The iconic 1975 thriller “Jaws” directed by Steven Spielberg brought national acclaim to Martha’s Vineyard, and drew many thousands of fans of the classic to the Island over the next four-and-a-half decades.
But there are many stories that remain hidden in dusty photo albums, journals, and in the minds of those who lived on the Vineyard while the movie was being filmed.
Whether they were actively involved in the production, or simply sat on the sidelines and watched as the beaches cleared and camera crews flooded in — the perspectives of Islanders have slowly been uncovered over the years through dedicated investigative work.
A new documentary coming out in the next year or so will feature many untold stories and points of view, all set amid the backdrop of the Vineyard counterculture of the 1970s.
The documentary film, called “Making the Monster,” is currently in preproduction, and is being spearheaded by director and producer David Bigelow, who acted as an extra in the filming of “Jaws” when he was a kid.
His experience with “Jaws” as a child greatly influenced his life, and sparked a passion for cinema that has grown into a lifelong career at WGBH as an editor and colorist.
“I was a little kid growing up in Oak Bluffs — Lee Fierro was my drama teacher at Oak Bluffs Elementary,” Bigelow recalled to The Times. “[Fierro] told our class they were shooting the film down at the beach, and they needed some kids to go and be in the water for this attack sequence with Alex Kintner.”
Through his work at WGBH, and the fact that Bigelow was an extra in the film, he met John Campopiano, archives and rights manager for PBS’ popular “Frontline” program (and “Jaws” superfan).
The two bonded over their love for the cult classic, and at the same time they found the man who conceptualized and co-authored what Bigelow said is the most referenced and in-depth “Jaws” book ever written, “Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard.”
His name is Jim Beller, and he has what many consider to be the most extensive collection of “Jaws” memorabilia.
Since 2018, the three superfans have been collaborating (among a number of other production partners) to gather interviews, dig up old photographs, and piece together the largely uncaptured (on film, at least) story of how Martha’s Vineyard became Amity Island.
The production team has already gathered around 15 interviews from people in Hollywood who were on the set of “Jaws” filming, along with Vineyarders who acted as extras and laborers, and who witnessed the making of the monster.
Although there are a number of “Jaws”-centered documentaries already, Bigelow said, those mainly focused on the Hollywood crew, Spielberg in his element, or the giant mechanical shark experiencing technical difficulties. “But we think there are a lot more stories, especially from a Martha’s Vineyard perspective, that are really interesting and have not been shared before,” Bigelow said.
The structure of the documentary intends to chronologically retell the successes, tribulations, and workarounds that the “Jaws” crew faced, and how Vineyarders were the ones who made the film work out in the end. “What happened during that five- or six-month production that was unique, interesting, or important from an Island perspective?” Bigelow said.
Campopiano said he wants to highlight the kind of hippie-haven counterculture contained on the Island in the 1970s, and how that affected the filming. “We want to make sure the Vineyard gets a really good representation of what the Island community was like at that time, and how the arrival of ‘Jaws’ affected the local dynamic,” Campopiano said.
Initially, the “Making the Monster” project began in 2017 as a docudrama — a scripted narrative about the making of the film.
That project is still very much active; however, the research the team was doing for that initiative began to accumulate, and revealed many new stories that Bigelow said needed to be shared with the world.
When Campopiano was staying with his wife at the Attleboro House in Oak Bluffs four years ago, they met the owner of the inn, Billy Reagan, who showed them old pictures of Spielberg filming the estuary scene, and of the mechanical shark — photos he had never seen before.
He was shocked to learn that such rare photos were being stowed away in an inn on Martha’s Vineyard, and determined that there must be more hidden treasures to uncover.
With the 50th anniversary of “Jaws” coming up in just four years, Bigelow said, it’s rare for a movie to hold up so well in the sphere of American cinema, especially nowadays, as blockbusters are often found in the latest iteration of a Marvel superhero movie.
When Beller interviewed Joe Alves, the production designer who helped mastermind the mechanical shark and all the other brilliant props, Alves told him Martha’s Vineyard was the perfect spot to film the movie.
Originally, Alves was headed to Nantucket, where Peter Benchley, the author of the “Jaws” book and co-writer of its film adaptation, had a house at the time.
“Joe was about to go out there to Nantucket, and the ferry was canceled. But the Vineyard ferry was still running out of Woods Hole, so he hopped on the ferry and was blown away when he arrived,” Beller said. “Walking through Edgartown, he said it was the perfect place — little homes with black shutters and white picket fences — this is the perfect place for a monster shark to destroy.”
For Bigelow, the brilliance of “Jaws” came from the trials and tragedy faced during production that created an irreplicable product: “It was lightning in a bottle, and we hope this project will add to the understanding and appreciation of what it took to create that, especially on the part of those who lived [on the Vineyard].”
Over the next year or so, Bigelow and the rest of the “Making the Monster” team will be looking for Islanders who are willing to share their “Jaws” stories. “We aren’t going to rush this project — we want to gather as much information and interviews as we can about what people experienced, and how ‘Jaws’ affected their lives,” Bigelow said.
Visit the “Making the Monster” documentary Facebook page at facebook.com/makingthemonster, or check out a comprehensive “Jaws” location guide at bit.ly/JawsLocales, for all the spots where the movie was filmed.