In the jaws of blockbuster history at Martha’s Vineyard

It wasn’t as if I had deliberately chosen to spend part of my fall vacation in a place where I’d encounter movie production, which some would say doesn’t even qualify as a holiday for someone who writes about movies.

A friend jokingly suggested that since I’m such a movie geek, it must have been at least a subconscious choice.

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Surely, running into movie crews on Martha’s Vineyard, or being flooded with memories of a famous movie filmed there 42 years ago would be inevitable, no?

One thing was certain: Visiting Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, two of the Vineyard communities where Jaws was filmed, was an overwhelming blast from the past.

Really, what moviegoer of a certain age can forget the impact of Steven Spielberg’s shark thriller, widely regarded as Hollywood’s first bona-fide summer blockbuster?

Having seen Jaws countless times since my first five viewings in 1975, when it blew the competition out of the water, I found that vacationing where it was filmed to be a trippy experience.

Pulling up to the Jaws bridge before hiking to Joseph A. Sylvia State Beach, site of the grisly Alex Kintner shark attack, it was impossible not to recall John Williams’ menacing score while scampering across the warm sands toward a familiar white lifeguard’s chair.

And you couldn’t help but remember that classic ad line — “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water” — while wading into the emerald waters where in Jaws, a great white shark terrorized vacationers during the height of the tourist season. It sparked the classic conflict between Roy Scheider’s concerned police chief Brody and Murray Hamilton as the town’s Mayor Vaughn.

Seeing real-life warnings about sharks from Martha’s Vineyard to Cape Cod’s Marconi Beach, where swimmers are warned not to swim close to shark bait such as seals, just added to the thrill of it all.

As mind-blowing as the Jaws flashback was, it was matched by a nostalgic surprise that awaited my wife and me in Edgartown. She had indulged my morbid curiosity and agreed to take the four-minute “Chappy Ferry” to Chappaquiddick, the tiny Massachusetts island where on July 18, 1969, U.S. Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy drove his car off Dike Bridge, plunging into Poucha Pond, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne.

As luck would have it, after we landed on this picturesque oasis, we stumbled onto a film shoot for Chappaquiddick, director Joe Curran’s drama recounting the tragedy and ensuing political scandal.

It was only after chatting with two Edgartown police officers that we realized we were in the company of Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), the Australian actor playing a young Ted Kennedy.

Clarke’s castmates include Kate Mara as Kopechne, the 28-year-old who worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, Ed Helms as Kennedy’s cousin Joe Gargan and Bruce Dern as the family’s scheming patriarch, Joe Kennedy.

On a hot September afternoon, crews filmed and transported vintage vehicles including a black Oldsmobile and a putty-coloured Volkswagen Beetle on the ferry where, coincidentally, Jaws scenes were once filmed.

Principal photography had just begun on Chappaquiddick, shot in Edgartown and the island of its title, where Dike Bridge, once a flimsy wooden structure, now has guardrails.

I also learned about the difficulties producers faced last month getting permission from Edgartown officials for parking restrictions on the street leading to the Chappy Ferry, brief road closures and sign removal for two days of filming.

Then again, perhaps some of these resistant Edgartowners remembered too well how Jaws, for all its economic impact and bit parts offered to locals, had changed this sleepy, once-obscure Massachusetts paradise.

Since regions from Edgartown to the western fishing hamlet of Menemsha posed as the fictional resort town of Amity Island when Jaws filmed there in the spring of 1974, this island near Cape Cod has become a playground for U.S. presidents, movie stars and corporate tycoons. Despite a rising influx of visitors, the charm of its attractions is obvious, from Oak Bluffs’ gingerbread cottages, gorgeous waterfront, quaint shops and lively nightlife to the cafés, boutique hotels and white clapboard captains’ homes of stately Edgartown, which apparently hasn’t changed much since 1974.

Still, a visitor couldn’t help but think how counterproductive it must have seemed for a town that relies so much on tourism to have hosted a movie about shark attacks, until you learn Edgartown was in an economic slump.

Ironically, Jaws continues to bring benefits for Edgartown, where most of it was shot — attracting tourists rather than scaring them off.

And what was really heartening was that, while Edgartown Tour Company’s tours of Jaws locations remain popular, you won’t find cheap Jaws merchandise knockoffs being hawked in tacky tourist outlets.

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