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Steven Spielberg's Close Encounter With Bollywood

Steven Spielberg - H 2013
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The Indian film industry gathered to hear the “Lincoln” director engage in a wide-ranging discussion with local screen icon Amitabh Bachchan.

MUMBAI – Steven Spielberg – who landed in Mumbai Monday – participated in a lively ninety-minute Q&A session with Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan in the presence of an exclusive, hand-picked audience of about 50 Indian directors and film personalities.

Also present were Spielberg’s wife Kate Capshaw, DreamWorks’ co-chair Stacey Snider, Reliance group chairman Anil Ambani and his wife, former Bollywood actress Tina Ambani. Held at the ballroom of the upscale Taj Land’s End hotel, the by-invitation-only evening Monday was organized by DreamWorks’ equal partner Reliance Entertainment. Bachchan – who has a role in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming The Great Gatsby — opened the session by welcoming Spielberg to India. Spielberg first came here in 1977 to shoot a sequence for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He then returned for location scouting in 1983 for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom recalling that he visited various cities including Benaras, Delhi and Jaipur among others. (That film was eventually shot in neighboring Sri Lanka). “What I really remember is the warmth of the people here – they would just invite me to their homes even without knowing me,” Spielberg replied when Bachchan asked him about his impressions of India.

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The session kicked off with how he got started in film, with the Oscar-winning director sharing his now famous story about crashing his toy trains as a young boy and filming them with his father’s Super 8 mm camera. “That really showed me the power of cinema, that I could watch the train wrecks again and again,” he said. Referring to Duel, the film that put Spielberg on the map, Bachchan recalled, “I remember the effective use of sound for the truck – was that deliberate?” to which Spielberg replied that he set out to create an “aural threat which gave the truck personality.”

Bachchan then asked Spielberg about how he chooses actors: “In your earlier years – and sometimes even now — your films are driven by characters such as a fish or aliens or robots. Lots of actors feel threatened by that!” As the laughter subsided, Spielberg smiled and replied: “As I move beyond middle age, I am turning more towards actors to save my career. So that’s why I work more with the likes of Daniel Day Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio.”

Bachchan specifically pointed to his “unusual choice” of casting Tom Hanks as a soldier in Saving Private Ryan. “Tom is a great leader,” said Spielberg. “He started as a comedian but in every comedy actor there is a dramatic actor. As Tom matured, his films became serious and I thought he could do anything so that’s why I cast him as John Miller.”

Spielberg’s fascination with the James Bond films is well-known and when Bachchan asked him if he made the Indiana Jones films as an homage to the superspy, he replied: “Well, it was really George Lucas who was inspired by the cinema serials we saw as kids (such as those by Republic Pictures) to do Indiana Jones. But I called (James Bond producer) Cubby Brocolli after I did Jaws and told him I’d like to direct a Bond movie. And Cubby replied that I was not experienced enough but if we do a Bond movie on water we might consider you!”

Delving further into his continued attempts to win over Broccoli, Spielberg added, “Cubby asked me permission to use the famous five musical notes in Close Encounters for Moonraker. I said sure and by the way, do you have a slot for me for Bond and he said no!” The saga continued with the Spielberg-produced Goonies. “One of the kids in the movie is a 007 fan and plays the Bond theme on his ghetto blaster so I called Cubby to get permission. He initially refused so I reminded him that I gave him the five notes from Close Encounters to which Cubby replied that the Bond theme has seven notes! Eventually he did give permission.”

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Moving on to Spielberg’s role as a producer over the years, Bachchan asked him he how he chooses his projects. “It has to grab me passionately. My wife first read American Beauty and suggested I direct it but somehow it didn’t speak to me, as great as the script was. I ended up hiring a then-unknown director, Sam Mendes, who ended up winning an Oscar for it. Some movies are destined for the people they are destined for.”

When Bachchan asked how knowledgable Spielberg was of Indian cinema, the director confessed “not so much. And that’s more to do with the lack of access we have in the U.S. to Indian and even films from other cultures. There could be mostly commercial reasons for that. On the other hand Robert Redford has done a great thing with the Sundance Channel which showcases movies from other countries as does the Independent Channel. But the truth is that not enough countries are represented on U.S. television.”

Elaborating further on how the world has “shrunk to a postage stamp thanks to the information highway,” Spielberg added, “We in the U.S. need to do more to be exposed to other cultures.”

