Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, producers at Universal Pictures, independently heard about Peter Benchley's novel Jaws. Brown came across it in the literature section of lifestyle magazine Cosmopolitan, then edited by his wife, Helen Gurley Brown. A small card written by the magazine's book editor gave a detailed description of the plot, concluding with the comment "might make a good movie". The producers each read the book over the course of a single night and agreed the next morning that it was "the most exciting thing that they had ever read" and that they wanted to produce a film version, although they were unsure how it would be accomplished. They purchased the movie rights in 1973, before the book's publication, for approximately $175,000. Brown claimed that had they read the book twice, they would never have made the film because they would have realized how difficult it would be to execute certain sequences.
To direct, Zanuck and Brown first considered veteran filmmaker John Sturges—whose résumé included another maritime adventure, The Old Man and the Sea—before offering the job to Dick Richards, whose directorial debut, The Culpepper Cattle Co. had come out the previous year. However, they grew irritated by Richards's habit of describing the shark as a whale and soon dropped him from the project. Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg very much wanted the job. The 26-year-old had just directed his first theatrical film, The Sugarland Express, for Zanuck and Brown. At the end of a meeting in their office, Spielberg noticed their copy of the still-unpublished Benchley novel, and after reading it was immediately captivated. He later observed that it was similar to his 1971 television film Duel in that both deal with "these leviathans targeting everymen." After Richards's departure, the producers signed Spielberg to direct in June 1973, before the release of The Sugarland Express.
Before production began, however, Spielberg grew reluctant to continue with Jaws, in fear of becoming typecast as the "truck and shark director". He wanted to move over to 20th Century Fox's Lucky Lady instead, but Universal exercised its right under its contract with the director to veto his departure. Brown helped convince Spielberg to stick with the project, saying that "after [Jaws], you can make all the films you want". The film was given an estimated budget of $3.5 million and a shooting schedule of 55 days. Principal photography was set to begin in May 1974. Universal wanted the shoot to finish by the end of June, when the major studios' contract with the Screen Actors Guild was due to expire, to avoid any disruptions due to a potential strike.
For the screen adaptation, Spielberg wanted to stay with the novel's basic plot, while omitting Benchley's many subplots. He declared that his favorite part of the book was the shark hunt on the last 120 pages, and told Zanuck when he accepted the job, "I'd like to do the picture if I could change the first two acts and base the first two acts on original screenplay material, and then be very true to the book for the last third." When the producers purchased the rights to his novel, they promised Benchley that he could write the first draft of the screenplay. The intent was to make sure a script could be done despite an impending threat of a Writer’s Guild strike, given Benchley was not unionized. Overall, he wrote three drafts before the script was turned over to other writers; delivering his final version to Spielberg, he declared, "I'm written out on this, and that's the best I can do." Benchley would later describe his contribution to the finished film as "the storyline and the ocean stuff – basically, the mechanics", given he "didn’t know how to put the character texture into a screenplay." One of his changes was to remove the novel's adulterous affair between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper, at the suggestion of Spielberg, who feared it would compromise the camaraderie between the men on the Orca. During the film's production, Benchley agreed to return and play a small onscreen role as a reporter.
Spielberg, who felt that the characters in Benchley's script were still unlikable, invited the young screenwriter John Byrum to do a rewrite, but he declined the offer. Columbo creators William Link and Richard Levinson also declined Spielberg's invitation. Tony and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Howard Sackler was in Los Angeles when the filmmakers began looking for another writer and offered to do an uncredited rewrite; since the producers and Spielberg were unhappy with Benchley's drafts, they quickly agreed. At the suggestion of Spielberg, Brody's characterization made him afraid of water, "coming from an urban jungle to find something more terrifying off this placid island near Massachusetts."
Spielberg wanted "some levity" in Jaws, humor that would avoid making it "a dark sea hunt," so he turned to his friend Carl Gottlieb, a comedy writer-actor then working on the sitcom The Odd Couple. Spielberg sent Gottlieb a script, asking what the writer would change and if there was a role he would be interested in performing. Gottlieb sent Spielberg three pages of notes, and picked the part of Meadows, the politically connected editor of the local paper. He passed the audition one week before Spielberg took him to meet the producers regarding a writing job.
