The Total Film Interview - Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg was five years old when he first visited the movies. He expected to see a real live circus; he instead got The Greatest Show On Earth, Cecil B DeMille's blundering Big Top epic. Young Steven wasn't impressed. Young Steven felt "cheated".

Spielberg could do better, and he began making his own 8mm masterpieces at the age of 11. His first was entitled The Last Train Wreck. It was three minutes long and did exactly what it said on the tin, toy trains colliding spectacularly. War pics, Westerns and even film noirs followed, though 1964's Firelight and 1968's Amblin' are of note. The former focused on alien abductions, a dry run for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The latter is a slick, picaresque coming-of-age tale, a Hollywood calling card that also happens to be the name of Spielberg's production company.

Television work followed, Spielberg blagging his way on to the Paramount lot ("I wore a suit and tie and sneaked past Scotty at the main gate!") to set up office. His talent kept him there, directing episodes of Marcus Welby, MD, supernatural chiller Something Evil and, of course, rampant-truck flick Duel.

Assured chase caper The Sugarland Express was his fully-fledged debut, but it was Jaws that chomped its way into the history books: 300 percent over-budget and besieged by technical problems, it took $470 million to become Hollywood's first summer event movie. Hit after hit followed, Spielberg's commercial sensibilities separating him from fellow '70s auteurs like Scorsese, Malick and Coppola. Not so much movie brat as studio hat.

Box-office bull's-eyes were one thing, but the lack of critical respect really rankled. It started with Jaws, Spielberg being denied the Best Director nod - despite a Best Film nomination. The snub continued with ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, this time being shortlisted but missing out when many felt he was a shoo-in.

He responded by going "serious", helming weighty epics The Color Purple (11 nods, no director nom) and Empire Of The Sun (six nods, no director nom). It wasn't until 1993's Schindler's List, however, that he finally won over the cynics, his noble Holocaust drama winning seven Oscars - including that long-pined-for Best Director gong (a second directing Oscar followed for World War Two drama Saving Private Ryan).

Now renowned for mixing light crowdpleasers and dark dramas with considerable aplomb (AI, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can), Spielberg has compounded his power-player credentials with a string of producer credits. Not to mention starting a studio, DreamWorks SKG, in 1994. He is, quite simply, the biggest name in Hollywood… And he's soaring once more with The Terminal.

The Terminal makes an interesting companion piece to your last movie, Catch Me If You Can. It's light and breezy but not without its serious moments...
I wanted to do another movie that could make us laugh and cry and feel good about the world. I wanted to do something else that could make us smile. This is a time when we need to smile more and Hollywood movies are supposed to do that for people in difficult times.

So is that why you decided to shuffle it to the top of your script pile?
I read the script and it made me forget the five screenplays I'd read before it. I thought it was an amazing idea and I had an immediate affinity for Viktor's story. I believe all of us have felt a little bit like Viktor at some time in our lives - this displaced person in search of a life. And I don't know anyone who hasn't, at some point, spent longer sitting in an airport chair than on the airplane ride itself. Airports have become small microcosms of society: they're places to eat, shop and meet people.

The tagline for The Terminal reads 'Life Is Waiting' - Viktor's stuck in limbo. How did you ensure the movie kept its momentum?
Viktor's stuck but everything happening around him is a blur. There's a tremendous volume of travellers moving to and fro while Viktor, by contrast, stands still. There's one shot where he's just standing there and, as the camera pulls back, he becomes invisible. You lose him in this sea of people moving in every direction of the compass. So there is an energy to the story. Waiting can be exciting. Waiting can be entertaining.

Tom Hanks is becoming something of a regular collaborator. What did he bring to Viktor?
This was the most inventive I've ever seen Tom on set. He really brought things to the character that weren't in the script, things that no one was expecting. I kept asking him, "When did you come up with that?" and he'd say, "About 10 minutes before you said, 'Action!'" He was very physical with his body. He slips, he falls, he spins, he can't get comfortable in a chair… But Viktor isn't a buffoon. In fact, he's very dignified.

Look beyond the surface fizz and The Terminal has a message, right?
It's really an immigrant's tale, although technically, Viktor is not an immigrant. It goes back to what makes America so great and so strong - immigrants coming to 'The Land of Milk and Honey' from around the globe, coming to a place where they're allowed to dream of a better life for themselves. In some ways, we've lost sight of the immigrant's plight because security is more intense - and justifiably so. The Terminal celebrates the great American melting pot.

Was it the serious undertow that appealed to Kate Capshaw? We've heard your wife won't let you direct a comedy!
My wife says I'm not funny enough! I was preparing to direct Meet The Parents when she read the script. She said, "You're not directing this movie - give it to a director who does comedy well." She doesn't mind when I have comic moments in my movies, like when Tom Cruise chases his eyeballs towards a drain in Minority Report, but I'm not allowed to do an outright comedy! Still, I produced Meet The Parents and we did very well with it.

