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“The thing that makes me the happiest, aside from my marriage and my kids — that’s always in the first position — is waking up in the morning with an idea that can fit perfectly into a story that I’m preparing to tell,” Steven Spielberg tells me as we sit down to record an episode of ‘Awards Chatter.’ The legendary filmmaker, who will turn 70 in December but shows no signs of slowing down, continues, “If I can get one idea a day on my current project, and it’s a good idea, and I eventually wind up committing it to film — I said film, not digital, film everybody — that is why I can’t stop doing this.”
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart, J.J. Abrams, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Benicio Del Toro, Lily Tomlin and Eddie Redmayne.)
It was a rare and immense privilege to have an extended conversation with the person behind more acclaimed, profitable and timeless films than anyone else in history — among them Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), The Color Purple (1985), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Munich (2005), War Horse (2011), Lincoln (2012) and, most recently, Bridge of Spies (2015). And it was made all the more special by his willingness to speak candidly about not only his work, but also everything from his dyslexia, shortcomings and regrets to his thoughts on Oscar campaigning, Oscar snubs and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
We began by talking about Spies — a film about an unsung hero of the Cold War, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) — which Spielberg was excited to make, as someone who grew up, in northern California, in fear of an attack by the Russians; followed the travails of Francis Gary Powers as they unfolded during his teen years; and, shortly thereafter, his father experienced a frightening moment during a visit to the Soviet Union, about which Spielberg never forgot. The project, which was scripted by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, was embraced by critics (it stands at 91 percent on RottenTomatoes.com) and audiences (it grossed more than $163 million worldwide) alike and has been nominated for an impressive six Oscars. Spielberg is not a finalist for the best director Oscar — a prize he’s won twice, for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan — but the film, which he also produced with two others, was nominated for best picture, thrusting him into sole possession of the record for producer with the most noms in that category, with nine.
“Steve Spielberg,” who was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and raised in Saratoga, Cal., had unspectacular beginnings. As a school kid, he struggled in school — “My reading skills were the bane of my young existence,” he confesses — and was mocked ruthlessly by classmates and teachers alike. It wasn’t until recently that he determined the root of his problem: “I didn’t know I was dyslexic until a number of years ago — maybe eight, nine, 10 years ago,” he says. But he realizes now that the affliction may have been a blessing in disguise: “Those who are [dyslexic] sharpen their other skills, and I think my visual muscle is probably an overcompensation for how I don’t read as well as I’d like to.”
Spielberg, whose parents divorced just as he was heading off to Long Beach State to begin college, a traumatic event in his life, had been interested in and experimented with filmmaking from an early age. One summer while he was on break from high school and staying with relatives who lived near Universal City, he took a tour of the Universal lot and then snuck away from the group in order to explore on his own. Then he began showing up every day, acting as if he had official business there, “and walked past Scotty, the guard, every day, wearing a little bar mitzvah suit and a small thin tie, and he waved me through.” He laughs at the memory: “I actually had a lot more chutzpah back then then I have now — I don’t even recognize the kid that did that!”
Just a few years later, while a sophomore in college, Spielberg made a short film called Amblin’ (1968), which caught the attention of MCA/Universal executive Sid Sheinberg — “the man that jump-started my career” and still serves as something of a “consigliere” to the filmmaker — who offered him a seven-year deal to direct TV for the studio. By 22, Spielberg was directing Joan Crawford in an 1969 episode of Night Gallery (“That was really intimidating,” he confesses, “but she treated me like gold every day”), and two years later he made a TV film, Duel (1971), that convinced people to allow him to make his first feature film. Rather poetically, after attaining great success in the ensuing years, he returned to the Universal lot, out of which he has operated his production company, Amblin, for decades. (Last December, the company and the studio officially became partners again for the first time in 22 years.)
With a few exceptions, Spielberg, early in his career, tended to make films set in fantastical situations — most famously Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and Jurassic Park. In more recent years, though, he seems to have gravitated more towards projects pertaining to historical events — examples include Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, Lincoln and now Bridge of Spies. Is there any rhyme or reason for the change? “Not really,” he says with a laugh. “I love history,” he explains, but find he’s also drawn to “the kind of stories that only the imagination can write or create.” While it’s tempting to look at 1993 as a turning point in his career — when he made the giant blockbuster Jurassic Park and the gravely serious drama Schindler‘s List back-to-back — he actually points to another “seminal moment in my career” more than a decade earlier: “I think the turning point came with E.T., when I saw how people were reacting to it.” He continues, “When I saw what that film could do to people’s hearts, bringing families together to share a movie experience as a family, at that point I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is a powerful medium we’re in… I’ve gotta be very responsible with this medium. This is something that can hurt as much as it can help.”” (The film also changed him in another important way, he says: “I never, ever, ever wanted to have children before I worked with those three kids. When I was working with those kids, I discovered fatherhood.”)
