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Why Steven Spielberg Thought John Williams' Iconic Jaws Score Was a Joke At First

Even at the very start of his filmmaking career, Spielberg could not escape the allure of John Williams' genius.

By Josh Weiss
John Williams and director Steven Spielberg

Even at the very start of his mythic filmmaking career, Steven Spielberg could not escape the siren-like allure of John Williams' musical genius. The two officially began their longtime Hollywood partnership — which still continues to this day with very few exceptions — in 1974, with the director's oft-overlooked feature debut: The Sugarland Express.

They would, of course, reunite the following year for the much more iconic Jaws, but before a single shred of music was recorded, Spielberg temped the watershed blockbuster with the score Williams had composed for another movie: Robert Altman's 1972 horror flick, Images.

Steven Spielberg on temping Jaws with John Williams' Images score 

"It was a bit of an experimental score, but I thought it was very disturbing, and I thought the shark should be disturbing," the director reveals during a lengthy interview with author and documentarian Laurent Bouzereau in the latter's book Spielberg: The First Ten Years. "But when John saw the movie with that score in, he called me laughing. He said, 'No, no, no. It’s all wrong for this. You’ve made a pirate movie with a scary shark. It’s got to be primal. It can’t be esoteric.'"

Six weeks later, Williams played the soon-to-be-famous Jaws theme (an inspired distillation of foreboding) for Spielberg on the piano. The novice auteur confesses he "expected to hear something weird and melodic, tonal but eerie — perhaps something to suggest the shark underwater. And what he played me instead with two fingers on the lower keys was ‘Dun dun, dun dun, dun, dun, dun . . ."

For More on Jaws:
Model Who Posed As Ill-Fated Swimmer for Iconic Jaws Poster Preaches Shark Protection
Steven Spielberg Recalls How a Man Puked on the Theater Floor During an Early Screening of Jaws
Jeffrey Voorhees, Who Played Shark Victim Alex Kintner, Looks Back on Jaws Role 49 Years Later

Spielberg, who initially found it "too simple," purportedly began to laugh, convinced Williams had to be playing some kind of joke on him. "I asked him to play it again, and it suddenly seemed right. Sometimes the best ideas are the simple ones, and John had found the signature for the whole movie. Without that score, to this day, I believe the film would have been only half as successful."

The director goes on to praise Williams as the "greatest" film composer since Max Steiner (known for his work on King Kong, Casablanca, and countless other titles that literally shaped cinema), explaining that his unparalleled talents lies in the "placement of music." When it came to Jaws, for example, "John wanted the music to signal the actual arrival of the shark, not use it as a red herring."

Watch JawsJaws 2Jaws 3, and Jaws: The Revenge, all streaming now on Peacock!