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Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws is a cinematic classic, a film that set the mold for the modern blockbuster. This summer, Wondery debuted a new podcast from Mark Ramsey, the podcaster who was responsible for two earlier series, Inside Psycho and Inside the Exorcist. Inside Jaws opens with an infamous incident that occurred in July 1916: 25-year old Charles Epting Vansant takes a swim at in New Jersey with his dog, and became the first victim of a series of shark attacks that summer in the area. It was an incident that cemented the image of a killer shark in the American public, and helped set the stage for future stories like Jaws.
Over the course of seven episodes, Ramsey takes his listeners through a narrative journey through the early days of Spielberg’s career and his work on the arduous production of the movie that made his name, criss-crossing through history to highlight other notable shark attacks, World War II, and Spielberg’s childhood and into Hollywood. But where podcast series like Serial, Slow Burn, or Order 9066 seek to frame history in a narrative fashion, Ramsey’s series is a dramatic production: a story heavily inspired by history, but not strictly historical reporting. The result is a gripping narrative that imagines Spielberg’s path to fame, and puts the story of Jaws into context with Spielberg’s rise, killer shark attacks, and more.
Ramsey tells The Verge that early in entertainment history radio plays and dramas were common, but that it’s been supplanted by movies and television. As a result, radio and audio has “been built to the background. It’s been intentionally the lowest-common denominator, [designed] to not get in your way, not provoke, not surprise, not scare, not delight, just not put off whatever center you’re on.” That realization helped push him to experiment and explore just what you could do with audio as a medium. “The first idea I had was to scare people, which is where [Inside Psycho] came from.”
Inside Psycho was a good place to start to scare listeners: it was already a frightening story, and came with “an origin story which likewise is horrifying.” That project then led to a followup series about The Exorcist. Ramsey noted that these projects accomplished their goal: he heard from listeners that they were scary to listen to and that people were screaming or even driving off the road while they were listening to it. “I felt like we had scared people as well as we possibly could,” Ramsey says, and wanted to go broader. “What about movies that go beyond pure horror into something that’s more action and that tells a broader, bigger story?” Jaws was the ideal subject: it was horrifying, but there was action and an interesting backstory.
Ramsey notes that the topics he’s picked are well-examined, and his approach “isn’t the story you think it is. None of these stories are directors commentaries.” Rather, he takes on a dramatic approach, comparing his work to a biopic, rather than a documentary. “I didn’t want this to be trivia for Jaws nuts. It’s intended to be a movie without pictures,” he explains. “I wanted to make a Steven Spielberg movie about a Steven Spielberg movie featuring Steven Spielberg. That is something that’s never been done.”
The series does have a cinematic quality to it, adapting Spielberg’s career, imagining what his life might have been like, and what he might have said to his colleagues along the way. Ramsey stressed that Inside Jaws isn’t history, and that he’s trying to change some perceptions about what podcasting can do as a medium.
Some of the stories featured in the show might not strictly be true or accurate, but the same can be said for movies about historical events or figures. He pointed to an anecdote where his Spielberg’s grandfather shows him the tattoo on his arm from his time in a concentration camp, and that he’d gotten feedback from someone who said that the timeline didn’t quite line up: his grandfathers were already in the country by the time the holocaust happened. “It’s a factual story, [but] whether it’s his grandfather or another relative is kind of besides the point... the purpose of all these things — miniseries, limited series, podcasts, television and film — is to tell a larger story. That’s what I’m trying to get to with this. It’s all a recreation because it’s all oriented towards the larger truth, and so long as there’s substance there, something worth getting to, that’s why the story is worth telling.”
He noted that people do misconstrue the podcast for straight-up documentary, noting that a lot of the podcasting scene is centered on journalistic documentaries. That’s where he says that he believes there’s space for innovation within the podcasting world, bringing in things like sound effects and voice actors to embellish and build out a creative story. “I don’t worry that they’ll think it’s a documentary rather than a biopic, because I know they do. And that’s one of the reasons why I do this, to kind of wave in someone’s face — wave in someone’s ears — ‘you know what? Everything you thought about podcasting doesn’t have be as narrow as you thought it was.’”