Alex Film Society ready to crack its ‘Jaws’

Joe Alves
Joe Alves, in his Woodland Hills home showing his sketches of the big shark that eventually turned into Jaws. Alves designed the shark in Jaws and will be sharing stories of the work that went into the making of the movie at the Alex Theatre on July 28.
(Tim Berger / Staff Photographer)

On a November night in 1994, the Alex Film Society was about to screen “Gone With the Wind” when the sound system failed. The screen had only been propped up two days before, and there had been no time to test the sound before the society’s first event.

“I had to go out and say, ‘We have a problem,’” recalled society founder Brian Ellis, and everyone went home early.

Theater management had already predicted that the new group wouldn’t attract much of a crowd, so Ellis and society member Randy Carter personally rounded up soda and candy from a local store. But when Friday and Saturday came around, they sold 1,200 tickets.

That was the beginning of the Alex Film Society — a group of film enthusiasts who came together in 1994 to plead with the Glendale City Council for the ability to show classic 35-millimeter films at the historic Alex Theatre, where the post-renovation focus was on performing arts, not movies. The society wanted to promote the Alex by presenting classic films “as they were meant to be seen,” Ellis said.

Today, the society has 250 families as members who come from towns stretching from Bakersfield to San Diego, from the Inland Empire to Santa Monica, and screenings have been hosted by a wide range of actors and filmmakers: Jerry Maren, who played a munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz”; Martin Landau spoke at “North by Northwest,” and Tippi Hedren was the guest of last April’s screening of “The Birds.”

While at the “Ben-Hur” presentation, Charlton Heston told Ellis during intermission, “My wife has never seen this. We’re going to stay for the end.”

On Saturday, July 28, the Alex Film Society will screen the 1975 summer movie classic “Jaws,” with appearances by shark designer Joe Alves and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb. Both will share stories about working with the 20-something director Steven Spielberg and a mechanical shark that worked so poorly the crew laughed at it.

The production unfolded under studio heads who had blatant misgivings over how successful a movie about a shark could be.

“The studio was not enthused about making a shark movie,” recalled Alves, who will share a video at the Alex depicting his first charcoal drawings of the shark, which he likens to the white whale Moby Dick.

In 1973, Alves was charged with securing the filming location for “Jaws.” That winter, he drove along the New England coast “for miles and miles and miles” to find all the beaches covered in snow. When he came upon Martha’s Vineyard — its fishing village and nearby homes with white picket fences — he knew his search was over. “It looked like a great place for the shark to terrorize everybody,” he said.

Off-screen, the shark’s loud hydraulics and pained mechanical movements were more amusing than frightening to the film crew. Gottlieb recalls “huge effort and sacrifice” struggling with the mechanical shark as he and Spielberg rewrote the script.

By necessity, “Jaws” was modeled after the classic 1951 horror film, “The Thing from Another World,” in which the monster was not always seen.

“You didn’t see the villain for the first hour of the film, yet you had to be terrified and engaged,” Gottlieb said. “We can show you all the things the shark can do without showing you the shark.”

The final result was America’s first summer blockbuster hit, while establishing Spielberg as an important young director. Neither Gottlieb nor Alves could have predicted that success, but they have enjoyed watching the film with new generations ever since.

“In my experience, people who never saw it are always amazed when they do,” Gottlieb said.

Both men said they have opportunities to see “Jaws” on screen about once a year, traveling as far as South Africa, Spain, Germany and Australia to speak at festivals and screenings, but they are happy for the chance to see a remastered 35-millimeter print at the Alex — much closer to their Los Angeles homes. “They really cleaned up the negative. You can see detail that you weren’t able to see in theaters,” said Gottlieb, who typically introduces himself before a screening, leaves and only returns for the end. Not this time. “I found myself sitting there watching the whole film very happily.”

It’s that same kind of experience that the Alex Film Society hopes to continue, with eight movies shown each year on the big screen. Along with the top-billed feature film, a day at the Alex will typically include cartoons, newsreels, movie props and members of the cast or crew telling stories about the production.

After “Jaws,” the next movie on tap for the Alex Film Society is Universal’s 1943 monster feature “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,” which will screen Oct. 28.

“It’s just not a film screening,” Ellis said. “It’s an event.”

The Alex Film Society screens “Jaws” at 2 and 8 p.m. on July 28 at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd. Production designer Joe Alves is guest at 2 p.m., and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb is guest at the 8 p.m. screening. Admission is $13.50 or $9.50 for students, seniors and groups. Call (818) 243-2539.