Steven Spielberg needed a real shark. Before the young director began filming “Jaws” with his famously malfunctioning animatronic beast in Martha’s Vineyard, he hired two underwater cinematographers to film great white sharks off the coast of South 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 climactic 1975 scene in which Richard Dreyfuss’s Hooper, seemingly safe in a shark cage, confronts the monster terrorizing beachgoers.
But, as Valerie Taylor, the subject of a new documentary, said in a recent video interview from her home in Sydney, “You might be able to direct a dog or a human or a horse, but you can’t direct a shark.”
It quickly became clear that the Taylors were battling two unwilling parties: the shark and the professional stuntman, Carl Rizzo, who didn’t know how to dive and panicked at being lowered in the cage. As he waffled on the boat deck, the shark approached, became tangled in the wires supporting the cage and ultimately snapped the empty container loose from the winch, sending it plummeting into the depths.
Ron filmed the whole thing underwater, while Valerie grabbed a camera on the ship and shot overhead. Spielberg was so enamored with the footage of the unexpected turn of events, he had the script rewritten to accommodate it, altering Hooper’s fate from shark bait to survivor as the animal thrashed overhead.
Valerie’s work on “Jaws” is just one chapter in her incredible life, which saw her shift from lethal spearfisher to filmmaker and pioneering conservationist. “She was like a Marvel superhero to me,” the Australian producer Bettina Dalton said. “She influenced everything about my career and my passion for the natural world.”
That reverence led Dalton to team up with the 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 mostly in New Zealand, Valerie, now 85, grew up poor. She was hospitalized with polio at age 12 and forced to drop out of school while she relearned how to walk. She began working as a comic strip artist then dabbled in theater 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’t hurt you and you’ll learn,” Valerie, her statement earrings swinging under her silver hair, told me emphatically. When she began diving and spearfishing professionally, however, her mother was “horrified.” Valerie added, “I was supposed to get married and have children.”
She did eventually marry Ron, a fellow spearfishing champion who was also skilled with an underwater camera, and they began making films documenting marine life together. Valerie, with her glamorous “Bond girl” looks, became the focal point since they could fetch more money if she appeared onscreen. They were together until Ron died of leukemia in 2012.
“Here’s this incredible front-of-house character, and here’s an amazing technical wizard,” Aitken said. “Together, they realized that was a winning combination.”
Not only did Valerie have a magnetic on-camera presence, she had a rare ability to connect with animals, including menacing sharks, which were then little understood.
“They all have different personalities. Some are shy, some are bullies, some are brave,” Valerie said. “When you get to know a school of sharks, you get to know them as individuals.”
After she killed a shark while shooting a film in the 1960s, the Taylors had an epiphany: sharks needed to be studied and understood, rather than slain. They quit spearfishing entirely, and Aitken likened their journey from hunters to conservationists to that of John James Audubon.
“I have that sort of personality that I don’t get afraid. I get angry,” Valerie said. “Even when I’ve been bitten, I’ve just stayed still and waited for it to let go — because they’ve made a mistake.”
Still, she conceded, “I don’t expect other people to behave like I do.”
Her signature look, a pink wet suit and brightly colored hair ribbon, 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 have a red ribbon.’ That was that.”
When asked, she shrugged at the idea that she faced additional challenges as the only woman on boats full of men for 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, although I didn’t realize it, I was probably as tough.”
The “Playing With Sharks” filmmakers, who pored over decades of media coverage and archival footage, described Valerie as someone who faced an uphill battle on multiple levels but who was also seen as an intriguing novelty.
“Of course, she had to fight to be taken seriously,” Aitken said. “She was 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 blockbuster in 1975, the Taylors realized that the movie was doing harm that they’d never considered: Recreational shark hunting gained popularity and audiences feared legions of bloodthirsty sharks were stalking humans just below the surface. In reality, there are hundreds of species of sharks, and only a few have been known to bite humans. Those that do usually mistake people for their natural prey, like sea lions.
“For some reason, filmgoers believed it. There’s no shark like that alive in the world today,” Valerie said. “Ron had a saying: ‘You don’t go to New York and expect to see King Kong on the Empire State Building. Neither should you go into the water expecting to see Jaws.’”
In an attempt to quell public fears, Universal flew the Taylors to the United States for a talk-show tour educating the public about sharks, and Valerie said, “I’ve been fighting for the poor old, much maligned sharks and the marine world, in general, ever since.”
In 1984, she helped campaign to make the grey 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 a marine park named in their honor. And she still publishes essays passionately defending animals.
Yet, shark populations have been decimated around the world, primarily because of overfishing, and Valerie said many of the underwater scenes she witnessed in her early days no longer exist.
“I hate being old, but at least it 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 field of corn.”
Despite all that’s covered in “Playing With Sharks,” Valerie said, “it’s not my whole life story, by any means.” There was the time she was left at sea and saved herself by anchoring her hair ribbons to a piece of coral until another boat happened upon her. Or the day she taught Mick Jagger how to scuba dive on a whim. (He was a quick study, despite the weight belt sliding right down his narrow hips.) She also survived breast cancer.
Though she still dives, her arthritis makes being in the colder Australian waters difficult, and she’s eager to return to Fiji, where swimming feels like “taking a bath.”
“I can’t jump anymore, not that I particularly want to jump,” she said. “But if I go into the ocean, I can fly.”