Carl Gottlieb — who co-wrote screenplays for ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Jerk’ — gets lifetime award from Mystic Film Fest
Carl Gottlieb co-wrote the screenplay for “Jaws.”
He co-wrote the screenplay for “The Jerk.”
He wrote for 1970s golden-era sitcoms “The Bob Newhart Show,” “All in the Family” and “The Odd Couple.”
He had small acting roles in big movies, too, with appearances in “M*A*S*H” and “Clueless.”
With that and the rest of his noteworthy credits in mind, the Mystic Film Festival is giving Gottlieb its lifetime achievement award. He will accept the award during a virtual event Sunday.
Mystic Film Festival founder and director Shareen Anderson says one of the festival’s young volunteers, who is also a filmmaker, is a major Carl Gottlieb fan and suggested him for the award. Everyone else on the team agreed that Gottlieb was a fantastic choice.
Of all his work over the years, “Jaws” remains Gottlieb’s greatest legacy. He even wrote a book about the infamously challenging production called “The Jaws Log.” That publication is being made into a stage musical called “Bruce” — more on that later.
“Jaws,” of course, has remained a huge cultural touchstone since it was released in 1975. Gottlieb often thinks about why the movie still has such power and says, “It’s one of those things that’s way more than the sum of its parts. It was always going to be a summer popcorn movie; we knew that going in. But after it opened, and then for the next 45 years,” it became more.
Gottlieb says he just received a new book in the mail that features a lot of scholarly analyses of “Jaws.”
“It’s so detailed, it’s scary. People watch the movie one frame at a time,” Gottlieb says.
But back when it was being filmed, he recalls, “It was just a job. It was a difficult job. It was on location. We didn’t have any idea of what it was going to be. You know, after the fact, everybody’s a genius … A whole lot of things worked together, which is why I say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Chief among those parts was a young director name Steven Spielberg, making his first feature film. “It was like, you know, Michelangelo’s first statue,” Gottlieb says.
“Jaws” was lucky, too, to have an elemental story — man against shark — great locales on Martha's Vineyard, and three really good actors leading the cast, he says.
Gottlieb had become friendly with Spielberg after their agent introduced them, long before “Jaws” turned Spielberg into a household name. Spielberg hired Gottlieb as an actor for some of his TV projects and then to play the newspaper editor in “Jaws.”
As the filming date approached, Spielberg was unhappy with the existing script (that was a rewrite by playwright Howard Sackler of Peter Benchley’s script; Benchley wrote the novel “Jaws” on which the movie was based). Spielberg asked Gottlieb to overhaul the entire screenplay.
Gottlieb recalls that he and Spielberg shared a house on location, and so they could talk about every change they were going to make. Verna Fields, the film’s editor, would go to the house almost every night for dinner, and she would be brought up to speed on the plans for upcoming scenes.
As Gottlieb wrote and rewrote the screenplay, he ended up cutting scenes for the character that he was playing. Doing that, he said, wasn’t tough so much as necessary.
“One of many difficult things in show business is doing what’s best for the project, not what’s best for your ego or servicing the star,” he says.
Musical about ‘Jaws’
Gottlieb’s book about “Jaws” was optioned, and the team of lyricist Richard Oberacker and composer Robert Taylor, who did the musical “Bandstand,” have turned it into a stage musical. Gottlieb compared the show they have created to “Come from Away,” with cast members playing multiple characters. And, yes, those characters sing about the problems that they’re having making this shark movie.
The musical, dubbed “Bruce” for the nickname the “Jaws” crew gave the mechanical sharks, had been scheduled to premiere at Seattle Rep this fall, but the pandemic has pushed that back until next year.
Good with words
Gottlieb grew up in New York and became interested in writing in high school.
“I was always good with words, and in high school, I edited the yearbook and won a medal at graduation for excellence in composition. In college, I edited the humor magazine and wrote a column in the Syracuse University daily paper,” he says.
“So I’ve always been a writer. Then I became writer/stage manager, then I became a writer/stage manager/director, then I became a writer/stage manager/director/actor.”
