From the Jaws of Steven Spiel­berg

THE MOST SUC­CESS­FUL AMER­I­CAN FILM­MAKER AL­WAYS KNEW WHAT HE WANTED. HERE’S HOW HE GOT THERE

Newsweek - - WEEKEND - —RYAN BORT

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.

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