark film, there is very little shark action in it,
2) The anticipation of being horrified is sometimes more horrific than the actual horror.
3) Sometimes not getting what you expect can be a good thing.
If you are familiar with the story of how Jaws was made, you probably know that the original plan was to have as many shark money shots as possible. But, as now know, things did not go as planned. In fact, they went horribly awry.
Finding Another Road
Jaws the movie, according to published reports, was a catastrophe before it even began filming. Cameras rolled before the cast was fully selected and with only a partial script. A decision to film scenes in the open ocean and with real sharks brought havoc to mechanical props and endangered the lives of the crew. Originally budgeted at $5 million and scheduled to be shot in less than 60 days, final production was closer to $9 million and shooting took 159 days.
Its director was a then relatively unknown Steven Spielberg, who had either threatened to quit or been fired half a dozen times before production ended. One of the biggest challenges the movie faced was that they could not get the central character, represented in the movie as a menacing, mechanical shark, to work.
Despite repeated testing and numerous tweaks, the shark’s electrical components were no match for the salty water of the Atlantic Ocean. Over-budget and over-schedule, Spielberg decided that if their main problem was the shark, then they would have to just shoot around it.
Well, how do you shoot around your main problem when what people want to see is your main problem?
What Does Your Audience Really Want?
Sometimes we get so caught up in a problem we cannot see that a solution is staring us right in the face. To address a problem, we have to understand what we want our expected result to be.
Now, that sounds a bit convoluted – I know. There is a lot going in that sentence but there’s a point there.
Sometimes we are given a goal and if we are lucky, even a script to follow, to ensure we reach that goal. But even the best laid plans in life have challenges. Despite proper planning and resource allocation, sometimes we just have to figure out a different way to get there. What we cannot lose sight of is what success will look like when it’s over.
For the studio, success would look like a $50 million dollar movie (that was a lot back then.)
For a director like Spielberg, like any great leader, success would be creating a movie that leaves audiences profoundly impacted after watching it.
Unfortunately for Spielberg but fortunately for us, having technology catch up to necessity was simply not in the cards. Despite numerous attempts, they simply could not make their plan work. For both the studio and Spielberg to meet their goals, they would have have to change the way we looked at horror films, or at least borrow some lessons from people who were great at reframing expectations.
Learn to Reframe Expectations
One of the great things about watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie is that you literally don’t know what will happen next. That was his whole schtick. He would show you glimpses of the meal, make you salivate, but you only got to eat after 90 minutes.
Spielberg decided he had to deal with his shark problem the Hitchcock way and proceeded to direct one of the greatest horror movies of all time simply by breaking the paradigm of how an audience buys in to horror.
Using a special camera in the open ocean and applying shooting techniques that mimic what our view is while we are underwater, Spielberg created a sense of perpetual doom throughout the film. In some shots, we were the shark. In other shots, we were the victim. You just never knew. He took our expectations of what it would be like to be both the prey and the hunter, and had his way with us for two hours.
Sometimes, that’s what a problem requires. It requires a new way of looking at things; a special lens that forces you to view the challenge from a different angle, perhaps an opposing perspective.
In this case, the ability to shoot around the shark is what made the movie so original. Like many problems, the secret to success was to focus a little less on what was expected and to focus a little more on the experience of your audience. Sometimes you find that when your audience is satisfied, expectations change, and even improve. And isn’t that what we all set out to do? Be better than when we started?