Director Steven Spielberg, camera operator Michael Chapman and cinematographer Bill Butler on the set of the Universal Pictures production of 'Jaws' in 1975.
Acclaimed cinematographer Bill Butler, who rose to fame for shooting director Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning 1975 horror thriller Jaws, died on April 5 at the age of 101, according to The Hollywood Reporter. His death came two days before his 102nd birthday, which would have been today.
Butler, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his other classic 1975 drama, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, died Wednesday evening in Los Angeles, the American Society of Cinematographers has confirmed. He is survived by five daughters and his wife, Iris.
During his five-decade career, the self-taught cinematographer also lensed Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969) and The Conversation (1974); Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One (1977); and Randal Kleiser’s hit musical Grease (1978). Butler also shot Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985), which were all written and directed by, as well as star, Sylvester Stallone.
Butler replaced Haskell Wexler midway through production on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, after the latter was fired. Both cinematographers shared the Oscar nomination for their work. Butler also had replaced Wexler on The Conversation, after the latter was forced off the production early on, due to creative differences.
Butler also lensed the first film that The Exorcist helmer William Friedkin ever helmed. The cinematographer also shot Jack Nicholson’s 1971 directorial debut, Drive, He Said; the horror sci-fi Demon Seed (1977); the skating drama Ice Castles (1978); the 1980 musical Can’t Stop the Music; the Ivan Reitman-helmed comedy Stripes (1981); and the 1997 horror movie Anaconda starring Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube and Owen Wilson.
Besides Jaws, Butler also collaborated with Spielberg on his early 1970s telefilms Something Evil, featuring Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin, and Savage, starring Martin Landau. The cinematographer later reunited with the director for Jaws after they happened to see each other in the Universal Studios parking lot. Butler said to Spielberg: “I hear you are making a movie about a fish.”
For Jaws, the cinematographer said his intention was for the early scenes on Amity Island to reflect the style of Andrew Wyeth’s realistic regional paintings. Butler ater contrast them with darker, violent imagery.
The cinematographer’s iconic shots included the early dawn attack of the first victim, Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie), that opens the movie; the Vertigo-inspired dolly zoom that accompanies Chief Brody’s (Roy Scheider) shock at witnessing a shark attack from the beach; and the extreme close-ups of panicking swimmers.
“I brought a lot of new things to the picture, such as hand-holding the camera,” Butler noted in Patrick Jankiewicz’s 2015 book, Just When You Thought It Was Safe: A Jaws Companion.
“In the old days of making sea pictures, they used a giant gimbal, which weighs roughly 400 pounds and is slow and hard to set up but does keep the camera level. I found, just by experimenting, that I could hand-hold the camera on an oceangoing boat and keep it level simply by using my knees. I told Steven that I had this idea about shooting the picture hand-held, and he just fainted,” the cinematographer admitted.
Spielberg released a statement about collaborating with Butler on the film: “On Jaws, Bill Butler was the bedrock on that rickety, rocking boat called the Orca. He was the only calm in the middle of that storm, and as we went into a battle against nature and technology that wore both of us down, the audience eventually won the war. Bill’s outlook on life was pragmatic, philosophical and so very patient, and I owe him so much for his steadfast and creative contributions to the entire look of Jaws.”
Production problems on the set of Jaws became legendary. The movie began without a completed script, the giant mechanical shark malfunctioned and the planned 55-day shoot ballooned to 159 days with an overblown budget that more than doubled to approach $9 million. Spielberg feared he would be fired at any moment.
“I said to Steve, ‘I’ll tell you something, it’s been a week and we’re still here. You have absolutely nothing to worry about. They must think we’ve got a great project going here or we would be gone, because we’re over further than any picture at Universal has ever gone over!,'” Butler said.
Despite all the setbacks, Jaws won Academy Awards for Best Score, Editing and Sound (eventually winning all but the top award). However, Butler wasn’t included in the cinematography category.
Upon its release, the summer blockbuster became the highest-grossing film of all time after it earned $470 million at the box office. It was surpassed two years later by Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.
Butler was born on April 7, 1921, in Cripple Creek, Colorado, and raised in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. He said his earliest mpvie memory was watching The Jazz Singer (1927) when he was six-years-old.
Years after he graduated with a degree in engineering from the University of Iowa, Butler began working as a cameraman on live shows and commercials for WGN-TV in the early 1960s. There he met Friedkin, who was then a floor manager at the Chicago station.
“We shared a common love of film,” the helmer wrote in The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir. “We each harbored a desire to make them one day.”
That day came when Friedkin hired Butler as cinematographer on The People vs. Paul Crump (1962). The duo worked on the 52-minute project when they weren’t working at the station.
The two filmmakers reunited in 1965 to make the David Wolper NBC documentary The Bold Men. Butler and Friedkin also collaborated on the Sonny & Cher musical comedy, Good Times (1967).
Butler’s last feature was the 2009 horror mystery film, Evil Angel, which was written, helmed and co-produced by Richard Dutcher and stars Ving Rhames. His last television movie was the 2002 boxing feature Joe and Max, which was directed by Steve James.