So how do you balance your corporate head with your artistic one?
I don't plan my career, you know. I don't think I'll go dark, dark, dark, then light, then dark. I react spontaneously to what falls into my arms, to what is right at the time. I've never made a conscious choice, except maybe for the Indiana Jones sequels and The Lost World. They're the only times I've said, "Okay, I need to make these pictures for the public because they're craving it." Also, with Lost World, I hadn't directed for three years so I wanted to do something I felt secure making. I didn't want to make a serious picture like Schindler's List.

You've noticeably gone for more "dark" than "light" projects in the last few years...
Well, how much more success do I want? I've had enough to last me three more lifetimes. I turned down Harry Potter and I turned down Spider-Man, two movies that I knew would be phenomenally successful, but they offered no challenge to me. It would have been shooting ducks in a barrel, a slam-dunk. I don't need my ego reminded and I don't need to race anybody to make the biggest hit movie anymore. I'm just trying to tell stories that I can keep interested in for the two years it takes to write, direct and edit them.

So why embrace Indy 4? Surely you could knock that out in your sleep?
It's not for money or success. It's for the good times. I've always said that I had the most fun in my life while making those three movies with George [Lucas] and Harrison [Ford].

It's been a fair old wait...
It's a very good story. It's worth living that long to see!

Of course, your fans would also love to see a sequel to ET...
ET was a very personal little picture. My motivation for making it was pure and non-profit based - I didn't think it would be a hit because it was about kids and no films about kids under 18 were doing any business then. I wouldn't make a sequel because it couldn't be superior to the original and I don't want to blemish a perfect picture.

It's common knowledge that you disapproved of the Jaws sequels. Why didn't you make any of them?
Because making the first movie was a nightmare! There were endless problems with the shark and it was an impossible shoot. I thought my career was over because no one had ever taken a movie 100 days over schedule. It was successful, but I never wanted to go near the water again.

Successful seems like an understatement. How do you feel about pretty much inventing the Summer Event Movie?
It was Universal's choice to release it in the summertime. They figured that people would be at the beach, go swimming and say, "Hey, that reminds me - let's go and see that shark movie!" I honestly didn't know it was gonna create this, you know, lava flow each summer. Frankly, I don't really think there's a right time or a wrong time to release a movie. Take Titanic. That was initially scheduled for summer but came out at Christmas. People don't always know what they're talking about...

Your earlier films were universally adored but often sniffed at by critics. Has a need for plaudits shaped your later career?
When I was first starting out, I was asked, "When are your films going to start finding meaning, to start reflecting the world?" Everyone said that Jaws was a really great movie but when was I going to make something substantial? Now I'm making movies that I think are doing good work in the world and people are saying, "When will you get back to those lighthearted pictures?" I feel like Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, when the aliens land...

Ah, aliens. Now there's a subject close to your heart...
It's my hobby! Everyone has a hobby and mine is aliens. Some people go to the wood shop and make bowling-pin lamps, stuff like that. I tell stories about aliens.

Have you any idea where an obsession like that comes from?
Well, my father was a science-fiction aficionado - he collected all the Analog magazines and the Amazing Stories from back in the '40s and '50s. I always thought, "Gee, what if there are alien life forms out there and they come to visit us?" Like in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and ET... I believe in those stories in a strange, mystical way. AI, however, is different because we all know where artificial intelligence is going. It speculates what will happen in our future when artificial intelligence becomes a tremendous benefit… Or a huge threat.

Is it fair to say that comparing AI to a film like Close Encounters again shows how your mindset has slowly changed?
I was more in sync with AI in 1994 when Stanley Kubrick asked me to direct it than I was in 1984 when he first showed it to me. I'd now rather flash a warning than a piece of cotton candy saying, "Go into the future; go into the light." It's not that I'm cynical - just a little more realistic about the world.

Tell us about your relationship with Kubrick...
I only met Stanley 12 times in the 18 years I knew him, all of them at his home in St Albans. But we were always on the phone, sometimes once a week, sometimes once a day. I paid for it because it was always collect calls! I had such a phone bill from 18 years of talking to Kubrick! We talked about movies. Whenever a movie was a box-office success, he'd ask me why. I was like, "Stanley, I don't have an answer. I don't know why a film succeeds or doesn't succeed."

Didn't he always pump you for information?
He was the most famous brain-drain of any man I've ever met! Most of our relationship was Stanley asking me questions, sucking my mind dry until he figured I had nothing left in the gas tank. Then he'd say, "Got to go," and hang up. Two weeks later he'd call me again and start draining…

Kubrick tackled World War One and Vietnam with Paths Of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. Why did you choose World War Two with Saving Private Ryan?
World War Two is the most important event of the last 100 years. We either won it and maintained our freedom or we lost it and lost everything. My father fought in Burma and was always saying, "Nobody ever makes a movie about my war except as an excuse to do action and adventure."

