The Beginner’s Guide: Steven Spielberg, Director
Steven Spielberg. The name alone is synonymous with cinema. But take a step back.
Steven Spielberg. The name alone is synonymous with cinema. But take a step back. What kind of images does the name evoke?
Perhaps they’re childhood images of benevolent extra-terrestrials and rampaging dinosaurs. Maybe they’re the much more harrowing and realistic images depicting the horrors of twentieth century warfare and genocide. For over forty years, Spielberg has given us more memorable images than any other filmmaker, in the process captivating a global audience of all ages. Moreover, his multi-genre body of work has grossed over $9 billion at the worldwide box office.
The Early Years
Steven Allan Spielberg was born on December 18th, 1946 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Arnold Spielberg, an electrical engineer, and his wife Leah, a restaurateur and concert pianist. Alongside his parents and three sisters, the young Spielberg spent most of his childhood moving frequently from town to town, making it difficult for him to settle and form any lasting friendships. What’s more, due to his Jewish upbringing, he was often the victim of anti-Semitic bullying by his peers. Nevertheless, in 1952, at the age of five, Spielberg was to undergo a life-changing experience when he accompanied his father to the local movie theatre to see Cecile B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth.
The experience would prove a turning point in the young Spielberg’s life. Thenceforth he began experimenting with his father’s 8mm Kodak movie camera, filming his toy trains crashing into each other from multiple angles in reference to a similar sequence he recalled from the DeMille circus drama. This fascination with filmmaking continued into his teenage years: in 1959 he won first prize for a short war film called The Last Gun. In 1964 he made the short science-fiction film Firelight, which he premiered for his friends and neighbours at a local movie house, generating a profit of one dollar. In one of his more audacious moments, on a guided tour of the Universal Studios in Hollywood at the age of eighteen, Spielberg escaped from the supervision of the tour guide and wandered the studios alone and unnoticed for three days.
However, his future career as a director hit a potential setback when he was rejected from studying at the prestigious filmmaking schools at the University of Southern California and the University of California Los Angeles, due to poor grades. Undeterred – and seeking to avoid the draft for the ongoing Vietnam War – Spielberg enrolled as an English major at California State University, Long Beach, where he spent the majority of his time making a handful of short films.
The most notable of these films was a twenty-six minute love story with no dialogue called Amblin (later the name of Spielberg’s production company), which won several awards as it toured the film festival circuit. Such critical acclaim brought Spielberg to the attention of Sid Sheinberg, then the head of television production at Universal, and consequently earned the budding young filmmaker a seven year contract at Universal Television.
Spielberg spent his early twenties honing his directorial skills on television. In 1969, he helmed one of three segments of the pilot episode of Night Gallery – a new series from Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone – in which he directed the legendary Joan Crawford. It proved to be a baptism of fire for the young filmmaker as he ended up four days behind schedule on his first professional job. He followed this up by directing the first episode of the TV film series Colombo, starring Peter Falk as the now famous homicide detective.
1970s: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
In 1971, the now twenty-five year old Spielberg directed Duel, a television thriller film based on a Playboy magazine short story by Richard Matheson. Starring Dennis Weaver as its central character, David Mann, Duel is about a travelling salesman who is chased along a deserted Californian highway by a menacing tanker truck. Consisting of limited plot, characters and dialogue, Spielberg portrays this extreme game of cat-and-mouse using stylistic techniques which highlight both the animalistic characteristics of the truck and the danger it poses to Mann’s life.
Filmed over two weeks, using multiple cameras often shooting at the same time, Spielberg intercuts between various angles both inside and outside the car (for the most part keeping the narration restricted to that of Mann) to create an intense psychological chase sequence of a film. Duel originally broadcast on November 13th, 1971, garnering positive reviews and good ratings for the network. The following year it was subsequently released in theatres across Europe, grossing $8 million and granting Spielberg the opportunity to transfer from television to feature films.
After making his feature film debut with 1974’s The Sugarland Express, Spielberg moved on to Jaws, based on Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel about a great white shark that terrorises a small summer community. Although equipped with an original $8.5 million budget and an impressive cast that included Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, the movie’s production at Martha’s Vineyard became infamous for its difficulties. Rapidly over-schedule and over-budget, long days were spent out at sea with very little captured on film, with a mechanical shark (named Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer) that refused to work and constant on-set rumours regarding a replacement director.
With his filmmaking career on the line, Spielberg turned to alternative means of telling the story: rather than showing the shark onscreen, he would use the camera, alongside the editing of Verna Fields and the music of John Williams, to imply the presence of the shark. The result was a psychological and sociological phenomenon that terrified its viewers from going in the water. Released simultaneously to over 450 screens nationwide in the summer of 1975, Jaws marked the first modern blockbuster and became the highest grossing film of all time – including the first to take over $100 million at the box office.
