“Inside JAWS”: This fan’s “filmumentary” is a ‘love letter’ to the 1975 blockbuster film

By on June 30, 2015

Three summers ago, Jamie Benning — a London-based editor of live televised sporting events and music festivals in his early 40s — revealed his latest fan feature-length homemade documentary, a “filmumentary,” for Steven Spielberg’s 1975 summer classic Jaws, and like like the one he’d made previously, for a few of the Star Wars movies and one for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Inside Jaws was packed to the gills, so to speak, with interviews he’d gathered from various sources, not to mention deleted scenes, alternate takes and on-screen info-graphics.

Here’s the catch: Benning did not obtain any rights from anyone to make this film, none whatsoever — it’s a completely unofficial documentary, and Benning had absolutely no permission from anyone to make it, not Spielberg, Universal Pictures, no one.

Benning, however, considers his homemade documentaries to be “love letters” to some of his favorite movies, and he just wants you to watch them. He makes no profit on them whatsoever.

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Design by Pete Starling of Electrographica.co.uk

Jaws, released theatrically in the U.S. on June 20, 1975 — just over 40 years ago — is a blockbuster film loved by many, but how many fans have made their own documentary about the movie before? We can’t think of any others.

Just to recap what you might already know about the making of Jaws: yes, there were problems with the mechanical shark — nicknamed Bruce by Spielberg, after his lawyer — and it not only had a defective jaw and crossed eyes, but it sank on the third day of shooting.

Indeed, the production was shut down several times while Bruce and his two stand-in mechanical sharks were being repaired, the delays pushing the production well past the film’s original June 30th deadline. After awhile, the bemused crew began calling the film Flaws.

The original budget of 3.5 million ballooned to just about 10 million dollars, a blowout of almost 300 percent. Studios hate it when you do that.

But, you see, those are the stories almost everyone who has read anything about the movie already knows.

Benning wanted to tell stories no one else was telling, a refreshing idea, really.

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Benning has previously told interviewers that it took him sixteen months to complete Inside Jaws, working at it at night, when his kids were asleep, or while traveling on airplanes (his job apparently takes him around the world for Formula One motor racing events, and he uses his down-time in hotel rooms to work on his projects).

Inside Jaws, he says, cost somewhere between $500 and $1000 in U.S. dollars to make.

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We’re not talking here about the sleek studio-produced “official” DVD docs you’ll occasionally find on Netflix. Benning’s filmumentaries — which are hosted on Vimeo and at filmumentaries.com — are labors-of-love, and much of the material was found on the internet, taken from old VHS tapes he purchased on eBay, or he’s done some of his own interviews with movie extras and lesser-known production employees who probably wouldn not have been asked to tell their side of the stories about what happened during production. Some of them provided their own 8mm home movies.

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For Inside Jaws, Benning had some additional archival help from James Beller, who runs JawsCollector.com, who asked if he would make a filmumentary on Jaws after seeing some of his earlier film projects. Beller provided Benning with stacks of material and offered many suggestions, pointing out some of the stuff that was, to his knowledge, likely to be overlooked by the makers of the official Jaws documentary, The Shark Is Still Working.

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Benning chose to focus on a lot of the local people who were living in Martha’s Vineyard in 1974, including many who worked on or appeared in the movie but whose names weren’t included in the credits, people who just happened to have been working on the island that summer when the film crews showed up. Some of them were on set to witness Richard Dreyfuss’s ongoing set feuds with everybody, or Steven Spielberg’s vocalized angst about the shark not working, and, sure, there are some interviews here by Spielberg, Dreyfuss and others, including Carl Gottlieb, but the real focus, and the real joy, of Inside Jaws is hearing some of the day-to-day accounts from some of the extras, day labourers, stunt people and effects personnel, people who never would have been sought out by most documentary filmmakers to tell their stories about working on Jaws.

For instance, Benning talked to actress Lee Fierro who played Mrs. Kitner, the mother of the boy eaten by the shark at the beach, whose impassioned speech to Chief Brody gained her a round of applause from the crew, although maybe not from Roy Scheider as his cheeks were probably sore from all the slaps she gave him. Turns out that originally the screenplay called for her to cuss out Brody, not slap the hell out of him.

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Benning also talked to a laborer named Kevin Pike, who ended up having quite an illustrious career in film, working on Return of the Jedi and Back to the Future, building the DeLorean used in the first movie. He spoke to an extra who was given a little part after he’d actually snuck onto the set. He talked to people who were cast in small roles simply because of what they did in real life on Martha’s Vineyard, like the doctor playing the part of the doctor on Amity Island, for instance.

Oh, by the way, as an aside, did you know that Amity mayor Larry Vaughn’s anchor sportsjacket has its own Facebook page? Yep.

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Yes, there’s occasionally a remembrance of someone who was there on set about Robert Shaw — who played shark hunter Quint — and whether or not he was sober or drunk during certain memorable scenes, but we think it’s more interesting that Benning sought out people who had less-familiar stories, even some that had never been told before, about the making of Jaws between May 2 and September 17, 1974, a shoot that lasted 159 days. It was only supposed to be 55 days.

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Another great example of that kind of out-of-the-box thinking is when Benning talked to Rita Schmidt, who was dating the prop master, who told him that Richard Dreyfuss used to get so bored on set that he would go to the local knitting shop and play cards with the ladies in the shop. It was Dreyfuss’s idea, we learn, that cutting open a shark’s stomach would really stink and he thought it would aid him to get the appropriate reaction to his performance.

The shark, by the way, was a nearly four-meter tiger shark nicknamed “Oscar” that was caught down in Florida, and then shipped by FedEx in a four-and-a-half-meter casket. It was one of the very first packages the company ever delivered, circa 1974.

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There are some some surprises along the way, too — take for example the fact that it has always been attributed to actor Roy Scheider that he ad-libbed “we’re going to need a bigger boat,” and that Carl Gottlieb, one of the screenwriters, had always given him credit and has even said “It’s a little disappointing that I didn’t come up with it myself,” only Benning found an interview someone did with Scheider in which he says that it was actually Gottlieb who had come up with the line, and he merely repeated it on-camera as an ad-lib. Gottlieb, nice guy that he is, gave him the credit.

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As you might expect, Benning now has quite growing fanbase who support everything he does — count Night Fight among your fans, sir! — including employees at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic and even Nathan Hamill, the son of Mark Hamill, the original Luke Skywalker.

It’s been a few years since this filmumentary was released online and Benning has said before that he has a “mental list” of some of the movies he’d like to do next (the list includes Superman, Ghostbusters, The Shining, Back to the Future, 2001: A Space Odyssey), but we don’t know yet what he’s working on next, and Night Flight will for sure bring it to you when we find out.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.