Is that why you made the violence so graphic? To force viewers to really feel it?
It's graphic because it's what really happened. It's a very, very honest recreation of the landing on 6 June 1944. I could have made Saving Private Ryan a very safe picture; I could have done all the violence off-camera and I could have had people dying in slo-mo, like in the movies we go and see every summer. But my intention was to resensitise the audience.

How do you even begin directing a scene like that opener? It must have been a total logistical nightmare for everyone involved...
I wanted to tell the story like I was a Signal Corps cameraman. They basically tried to save themselves while documenting the combat that surrounded them. That's why most of the shots are low to the ground, because all the Signal Corps cameramen stayed sensibly low to avoid being killed. I also included all the mistakes that they'd make: if a camera fell over, I used it in the movie. The camera drops and everything is suddenly sideways for a couple of seconds. That's more truthful than slickly staged combat.

You also played about with the sound...
If a shell goes off near you, you lose your hearing. You can't hear orders being screamed at you. I had the sound drop out several times.

Many people feel that the US and UK ratings boards went easy on Ryan because it was a Steven Spielberg film. Unfair?
That was speculated on by trade publications but it's not something the ratings board said. They didn't say, "If it wasn't for Spielberg, we would have given this an NC-17." They saw the picture independent of any authority or any influence and they judged it to be a strong R.

How do you switch off at night? Isn't it tough to film blood and guts all day and then lay your head on the pillow and go to sleep?
Good question. With Ryan, I learned how to compartmentalise the horror. I'd race back to the hotel, order a Guinness and go right to sleep. On Sunday, I'd play with the kids in the backyard. Schindler's List was different - there were nights when I totally fell apart.

So why do it to yourself?
I had never done a serious war film. I mean, they're fighting Nazis in the Indiana Jones films but it's for our amusement, a springboard to false adventure. Schindler's List is true to my roots: my family lost many cousins, aunts and uncles in the Holocaust. I bought the book in 1982 but I couldn't have directed it then. I had to wait 11 years to be sure that I wouldn't sugarcoat it.

But some people did criticise the ending - or the endings - for being "sugar-coated". Did that madden you?
In all great drama there's redemption. Without redemption there is no hope. And the one thing I'm never going to give up on is hope. A lot of people said at the time, "Why didn't the film end brutally for all 1,200 Schindler Juden? Why were they saved? Why put on a 'Spielbergian' happy ending?" In fact, the story came right out of history. I could have chosen a much darker Holocaust story where nobody survives the furnaces, but I wanted some kind of redemption. That's the person I am and I can't survive without that in my life.

Schindler's List was your third 'serious' drama after The Color Purple and Empire Of The Sun. It was the first to garner such profuse praise...
I think that The Color Purple is one of the best movies I've ever made. Alice Walker's book was almost impossible to adapt, so I made the movie to be much more emotional. Of course, Walker's intellectual readership saw the film and felt I'd grossly softened her book. They were right. But I'm proud that I got it to the screen.

It's a big film yet you managed to shoot it in eight weeks. Jaws aside, you always shoot quickly and cost effectively...
I've always worked fast, with enthusiasm and energy. If I don't work fast - if I concentrate too much on the details - I lose the picture.

And the budgets?
Bloated budgets are ruining Hollywood - these pictures are squeezing all the other types of movies out of Hollywood. It's disastrous. When I made The Lost World I limited the amount of special-effects shots because they were incredibly expensive. If a dinosaur walks around, it costs $80,000 for eight seconds. If four dinosaurs are in the background, it's $150,000. More doesn't always make things better.

Talking of effects, your movies have often pushed the FX envelope. Do you keep tabs on all these technological advances?
I do, in the same way that someone who likes photography buys photography magazines to look at new filters and lenses. It's a hobby of mine, keeping up on all the techniques. I was amazed by the effects in the Lord Of The Rings movies - it's exciting to see such work come from a novice special-effects house.

Surely there's a cut-off point, though? A point that filmmakers shouldn't cross?
Yeah - we have to agree that we'll make movies like Toy Story and Shrek but we won't make movies where we try to create Russell Crowe or Tom Cruise. It's fine having a dinosaur eat a digital man off the toilet because it saves danger to a stuntman, but let's not replace actual actors. Let's have a peace treaty to agree not to explore this.

So what's left for Steven Spielberg to explore? You've done everything, right?
I've always wanted to make a musical. Not like Moulin Rouge, though - an old-fashioned, conservative musical where everyone talks to each other, then breaks into song, then talks some more. Like West Side Story or Singin' In The Rain. Yeah, I want to make a musical. I've been looking for one for 20 years. I just need something that excites me…

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.