How did Valerie Taylor, the pioneering diver best known for shooting the live sharks in Jaws, wind up teaching Mick Jagger how to SCUBA dive? Perched before an oceanic backdrop for our Zoom call, the 85-year-old Australian answered with a fact she better than most knows to be true: “People get stuck on sharks every time.”
Freshly premiered Sundance documentary Playing With Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story, from Aussie director Sally Aitken, documents Taylor’s trailblazing life and career—from meeting her late husband as a competitive spearfisher, to the couple’s shift toward marine photography and conservation work. Eventually, the two wound up filming great white sharks for Steven Spielberg—only to watch in horror as the blockbuster stoked a sunburned panic among beachgoers around the globe.
Taylor looks back on all of this with candor and vulnerability, and Aitken meets her reflections with receptive empathy. For the director, taking on this project was a no-brainer.
“It’s an inspiring story,” Aitken said during our group call. “She’s an inspiring woman, and I think that messages around the fragility of the ocean are vital throughout these times. So that combination was irresistible.”
And for those who need proof of how incredible Taylor’s story really is: Her Mick Jagger story is not actually featured in the documentary. That anecdote, along with many others, simply would not fit in Aitken’s finished product. (Which was acquired by National Geographic Films after its Sundance debut.) But thankfully, Taylor shared it one more time.
Taylor and the Rolling Stones singer met on “a very luxurious vessel in Indonesia.” At one point, she recalled, Mick Jagger told her that he wanted to learn to dive—and when she recommended the very good divemaster on the vessel, “He said, ‘I’m not interested in the very good divemaster. I’m interested in the best in the world. I want you.’”
“‘I thought, ‘Well, he’s won me!’” Taylor said.
But apparently Mick Jagger’s slender figure was a bad match for his diving equipment; his weight belt kept falling off. “He would start to rise, and I’d be holding the weight belt, and I’d have my legs wrapped around him, holding him down,” Taylor said. “It sort of looked like we were fighting under water. I’m trying to put his weight belt on and pull it tighter and tighter and tighter until it stops falling down.”
“He’s a very fit man,” she concluded. “He learned very quickly. He’s used to taking direction.”
Taylor’s journey toward becoming the only acceptable diving instructor for Mick Jagger began during her time as a competitive spearfisher in Australia. After killing her first shark, Taylor felt a great deal of regret—so she and her husband, fellow spearfisher Ron Taylor, pivoted to filming marine life. They were, after all, both experienced divers who didn’t mind getting close to the toothy creatures that scared most others off—and television networks were ravenous for shark footage. The two also began doing conservation work around the world—a focus that also permeates Aitken’s documentary.
Taylor doesn’t mind getting so up-close and personal with these toothy creatures so many people fear in part because of her work. They’re basically just dogs with fins—although she’s pretty sure she could teach the average shark a food-based trick faster than your pooch. She’s only met one shark that she would call a friend—one she was tasked with luring away from research she and Ron had been working on with the U.S. Navy to develop shark repellers.
No matter how many times Taylor led the non-aggressive nurse shark—not the kind of shark they were looking for—away from the baited area, it kept following her back. After all, Taylor noted, “I was the source of her treats.” Eventually, Taylor found she could hang onto the shark’s fin, at which point it would swim her all around the reef—a visual image worthy of a Walt Disney film in its own right.
Another shark Taylor trained on the job? When she wanted a shot of a shark swimming over a coral reef, Taylor realized she could bribe the subject with food. “And they talk to each other,” she told The Daily Beast. “Because when I came back at dusk to get the sun going down, it brought along two friends.”
But one of the most exciting moments of Taylor’s career would also prove to be the one she most regrets.
In 1971, the documentary Blue Water, White Death would show the world footage of the Taylors doing what no diver had done before—filming a swarm of very deadly oceanic white-tip sharks without a protective cage. (“I actually thought we were going to die,” Taylor said. But the divers had a hunch based on a Readers Digest article about shipwreck survivors that if they hit the sharks, they’d be left alone. Luckily, they were right.) It was this film that inspired Steven Spielberg to make Jaws.
The Taylors filmed the movie’s live-action great white shark scenes for Spielberg, whom Taylor remembers as a friendly guy who “looked very, very young, indeed.” They were ecstatic about the film—but soon after its debut, as hysteric beachgoers across America freaked out about sharks, the couple’s excitement morphed into dismay.
“We were horrified,” Taylor said. “So was [Jaws author] Peter Benchley, and so was Universal.” The studio sent the Taylors on a tour of America and its talk-show circuit to preach their wisdom about sharks. But in many ways, the damage was already done.
Taylor’s conservation efforts become a secondary focus of Playing with Sharks toward the end of the film, as Aitken outlines the many ways human carelessness and maliciousness imperil sharks and other marine life every day. The director said that these issues have stuck with her since filming wrapped, and renewed her sense of responsibility to the planet. Her daughter—described as “a little bit punky”—recently befriended Taylor, and Aitken herself recently learned to dive, so she hopes the three of them can all eventually go together.
Taylor, meanwhile, remains committed to spreading the good word about sharks—and avoiding any work that might sully that effort. When asked how she feels about Shark Week, her response was not exactly warm; in fact, Taylor noted she’s turned Discovery down before. “They made a very good offer,” she said, but ultimately she declined “because I don’t want my peers to think I’ve been tarnished by so much rubbish shark footage.”
The bottom line, for Taylor, is very simple: “Sharks are not mean—ever,” she insists. “That’s something that is a specialty of the human race.”