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Interview with David Brown

David Brown came to lunch at Chez Paul carrying a little brown paper bag, but not because he'd brought sandwiches. No, the bag contained a portable tape recorder, and Brown asked if I'd mind if he and Richard Zanuck taped part of the interview. Now THAT'S curious, I thought, since I'm the one who's doing the interview, and all I brought was my Pentel Rolling Marker.

"We're going to write an article for New York magazine or someplace," Brown explained, "about what it's really like on these coast-to-coast movie publicity tours. For example, we're keeping a close count on the number of times we're asked why they don't make pictures like 'The Sound of Music' anymore."

The movie that Zanuck and Brown have just finished producing is quite a little bit unlike "The Sound of Music." It is "Jaws," based on Peter Benchley's best seller about a Great White Shark that terrorizes the beaches of a resort island, and it promises to be the summer's biggest hit.

"When you have what you think is a hit on your hands," Zanuck said, "there are a couple of ways to handle it. You can ask the exhibitors for blind bids, in which they guarantee so much against a share of the profits without even seeing the picture. Or you can have advance screenings for the exhibitors, which is the usual method.

"We did an unusual thing with 'Jaws.' We insisted that the exhibitors see it at sneak previews with civilian audiences. There was no hoopla, no other hype except for the fact that a sneak preview was advertised. And this picture knocks audiences dead. They're really frightened by it. The exhibitors are overwhelmed by the reaction."

Brown, adjusting the knobs on his tape recorder, nodded. "That was one thing we couldn't be sure of," he said. "Would the movie scare people? We knew it was a good movie: but we knew every foot of the movie so intimately that we couldn't be sure how an audience, seeing it fresh, would react." He chuckled. "Well . . . it scares 'em, all right."

If the advance responses are typical, "Jaws" will be the second monster hit in a row for Richard Zanuck and David Brown, a producing partnership also responsible for last year's Academy Award-winner as best film, "The Sting."

Zanuck and Brown are examples of the most powerful breed in the new Hollywood; Independent producers who make a distribution deal with a major studio and then purchase, develop and oversee film properties in close collaboration with a director. This form of film production has recently become so successful that the major studios are having difficulty in finding executives who want the risk and hassle of running them. Just recently, for example, Robert Evans resigned as head of Paramount and signed his own production deal with the studio.

The case of Zanuck and Brown is slightly different; they did run a studio at one time - 20th Century-Fox - and they left, not entirely of their own free will, after a stormy meeting with the Fox board of directors.

While Zanuck was president of Fox and Brown was his right-hand man, they made, yes, "The Sound of Music" and such other big grossers as "Patton," "The French Connection," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "MASH," the "Planet of the Apes" series and, uh, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." But when they bailed out at Fox and went to Warner Bros., their record at first wasn't quite as successful. They had flops or marginal films like "Slither" and "The Black Windmill." ("Now there," says Brown, "was a film directed by Don Siegel and starring Michael Caine. How could it fail? How?")

Since moving their road show to Universal, however, their record has improved again (most sensationally with "The Sting"), and "Jaws" represents the sort of film in which the active participation of the producers is essential, auteur theory or not. They were responsible for making the film physically possible, most importantly through the design, and construction of the film's incredibly realistic mechanical shark.

"At first," Zanuck said, "I was in favor of total secrecy about the shark. I thought it would spoil the film for people if they knew some of the shark footage wasn't real. We were shooting on Martha's Vineyard and we had the shark under wraps, we thought. But the day James Reston of the New York Times, who lives on the island, sauntered down for a look, I knew we'd lost." It doesn't really matter whether the shark is real or not, Brown said, because whatever it is, it scares people:

"That shark is a miracle of construction. It's 25 feet long and fully articulated, and capable of being controlled in the water for distances of 60 feet, and it takes 13 men on a barge to run it, each man controlling a different part of its anatomy. They had to rehearse for weeks, like an orchestra, to get all the parts to go together.

Brown chuckled. "The day we went down to the beach for the first test-run of the shark," he said, "we saw it sinking in the water despite the best efforts of a dozen frogmen to save it." He turned off his tape-recorder and added. "We thought we saw our careers sinking right down with it."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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