‘Jaws’ screenwriter with Manitoba connection to mentor local moviemakers

He helped write the film that took a big bite out of the box office in 1975.

Now the man who helped pen the “Jaws” franchise is teaching aspiring Manitoba screenwriters how to sink their teeth into the trade.

Carl Gottlieb, an actor and screenwriter originally from New York, had already written for “The Bob Newhart Show” and scored acting credits on “M*A*S*H” when he was approached by friend Steven Spielberg to rework the script to his newest film. An adaptation of the bestselling 1974 Peter Benchley novel, “Jaws” tells the story of a great white shark that terrorizes a fictional resort town.

The film adaptation was to be 26-year-old Spielberg’s third feature film. At the time, Gottlieb and Spielberg shared an agent who liked to pair his clients together on projects.

“We wrote a couple things that we could not sell, and I acted in a few of his TV movies before he did ‘Duel,’” Gottlieb told CTV News Winnipeg by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “So we had a long-term relationship, and then when he got the opportunity to do “Jaws,” he asked me if I’d be interested in working on it as an actor and perhaps doing a rewrite, and I said I would.”

You can see Gottlieb in the film as Harry Meadows, the local newspaperman in Amity, but his contributions to the script happened in the weeks before the camera started rolling. Gottlieb hauled up on Martha’s Vineyard with Spielberg, who was in the midst of scouting locations and casting, to help punch up the script. It is a time Gottlieb later chronicled in his own book “The Jaws Log.”

Even through the rewrite and production, Gottlieb said he had no idea “Jaws” would become such a phenomenon.

“You never know. Nobody knows and anybody who tells you they know is wrong because if they could make hits on-demand, they’d do it all the time,” Gottlieb said. “’Jaws’” was a one-off – a miraculous combination of genius, first-time director and auteur, gripping story material, a pretty good script if I say so myself, and it somehow caught the zeitgeist, and here we are talking about it 45 years later.”

Gottlieb would go on to co-write “Jaws 2” and “Jaws 3-D,” in addition to dozens of projects set on dry land, including “The Jerk” and “The Jerk, Too.”

“If I were a Jeopardy category, it would be ‘His Hits Begin With a J,’” he joked.

A bit of trivia that many may not know about Gottlieb – he has roots here in Manitoba. His great-grandfather immigrated from Russia to a homestead in Camper, Man., about 170 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

“He went there with a family of 11, a few of whom left early. He had five sons. He homesteaded a quarter-section for each of the sons and they farmed for a while, but it was very inhospitable grounds for farming,” he recalled.

Gottlieb has paid a few visits to Manitoba himself, thanks in part to teaching opportunities at Film Training Manitoba. Gottlieb taught a workshop giving Manitoba screenwriters one-on-one writing sessions with him, aimed at improving submitted scripts and imparting professional career wisdom.

In the pandemic age, Gottlieb has had to skip the trip to the prairies and conduct the workshops online. He is set to teach the latest round of workshops this weekend.

“I’ll give them the benefits of my insights and ask them a little bit about their projects and focus them a little bit. It’s kind of personalized instruction,” Gottlieb said.

Overall, while Gottlieb’s career is flanked with successes, he tries to be realistic with students about the realities of the often challenging industry.

“You just got to keep trying. If you’re lucky, you will succeed. If you are skillful, you’ll draw attention to yourself and also succeed. Sometimes you’ll succeed just by attrition because everybody else your age has dropped out and you’re still going,” he said. “So if you’re going to do art, you’ve got to do it all the time.“

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