Wrapped in a heavy suit and scarf against the win­try Lon­don day out­side, Steven Spiel­berg walks up with­out a co­terie of min­ders, a trail of rose petals, or an in­di­vid­u­alised John Wil­liams theme.

I was ex­pect­ing rather more pomp around the high­est-gross­ing film-maker of all time.

“No fan­fare; just you and me,” he says cheer­fully. At 71, with a “not so great” back, he re­tains a wiry youth­ful­ness.

“When I’m on set, I’m al­ways on my feet,” he says. “Not be­ing on my feet is harder.”

He reaches for the firmest chair avail­able, hop­ing to off­set the thou­sands of air miles re­quired to pro­mote The Post, his 34th fea­ture film.

It wasn’t sup­posed to be The Post. This time last year, Spiel­berg was knee-deep in pre-pro­duc­tion on his long-planned adap­ta­tion of David Kertzer’s ac­claimed The Kid­nap­ping of

Edgardo Mor­tara, the true story about a six-year-old Jewish boy who was kid­napped by the Pa­pal States dur­ing the 19th cen­tury.

In­stead, The Post has been turned around in just nine months. As its direc­tor notes, the project re­quired all the lever­age that he and his all-star cast – Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep – could muster. “I don’t think any­body other than Tom, Meryl and I could have got The Post made this year and that quickly. We needed our clout. It’s no longer the kind of film that stu­dios nor­mally make.”

Spiel­berg’s rush to make what he calls an “an­ti­dote to fake news” at­tempts to cap­ture some­thing of the zeit­geist. The Post re­volves around the Pen­tagon Pa­pers, the US gov­ern­ment’s 7,000-page se­cret his­tory of the Viet­nam War. In 1971, the doc­u­ments were leaked to the New York Times, who de­fied a Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion warn­ing to cease pub­li­ca­tion. When a pre­lim­i­nary in­junc­tion was granted against that news­pa­per, the

Wash­ing­ton Post – headed by pub­lisher Katharine Gra­ham (Meryl Streep) and ed­i­tor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) – con­tin­ued to run with the story.

Many com­men­ta­tors have been keen to char­ac­terise the film as Trumpian or post-Trumpian. But Daniel Ells­berg, the whistle­blower who leaked the Pen­tagon Pa­pers, has noted that The Post would have been just as timely had it emerged dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Spiel­berg is in­clined to agree. Some­what.

“The main at­trac­tion for me was the Katharine Gra­ham story,” says Spiel­berg. “A wo­man find­ing her voice in a world where there were only men. Where she had the author­ity, but, against an im­bal­ance of power, she didn’t, as yet, have the courage of her con­vic­tions. She had to learn how to speak up. That was cen­tral for the sur­vival of the Wash­ing­ton Post. That’s why the film could have been made un­der the Bill Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion or the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. But I don’t think it’s lost on any­one that Nixon’s at­tempt to in­ter­fere with the free press has par­al­lels with what is hap­pen­ing to­day. The at­tacks to­day are more insidious and dan­ger­ous. Nixon didn’t have a Twit­ter ac­count. He did it through his at­tor­ney gen­eral John Mitchell. He at­tacked the press. He at­tacked the New York Times. He at­tacked the Wash­ing­ton Post. And he en­joyed do­ing it.”

Spiel­ber­gian things

The Post is the lat­est in a se­ries of films – in­clud­ing Amis­tad, Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan and

Mu­nich – that upend our idea of Spiel­ber­gian, a term that has some­what er­ro­neously come to de­note the spook­ily ef­fec­tive mar­riage of Hitch­cock­ian sus­pense and child­hood won­der, as found in such wor­ship­ful pas­tiche as

Stranger Things or JJ Abrams’s Su­per 8. Spiel­berg has long ago pro­gressed be­yond the op­ti­mistic tone, science fic­tion geek­i­ness, and twin themes of di­vorce and sub­ur­bia that de­fined his ear­li­est films. A deft jug­gler, he re­leased both The Lost World: Juras­sic Park and Amis­tad in 1997; Ready Player One ,a

Run­ning Man-style ad­ven­ture based on Ernest Cline’s hit, dystopian novel, opens this March, less than three months af­ter The Post. Still, the Spiel­ber­gian tag stub­bornly re­mains the same.

Speak­ing to doc­u­men­tar­ian Su­san Lacy in last year’s thor­ough bi­o­graph­i­cal por­trait, Kath­leen Kennedy – who co-founded Am­blin En­ter­tain­ment with the film-maker, spoke of his dis­ap­point­ment at the sniffy re­cep­tion af­forded Empire of the Sun in 1987.

