Matt Taylor was only 2 years old when camera crews arrived on Martha’s Vineyard in 1974 to film Jaws. But when internationally renowned collector of movie memorabilia Jim Beller approached him in 2006 with an idea for a coffee-table book about the making of Steven Spielberg’s classic shark thriller, Taylor, a 15th-generation Vineyard resident, went door-to-door to find snapshots and other production artifacts that had gone unseen for over 35 years.

It was an angle so fresh that Spielberg volunteered to write the book’s foreword, and we awarded the book, named Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard, a star.

Read more of the Best Indie Books of 2011.

“I love the idea of the book being kind of like ‘Hollywood comes to Mayberry,’ ” Taylor said as we talked to him about islander mentalities, improvisation and long hours on the Jaws set, and his chance to see a live, 18-foot great white shark eat a whale.

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How did Martha’s Vineyard feel about the Hollywood invasion?

They speak very fondly about it now, but at the time, everybody talked about how frustrating it was to work on that movie just because everything would continually go wrong every day. They all signed on for one or two months and the thing dragged on six months. They signed on for nine-to-five and ended up working 18- to 20-hour workdays, seven days a week. Susan Murphy talks about that in the book, how she watched the attack scene where the shark is mauling Robert Shaw on the deck of the Orca. She was standing behind the camera thinking, “Oh, God, get this over with.”

There were a lot of locals who were opposed to the movie being made on the island back when the studio was trying to get permission to come here, but they were the older generations who really aren’t around any longer—the ones who liked things quiet and simple and kind of cringed at the showiness of a large-scale Hollywood production. The younger the islander, the more fun they seemed to have with Jaws.

What makes Jaws such a memorable film?

I think the combination of the musical score with the footage was just brilliant; I don’t just mean the familiar three-note shark theme, but the other parts of the score as well—the “rousing adventure on the high seas” type tracks that are reminiscent of pirate movies and horror films. Also, the acting—Spielberg was very much into letting his actors improvise on the set. That added a real-life-sounding tone to the dialogue in the film. In my opinion, if the viewers can relate to the characters, then they’ll feel more frightened for them when they’re supposed to. The film also has these great elements of man vs. beast, man vs. himself and man vs. each other. It really seems to touch a raw, primal fear of the unknown, of feeling helpless in the dark deep water with this lurking monster.

Have you ever seen a shark?

No, I actually had a chance a couple months ago. Do you remember reading about Tommy Mello? He’s one of the kids in the estuary scene on the sailboat. He now works for the Dukes County Harbor Patrol. In July he was hired to keep people away from this drifting sperm whale carcass on which an 18-foot great white was feeding. It was only a mile or two off South Beach, where hundreds of people were swimming, and Tommy would just circle this whale carcass in his boat all day long, keeping boaters and people who wanted to see the shark away. He actually called me one day and said, “I’m going to leave in 15 minutes. If you want to come down here, I’ll take you out to see the shark.” I raced as fast as I could to get there, but he had to leave before I could get to the dock.

How did you find all the local people, like Mello, who worked on the film?

I knew a lot of people who had worked on the movie just from being here every summer as a kid. I would be talking to one person and it would turn out that they had a whole drawer filled with slides or a shoebox filled with Polaroid photos from the production. Then they might casually mention that they had worked on the crew for a month and they’d have all these stories. Pretty soon I had about 130 people involved and I was just drowning in Jaws information. 

Did you have to leave anything out?

A lot of technical stuff involving the shark got cut. At the end of the day, the book is more about the Vineyard people involved in the production and not so much about the nitty-gritty details about the shark and the special effects.

How did you get Steven Spielberg to write the foreword?

We began talking to the Universal licensing department—even though none of the material we were working with was shot by Universal photographers, we wanted to make sure that they were on board with what we were doing. The people running that department at the studio now weren’t around 35 years ago and weren’t aware of the fact that the production of Jaws employed so many locals. They just weren’t getting it, so after a while they said, “You need to talk to Steven Spielberg, here’s the number.” We began communicating with DreamWorks—they were some of the nicest, most helpful people we dealt with throughout the entire project. We sent them a mock-up of the final copy this past February and three or four weeks later, we got a call from one of Steven Spielberg’s assistants saying he loved the book and he’d like to do a foreword. That was huge.