“And can DreamWorks propagate that change?” inquired Bachchan in his famous baritone voice. “DreamWorks and Reliance, led by Anil Ambani and his team, have that goal to build the cultural bridge. We are actually doing that this very moment,” said Spielberg.

The discussion then moved to Spielberg’s iconic films E.T. and Schindler’s List as Bachchan asked the director why he has said that he wants to be remembered by these films. “These two films are what people really talk about the most everywhere I travel in the world. The E.T. demographic grew up and watched Schindler’s List. E.T. also got me to be a dad. When I was working with the child actors in the film (including Drew Barrymore), by the end of it I wanted to take those kids home and raise them. It was a personal film as my parents also got divorced when I was about 17.”

“So what do your kids (seven children and three grand-children) have to say about your films?” asked Bachchan. “They tell me the truth – they like some but not all. They like E.T. and the Indiana Jones movies, not so much the last one!”  Spielberg replied.

Bachchan, who asked questions without referring to any notes, touched upon Spielberg’s relationship with fellow filmmakers of his generation – Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Brian DePalma and others – and whether there was any envy amongst among them. “Envy is a good thing (if it inspires you to do better),” Spielberg said. “And so is jealousy and ambition. But we also tried to inspire and collaborate with each other. My movies are better for the input given by them. I mean nobody but George Lucas could have done Star Wars. I want my aliens in my backyard – he wants them far, far away. The first Godfather is one of the greatest movies ever made and only Coppola could have done that.”

Bachchan then threw the session open to questions from the audience. Bollywood director Kunal Kohli – known for romantic films such as 2006’s Fanaa – asked Spielberg why he has made movies in most genres “but not so much love stories.” “I am living a love story with my wife and family,” replied Spielberg. “Sometimes if you don’t have something in your life you try and fill that void with films. But if you have a good love story let me know!”

Nagesh Kukunoor, whose credits include his autobiographical 1997 title Hyderabad Blues, wanted to know why Spielberg was not using storyboards now as much as he did earlier. “The reason I storyboarded a lot when I was starting out was because I wanted to have a plan when I got on set. As I gained more confidence, I got better ideas on location than sitting away at a storyboard. But for action and VFX films storyboarding is essential. I am doing that for my next, Robopocalypse. It helps you during budgeting and if you go over-budget you can always tear off some storyboards.”

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Acclaimed writer and lyricist Prasoon Joshi asked how Spielberg reflected his relationship with his father in some of his films. “You can’t help who you are and that comes out in the wash. It will end up in the script. There are parts of me in Indiana Jones even though I can’t use a whip. My parents’ divorce was reflected in E.T. and that was autobiographical. Once my dad showed me the stars through a home-made telescope and said, “How can something so beautiful in nature come down and destroy us? There is only good up there – the only bad things are down here.””

Renowned scriptwriter, lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar - his credits include screenplays for iconic films like Sholay and Deewar, both starring Bachchan – wanted to know if Spielberg was shifting away from his earlier more child-like films towards more serious cinema. “Well, recently I did Tintin and then I followed that with Lincoln. I sometimes recall the famous scene from Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. A flying saucer lands just as Woody Allen is on his way to an awards show. And the aliens come out and tell him, We liked your earlier work! I get that moment many times! As I started to have kids, I also wanted to tell stories for them which they could watch growing up. My next film Robopocalypse is a cautionary tale about robots taking over. Had the U.S. lost the Civil War there would have been two Americas.”

Director Sudhir Mishra, known for tackling the unconventional with acclaimed films such as Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi, wanted to know how a film’s creation starts off differently compared to the final result. “I am sure when all of you in this room see the final result of your films you probably question yourself whether its really that good. I do that,” said Spielberg. “I’ll go home and shake my head after seeing the first cut and Kate will say, you can fix it. And that’s why, next to the cinematographer and writer, the editor is your third eye. I have fixed a lot by reshooting or cutting. There have only been a couple of moments when I have liked the first cut.”

“When you hire directors, do you interfere in any way?”, asked Bachchan. “If it gets bad, they have to solve the problem,” said Spielberg. “Stacy and I can make our best or worst mistakes when we select our directors. They can take or leave my notes even if they don’t have final cut.”