The overwhelming success of Jaws meant that Spielberg could now make any film he desired. Released in 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film inspired by those science-fiction B movies of the 1950s, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The War of the Worlds. Introducing themes that would become common within his work, such as the power of communication and the emotional impact of a broken family, Spielberg’s film focuses on a growing number of UFO sightings across the country.
Richard Dreyfuss stars as Roy Neary, a blue collar working dad who, after experiencing a UFO sighting, soon becomes besotted with trying to find a meaning for their visit. However, his newfound obsession soon costs him both his job and his family, as Roy – in addition to a group of others, including a government scientist played by the late French film director Francois Truffaut – seeks to communicate with the aliens at a mountain location known as Devil’s Tower. Utilizing the expertise of Douglas Trumbull (the visual effects maestro behind 2001: A Space Odyssey), Spielberg created an instant sci-fiction classic which still holds up almost forty years later.
1980s: “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.”
George Lucas first pitched the idea to Spielberg of a globetrotting archaeologist named Indiana Smith whilst the two filmmakers enjoyed a vacation in Hawaii following the release of Star Wars in the summer of 1977. Along with Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan, the pair developed the script whilst Spielberg made the critically panned and commercially disastrous 1941. Desperately in need of a hit, and under strict orders from Lucas not to go over schedule or over budget, Spielberg storyboarded every single shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark prior to filming.
Based on the B-movie adventure serials of the 1930s and 40s, Raiders marks the introduction of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, the lovable rogue archaeologist who battles the Nazis to reclaim the biblical Ark of the Covenant. Overflowing with some of the most expertly directed action sequences – including an epic introduction in which Indy is chased by a giant rolling boulder – and accompanied by a now classic John Williams musical score, Raiders became the quintessential action adventure movie. Central to the film’s success is a never-better Ford, who revels in his performance as the fedora wearing, whip cracking archaeologist.
Billed as ‘the new hero from the creators of Jaws and Star Wars’, the film was an overwhelming critical and box office success, cementing Spielberg and Lucas as the kings of American mainstream cinema. Along with Ford, the trio would revisit the character twice more within the decade, in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana Jones has become such an iconic character than in 2003 the American Film Institute declared him the second greatest ‘hero’ in all of cinema, behind To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch.
In 1982, Spielberg was to release what is arguably his most personal film. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial focuses on the budding friendship between a ten year old boy and a stranded extra-terrestrial seeking to return to his home planet. Inspired by the divorce of Spielberg’s own parents when he was sixteen, the filmmaker portrays both the alien and the alienated, as Elliott comes from a broken family and has very few friends, much like the filmmaker himself as an adolescent. The arrival of the eponymous E.T. thus offers the young boy an opportunity to finally find the love and friendship he seeks.
With the utterly convincing performance of an animatronic puppet (designed by Carlo Rambaldi) at the heart of the film, E.T.’s success lies in its overwhelming sense of innocence and morality. With impressive performances by its child actors and its use of religious symbolism, Spielberg was able to turn what was designed as a small family film into one of cinema’s most beloved tearjerkers.
Critics and audiences adored it, with E.T. becoming the highest grossing film at the worldwide box office – making over $700 million and dethroning Star Wars – in addition to helping reverse a quarter-century decline in cinema attendances. Moreover, it proved to be cathartic for its director, allowing Spielberg to finally leave the emotional turmoil of his childhood behind him.
With his previous films labelled by some as leaning towards over sentimentality, Spielberg sought to prove to the critics (as well as himself) that he could tackle more serious themes in his work. For this, he turned to Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘The Color Purple’ as the source of his next film. The story tells of an early twentieth century African American woman named Celie, who, separated from her sister at a young age, suffers both domestic and sexual abuse at the hands of her father and later her husband. Dealing with difficult themes such as incest, domestic violence, racism and lesbianism, The Color Purple signalled a turning point in Spielberg’s career.
Marking the feature film debut of Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, alongside robust supporting performances from Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple was nominated for eleven Academy Awards – with the noteworthy exclusion of a ‘Best Director’ nomination for Spielberg – but didn’t win a single award on the night. Cynics accused Spielberg of embracing literature as a desperate attempt to gain critical respectability. Although not his most accomplished film, The Color Purple provided clear signs that its director was more than capable of rebranding his image as a serious filmmaker.
