Steven Spielberg needed a real shark. Before the young director began filming “Jaws” with his famous working animatronic beast in Martha’s Vineyard, he hired two underwater photographers to film great white sharks off the coast of southern Australia.
Skilled divers and well-known in their home country, the Australian couple Ron and Valerie Taylor set off to capture the footage that would be used in the 1975 climatic scene in which Richard Dreyfuss’s Hooper, apparently safe in a shark cage, confronts the monster who terrorizes beach guests.
But as Valerie Taylor, the subject of a new documentary, said in a recent video interview from her home in Sydney, “You may be able to lead a dog or a human or a horse, but you cannot lead a shark. ”
It quickly became clear that the Taylors were struggling with two reluctant parties: the shark and the professional stuntman, Carl Rizzo, who did not know how to dive and was in a panic about being sunk in the cage. As he waffled on the boat deck, the shark approached, was entangled in the wires supporting the cage, and finally snatched the empty container loose from the winch, sending it plunging into the depths.
Ron filmed it all underwater while Valerie grabbed a camera on the ship and shot over the head. Spielberg was so enthusiastic about the footage from the unexpected event that he had the script rewritten to accommodate it and changed Hooper’s fate from shark bait to survivor when the animal bumped over his head.
Valerie’s work on “Jaws” is just one chapter in her incredible life, in which she switched from a deadly javelin fisherman to a filmmaker and pioneering conservationist. “She was like a Marvel superhero to me,” said Australian producer Bettina Dalton. “She influenced everything about my career and my passion for the natural world.”
This reverence led Dalton to team up with director Sally Aitken for the National Geographic documentary “Playing With Sharks,” which follows Taylor’s career and is now available on Disney +.
Born in Australia and raised mainly in New Zealand, Valerie, now 85, grew up poor. She was hospitalized with polio at the age of 12 and forced to drop out of school while learning to walk. She started working as a cartoonist and then baptized with theatrical acting, but hated being tied to the same place every day.
“I had a good mother. She said, just do what you like. Try what you like. It can not hurt you and you will learn, ”said Valerie, her earrings swinging under her silver hair, emphatically. However, when she began diving and fishing professionally, her mother was “horrified.” Valerie added: “It was me assumed to marry and have children. ”
She eventually married Ron, another master of spearfishing who was also skilled with an underwater camera, and they began making films documenting marine life together. Valerie, with her glamorous “Bond girl” look, became the focal point as they could pick up more money if she showed up on screen. They were together until Ron died of leukemia in 2012.
“Here is this incredible front-of-house character, and here is an amazing technical guide,” Aitken said. “Together, they realized it was a winning combination.”
Not only did Valerie have a magnetic presence on camera, she had a rare ability to connect with animals, including threatening sharks, which at the time were little understood.
“They all have different personalities. Some are shy, others are bullies, others are brave, ”Valerie said. “When you get to know a shark school, you get to know them as individuals.”
After she killed a shark while filming a movie in the 1960s, Taylor’s had a revelation: sharks should be studied and understood rather than killed. They stopped fishing, and Aitken compared their journey from hunters to conservation to John James Audubon.
“I have that kind of personality that I do not get scared of. I’m getting mad, ”Valerie said. “Even when I was bitten, I just kept quiet and waited for it to let go – because they made a mistake.”
Still, she admitted, “I do not expect other people to behave like me.”
Her signature look, a pink wetsuit and colorful headbands could be seen as a defiant embrace of her femininity in a male-dominated industry, but it was also a simple way for her to stand out in underwater footage. “Ron wanted color in a blue world,” Valerie said. “He said, ‘Cousteau has a red beanie, you can get a red ribbon.’ Thats it. ”
When asked, she drew on the idea that she faced additional challenges as the only woman on both full of men most of her life, especially in the 50s and 60s, when women were still largely expected to stick to traditional roles.
“I was as good as they were, so there you go. No problem, ”she said. “And even though I didn’t realize it, I was probably just as tough.”
The filmmakers “Playing With Sharks”, which pored for decades with media coverage and archive footage, described Valerie as someone who faced an upward battle on several levels, but which was also considered an exciting news story.
“Of course she had to fight to be taken seriously,” Aitken said. “She was a working class. She was someone who really had very little education. I think the culture saw her as extraordinary. That in itself can be a liberating path, precisely because you are singular. “
When “Jaws” became an instant, unexpected giant in 1975, Taylors realized that the film was doing damage they had never considered: Recreational shark hunting became popular, and audiences feared legions of bloodthirsty sharks chasing humans just below the surface. In fact, there are hundreds of shark species, and only a few have been known to bite humans. Those who usually confuse humans with their natural prey, like sea lions.
“For some reason, moviegoers thought so. There is no such shark alive in the world today, ”said Valerie. “Ron said in a proverb, ‘You do not travel to New York and expect to see King Kong at the Empire State Building. Also, do not go into the water and expect to see jaws. ‘”
In an effort to allay public fears, Universal Taylors flew to the United States for a talk show tour, informing the public about sharks, and Valerie said: “I have been fighting for the poor old, very malignant sharks and the marine world in general ever since . ”
In 1984, she helped make the campaign to make the gray nurse shark the first protected shark species in the world. Her nature photography has been featured in National Geographic. The same area where she and Ron filmed their “jaws” sequence is now an ocean park named in their honor. And she still publishes essays that passionately defend animals.
Yet shark populations are decimated around the world, primarily due to overfishing, and Valerie said many of the underwater scenes she witnessed in her early days no longer existed.
“I hate being old, but at least that means I was in the ocean when it was pristine,” she said, adding that today, “it’s like going to where there was a rainforest and seeing a cornfield. “
Despite all that being covered by “Playing with Sharks,” Valerie said, “it’s not my whole life story, by any means.” It was the time she was left at sea and saved herself by anchoring the hair bands to a piece of coral until another boat happened over her. Or the day she taught Mick Jagger to dive on a whim. (He was a quick examination despite the weight belt sliding right down his narrow hips.) She also survived breast cancer.
Although she still dives, her arthritis makes it difficult to be in the colder Australian waters, and she is eager to return to Fiji, where swimming feels like “taking a bath.”
“I can not jump anymore, not that I especially want to jump,” she said. “But if I go out to sea, I can fly.”