When asked by an upcoming film-maker which was his hardest film, Spielberg replied: “Jaws was the hardest. The adverse shoot went on for nine months and that almost stopped me from being a film-maker. But then it turned out to be this big hit – there was this big white turd floating around the water and people in the audience were loving it, throwing popcorn in the air.”

Spielberg also referred to the long gestation for Lincoln: “Daniel Day Lewis turned me down twice as he was the first choice. Liam Neeson accepted the role but we eventually had a difference after Tony Kushner’s script. But we parted ways and are still good friends. Daniel Day Lewis was actually introduced to the project by Leonardo DiCaprio. One night he was having dinner at my home and he asked about Lincoln. The next day he called and said write down a number. Its Daniel Day Lewis’ phone number in Ireland. I have spoken with him and he is expecting your call. So he really set it up.”

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Bachchan then asked Spielberg if he had any questions for the Indian film fraternity present. Spielberg took the chance to do a spot poll and asked how many directors present did action movies (not too many hands went up), comedies (some hands) and musicals (the hall erupted in laughter given Bollywood is driven by song and dance). “I’d like to know what kind of movies are made, not just Bollywood. Is there freedom here for different genres?” asked Spielberg. “It is getting better,” replied Sudhir Mishra. “Audiences are also changing and there is a new breed of directors, and many of them are in this room. And even mainstream cinema is changing.” As Mishra pointed to director Raju Hirani, known for the superhit comedy 3 Idiots, Spielberg said, “Yes, I saw it – I loved it.”

As the long-running host of the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Bachchan wanted to know Spielberg’s views on TV. “The best writing in the U.S. currently is being done for TV,” said Spielberg, citing examples like Girls, Breaking Bad, Modern Family and others. “We look to TV for great writing. There are so many TV outlets, they need a lot of writers who have more opportunities in TV than in films. I mean I got started in TV as well.”

When asked about his views on technology, Spielberg said: “I love technology. A major paradigm change is the shift to digital, especially for VFX. On the other hand it is sad that digital is replacing some arts such as physical make-up which has masters like Rick Baker and Dick Smith. 3D has been around since the 19th century as stereovision. IMAX is a new form of Cinerama. I think the next big paradigm change will be how the story will appear all around you, even though virtual reality is an old word.”

Acclaimed veteran actress and Bachchan’s wife Jaya asked: “Would you not make a film because it didn’t have the right actor?”

“Yes, I could not have made Lincoln without Daniel Day Lewis or Amistad without Djimon Hounsou. I was about to shut down Amistad and at the last minute I saw these pictures by (the late fashion photographer) Herb Ritts of Hounsou and I selected him. Empire of the Sun was not possible without Christian Bale.”

One of India’s new breed directors, Anurag Kashyap (credits include the two-part epic Gangs of Wasseypur which premiered at Cannes) asked Spielberg about Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls revolving around the brat-pack movie makers of the seventies including Spielberg, Coppola and Scorsese. “The book states that you were the kid of the gang. How do you recall that time?” asked Kashyap. “I really don’t like that book. Someday someone should do a great book about that era. But the truth is that we helped and supported each other and that part of the book is true. To this day, we love each other,” replied Spielberg.

Bachchan then returned to DreamWorks’ relationship with Reliance and Anil Ambani. “For one, this has brought me to India,” said Spielberg. “We were introduced at the Cannes film festival. In 2008 as the economic turmoil hit, Reliance continued to support us. We will never forget this.” As the crowd applauded, Spielberg added, “They believe in loyalty and freedom as much as we do. We speak the same language.”

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The event reached its conclusion as Anil Ambani delivered closing remarks thanking Spielberg, Bachchan and the audience “for this fascinating exchange.” Ambani then had questions of his own as well: “Lincoln had 12 Oscar nominations and it won two. How did it feel not to win best director and best film? And my second question is, can you please share more about the making of Lincoln?”

Addressing the second question first, Spielberg said: “Making Lincoln was one of the best experiences of my life. It had 145 speaking actors with an eloquent screenplay. Unlike most of my earlier films, here the camera was a silent partner (in the story-telling process). The spotlight was on the characters and screenplay. As for the Oscars (and other awards), the nominations were award enough. Oscar night to me was about watching a show. You sit there and you like everyone in the room. Rivalries are fuelled by the media. I mean, during the Oscar commercial breaks, we were all schmoozing with each other as if we were at a tea party in somebody’s home. As for winning, five seconds before the envelope opens, everyone thinks they are going to win.