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A reflective Steven Spielberg talked about how he would advise young filmmakers when receiving an honorary Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival on Tuesday, and he decided to not follow the lead of his childhood hero John Ford.
“I’m not going to say, ‘Get the fuck out of my office.’ That’s a big difference between me and John Ford,” Spielberg told a press conference at the Berlinale as he recounted that meeting with the legendary filmmaker at age 16 that was captured almost verbatim in the climax of his latest film, The Fabelmans.
But much as that office encounter with Ford represented a brush with a surly and feared Hollywood titan, Spielberg insisted he remains in awe of his films. “John Ford was a force of nature. And for many, many years I was really scared by what he said and embarrassed by what he said and shamed by what he said. And 20 years later, I realized that what he had actually done was given me a tremendous gift,” he recalled of Ford’s advice, based on paintings on his office wall about composing a camera shot.
“That scene in The Fabelmans is, word for word, to the best of my recollection, what actually happened to me. He said no more or no less than the words he speaks in that film,” Spielberg added. As Berlin gives him a lifetime achievement award, the prestigious festival will screen The Fabelmans on Tuesday evening.
During the Berlinale presser, Spielberg opened up about his latest and most personal film, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age saga that was psychologically draining for the filmmaker to make: “It was very difficult for me because I was telling a story with a lot of funny parts, but with a lot of parts that were very traumatizing, and even in re-creating those scenes, it was very hard to relive it.”
Much of The Fabelmans focuses on Spielberg’s early passion for filmmaking and how he was supported and encouraged on that creative journey by his parents. But the director did recall at age 9 being told by his parents in real life he could not accompany them to a local cinema in New Jersey to see Ford’s classic Western The Searchers because its subject matter was too violent.
So Spielberg recalled taking some change from a family savings jar and going to see The Searchers on his own at the cinema. “I probably didn’t understand the movie at 9 as well. When I saw the movie multiple times after that, I understood it better. But I know how it feels to be left behind and then realizing that’s a film I could have used my mom and dad to help explain to me.”
The Fabelmans, as it recalls Spielberg’s childhood, also captures the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, with Michelle Williams playing a version of his mother named Mitzi, Paul Dano as a character named Burt, based on his father, and Gabriel LaBelle as the family’s son, Sammy.
Early in the movie, when Burt and Mitzi take Sammy to the movies for the first time at age 5, to see the slightly too-scary-for-him Greatest Show on Earth, they ignite in the boy a fascination with film and cameras, toys and tools that Sammy will train on his own family.
Spielberg told the Berlin media that, even at 75 years of age, he still has that childhood fascination and zeal for movie-making. “Whatever seized me as a little kid, it’s the same feeling I have retained all those decades later. And I feel that every time right now the same level of excitement when I find a book or a script, or come up with an original idea that I think could make a good movie.”
At the same time, having made and released West Side Story and The Fabelmans in quick succession — and doing so against the backdrop of the pandemic and being sequestered for a time at home with his family — Spielberg, well known for being a workaholic, expressed anxiety over not having a major movie project lined up currently.
“I never had a chance to think about what I’m going to do when these two movies are over. And I sit here, in front of you, saying I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I have no idea. And it’s kind of a nice feeling, and it’s also a horrible feeling,” Spielberg insisted as he looks to settle into his next on-set director’s chair.
“I need to work and I love to work, and that’s the biggest question I’m going to, for the rest of the year, try to figure out,” Spielberg added, even as he is at work producing an HBO miniseries based on Stanley Kubrick’s unrealized screenplay for Napoleon.
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