1990s: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
After the lukewarm critical reception accorded to 1989’s Always and 1991’s Hook, Spielberg was again looking to bounce back with a hit. For his next project he chose to adapt the science-fiction novel ‘Jurassic Park’ by Michael Crichton, which brought the prehistoric past up to date with the contemporary present. When a group of humans are invited to examine a new wildlife park on the fictional island of Isla Nublar, events soon take a turn for the worst when the park’s star attractions begin to roam free. The director approached the project as a spiritual sequel to Jaws, assembling an impressive cast consisting of Sam Neil, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough, who desperately struggle to survive the island’s rampaging dinosaurs.
Jurassic Park was to become a landmark in motion picture history. Combining both on-set animatronics from Stan Winston, and the latest breakthrough computer-generated-imagery (CGI) from Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, Spielberg’s dinosaurs captivated audiences around the globe. Billed as ‘an adventure 65 million years in the making’, the film broke every box-office record on its way to grossing over $900 million worldwide, with the director reportedly making $250 million from a profit share of both theatrical revenue and merchandising.
Spielberg first acquired the rights to Thomas Keneally’s Booker-prize winning novel ‘Schindler’s Ark’ in the early 1980s, but at the time did not feel ready to tackle the book’s difficult subject matter. By 1993, however, with both The Color Purple and Empire of Sun demonstrating his abilities as a serious filmmaker, Spielberg – now a father and recently married to actress Kate Capshaw – finally felt the time was right to make the film. Whilst overseeing post-production on Jurassic Park, Spielberg was in Poland filming the real-life story of Oskar Schindler, based on the screenplay by Steven Zaillian.
The resulting film was something no one could have expected. Schindler’s List is a three hour long black-and-white epic that utilizes the aesthetic style of World War II documentary footage (naturally lit, handheld, grainy images), alongside career best performances from Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes. Spielberg shows us the horrors of the Holocaust as if filmed through a pinhole – for the reality of the events would be too much for a cinematic audience to bear – including the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto and the final solution at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yet, amongst all of the hysteria and terror, Schindler himself remains an enigma: his reasons for saving almost 1,200 Jews ultimately remain unclear.
Released in December 1993, Schindler’s List was an overwhelming critical and commercial success. From its twelve Academy Award nominations it won seven; including ‘Best Picture’, and, more importantly, ‘Best Director’ for Spielberg. Despite making over $300 million at the worldwide box office, Spielberg refused to be paid for the project, claiming it would be “blood money” – with Jurassic Park the new box office champion, he could certainly afford to do so.
Spielberg’s fascination with World War II would continue within the decade. Saving Private Ryan is a film Spielberg claims he directed as a tribute to his own father. Boasting a stellar ensemble cast headed by Tom Hanks, the film focuses on a US squadron mission to rescue Private James Francis Ryan, the last surviving family member of four serving brothers. Upon its release, Saving Private Ryan made headlines for its realistic portrayal of armed combat, the likes of which had never before been captured on celluloid.
Most noteworthy was the film’s opening twenty-five minute sequence: a depiction of the D-Day landing of Omaha Beach on June 6th, 1944, in which Spielberg shows the graphic reality of the assault using carefully choreographed actors, erratic handheld camera movement and the complete absence of non-diegetic sound. The result is a battering of the senses, with its use of technical realism placing the viewer in the middle of the action as machine-gun bullets unexpectedly strike down nearby soldiers.
Saving Private Ryan shocked and amazed viewers on its path to five Academy Award wins, including a second ‘Best Director’ statuette for Spielberg. Its uniquely realistic portrayal of warfare has since been imitated several times over, cementing the film’s legacy as a turning point in the genre.
2000s: “There is no peace at the end of this.”
A.I. Artificial Intelligence began life as a Stanley Kubrick project. The legendary filmmaker had been working on an adaptation of the short story ‘Super-Toys Last All Summer Long’ by Brian Aldiss since the early 1980s, and had co-written several different treatments for the film before asking Spielberg to direct in 1994. However, when Kubrick died in 1999, Spielberg began production on what would become a cinematic tribute to the late director. With allusions to both Pinocchio and Oedipus, A.I. focuses on David, a robotic boy (or Mecha) who, abandoned by his adopted mother, seeks out the Blue Fairy in the hope that she will make him into a real boy so that he can regain his mother’s love.
Featuring a remarkably cold, yet utterly convincing performance from the then thirteen year old Haley Joel Osment as David, Spielberg’s film – although existentially thought-provoking with an eye to the future – polarised critics. The film’s dark (at times sinister) tone seems more in line with Kubrick than with Spielberg, although many critics condemned the latter for that they viewed as an overly-sentimental ending out of tune with both Kubrick’s original vision and the rest of the film. Viewers seemed to agree, with the film performing modestly at the box office (at least by Spielberg’s standards). Although not a failure, A.I. holds a unique place in the Spielberg canon as being perhaps more stimulating in its ambition than in its execution.
