From the Jaws of Steven Spielberg
THE MOST SUCCESSFUL AMERICAN FILMMAKER ALWAYS KNEW WHAT HE WANTED. HERE’S HOW HE GOT THERE
FOR MOST well-known artists, success comes in waves. For director Steven Spielberg, it has continued, nearly unabated, for close to half a century. A pioneer of the summer blockbuster (beginning with Jaws), he is, at this point, the ideal of a Hollywood director, with a career total of nearly $10 billion at the box office—roughly $3 billion more than his nearest competitor. In a new HBO documentary,
Spielberg, directed by Susan Lacy, he reveals a bumpy start.
He almost gave up after seeing Lawrence of Arabia.
Spielberg started making films when he was 13 but nearly quit three years later, after seeing David Lean’s 1962 epic. “The bar was too high,” he says in the documentary. “I had such a profound reaction to Lawrence of Arabia.” Instead of giving up, he learned from the movie, revisiting the theater multiple times, absorbing Lean’s masterful mix of stunning visuals and emotional impact. He decided, “This was going to be the rest of my life.”
The college dropout was rejected from the University of Southern California’s film school.
It didn’t stop him. Though an exaggerated legend has persisted that he snuck onto the Universal lot, found an empty office and put his name on it, he did sneak onto the lot and onto sets so he could observe and educate himself. When Universal President Sid Sheinberg, saw a short film Spielberg had made, Amblin, he professionally adopted Spielberg, giving him a seven-year contract to direct TV shows. “I had a very strong feeling that this was not your average young filmmaker,” Sheinberg says in the doc. He championed Spielberg throughout his career, giving him his first big directing break, Jaws, in 1975. In 1982, he shared a book called Schindler’s Ark, ripe for adaptation. ( Schindler’s List netted Spielberg his first directing Oscar, in 1993; it also won best picture.)
George Lucas thought Spielberg was too flashy.
Spielberg was considered a prodigy when he started directing TV at Universal, but some of the rougher up-and-coming filmmakers, like Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, thought he was too Hollywood. That changed in 1971, after Lucas reluctantly went to see the 25-year-old’s debut film, Duel, a thriller starring Dennis Weaver as a driver terrorized by a huge truck. Lucas, who had expected to leave after 30 minutes, told Coppola, “This guy is amazing. You’ve really got to look at this film.”
Jaws nearly ended Spielberg’s filmmaking career.
The horror wasn’t just on the screen: Spielberg nearly got canned when the film came in late and over budget; during the shoot, there were also neardrownings, boating mishaps and a malfunctioning mechanical shark, which Spielberg was forced to shoot around. But he learned that “what you don’t see is generally scarier than what you do see.” In the documentary, Spielberg recalls driving around L.A. with director Martin Scorsese on opening night; seeing the long lines stretched around blocks, he knew he had a filmmaking career. Jaws would go on to become the highestgrossing film of all time—until Star Wars opened in 1977.
Aside from Lucas, only Spielberg believed in Star Wars.
Directors Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese and Brian de Palma became a tight-knit crew, challenging and advising one another. Together, they would revolutionize the film industry. When Lucas finished a rough mock-up of Star Wars, he showed it to the group. “It was basically a children’s film,” says Lucas. “Steven was the one person who was enthusiastic about it. He said it was going to be a huge smash.” But it was de Palma who came up with the film’s iconic scrolling prologue. Spielberg remembers that de Palma “went off ” on Lucas for the film’s lack of context, then suggested it begin with a forward, to explain “what the hell you’re looking at and why you’re in the theater and what the mythology is.”
Studios initially weren’t interested in Indiana Jones.
Looking to bounce back from one of his few flops, 1979’s 1941, Spielberg jumped at the chance to helm Lucas’s new project, about an archaeologist who hunts for supernatural artifacts. But Spielberg’s reputation for going over budget had every studio turning them away; some suggested Lucas find another director. Spielberg promised his friend he would be more economical and he’d do two sequels if the film was a hit. It was, adding up to three more blockbusters for Spielberg and Lucas.
E.T. didn’t start as a film about an alien.
“It was going to be about how divorce affects childhood and how it kind of traumatizes children,” says Spielberg, who was a child of divorce (a topic he explores in several films). “The overall theme was going to be about how to fill the heart of a lonely child,” he says of the 1982 hit. “What extraordinary event would it take to fill Elliott’s heart after losing his dad?” Eventually, Spielberg realized that “it would take something as extraordinary as an extraterrestrial.”
Spielberg discovered CGI, sort of.
Jurassic Park producer Kathleen Kennedy says Spielberg told her he wanted 30-foot dinosaurs that could run and that the actors could interface with. All the experts she spoke with said dinosaurs were no problem, but getting them to run would be impossible. Enter computergenerated imagery, via a company called Unix. This is the future, Spielberg thought after a demonstration. And so it was.