While the deal was initially for a "one-week dialogue polish", Gottlieb eventually became the primary screenwriter, rewriting the entire script during a nine-week period of principal photography. The script for each scene was typically finished the night before it was shot, after Gottlieb had dinner with Spielberg and members of the cast and crew to decide what would go into the film. Many pieces of dialogue originated from the actors' improvisations during these meals; a few were created on set, most notably Roy Scheider's ad-lib of the line "You're gonna need a bigger boat." John Milius contributed dialogue polishes, and Sugarland Express writers Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood also made uncredited contributions. Spielberg has claimed that he prepared his own draft, although it is unclear to what degree the other screenwriters drew on his material. One specific alteration he called for in the story was to change the cause of the shark's death from extensive wounds to a scuba tank explosion, as he felt audiences would respond better to a "big rousing ending." The director estimated the final script had a total of 27 scenes that were not in the book.
Benchley had written Jaws after reading about sport fisherman Frank Mundus's capture of an enormous shark in 1964. According to Gottlieb, Quint was loosely based on Mundus, whose book Sportfishing for Sharks he read for research. Sackler came up with the backstory of Quint as a survivor of the World War II USS Indianapolis disaster. The question of who deserves the most credit for writing Quint's monologue about the Indianapolis has caused substantial controversy. Spielberg described it as a collaboration between Sackler, Milius, and actor Robert Shaw, who was also a playwright. According to the director, Milius turned Sackler's "three-quarters of a page" speech into a monologue, and that was then rewritten by Shaw. Gottlieb gives primary credit to Shaw, downplaying Milius's contribution.
Though Spielberg complied with a request from Zanuck and Brown to cast known actors, he wanted to avoid hiring any big stars. He felt that "somewhat anonymous" performers would help the audience "believe this was happening to people like you and me", whereas "stars bring a lot of memories along with them, and those memories can sometimes ... corrupt the story." The director added that in his plans "the superstar was gonna be the shark". The first actors cast were Lorraine Gary, the wife of then-president of Universal Sid Sheinberg, as Ellen Brody, and Murray Hamilton as the mayor of Amity Island. Stuntwoman-turned-actress Susan Backlinie was cast as Chrissie as she knew how to swim and was willing to perform nude. Most minor roles were played by residents of Martha's Vineyard, where the film was shot. One example was Deputy Hendricks, played by future television producer Jeffrey Kramer.
The role of Brody was offered to Robert Duvall, but the actor was interested only in portraying Quint. Charlton Heston expressed a desire for the role, but Spielberg felt that Heston would bring a screen persona too grand for the part of a police chief of a modest community. Roy Scheider became interested in the project after overhearing Spielberg at a party talk with a screenwriter about having the shark jump up onto a boat. Spielberg was initially apprehensive about hiring Scheider, fearing he would portray a "tough guy", similar to his role in The French Connection.
Nine days before the start of production, neither Quint nor Hooper had been cast. The role of Quint was originally offered to actors Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden, both of whom passed. Zanuck and Brown had just finished working with Robert Shaw on The Sting, and suggested him to Spielberg. Shaw was reluctant to take the role since he did not like the book, but decided to accept at the urging of both his wife, actress Mary Ure, and his secretary—"The last time they were that enthusiastic was From Russia with Love. And they were right." Shaw based his performance on fellow cast member Craig Kingsbury, a local fisherman, farmer, and legendary eccentric, who was playing fisherman Ben Gardner. Spielberg described Kingsbury as "the purest version of who, in my mind, Quint was", and some of his offscreen utterances were incorporated into the script as lines of Gardner and Quint. Another source for some of Quint's dialogue and mannerisms, especially in the third act at sea, was Vineyard mechanic and boat-owner Lynn Murphy.
For the role of Hooper, Spielberg initially wanted Jon Voight. Timothy Bottoms, Joel Grey, and Jeff Bridges were also considered for the part. Spielberg's friend George Lucas suggested Richard Dreyfuss, whom he had directed in American Graffiti. The actor initially passed, but changed his decision after he attended a pre-release screening of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which he had just completed. Disappointed in his performance and fearing that no one would want to hire him once Kravitz was released, he immediately called Spielberg and accepted the role in Jaws. Because the film the director envisioned was so dissimilar to Benchley's novel, Spielberg asked Dreyfuss not to read it. As a result of the casting, Hooper was rewritten to better suit the actor, as well as to be more representative of Spielberg, who came to view Dreyfuss as "my alter ego".