For decades, Spielberg has worked with the same core group of collaborators, much like the masters of Hollywood’s Golden Age did, but as few others do today. Among the recurring characters are composer John Williams, with whom he has made all but two of his films since Jaws; film editor Michael Kahn; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski; production designer Rick Carter; and, until recently, when she left to take over Lucasfilm, producer Kathleen Kennedy, who began her career as his production assistant. “We just are completely fluid within each other’s disciplines, you know, and the trust factor is so high,” Spielberg says of these collaborators.
But he remains open and excited about working with others for the first time. He says that he courted Daniel Day-Lewis for a decade, and that their time together on Lincoln made him a better director. (“We really believed that we were back in the 19th century telling this story,” he says. “We all felt that we were in the presence of the great man, and I had never felt that before — ever, on any film.”) He had a similar experience on Bridge of Spies with Mark Rylance, who is best known for his work in the theater, and who Spielberg quickly recruited for his next film, The BFG, which was adapted from Roald Dahl‘s bestselling novel by E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who died of cancer in November, and will be out July 1. (“I actually offered him the movie [BFG] after the first day of shooting [Spies], I was so blown away,” Spielberg gushes.) Spielberg also cites, as great acting collaborators, his three-time partner Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1989’s Always) and four-time partner Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan, 2002’s Catch Me If You Can, 2004’s The Terminal and Bridge of Spies). He hopes to be able to team up with Meryl Streep, as well, emphasizing, “I really, really have a desire to work with her.”
While working with great actors is something he loves, it’s not his favorite part of the filmmaking process. “I’ve always enjoyed editing the most,” he reveals. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to enjoy the shooting process more than I did when I was younger. But I kind of shoot for the editing room, meaning I don’t just do a lot of coverage, I don’t shoot a lot of arbitrary shots and hope to figure out the movie in post-production; I’ve figured out the movie before I’ve come to the soundstage, and so everything I shoot is specific to the way I see it cut together in my head. That’s why I edit as I film. I edit every day — in the morning before I get onto the set, at lunch and sometimes just after wrap for an hour, and sometimes, if we’re shooting five-day weeks, I’ll edit on Saturday. And the reason I do that is I get to see my movie coming to life right before my eyes and I can make all of these changes.”
The thing about himself he would most like to improve? “I could be better at being more patient,” he admits. “Sometimes I will rush something to get to something else that I’m even more excited about… I’ve been much better, in recent years, at making every moment count and not glossing over everything… That impatience was a problem for me a while… I don’t even know if I outgrew it. I think I just learned from reshooting a lot of stuff at 10 o’clock in the morning and then suddenly saying, ‘You know, there’s a reason you do that. You don’t have to do that anymore!'”
As for how his movies are received by others, Spielberg says, his attitude has changed over the years. “I pretty much know my audiences before I get involved in the movies,” he says. “Now, of course, I was wrong with Lincoln, because Lincoln, I thought, we were gonna get nobody coming to the theater, and it turned out to be the highest-grossing political movie made up to that point… and [Bridge of Spies] has done really terrifically, as well, and far exceeded what I thought it was going to do.” What about how his films will be reviewed? “I didn’t read reviews when I was younger — I was terrified of them,” he acknowledges. “But I read reviews now. I’ve been reading reviews for a number of years. They’re interesting… I’m more philosophical now.” Pressed to name the film of his that he feels has been most misunderstood, he says, “I think one of the underappreciated movies that I’m so proud of is Catch Me If You Can. That’s one of my most favorite shooting experiences that I’ve ever had — I mean, it’s up there in the top five. I’m really proud of that movie. People enjoy it as kind of a confection, but to me there’s some red meat on the bones of that story that I’m very proud of. And I think Leo was exceptional and Tom was incredible.”
40 years ago, Spielberg’s Jaws, as the first massive blockbuster, changed the movie business, creating pressure for a movie to make a lot of money in its opening weekend or give way to another movie that might. This has almost certainly made it harder for non-tentpole productions, of the sort that Spielberg has tended to direct in more recent years, to hang around in theaters long enough to build up word-of-mouth buzz and find an audience. But Spielberg won’t bite — pardon the pun — when it is proposed that Jaws created this climate in the first place, and he also rejects the notion that the studios today, because of their pressure to make money right off the bat, have become less adventurous when it comes to deciding what to greenlight. “I think the studios get a bad rap for this,” he insists, “because I think people forget that most of these studios have specialty divisions and these specialty divisions account for a lot of the sales at Sundance and some of the other festivals. These divisions allow low-budget films to get made and get proper distribution. And often, within the same studio, these are the films, in the specialty divisions, that compete against the mainstream films during Oscar time, you know?”
With the Oscars having entered the conversation, I had to run a few things about them by Spielberg. For many years, back when he was considered the “boy wonder” of the business, he had a complicated relationship with the Academy. The year that Jaws was eligible, he was publicly humiliated when he allowed a camera crew to film him on the morning of the Oscar noms and then did not receive a best director nomination that he — and most others — had thought was a slam-dunk. (He reflects, “That was a bad choice. I guess I was so secure of the nomination for myself as director that when they said, ‘Can we bring some cameras in to photograph your reaction when it’s announced on television?’ I said ‘Yes.’ That was a big lesson I learned that day. Don’t be sure of anything.”) Over the next decade, as he became America’s most famous filmmaker, he was nominated for best director three times — for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark — but he lost each time. Then, The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars, including best picture, but not best director, and many couldn’t help but assume that the Academy had a problem with Spielberg himself. Some speculated that others were resentful of his success. Regardless, the Academy’s leadership felt a need to make things right and presented him, the following year, with its highest honor for a producer, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. And by the time Schindler’s List came out seven years later, Spielberg’s talents could no longer be denied. He won best picture and best director Oscars that year, and then best director again five years after that for Saving Private Ryan.
