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Credit: Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives

The legacy of Jaws editor Verna Fields

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Jun 19, 2020

The very first sequence of Jaws sets the tone, juxtaposing the relative safety of the sandy beach with a group of teens getting wasted around a fire with the foreboding presence of the sea. A nighttime skinny dip turns tragic when a young woman is attacked by an unseen animal. The cuts between her relaxed and vulnerable dangling legs underwater with the surface-level view of the first violent jerk from beneath are burned into the minds of movie lovers. Sound editing and music play a huge role in the effectiveness of this introduction to Amity Island's newest resident, with film editor Verna Fields delivering a master class in how to amp up the tension from the outset.

Celebrating its 45th anniversary, the production woes of Jaws are well documented and part of the legend surrounding Steven Spielberg's cinematic classic. If Jaws hadn't far exceeded its shooting schedule (by over 100 days), it would have been released at Christmas in 1974. Instead, principal photography wrapped in October of that year rather than the original June date. The film was beset by numerous setbacks, from the natural elements of shooting on location on Martha's Vineyard and the surrounding ocean, to the animatronic shark's frequent failures, as well as other boats popping into shots, adding hours to the shoot. In 2020, many of these issues could be fixed in post-production thanks to technological advancements; however, part of the beloved tapestry of this movie comes from the solutions this team conjured under difficult conditions.

Credit: Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives

One such figure is film editor Verna Fields who helped steer this ship (no pun intended) and won an Oscar in 1976. This would be Field's final editor credit as Universal Pictures made her Vice President for Feature Production. She was one of the first women to hold a position in the upper management of this industry and used her role to try and address the stats that heavily favored male creatives. Directing could have been added to her illustrious resume after Jaws 2 was left without someone running the show. Fields and production designer Joe Alves were suggested, but DGA rules prevented this from happening.

In 1981, Fields told The New York Times, "I was told I couldn't do it, because, according to guild rules, in order to replace another director, I had to have directed one feature (film) or 90 minutes of television, and, (technically), on paper, I hadn't." She still had a part to play in the sequel, but as a mediator between replacement director Jeannot Szwarc and lead Roy Scheider. Jaws screenwriter Carl Gottlieb describes this scene in The Jaws Log as "Nothing serious, but she wound up sitting on the boys until they cooled off." And people say women are too emotional.

In fact, in a previous interview, Fields noted how female directors have less wiggle room for failure. "The worst thing that could happen to a woman director, even at this point, is that she should have trouble on the set, go over budget, over schedule, that kind of nonsense. I think it would be very easy for a lot of people to blame it on the fact she had no control — that she didn't shoot well that day because she had her period." Written in 1979, the accompanying New York Times headline still feels all too relevant 40 years later: "Women Film Directors: Will They, Too, Be Allowed to Bomb?"

As we have already mentioned, Spielberg went over schedule (and way over budget), but the Jaws box office returns and the phenomenon it created ensured his continued success.

Unlike the disheartening director stats, film editing is a field women have flourished in since the birth of this industry, back to when it was called "cutting." And while other disciplines saw men edge out their female counterparts, the editing chair has been occupied by great women from the silent era onwards. Last year, filmmaker and Princeton Professor Su Friedrich launched Edited By, a comprehensive guide featuring 206 female editors to become acquainted with. Often forgotten, Friedrich notes this is down to the nature of this job even though they deserve the same attention as other star-making departments. "Editors make an essential contribution to the success or failure of a film. It's time to stop imagining that 'it's really the director' who does the editing." Fields, who started her career in sound editing on Fritz Lang's 1944 definitive noir The Women in the Window, worked with some of the best talents from Lang to the New Hollywood era of directors who would change the landscape of American filmmaking.

While she was teaching at the University of Southern California in the 1960s, one of Fields' students was George Lucas. During this period she also edited documentaries for the United States Information Agency (USIA), and she hired Lucas to work on Journey to the Pacific in 1968, which is where he met his future wife Marcia Griffin. When Lucas made American Graffiti, he wanted his wife to edit but at the behest of the studio he added Fields to the team. Fields and Marcia Lucas were subsequently nominated for an Oscar (they lost to The Sting). Subsequently, she edited Steven Spielberg's theatrical film debut The Sugarland Express, which laid the groundwork for their next collaboration — and Fields' last official editing gig.

