She was a former age-group swimmer with a good swimming stroke, excellent navigational sighting technique, a great body position who knows how to run into the ocean and start swimming quickly. But her name is not as well-known among the contemporary swimming community as it is in the movie industry.
In the summer of 1975, Susan Backlinie appeared on the promotional poster and as Chrissie Watkins, an ocean swimmer in the iconic scene in the movie Jaws. 67 million Americans saw the film during the summer of 1975 and hundreds of millions of film-goers have seen her since.
Backlinie, working under the direction of Steven Spielberg, worked hard to create the initial death scene.
The scene of the shark attack was shot several times over the course of 3 days. After many takes, miscues, and experiments, the final shot was produced when Spielberg did not tell the former age-group swimmer when she would be attacked. When the diver below her grabbed onto, and pulled her leg to pull her under, she gave an genuine scared, iconic reaction that remained in the final movie edit.
In order to simulate her body being moved left and right in the water, two 300-pound weights were attached to Backlinie and were being tugged by two groups of crewmen on shore. One group would pull right, and the other would pull left in order to create the scene.
Later, when she was recording the screams to be dubbed over the film, Spielberg had her tilt her head back and poured water down her throat while she screamed.
In the movie when the remains of Chrissie were examined, the tissue damage indicates the non-frenzied feeding of a large squalus is described by oceanographer Matt Hooper. Squalus is Latin for shark. On the beach when Chrissie’s remains are discovered, the prop arm that was originally used looked too fake in the scene so a female crew member was buried in the sand with only her arm exposed.
Backlinie’s classic swim stroke and horrific death scene will live on in film history.
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