Spielberg on Spielberg
A few days ago, Turner Classic Movies ran “Spielberg on Spielberg,” an hour and a half long retrospective on the work of one of cinema’s greatest masters with no narration or back story — just Spielberg’s voiceover and interviews. I finally got the chance to watch it thanks to the generosity of a friend who burned me a copy after I discovered TCM was not part of my basic cable package.
What a joy it was to spend such intimate time with the guy who’s made not just some of the most profound films of our time, but also the most enjoyable.
The program highlighted his earliest amateur stuff, from the WWII films he made with his junior high buddies, to his first color film about an alien attack in which he remarks, not without some irony, how odd it is that he became known as the man with goodwill toward extraterrestrials when he began his career with something more akin to War of the Worlds than E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.
It follows him through Columbia studios where, as a teenager, he snuck off from a tour group by hiding out in the bathroom and wandered the lot for a day before finally getting caught. So impressed by his chutzpah, they gave him a week’s pass to sit in and watch the various productions. When the week was up, he simply kept coming back every day, betting that the guard, who had seen him come and go everyday, wouldn’t think twice about it. It worked, and he spent his entire summer vacation there, learning by osmosis. And, of course, the exposure landed him his first job.
He talked about how the mechanical shark in Jaws malfunctioned, forcing him to shoot most of the film without it — all we see is the mayhem the shark caused but rarely the beast itself. Of course the building anticipation is what made the film a hit classic and Spielberg is rightly convinced that the film would not be what it is today had he not had a “problem” with his most important prop.
Spielberg mentioned that George Lucas stopped by the Close Encounters of the Third Kind set and was so impressed by what he saw that he predicted Encounters would blow the film he was currently working on — a little thing called Star Wars — out of the water. In fact, Lucas was so confident that Encounters would do better than Star Wars, that he and Spielberg swapped 2 1/2 percent points on the residual profits! Spielberg said he is still getting checks to this day!
It’s not often that a filmmaker of his status would admit to the sort of wildly out of control ego that produced the debacle, 1941 but Spielberg was very forthcoming about the film that almost undid him. That he followed it up with Raiders of the Lost Ark of course means that all was forgiven and forgotten.
I was delighted to see John Williams receive so much praise, the beautiful Empire of the Sun given lots of time (though one of my personal favorites, Always, got nary a mention), and was surprised to learn how much of the beach landing in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan was improvised on the spot.
I was fascinated to learn that the little girl with the red dress whom we see running through the ghetto during the massacre in Shindler’s List was not a figment of the filmmaker’s imagination, but something that actually struck the real Shindler when he viewed the ghetto liquidation from a hillside as depicted in the film — red dress and all. Take that all you people who hate that segment of the film and think it a cheap, sentimental shot…yeah, you know who you are. I was equally amazed when Spielberg admitted that he learned how to count from the tattoos of Holocaust victims who spent time in his house when he was a very young boy.
Spielberg spoke of his Kubrickian phase, though he never admitted to trying to be Kubrick, though it is obvious to anyone who bothers to look. It was a maddening and uneven time in his career that I think he has now properly abandoned, even if it did produce some unique work (A.I., Minority Report, etc.). Their voices, while at times harmonious, are not at all analogous.
The persistent thread of the entire piece and indeed of all his films is humanity’s need to communicate with each other, to always keep talking to each other no matter how bad it gets. I know his films speak to me and I am always excited to hear what he has to say.