We Were There: The Filming of Jaws

How watching ‘Jaws’ at our local drive-in gave us a taste of the Vineyard summer we missed.

I spent the summer of 1975 the same way I had spent every summer of my 11 years — at my family’s cottage on Lake Huron, with neither phone nor television. We did, however, have a newspaper, where my father worked and that my brother woke up early to toss onto other cottagers’ doorsteps so they could read it with their morning coffee. So it was in the pages of the London Free Press that we learned about a blockbuster new movie called “Jaws.”

Soon, “Jaws” was all my cottage friends were talking about. They’d driven to town to see it or they were going to see it or they’d heard all about it. It was terrifying. It was thrilling. It was horrifying. The descriptions of what this Great White did to swimmers were graphic, in the ways of pre-teens eager to freak out their friends. It all might have given me pause but it didn’t keep me out of the water.

Then came the day, mid-summer, that my older brother reported sharks had been discovered in the St. Lawrence River. They were becoming used to fresh water, he explained to me, following up with daily updates: The sharks had advanced into Lake Ontario, fully capable now of surviving in freshwater. They were breeding, he told me. They were devouring smaller fish and growing ever larger. I didn’t believe him, exactly. But I believed it was possible. And so when he told me that fishermen had hooked a small Great White near Grand Bend, a popular resort town a 20-minute drive up the lake, I began to swim only in groups, only in waist-deep water, eyes scanning always for fins. The “Jaws” chatter eventually died out but I remained vigilant until Labor Day, when we packed up and returned to the city.

In the years that followed, there were opportunities, of course, to see “Jaws.” I declined, even if it meant I was the only person I knew who hadn’t seen it. I was once again comfortable in the water and I wanted to keep it that way. Besides, the movie had become such a cultural phenomenon that my heart automatically beat a bit faster when someone said, “We’re going to need a bigger boat,” or droned the primitive, pulsing theme song.

A decade ago, I discovered Martha’s Vineyard when a friend invited me to visit her there. It was an odd feeling, coming to a place I’d never been before but that felt like home. Over subsequent visits, I became more enamoured. The sense of community, the friendly businesses, the quiet, the trails, the deep, rich history. And the water. Always the water.

Two summers ago, my husband and I bought a 120-year-old cottage in Vineyard Haven. We took possession in early October 2019. Visited to meet with renovators that November. Got word in December that an engineer declared it unsafe, uninhabitable, only renovatable with a budget far larger than we had. We got drawings for a new building in January 2020. We worked furiously to get things in place but by March, which is when, thanks to the spread of a novel coronavirus, everybody’s plans fell apart. It was clear that we were not going to be spending time on the Vineyard that summer. Even this summer remains iffy, with the border still firmly shut between Canada and the U.S.

Which is why, after 45 years of avoiding “Jaws,” I found myself last July 3 — a warm clear night with a full moon – sitting with my husband in our car outside an indie movie theatre eating popcorn and waiting for the summer 1975 blockbuster to be screened against a building outfitted with painted Styrofoam.

We were nervous and giddy. My husband had seen “Jaws” the summer it came out, and, a city boy nowhere near a body of water, he became convinced that sharks might emerge from the sewers, a fear he’d never quite overcome.

And I was the “last person on earth to see ‘Jaws’”, as my Vineyard friend put it.

What made us willing to risk traumatizing ourselves was our longing for the Vineyard. Watching the movie filmed there, we figured, might quench our thirst for glimpses of the place we loved, a taste of the summer we’d imagined.

We were just a few minutes in when, “Hey! Is that South Beach? I think that’s South Beach,” my husband hollered. A few minutes later: “That has to be Oak Bluffs, right?” I asked. Then, “That’s gotta be Menemsha!” Our socially distant car neighbors cast us annoying looks through open windows but we didn’t care. We were there. Sure there was a blood-thirsty shark in the water. And yeah, the politicians were prioritizing the economy over people’s lives, just like they were doing again in 2020. But we were there. On the Vineyard. For 124 glorious, occasionally terrifying minutes, we were there.

“Jaws” still plays in Vineyard movie theaters, especially in summer. Check bit.ly/3CiU0d8 to find out when you can watch it . . . again.