Thursday, June 27, 2019


“I sort of lucked out. The little shark movie became a bit hit,” said legendary production designer Joe Alves, the man who made the shark for Jaws (1975). Alves appeared for a Q&A hosted by the Art Directors Guild after a screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the second film he worked on with Steven Spielberg, at the Egyptian Theatre on June 23, 2019. 

Alves is the recipient of the 2020 Art Directors’ Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to screening Alves’ BAFTA-award-winning work in Close Encounters, the Egyptian showed a short film about his career in production design. 

The original script for Close Encounters did not include Devil’s Tower as the key image like the final film does. Alves personally visited potential sites: Mt. Rushmore, Shiprock, Chimney Rock, and finally, Devil’s Tower. He recalls how he endangered himself for the sake of the movie with the producers at Columbia. They looked at his model for the production design and asked him what he thought. Alves bravely said, “It should be bigger.” The execs asked how much bigger, and Alves said, “four times bigger.” The budget went from $3 million to more than $20 million, a big budget at that time.

Alves shared that he grew up in Hayward, Calif., and decided to move to Hollywood after he saw the movie An American in Paris (1951) and was informed that it was not filmed in Paris. Paris was created in Hollywood.

At one point early in his career, he said, Alves was asked if he was an illustrator or a production designer. He said he didn’t know. A studio executive showed him the truly brilliant illustrations for Cleopatra (1963) by Emil Kosa Jr. Alves took one look at the great art and decided he was no illustrator. He told the exec he was a designer.

His early career highlights began by working on the monster in Forbidden Planet (1953). He later worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Torn Curtain (1966). “Hitch knew exactly what he wanted,” recalled Alves. “He was a pleasure to work for.” Alves finds it frustrating to work with directors who don’t know what they want. He has worked with directors who had him build beautiful sets and then changed their minds so that the sets he worked so hard on were never seen.

Alves said his best experience on a film was Spielberg’s Sugarland Express (1974). “It was pure fun,” he explained. “The others were all mixed.” Alves’ frustration with Jaws had to do with its production schedule. He was hired for the movie before Spielberg was. He made 30 shark drawings and presented them to the studio. They asked him if he could build a shark and he told them it would take two and a half years. That was November of 1973. The book came out in February of 1974 and the studio decided they needed to start shooting in three months. I told Steven, “give me a year and it would have worked perfectly!” 

Asked what his best trait as a production designer is, Alves replied: “persistence.” He never gives up. He never says it can’t be done. He’s always confident he can find a way to get the job accomplished.

Alves has written two books on production design. An update on his well-known Designing Jaws, including more pictures and storyboards, is due out in November.

The American Cinematheque will be screening Jaws as well as and Jaws 3-D (1983), which he directed, in July! See the full July schedule here.

Judith Resell is a volunteer at the American Cinematheque..