“I used to see dad drink. I often played under the table in Irish pubs

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When Ian Shaw was five, he did something to make any moviegoer jealous: he visited the Jaws set. While on site on Martha’s Vineyard on the east coast of the United States, an assistant pulled out a huge sheet and young Shaw found himself staring into the gaping mouth of the man-eating shark that would soon become a movie icon.

“I was terrified,” says Shaw, who is now 51 years old. He was on set because his father, Robert Shaw, starred in the film as Quint, the psychotic shark hunter who, at the end of the film, was bitten in half. Shaw says he’s been to a lot of his father’s film sets and the Jaws shoot was like any other. But what he didn’t know at the time was that the shoot was one of the most notoriously dysfunctional in movie history, plagued by technical issues and casting feuds.

I played around with the idea of ​​a play for years because I felt it could be very embarrassing – potentially disrespectful to my dad and the movie Jaws, which I adore.

The production’s three mechanical sharks kept breaking down and filming was often delayed: Steven Spielberg, the film’s director, took to calling the special effects team the “special flaws department.” At one point, a boat they were filming on sank, sending two cameras to the bottom of the sea. (The film inside the cameras turned out to be safe.)

Shaw’s father – who died in 1978 – brought his own struggles to the production. He drank heavily during filming and clashed with a co-star, Richard Dreyfuss. Elder Shaw belittled and repeatedly attempted to humiliate Dreyfuss, making off-putting comments seconds before the cameras rolled or prompting Dreyfuss to perform silly stunts, like climbing a ship’s mast and jumping into the sea .

The Shark is Broken: Demetri Goritsas as Roy Scheider, Ian Shaw as Robert Shaw and Liam Murray Scott as Richard Dreyfuss. Photograph: Helen Maybanks via The New York Times

Roy Scheider, the film’s other star, was stuck between the two rivals. Young Shaw didn’t learn the full extent of the chaos on the set of Jaws until decades later, he says, but he realized they had enough drama for a play. Now he’s winning rave reviews in London for The Shark Is Broken, a three-way West End comedy. In it, Shaw plays his father, stuck on a boat with Dreyfuss (Liam Murray Scott) and Scheider (Demetri Goritsas) as tensions rise and fall.

Here, Shaw talks about how difficult it is to portray his father’s dark side on stage, and whether conflict can spur creativity. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

In the room your father clearly doesn’t like Jaws. Has he ever taken you to see the movie?
I saw it when I was very young, in a screening room somewhere, and I was absolutely terrified and couldn’t go to the pool after that. I remember having nightmares, imagining sharks around my bed, and calling my dad to come save me. Even though I knew in the movie he got eaten, I was able to suspend my disbelief about it.

What gave you the idea of ​​turning the problems of the film into a play?
I once had to grow a mustache for a role, and I looked in the mirror and thought, oh, I look like Quint. This is what started, but it seemed like a very silly and insane idea, as I had spent my entire career avoiding associating with my father.

Then I read Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log and watched documentaries, and I saw that there was this really interesting relationship between Robert and Richard and Roy – this triangle that makes great drama. And you only need three people, so it’s affordable!

I played around with the idea for years, because I felt it could be very embarrassing – potentially disrespectful to my dad and the movie Jaws, which I adore. Put myself in my father’s shoes and paint him as an alcoholic, do I have the right to do that publicly?

Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss laugh together on a boat while filming Jaws.  Photograph: Universal Studios / Getty Images

Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss laugh together on a boat while filming Jaws. Photograph: Universal Studios / Getty Images

Did you know he was an alcoholic at the time? He died just a few years after making Jaws, when you were still young.
I saw him drink. I often played under the table in Irish pubs when he had a session. But that didn’t seem like a problem then. It actually seemed a bit normal. I feel like this generation, especially more popular actors like Richard Burton, had a little uneasiness with the trade in terms of tights and makeup. So their way of asserting their masculinity was by being hard drinkers, the kind of Viking method to prove themselves.

What made you overcome your fear of disrespecting him?
When I started writing the play with Joseph Nixon, we quickly realized that it wasn’t just Jaws. Joe’s dad passed away very sadly, and it became a bit more about fathers and sons, drug addiction, filmmaking in general. There were these other themes that meant it wasn’t just a hit.

Richard Dreyfuss (left) as marine biologist Hooper and Robert Shaw as shark fisherman Quint in Steven Spielberg's Jaws.  Photograph: Universal Pictures via Getty Images

Richard Dreyfuss (left) as marine biologist Hooper and Robert Shaw as shark fisherman Quint in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Photograph: Universal Pictures via Getty Images

You show your father constantly angry with Dreyfuss, often seemingly just for fun. Why do you think he behaved like this?
He really didn’t want to do Jaws because, at the time, he was offered [the remake of] Brief Encounter, or was certainly up for it. He would have preferred to do that, to break with this macho image. He sort of felt handcuffed to Jaws to support his family.

Then the shark doesn’t work, so they hang around. And he liked to drink. But also Dreyfuss really liquidated him, and so he thought he needed a little slap. He challenged Dreyfuss to jump off the mast from the top of the ship and I think he shot a fire hose in the face. There are so many stories and many of them are true.

In the play, your father says he needs Dreyfuss to make the movie better. Their characters are meant to hate each other. Did you think maybe he was just trying to create a mood?
Personally, I think it was both because he was annoyed by Richard, but also because he thought it did a good job between them. The acting is so good in the movie, so it probably helped.

Given that Jaws have you run into so many problems, have you ever made The Shark Is Broken?
Not that I can remember. When I had the first ideas on paper, I woke up in a cold sweat at three in the morning, thinking, “This is really a bad idea” – because I was really afraid of offending my family. . But in terms of the writing process, I really enjoyed it.

Do you think Would Jaws have been a better movie without the issues?
No, because the problems meant they all dragged out and developed it. This allowed them to improvise. “You’re going to need a bigger boat” was an improvisation by Steven Spielberg. And the delays allowed my dad to rewrite the Indianapolis speech, which is a great moment. All kinds of things were designed in there while they were hanging around, waiting.

Disaster is therefore a good recipe for creative success.
Well, it can be. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

The The shark is broken takes place at the Ambassadors Theater, London, until January 15th


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