“Peo­ple kept ac­cus­ing me of try­ing to prove my­self,” recalls Spiel­berg. “And they wouldn’t have been wrong. It was im­por­tant for me to prove my­self in gen­res that I wasn’t known for. I watched Robert Mul­li­gan films [To Kill a

Mock­ing­bird; Same Time, Next Year ]andI loved watch­ing those pic­tures and I knew I had those pic­tures in me. But I had only been mak­ing films for wide public con­sump­tion. Even when I wasn’t. I didn’t think any­body would go to see ET. I thought it was the most per­sonal movie I had ever made. Or it at the time. But that be­came a widely con­sumed, global suc­cess. There were other more – quote-un­quote – adult sto­ries that I wanted to tell. And the crit­ics weren’t kind to me. I was mov­ing out­side of the box they had placed me in. So when I made Color Pur­ple and Empire of

the Sun, I got a lot of crit­i­cism. Many peo­ple who hadn’t liked my pre­vi­ous pop­ulist films sur­prised me by lik­ing Empire of the Sun. But most con­sid­ered it to be an anom­aly: a mi­nor foot­note be­tween In­di­ana Jones films.”

Schindler’s List, a script he re­jected many times, and in­stead of­fered to chums Sydney Pol­lack and Mar­tin Scors­ese, would fi­nally hush the Spiel­berg dis­senters.

“It was not the first time I was taken se­ri­ously as a film­maker,” he recalls. “But it was the first time that the sub­ject mat­ter was be­yond re­proach. And I hadn’t screwed it up. I hadn’t sen­ti­men­talised it or Hol­ly­wood­ised it. I had al­lowed my­self to be bru­tal with the facts of the Shoah. It took at lot for me to di­vest my­self of all the easy tricks to get the au­di­ence on my side. But when I made Schindler’s List I didn’t care if the au­di­ence saw the movie or not. I just wanted to get that movie out of me. I wanted to get peo­ple to look at Holo­caust sur­vivors. And I wanted peo­ple to have a more dif­fi­cult time deny­ing that the Holo­caust ever hap­pened.”

From 8mm to ¤9bn

The most pop­u­lar sto­ry­teller of all time – with a box of­fice gross of more than $9 bil­lion and a per­sonal for­tune of $3.6 bil­lion – at­tributes his suc­cess to his par­ents. The son of con­cert pi­anist Leah Adler and com­puter en­gi­neer Arnold Spiel­berg, Steven was the youngest and only boy among his four sib­lings. Early 8mm ad­ven­ture films made dur­ing his Ari­zona child­hood dis­play both artistry and a sci­en­tific bent.

“I don’t spend my time think­ing about how the bal­ance works,” he smiles. “It just some­how does. It’s just lucky ge­net­ics be­tween my pi­ano artist mom and my com­puter in­ven­tor fa­ther. My brain is both par­ents.”

His mother died, aged 97, last year. She re­mains a tow­er­ing in­flu­ence, he says: “She

But I don’t think it’s lost on any­one that Nixon’s at­tempt to in­ter­fere with the free press has par­al­lels with what is hap­pen­ing to­day. The at­tacks to­day are more insidious and dan­ger­ous. Nixon didn’t have a Twit­ter ac­count

Years af­ter her pass­ing it was re­vealed that she hated the fact that a 22-year-old first-time direc­tor was as­signed to di­rect the great Joan Craw­ford. She even tried to get me fired

was a tremen­dous force in my life. More like a sib­ling than a par­ent. From Kath­leen Kennedy to Stacey Snider to Lau­rie Mac­Don­ald, women run my com­pa­nies. Right now, at my cur­rent com­pany, Am­blin, ev­ery sin­gle di­vi­sion – cast­ing, mar­ket­ing – has a wo­man in the lead role. That all comes from my mom. Her pro­found in­flu­ence on me as a child. She gave me ev­ery good rea­son to re­spect women.”

As we meet, he has just told a press con­fer­ence that Oprah Win­frey would make a “bril­liant pres­i­dent”, fur­ther fu­elling spec­u­la­tion that be­gan with Oprah’s rous­ing speech at the Golden Globes. He’s hope­ful that the Di­rec­tors Guild of Amer­ica and the Acad­emy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sci­ences will rec­tify the Globes’ fail­ure to nom­i­nate Greta Ger­wig for best direc­tor for Lady Bird, and equally hope­ful that the #MeToo and #Time­sUp move­ments will rev­o­lu­tionise Hol­ly­wood and be­yond.