"We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark."—actor Richard Dreyfuss on the film's troubled production
Principal photography began May 2, 1974, on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, selected after consideration was given to eastern Long Island. Brown explained later that the production "needed a vacation area that was lower middle class enough so that an appearance of a shark would destroy the tourist business." Martha's Vineyard was also chosen because the surrounding ocean had a sandy bottom that never dropped below 35 feet (11 m) for 12 miles (19 km) out from shore, which allowed the mechanical sharks to operate while also beyond sight of land. As Spielberg wanted to film the aquatic sequences relatively close-up to resemble what people see while swimming, cinematographer Bill Butler devised new equipment to facilitate marine and underwater shooting, including a rig to keep the camera stable regardless of tide and a sealed submersible camera box. Spielberg asked the art department to avoid red in both scenery and wardrobe, so that the blood from the attacks would be the only red element and cause a bigger shock.
Three full-size pneumatically powered prop sharks—which the film crew nicknamed "Bruce" after Spielberg's lawyer, Bruce Ramer—were made for the production: a "sea-sled shark", a full-body prop with its belly missing that was towed with a 300-foot (roughly 100-m) line, and two "platform sharks", one that moved from camera-left to -right (with its hidden left side exposing an array of pneumatic hoses), and an opposite model with its right flank uncovered. The sharks were designed by art director Joe Alves during the third quarter of 1973. Between November 1973 and April 1974, the sharks were fabricated at Rolly Harper's Motion Picture & Equipment Rental in Sun Valley, California. Their construction involved a team of as many as 40 effects technicians, supervised by mechanical effects supervisor Bob Mattey, best known for creating the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. After the sharks were completed, they were trucked to the shooting location. In early July, the platform used to tow the two side-view sharks capsized as it was being lowered to the ocean floor, forcing a team of divers to retrieve it. The model required 14 operators to control all of the moving parts.
The film had a troubled shoot and went far over budget. David Brown said that the budget "was $4 million and the picture wound up costing $9 million"; the effects outlays alone grew to $3 million due to the problems with the mechanical sharks. Disgruntled crew members gave the film the nickname "Flaws". Spielberg attributed many problems to his perfectionism and his inexperience. The former was epitomized by his insistence on shooting at sea with a life-sized shark; "I could have shot the movie in the tank or even in a protected lake somewhere, but it would not have looked the same," he said. As for his lack of experience: "I was naive about the ocean, basically. I was pretty naive about mother nature and the hubris of a filmmaker who thinks he can conquer the elements was foolhardy, but I was too young to know I was being foolhardy when I demanded that we shoot the film in the Atlantic Ocean and not in a North Hollywood tank." Gottlieb said that "there was nothing to do except make the movie", so everyone kept overworking, and while as a writer he did not have to attend the ocean set every day, once the crewmen returned they arrived "ravaged and sunburnt, windblown and covered with salt water".
Shooting at sea led to many delays: unwanted sailboats drifted into frame, cameras got soaked, and the Orca once began to sink with the actors on board. The prop sharks frequently malfunctioned owing to a series of problems including bad weather, pneumatic hoses taking on salt water, frames fracturing due to water resistance, corroding skin, and electrolysis. From the first water test onward, the "non-absorbent" neoprene foam that made up the sharks' skin soaked up liquid, causing the sharks to balloon, and the sea-sled model frequently got entangled among forests of seaweed. Spielberg later calculated that during the 12-hour daily work schedule, on average only four hours were actually spent filming. Gottlieb was nearly decapitated by the boat's propellers, and Dreyfuss was almost imprisoned in the steel cage. The actors were frequently seasick. Shaw also fled to Canada whenever he could due to tax problems, engaged in binge drinking, and developed a grudge against Dreyfuss, who was getting rave reviews for his performance in Duddy Kravitz. Editor Verna Fields rarely had material to work with during principal photography, as according to Spielberg "we would shoot five scenes in a good day, three in an average day, and none in a bad day."
The delays proved serendipitous in some regards. The script was refined during production, and the unreliable mechanical sharks forced Spielberg to shoot many scenes so that the shark was only hinted at. For example, for much of the shark hunt, its location is indicated by the floating yellow barrels. The opening had the shark devouring Chrissie, but it was rewritten so that it would be shot with Backlinie being dragged and yanked by cables to simulate an attack. Spielberg also included multiple shots of just the dorsal fin. This forced restraint is widely thought to have added to the film's suspense. As Spielberg put it years later, "The film went from a Japanese Saturday matinee horror flick to more of a Hitchcock, the less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller." In another interview, he similarly declared, "The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen." The acting became crucial for making audiences believe in such a big shark: "The more fake the shark looked in the water, the more my anxiety told me to heighten the naturalism of the performances."