Following a string of commercially successful films that included Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can and War of the Worlds, by 2005 Spielberg was ready for another personal project. Inspired by real events and the George Jonas book ‘Vengeance’, Munich has been described by its director as a “prayer for peace”. A political and historical thriller adapted from a screenplay written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, the film focuses on the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics, wherein eleven Israeli athletes were held hostage and eventually killed by a Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September. The film follows a team of Mossad agents hired by the Israeli government to carry out retribution for the events in Europe.
Eric Bana heads a multi-national cast that includes Daniel Craig and Geoffrey Rush, with Spielberg adopting a 1970s aesthetic style that includes the seamless integration of library stock footage alongside frequent use of handheld camera and zoom lenses. Moreover, as the events of narrative unfold, Munich increasingly draws attention to the moral ambiguity surrounding retribution killings and counter-terrorism, as the film’s main character begins to question whether ‘an eye for an eye’ is indeed the correct response. Achieving generally positive reviews from critics, Munich gained five Academy Award nominations, including ‘Best Picture’, but failed to win any awards on the night.
Over the past decade, Spielberg has again shown that he is a filmmaker who cannot be tied down to one single genre. After revisiting the Indiana Jones franchise after almost twenty years with the critically bashed though financially successful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Spielberg teamed up with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. Together, they helmed The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, based on the famous Hergé comic series of the same name. Embracing the latest motion-capture performance technology that directors such as James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis had been developing for over a decade, Tintin is an action-adventure film very much in the spirit of both the original comics and the director’s Indiana Jones series.
Released in cinemas at the same time as Tintin was War Horse, Spielberg’s adaptation of the hugely successful Michael Morpurgo novel and subsequent stage play about a horse named Joey that is employed by the British army during the First World War, but which desperately seeks to return home. A modern day retelling of Lassie Come Home (replacing dog with horse), the film was a highly sentimental tale of enduring friendship and loyalty between one animal and its young owner. It was received well by critics, who embraced the film’s dramatic narrative as well as its spectacular cinematography from long-time Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski.
The director’s next film was Lincoln, a historical study focusing on the sixteenth President of the United States and his attempts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress – thereby abolishing slavery – during the final months of the American Civil War. Much in line with Amistad, Spielberg’s 1997 historical drama concerned with the 1841 Supreme Court decision regarding the legal status of a group of African American slaves who mutinied aboard their passage to the United States, Lincoln is a celebration of a particular moment in the nation’s history. A project that had been stuck in development hell for over a decade, Spielberg had originally cast Liam Neeson in the title role before eventually moving ahead with Daniel Day-Lewis as the eponymous Abraham Lincoln – delivering a performance that would earn him an unprecedented third Academy Award for ‘Best Actor’.
In 2015, Spielberg reteamed with actor Tom Hanks for Bridge of Spies. Based on a screenplay written by the Coen Brothers, the film once again concerned legal matters: this time surrounding secret negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union over a potential prisoner swap within East Berlin during the late 1950s, a time of increasing Cold War tension and the building of the Berlin Wall. Well received by critics, Bridge of Spies earned six Academy Award nominations, including a ‘Best Supporting Actor’ win for English actor Mark Rylance.
Due for release July 1st 2016, Spielberg’s next film is an adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl children’s novel ‘The BFG’, which features a mixture of live action and performance-capture photography, with Mark Rylance starring as the titular Big Friendly Giant.
He is subsequently set to direct a film adaptation of the 2011 dystopian science-fiction novel ‘Ready Player One’, as well as an adaptation of ‘The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara’, based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Kertzer and a screenplay by Tony Kushner, screenwriter of both Munich and Lincoln. Furthermore, it has recently been unveiled that Spielberg will make yet another return to the Indiana Jones franchise with a fifth film scheduled for release in the summer of 2019, though details of the project are (as of yet) scarce.
It would certainly appear that although soon to enter his seventies, Steven Spielberg shows no signs of slowing down or retiring. Much like his contemporaries Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, Spielberg has vowed to continue filmmaking for as long as his health permits.
With a career that has earned him 126 awards from 231 nominations, in addition to several lifetime honours – including an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, an honorary British knighthood and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – and an estimated $3.6 billion net fortune, Spielberg has undeniably achieved it all within the industry. Time and again, he has captured the imagination of viewers around the globe, in the process proving true that cinema really is the stuff that dreams are made of.
What is your personal favourite Spielberg film? Do you prefer his blockbuster movies or his more serious films?
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.