“I pre­dict Greta will get an Os­car nom­i­na­tion so it’ll be a moot point in a few weeks. But there’s a big, big move­ment hap­pen­ing right now. The cast­ing couch has been around since Wil­liam Shake­speare, but this is fi­nally the mo­ment wherein the movie in­dus­try – to use a movie anal­ogy – stands up like Howard Beale in

Net­work and says: ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not go­ing to take it any­more.’ This isn’t a 24-hour news cy­cle; it’s a per­ma­nent move­ment. Right now, I’m very in­ter­ested in #Time­sUp. It’s the one that’s go­ing to pay for rep­re­sen­ta­tion for those peo­ple who aren’t celebri­ties and who can’t make the news with just a tweet or a blog. Farm work­ers. Fac­tory work­ers. Women who have been abused in the fields for decades. Women who work in restau­rants and ho­tels. All seg­ments of Amer­i­can and global so­ci­ety.”

Spiel­berg has of­ten said that ev­ery­thing scared him as a child. But that’s hard to rec­on­cile with the cock­sure young man who ar­rived in Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios while he was still a stu­dent. Leg­end has it that the young­ster sim­ply moved into an empty of­fice and started mak­ing phone calls. He was soon cham­pi­oned by stu­dio vice-pres­i­dent Sidney Shein­berg, who gave Spiel­berg his first di­rect­ing jobs on

Columbo and the 1969 pilot episode of Rod Ser­ling’s Night Gallery. Night Gallery would prove some­thing of a touch­stone. Years later, Spiel­berg would pro­duce and di­rect a seg­ment of the Ser­ling-in­spired 1983 an­thol­ogy Twi­light Zone: The

Movie. Spiel­berg’s first fea­ture film, Duel, was scripted by Twi­light Zone reg­u­lar Richard Math­e­son.

“Ev­ery­thing you want to know about sto­ry­telling Rod Ser­ling can teach you in three acts in 28 min­utes,” laughs the direc­tor.

Night Gallery would in­tro­duce the bud­ding direc­tor to Joan Craw­ford. Re­mark­ably, the Os­car-win­ning star and Spiel­berg would re­main firm friends un­til her death in 1977.

“She was very in­tim­i­dat­ing,” he recalls. “Did you see the great mini-se­ries with Su­san Saran­don? The Joan we saw in that mini-se­ries was hid­den from me by Joan her­self. She could have blasted me for be­ing a young 22-year-old direc­tor with acne; I had bad acne in those days. It was only years af­ter her pass­ing it was re­vealed that she hated the fact that a 22-year-old first-time direc­tor was as­signed to di­rect the great Joan Craw­ford. She even tried to get me fired. Twice. She wanted Henry Cahill or Ge­orge Mar­shall or King Vi­dor. But on set she treated me like I was one of those guys. Like a prince. And I’ll never for­get her for that.”

By 30, Spiel­berg was an es­tab­lished “movie brat” along­side his con­tem­po­raries Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, Brian De Palma, Scors­ese and Ge­orge Lu­cas. Years later, with half the pack in semi-re­tire­ment, they re­main in con­stant touch.

“My dad is 101 next month and he fought in World War II,” says Spiel­berg. “He’s part of the great­est gen­er­a­tion. In a much less im­por­tant way, but in a way that con­tin­ues as a cre­ative sol­i­dar­ity, I came from the great­est gen­er­a­tion of film-mak­ers. I’m very proud to have been part of that.”

Many com­men­ta­tors see Spiel­berg’s Jaws and Lu­cas’s Star Wars as the pro­gen­i­tors of the con­tem­po­rary block­buster. But nei­ther of those men could have pre­dicted the rise of the “four-quad­rant su­per­hero film”. Though he says he’s a huge fan of Patty Jenk­ins and the “big mes­sage of Won­der Wo­man”, the rise of the fran­chise film is a trou­bling de­vel­op­ment, says Spiel­berg.

“I think the ob­ses­sion with four-quad­rant and su­per­hero movies puts le­git­i­mate cin­ema in jeop­ardy. It wor­ries me that au­di­ences will only go to the movie when they trust the brand. And I worry that some of our small great movies will only be made for the small screen. I prob­a­bly watch five old movies a week and five new movies a week. And it’s the old films more that make me want to keep di­rect­ing. But there were some re­ally good in­de­pen­dent movies made this year – Three Bill­boards and Lady

Bird and I, Tonya. And a very good stu­dio movie called The Shape of Wa­ter. Those films have a chance to win a lot of Os­cars this year.”

The Post is out now on gen­eral re­lease


Spiel­berg with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks on the set of The Post. Be­low: On the set of Night Gallery with Joan Craw­ford in 1969.

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