Spielberg did not win the best picture Oscar for Saving Private Ryan, though, because the film, famously, was upset by Shakespeare in Love, following an awards season of unprecedented spending and intensity, most of it between DreamWorks (the studio Spielberg founded in 1994 with David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg), on behalf of Ryan, and Harvey Weinstein and Bob Weinstein‘s Miramax, on behalf of Shakespeare. Things got so cut-throat that Spielberg reportedly was disgusted by it all at the end of Oscar night. “It’s not that I got turned off by it,” he says. “I didn’t get turned off by it.” Citing the bloc voting of the studios in the 1940s and 1950s, he says, “There’s always been competition,” adding, “It’s just a reality, it’s something we live with.” Does he wish it were different? “There’s a lot of money being thrown at it, but I’m not gonna sit here and say we should have campaign finance limits the way John McCain was asking for them a couple of years ago during a political cycle. But I do think think the amount of let’s just call it ‘gifts,’ the amount of ‘enticements,’ should be reduced to zero. I think the thing I’m against the most are enticements — people sending elaborate brochures and baskets. I think sending out a DVD of your movie is all we should be doing and nothing beyond that. Not the dinners and anything else — I just think that’s a little bit different than the way it used to be. [But] I don’t think there’s anything I can say that’s going to stop that from happening, because everybody likes to go to a good party. I don’t want to say I’m against having a good party, but there’s something about actual campaigning, where what you’re campaigning for has been forgotten and it’s [about] the power of persuasion over the power of the story and of the contributions… that’s what I’m sad about.”
I would have been remiss if I didn’t ask Spielberg, the de facto elder statesman of the Hollywood community, about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of the past two years and the manner in which the Academy has responded to it. I expected a carefully worded non-answer, but I got something quite different. “I’m a huge supporter of the Academy Awards,” he says. “I was surprised at some of the individuals who were not nominated. I was surprised at [the exclusion of] Idris [Elba] — I was surprised at that. I think that was one of the best performances in the supporting actor and the actor category, was Idris. I’ve seen Straight Outta Compton — my wife and I saw it when it first opened, the first weekend, and it just rocked our world. It was incredible. I was very surprised to see that omission.”
So the lack of diversity within the Academy’s membership is to blame for the lack of diversity within its nominations, and the Academy was right to initiate a process by which members who are not ‘active’ will lose their voting privileges? Not so fast, Spielberg said: “You have to look back a couple of years, where Lupita [Nyong’o] was recognized for 12 Years a Slave [and] 12 Years a Slave won best picture, you know? I don’t believe that there is inherent or dormant racism because of the amount of white Academy members. I’m also not 100% sure that taking votes away from Academy members who have paid their dues and maybe are retired now and have done great service — maybe they’ve not won a nomination, which would have given them immunity to the new rules, but they have served proudly and this is their industry too — to strip their votes? I’m not 100% behind that.”
He continues, “I do think that what the Academy is doing, in a proactive way, to open up the membership to diversity, I think that’s very, very important. But it’s not just the Academy, and I think we have to stop pointing fingers and blaming the Academy. It’s people that hire, it’s people at the main gate of studios and independents. It’s the stories that are being told. It’s who’s writing diversity — it starts on the page. And we all have to be more proactive in getting out there and just seeking talent.” Is someone’s race or gender a consideration for Spielberg when he hires people to work in front of or behind the camera? No, he says, he wants the person most qualified for the job — and that has resulted in diverse hirings. He says, “Look, I have two black children, you know? I’ve been colorblind my entire life.” And, he adds, “When you just look at the films I’ve made, and look at the people who’ve worked on those films — look at the diversity within the crew, within the cast — I’ve always [had it].”
As our conversation winds down, I try to get a sense of what Spielberg’s life is like when he’s not at work on a film. Married to actress Kate Capshaw since 1991, he has seven children, all of whom are now adults. He mentors other filmmakers, such as J.J. Abrams, and he loves hearing specifics about how his work has inspired others. (“When I met David Lean, I was actually able to say, ‘Mr. Lean, Lawrence of Arabia made me want to get into this business and seriously be a movie director,’ which is true.”) Shunning traditional sports like golf, he says, “I shoot, trap and skeet.” And, he discloses, “People who know me know I play video games. I’ve played video games since Pong!” He says he really enjoys television: “I’m watching more miniseries today than I’ve ever watched before,” he says. “I think that the level of writing is as good in television as it is today in film.” But nothing can supplant his love of the movies, not least of all because, he says, “I think films change the world every day.”
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