How did he choose between those various occupations as he went through his career?
“It was just, what was the next job going to be? My criteria for accepting a job is: have I done this before? If I did it before, I’m not in such a hurry to do it again,” he says.
Indeed, Gottlieb's career has been wide-ranging. He did some directing, helming the 1981 movie "Caveman" starring Ringo Starr, and he co-wrote musician David Crosby's two autobiographies.
Early on, Gottlieb wrote for such classic sitcoms as “The Bob Newhart Show,” “All in the Family” and “The Odd Couple.”
“They were jobs, and I was trying to do the best job I could. I happened to be a good writer. It was easy for me to write comedy,” he says, adding, “By the time you know what a sense of humor is, it’s too late to get one … You have to be inherently funny; that’s not a gift that’s evenly distributed to the population.”
He says writing for TV shows is a craft that can occasionally rise to the level or art — but the occasions on which it rises to that high level aren't become apparent until after the fact.
One of Gottlieb’s best-known film credits came about, in a way, from his TV work. Steve Martin was just breaking out as a comedian playing large venues in the mid-1970s when Paramount Pictures signed him to a three-picture deal. Martin approached Gottlieb to co-write a movie because they had worked together on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” The result was “The Jerk.” (Gottlieb also had a small role as Iron Balls McGinty in the movie.)
In discussing writing, Gottlieb refers to a quote that has been attributed to George Bernard Shaw — he said he likes having written.
Gottlieb feels the same, saying, “Writing itself is lonely and painful and uncomfortable. And it has no immediate feedback that’s going to move you to feel anything except relief (when it) is over … Once it’s done, I can count on my fingers on one hand the times when typing and writing a script felt so good, I went, ‘Ah, boy, that’s good, that’s a good piece of writing.’”
He gives credit, too, to the actors who have brought his words to life in a way or with an emphasis he hadn’t through of.
He mentions the actress playing the grieving mother in “Jaws” who slaps the police chief. He says, “She read that speech exactly as I wrote it, but did as the character, and it’s incredibly moving and you completely identify with her.”
IF YOU WATCH
What: Mystic Film Festival
When: Oct. 22-25
Where: Some events and screenings are online, and some screenings are at local cinemas
Carl Gottlieb honor: 7 p.m. Sunday online
For details: https://mysticfilmfestival.com
The Mystic Film Festival returns
The Mystic Film Festival returns for its third year, but it’s in a different, COVID-necessitated set-up during its run from Thursday through Sunday.
Some of the screenings will be held in person, with masks and social distancing required.
Some, though, will be held virtually, as will various workshops and events.
All told, 74 movies will be featured, and those include narrative and documentary works, feature-length and short-film independent pieces.
While people can watch 32 of those only online, they can see the others in person in screenings at Mystic Luxury Cinemas and the Velvet Mill and La Grua Center in Stonington. (Visit the Mystic Film Festival website for dates, times and locations.)
Most of the screenings — both online and live — will be followed by Q&As with the filmmakers.
The array of movies including two by local filmmakers, both of which will be screened at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Mystic Luxury Cinemas.
The full-length documentary “A Call to Arts” by Christopher Kepple and Cormac O'Malley, both of Stonington, is about O'Malley's parents — artist, writer and Irish Republican soldier Ernie O’Malley and his wife, sculptor Helen Hooker, who was born in Connecticut.
“Tall Tales: The Ireland of Orson Welles” is a short documentary by Dillon Toole of Mystic. It focuses on Welles’ visits to Ireland when he was a young, up-and-coming actor and when he was older and his career had foundered.
Other films: “Assassins,” a documentary that premiered earlier this year at Sundance, is a “wildly improbably tale about the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s brother in Malaysia”; “#LIKE” is a narrative feature about a teenager who takes action after she realizes the man who bullied her sister to commit suicide is online trolling for new victims; and “Entangled,” a documentary about trying to save the North Atlantic right whales from extinction, which is directed by Pulitzer-winning author David Abel.
The Mystic Film Festival is holding its first screenplay contest as well, with the winner announced on Sunday.
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