Meet the makers of “Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard”

Meet the makers of “Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard”

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“Jaws: Memories of Martha’s Vineyard” by Matt Taylor, Moonrise Media, Chilmark, June 2011 (on-Island), September 2011 (nationally), 295 pp., $59.95 paperback; $250 limited edition hardcover package. Available at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books.

The Book of “Jaws,” biblical in scope, will be a top summer read based on early interest in the fascinating, often-hilarious Island story behind “Jaws,” filmed here in 1974 by then-unknown director Steven Spielberg.

For example, author Matt Taylor drew 60 people to his author appearance at the West Tisbury Library recently in advance of release of “Jaws: Memories of Martha’s Vineyard” this week. Those are rock star numbers for an Island library event.

How come? Part of it is the whole Jaws thing. The scary monster-sized shark slurping swimmers and munching on trawlers has stood up more than 35 years to become a modern American film legend. People who’ve never heard of Martha’s Vineyard can identify the “shark music” after two terrifying notes.

Mr. Taylor did yeoman work researching the story behind the story with a goal of talking to every Island person associated with the movie and completed about 130 interviews, he estimates. Mr. Spielberg wrote a gracious Foreword to the book, giving thanks to Islanders for their help and support 38 years ago.

Off-Island readers will be attracted to the story because of the legend. Islanders, residents, and washashores will devour this book because Mr. Taylor got his story from the homespun, sometimes raucous, and generally undisciplined bunch who populated The Rock nearly 40 years ago. Their real personas were often bigger than the fictional scripted characters. We learn that Islanders, often unwittingly, reshaped the final version of the movie.

Mr. Taylor, 38, sounded like a lottery winner in a phone interview this week. “We launched the website April 3 and we’ve pre-sold about 1,000 copies. Unbelievable response,” he said. Positive mentions on Time.com, Yahoo, and ABC News appeared last week and Yankee magazine, among others, gave the book a thumbs-up, he said.

The book comes as a $59.95 paperback version and a $250 boxed hardcover version including a DVD of original 8mm film shot throughout the filming by Carol Fligor, as well as an original piece of the Orca, the fishing boat Bruce, the mechanical shark, had for lunch in the film. The book debuts Saturday on-Island and nationally in September.

Getting started

Mr. Taylor is descended from 300 years of Athearns here. History, particularly local history, has been his metier. “I knew all the untold stories about making the movie from growing up here but all the ‘Jaws’ books I’ve read recirculate the same stories, the Hollywood version. I wanted to tell a fresh story from an Island perspective.”

This retrospective will prove an important addition to the historical and sociological library of Island life, and a lot more fun to read than most. In it, the difference between today’s Island life and daily living just a generation ago is clearly apparent through the voices of Islanders and a thousand candid photos unearthed from Island attics and cellars.

Jim Beller had the original idea for the book, and Mr. Taylor spent three years researching and writing it. The volume of information suggests they didn’t take many days off. This is a big, brawny book of about 300 pages and several pounds, produced by project editor Carrie Fyler.

No one knew, in the cold early spring of 1974, that “Jaws” would spawn a sub-industry of collectors, sequels, books, blogs, and websites. What Islanders knew was a day’s pay as an extra or several months’ wages as a carpenter, deck hand, or bookkeeper was welcome news in a particularly hard-scrabble winter.

In retrospect, we might have figured Mr. Spielberg was destined for greatness. He navigated the small town politics and bureaucratic rigamarole and learned quickly that being happy is better than being right, particularly when tourist season is right around the corner, and you’ve got to wrap the movie. Mr. Spielberg’s quandary resembles today’s bemused homeowner trying to get an addition approved and built.

“Jaws” is presented in six chapters, beginning with production designer Joe Alves coming to the Island in December 1973 to scout locations. Mr. Alves ended up here because the ferries weren’t running to Nantucket, his first choice. There’s a lot of funny stuff in the middle — and some drama — as Bruce, the uncooperative mechanical shark, chewed through the budget and the shooting schedule and nearly sank the film. The book concludes with the world premier in Oak Bluffs on June 20, 1975.

The format brings chapter segments to life deftly with short scene-setting essays illuminated by interviews and photos of Islanders’ recollections.

The temptation here is to recount the juicy tales and Islander hijinks around their participation in the movie. There’s a limitless supply. Instead, here’s a sample of answers you’ll get to questions that probably have not been gnawing at you for 37 years but are fun to know:

How did Chris Rebello and Jay Mello get the parts as Chief Brody’s kids instead of Johnny and Tommy Poole or Jonathan and Stephen Searle?

How did a fake shark save Bob Carroll’s bacon so he could save Universal Studios’ hide?

Was Islander Craig Kingsbury a bigger star than actor Robert Shaw?

Did Jeff Kramer’s agent get him the audition, or was it really his mom?

And hundreds of pictures of today’s staid burghers as they looked in the ’70s. Wow. I mean, John Alley definitely had a Che Guevara look going on. And he doesn’t stand out in the crowd. Looking at wigged-out hair, shades, and third-world wardrobes, it’s a hoot to know that some of them actually became responsible, elected public officials.

Mr. Taylor left an almost-finished documentary on Island agriculture to work on the “Jaws” project. Next up? “I’m going to finish the agriculture film for fall viewing and then we’ll see. I’m getting a lot of inquiries about doing other books, using our ‘Jaws’ book format.”

“Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard” Book Event, 5:30 pm, Saturday, July 2, Federated Church, Edgartown. With Matt Taylor, Joe Alves, Carol Fligor, slideshow by Joseph C. Hazen Jr. $20. 508-627-4441 ext. 110; frontdesk@mvmuseum.org.

Jack Shea, of Vineyard Haven, is a regular contributor to The Times.