Credit: Universal Pictures 

The buzz around Jaws was huge before the first scene had even been shot, in part thanks to Peter Benchley's best-selling novel. At just 27, Spielberg was making a name for himself as one to watch, and this story had intrigue and danger in droves. Affectionately described by those she worked with as "Mother Cutter," Fields took the somewhat unusual approach of working on location. As Jaws co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb wrote in The Jaws Log, "Verna is one of those who insists, if it's at all possible, on being present for the entire filming of a picture, on location or at home, and working in close collaboration with the director." He notes this is how the pair had worked on The Sugarland Express and how her presence added to the "simultaneous expression of abilities." Spielberg's name is the one above the title, but this was a collaborative process shared by those who spent months on Martha's Vineyard in 1974.

Rather than waiting until principal photography was over, sequences could be edited while on location. And while there were days when barely any usable footage made it her way (on really bad days, she would get no material to work with), they could ascertain what was and wasn't working. Of course, the "mother" of her nickname is gendered, which nods to her experience, maternal disposition, and the home editing suite she used to cut movies — this can be seen in home video footage shot by Spielberg. On another level, she did also act as a liaison between Spielberg and the studio when the budget and shooting schedule began to run over. Her insight and reputation were assets beyond her work as an editor.

Credit: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Jaws faced plenty of setbacks as a result of filming on location, but you would never know this from the final cut. Sure, the shark is kept mostly off-camera until it is ready for its close-up, but this only increases the tension. This isn't simply achieved through a performance, a piece of music, or how the movie looks; it is the alchemy of each component that brings Jaws to life, and why — 45 years later — it is still held with such high regard. Yes, the animatronic shark looks hokey in places, but by the time we see its face, the fear level is high enough that you can ignore those aspects. The editing of the iconic "You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat" scene ensures a jump-scare and some much-needed levity. Each shot of the crowded beach or orca bobbing out on a seemingly endless sea adds to the suspense.

Even if you have watched the film several times, certain sequences never lose the sense of seeing them for the first time. John Williams' iconic theme feeds the adrenaline, but so do aspects such as the vertical wipe, which uses people walking across the frame to mask the shot switching from a wide to a close-up. Cranking up the tension with this technique, the viewer is experiencing the same apprehension as Brody. This combined with the actual attack that happens later in the scene is how to use editing to get the adrenaline pumping.

Credit: Universal Pictures 

Real footage of sharks was shot in Australia using a smaller body double for Richard Dreyfuss' character Hopper — another eyebrow-raising behind-the-scenes story — that was cut between footage shot in a tank back in Los Angeles. Movies are typically shot out of sequence, but Fields also had to contend with the same scenes shot months apart featuring a changing sky and sea color. "This barrel popping out of the water, which we shot in July, comes right after the boat turn, which we shot in September," is one such example recollected in The Jaws Log about the sequencing of the last act. And while she did cut scenes on the island, most of the work took place in Fields' editing room, aka her San Fernando Valley pool house. This location also birthed what is often referred to as the scariest sequence in Jaws, a late addition after test screenings had begun. The discovery of Ben Gardner's head is terrifying but the original cut didn't have the shots Spielberg wanted, so he spent $3,000 of his own money (later paid back by the studio) to turn Fields' pool into the ocean. Milk was poured into the water to give it the right level of murkiness and the rest is history.

Describing it as a very happy collaboration, Gottlieb also gets to the heart of this editing partnership and why it worked. "Verna had been there with us all the way, sharing meals with Steven, discovering the intent of the footage he was shooting, contributing to the very construction of the story, in cinematic terms." Gottlieb also notes this is why he believes Universal offered her the executive creative consultancy role. Fields worked in this capacity until she died of cancer in 1982 at the age of 64. Her contribution to the film industry is huge, but it is hard to not get wistful about how many years she could've had to nurture the next generation and even direct a movie herself.

Her legacy continues. Not only is there a Verna Fields Building (opposite the Alfred Hitchcock Building) at Universal City, there are awards and fellowships bearing her name. Furthermore, after the film redefined the concept of a summer blockbuster, the continued reverence of Jaws is a testament to how effective the editing is. For everyone who contemplates what might be lurking beneath the surface of the ocean, it isn't just John Williams' theme or Spielberg's direction that has planted those seeds. In making decisive cuts or letting a frame linger for an extra half a beat, Verna Fields created a terrifying visual language that so many have tried to emulate. A singular talent, Fields is a huge part of the Jaws success story, and one we continue to celebrate 45 years after that first terrifying late-night dip in the ocean.

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