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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 upcoming book Spielberg: The First Ten Years (via Vanity Fair). "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.'"

RELATED: Steven Spielberg Recalls How a Man Puked on the Theater Floor During an Early Screening of Jaws

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 . . ."

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."

Published by Insight Editions and distributed by Simon & Schuster, Spielberg: The First Ten Years goes on sale Tuesday, October 24. Pre-order a copy for yourself right here!

Jaws (and its three sequels) are available to purchase via Universal Pictures Home EntertainmentWant even more creature-based thrills? Head over to Peacock for Cocaine Bear, Renfield, Q: The Winged Serpent, Van Helsing, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Golem, Piranha, The Void, and more!