Footage of real sharks was shot by Ron and Valerie Taylor in the waters off Australia, with a smaller-framed actor in a miniature shark cage to create the illusion that the sharks were enormous. During the Taylors' shoot, a great white attacked the boat and cage. The footage of the cage attack was so stunning that Spielberg was eager to incorporate it in the film. No one had been in the cage at the time, however, and the script, following the novel, originally had the shark killing Hooper in it. The storyline was consequently altered to have Hooper escape from the cage, which allowed the footage to be used. As production executive Bill Gilmore put it, "The shark down in Australia rewrote the script and saved Dreyfuss's character."
Although principal photography was scheduled to take 55 days, it did not wrap until October 6, 1974, after 159 days. Spielberg, reflecting on the protracted shoot, stated, "I thought my career as a filmmaker was over. I heard rumors ... that I would never work again because no one had ever taken a film 100 days over schedule." Spielberg himself was not present for the shooting of the final scene in which the shark explodes, as he believed that the crew were planning to throw him in the water when the scene was done. It has since become a tradition for Spielberg to be absent when the final scene of one of his films is being shot. Afterward, underwater scenes were shot at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer water tank in Culver City, with stuntmen Dick Warlock and Frank James Sparks as stand-ins for Dreyfuss in the scene where the shark attacks the cage, as well as near Santa Catalina Island, California. Fields, who had completed a rough cut of the first two-thirds of the film, up until the shark hunt, finished the editing and reworked some of the material. According to Zanuck, "She actually came in and reconstructed some scenes that Steven had constructed for comedy and made them terrifying, and some scenes he shot to be terrifying and made them comedy scenes." The ship used for the Orca was brought to Los Angeles so the sound effects team could record sounds for both the ship and the underwater scenes.
Two scenes were altered following test screenings. As the audience's screams had covered up Scheider's "bigger boat" one-liner, Brody's reaction after the shark jumps behind him was extended, and the volume of the line was raised. Spielberg also decided that he was greedy for "one more scream", and reshot the scene in which Hooper discovers Ben Gardner's body, using $3,000 of his own money after Universal refused to pay for the reshoot. The underwater scene was shot in Fields's swimming pool in Encino, California, using a lifecast latex model of Craig Kingsbury's head attached to a fake body, which was placed in the wrecked boat's hull. To simulate the murky waters of Martha's Vineyard, powdered milk was poured into the pool, which was then covered with tarpaulin.
John Williams composed the film's score, which earned him an Academy Award and was later ranked the sixth-greatest score by the American Film Institute. The main "shark" theme, a simple alternating pattern of two notes—variously identified as "E and F" or "F and F sharp"—became a classic piece of suspense music, synonymous with approaching danger (see leading-tone). Williams described the theme as "grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable." The piece was performed by tuba player Tommy Johnson. When asked by Johnson why the melody was written in such a high register and not played by the more appropriate French horn, Williams responded that he wanted it to sound "a little more threatening". When Williams first demonstrated his idea to Spielberg, playing just the two notes on a piano, Spielberg was said to have laughed, thinking that it was a joke. As Williams saw similarities between Jaws and pirate movies, at other points in the score he evoked "pirate music", which he called "primal, but fun and entertaining". Calling for rapid, percussive string playing, the score contains echoes of La mer by Claude Debussy as well of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.
There are various interpretations of the meaning and effectiveness of the primary music theme, which is widely described as one of the most recognizable cinematic themes of all time. Music scholar Joseph Cancellaro proposes that the two-note expression mimics the shark's heartbeat. According to Alexandre Tylski, like themes Bernard Herrmann wrote for Taxi Driver, North by Northwest, and particularly Mysterious Island, it suggests human respiration. He further argues that the score's strongest motif is actually "the split, the rupture"—when it dramatically cuts off, as after Chrissie's death. The relationship between sound and silence is also taken advantage of in the way the audience is conditioned to associate the shark with its theme, which is exploited toward the film's climax when the shark suddenly appears with no musical introduction.
Spielberg later said that without Williams's score the film would have been only half as successful, and according to Williams it jumpstarted his career. He had previously scored Spielberg's debut feature, The Sugarland Express, and went on to collaborate with the director on almost all of his films. The original soundtrack for Jaws was released by MCA Records on LP in 1975, and as a CD in 1992, including roughly a half hour of music that Williams redid for the album. In 2000, two versions of the score were released: Decca/Universal reissued the soundtrack album to coincide with the release of the 25th-anniversary DVD, featuring the entire 51 minutes of the original score, and Varèse Sarabande put out a rerecording of the score performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Joel McNeely.