“The art director liked my sketch, but he said ‘Make the shark bigger!’”
Forty five years ago this summer, moviegoers faced a monster who didn’t reveal himself until over an hour into the film. Jaws was a certified smash that became Hollywood’s first summer blockbuster, spawning three sequels and generations of people who remain terrified — or at the very least, cautious — about wading too deeply into the water.
Having seen Jaws at the theatre when I was just a kid way back in ’75, this writer won’t even swim in a backyard pool at night before flipping on the light and checking the water first. Just. In. Case.
While volumes have been written about the theatrical film — it was director Steven Spielberg’s first of many box office and critical hits, and everyone knows about the pesky mechanical shark that just wouldn’t work on set — far less has been written about the iconic artwork that first adorned the mass market paperback edition of the novel.
The image remains immediately identifiable, 45 years after its debut.
As it turns out, painting a great white shark was just another day at the office for Kastel.
“I was working for Bantum Books, and I just happened to be in the art director’s office one day, delivering a job,” the now 88 year old Kastel EXCLUSIVELY told me by phone. “He handed me the hardcover edition of Jaws, and asked me to read it over the weekend and decide how I would handle the paperwork edition. He said he was sure it was going to be a big bestseller.”
While the artwork for the novel’s hardback edition gives a peak of what was to become one of history’s most iconic pieces of movie marketing media, Kastel took the concept from that original hardback…
And took it to a whole different level!
“I liked that image,” Kastel said of the novel’s original cover, “but it wasn’t done the way you would do a paperback. When I met with the art director the next week, I had a marker with me, and I just drew a thing on a piece of paper for him.”
The art director’s response prompts a chuckle. One can imagine Universal Pictures execs saying the same thing upon seeing early production stills or storyboards for the feature film.
“He said ‘That’s great, but make the shark bigger,’ “ Kastel said.
“I also told him about the skinny dipping scene in the book,” Kastel continued. “In the book, the girl is nude when she’s attacked by the great white. After he thought about it, he said ‘That sounds good,’ so that’s how I painted it.”
“As a result, the book wound up being banned in Boston and Fort Lauderdale,” Kastel laughed. “But the art director loved it.”
So, evidently, did Universal Pictures. Due to production delays with the Jaws film — remember that pesky, malfunctioning mechanical shark? — the feature wouldn’t be released until the following summer. In the interim, Universal purchased and copyrighted the image for all marketing of the movie, which completely caught Kastel by surprise.
“We were floored by how they merchandised that image, from t-shirts to cartoons…,” Kastel said. “My wife kept a scrapbook on all of that. She finally stopped because there was so much of it. It was huge! I never expected that.”
Kastel also never expected his painting to become so central to the movie’s success, and so identifiable, even after almost half a century.
“I had NO idea! I just thought it was another cover,” Kastel reflected. “The research was hard for me, as I didn’t know anything about sharks. I went to the Museum of Natural History in New York City to try to get inspiration for it. I’d used them before, and I usually came from there with photographs that would help me.”
“I wound up making a few sketches of plaster models of sharks that they had on display there. The models were laying out as they were being cleaned that day, so they were just perfectly placed for me to make a few drawings. I combined images of a couple of different sharks, so that’s how it came about.”
Sadly, Kastel confirmed a story about his original Jaws artwork having gone missing, way back in the 1970s.
“They were supposed to send it back,” Kastel said, recalling the maritime tale. “There was an ad that was being put together for TV Guide, so I went to the photo lab in New York City where they were working on it. My image was a vertical one, but they wanted a large, horizontal spread, so I left my painting there so they could work on it. They copied the water — there were no computers in that day, so they just did it photographically.”
“Then, the painting went on tour to book stores all over the country,” Kastel continued. “It was fun seeing it in bookstore windows. Then, they wanted it out in Hollywood, for what reason I don’t know. So it went out there and I never got it back. I don’t know if someone took it, or they just threw it out.”
Kastel’s iconic Jaws image gained Tinseltown’s attention, and he went on to craft the image for another summer blockbuster, 1980’s Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. The artist recalled that project being a bit more challenging than Jaws had been.
“Empire involved a lot of art direction, because they were still making the movie,” Kastel said. “I wound up using stills from previous movies for that project.”
Having worked on such high profile projects, one might be surprised to learn that a relatively small film provided the opportunity for what was, perhaps, his favorite piece of movie artwork — so far.
“I did the poster for a independent film they did, a Liz Taylor / Richard Burton movie called Doctor Faustus,” Kastel recalled. “I really enjoyed doing that.”
But Kastel said he’ll never forget the shark that started it all.
“I really enjoyed doing Jaws, too,” Kastel said. “It was the easiest movie poster I’ve ever done!”
Roger Kastel’s prints —- from a variety of movies and projects — are available at rogerkastel.com.