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10 Things We Learned From ‘Spielberg’ Documentary

From why his parents’ divorce affected his filmmaking to how a flop inspired Indiana Jones, our takeaways from the definitive doc on the filmmaker.

Susan Lacy’s documentary Spielberg, currently streaming on Foxtel Now, trots out an all-star team of interviewees – from film critics to famous friends, the Toms (Cruise and Hanks) to God herself, a.k.a. Oprah Winfrey. The voices film buffs will undoubtedly want to hear from the most, however, belong to his fellow “movie brats”: Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, who all talk at length about their heady New Hollywood days alongside Spielberg in the early Seventies. All of them partied together, bounced ideas off of each other … and, oh, by the way, permanently changed the tenor of American movies.

“It was like a fraternity,” De Palma fondly reminisces. But it was a frat where the brother who’d go on to make Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind was often the odd one out. Spielberg’s friends enjoyed his company and his boyish enthusiasm, but admit he was more clean-cut, conformist and commercial than they ever wanted to be. “He was a lovable nerd,” producer Michael Phillips says. “But he was a nerd.”

That little tidbit about Spielberg’s reputation among his peers is one of many insights in Lacy’s film, which compiles multiple long conversations with the director and copious clips from his nearly 50 years’ worth of masterpieces into a near-definitive statement on the man’s life and career. Here are 10 more takeaways from the doc.

1. Lawrence of Arabia nearly convinced him not to pursue his dream.
In the opening scenes of Spielberg, the director talks about the first time he saw David Lean’s Oscar-winning 1962 epic as a teenage cinephile and amateur filmmaker. He absolutely loved the film – and was so intimidated by it that he almost abandoned his plans to break into movies. “The bar is too high,” he thought. Though demoralised, the 16-year-old Spielberg still went back to the theater the next week and the week after, taking mental notes on how Lean organised images and ideas. After three viewings, he knew that “this was going to be the rest of my life.”

2. A lot of his movies are really about his parents’ messy divorce.
Spielberg’s father Arnold was a hard-working, genius-level engineer, while his mother Leah was more of an artsy bohemian, who eventually had an affair with – and later married – Arnold’s best friend. Not wanting to embarrass his family, his dad shouldered the blame for the divorce. Steven channeled a lot of residual anger over his tumultuous upbringing into films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Catch Me If You Can, which all deal with wayward fathers and idyllic homes shattered by dysfunction.

The experience of loss was so profound that the filmmaker claims that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial wasn’t originally even going to have an alien in it – the movie was just going to be about the everyday life of a lonely, heartbroken kid. “My main religion was suburbia,” Spielberg admits in Lacy’s doc. “Of course it was all false.”

Not until he made Saving Private Ryan – dedicated to his WWII veteran pop – did Spielberg really begin to get over with how his family had fractured. It helped that by then he’d been through a divorce himself, after being so sure in his youth that he’d never put a child through that.

3. He was famous before he’d ever made a movie.
Spielberg’s C-average high school grades cost him a shot at USC’s film school, so according to legend, he snuck into Universal Studios and persuaded the bosses he belonged there – in a gambit similar to the cons in Catch Me If You Can. That anecdote is mentioned in Lacy’s documentary, though the man himself doesn’t confirm (or deny) the story.

What is true is that Universal Television executive Sidney Sheinberg was impressed enough by the precocious 21-year-old’s 1968 short film Amblin’ to offer him a seven-year contract to direct TV. So by 1970, everyone in Hollywood had heard about this boy wonder; and both the town’s old guard and its up-and-coming “film school brats” were skeptical.

Producers hesitated to work with him. Peers like Coppola and Lucas looked at his early work and found it too facile and slick. The industry’s reaction to Spielberg shaded his early suspense films Duel and Jaws, which he says were really about his own personal insecurity, and his fear that something angry, enormous and unstoppable was going to catch up to him and destroy him.

4. Spielberg’s film school was his TV job.
The ABC TV movie Duel is Spielberg’s most famous directorial assignment from his Universal contract, and an early indicator of what was to come. But he also helmed two TV movies after his tense man v. truck opus (1972’s Something Evil and 1973’s Savage),as well as a smattering of episodes from series like Columbo, Night Gallery, The Psychiatrist, Owen Marshall and The Name of the Game. He used the format to experiment as much as he was able, and learned techniques that he’d later apply to his big-screen work. Even back then, critics noticed the flashy style and rich emotion of his work. In Spielberg, writer/producer Steven Bochco marvels that even then the young artist “had a gear in his brain that almost translated words into pictures.” (It’s a missed opportunity that Universal – or Criterion or Shout! Factory – hasn’t compiled his TV work into one completist DVD/Blu-ray set.)

5. A lot of Jaws was written hours before each day’s shooting.
Determined to prove that he could be as much of a serious artist as his pals Scorsese and De Palma, Spielberg went into his first big movie assignment, Jaws, with the intention of turning a bestselling novel about a killer shark into something that combined Hitchcock and cinema-verité realism. He avoided the phoney backlot water tanks where seafaring stories back then were usually shot, insisting they go out into the real ocean – where shifting weather patterns and equipment failures meant that screenwriter Carl Gottlieb had to rewrite the script almost every night, in order to adjust to whatever was going wrong.

As history proved, everything worked out pretty okay. Jaws was such a big hit that Spielberg would sometimes drive Scorsese around to different theaters in Los Angeles so they could look at the lines around the block. And the deftness with which the director handled a notoriously difficult shoot meant that he had “a free pass into my future.”

Plus, he discovered that he’s at his most creative when he feels overwhelmed, verging on panic. In the documentary, he recalls that Hollywood legend Henry Hathaway once told him that everybody making movies feels that way – but warned him that in order to maintain control of his sets, “You’ve got to guard that secret with your life.”

6. You can thank the failure of 1941 for the Indiana Jones series.
Riding high from Jaws and Close Encounters in 1979, a cocky Spielberg gave wacky comedy a try with the all-star WWII farce 1941– and bombed so spectacularly that he spent much of the next year feeling nauseated. He confessed to Lucas that he was thinking about attaching himself to something reliably popular, like a James Bond movie – to which his friend replied, “I have something much better.” Together, they brainstormed the character of Indiana Jones.

Spielberg made 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark with a chip on his shoulder, determined to prove that he could work relatively cheaply and efficiently yet still churn out a blockbuster. Sure enough, by the time Raiders finished its run, he’d become the first director whose movies had earned over a billion dollars at the box office.

7. He’s been a special effects wizard since boyhood…
Spielberg includes clips from movies the young Steven shot with his friends, which show him experimenting with crude but impressive effects – like using wooden planks and dirt clods to create the illusion of bombs exploding in his backyard, or employing coloured lights and reflective glass to simulate alien spacecraft. (He later carried that technique over to Close Encounters.) The director has always been a proponent of “whatever works”… including in Jaws, where he compensated for a malfunctioning mechanical shark by coming up with ways to make the audience think they were seeing a big scary fish.

In one of the documentary’s most illuminating segments, he explains that the CGI breakthrough of Jurassic Park traced back to his insistence that the movie’s dinosaurs be able to run in the same shots as the humans. Screenwriter David Koepp describes the thrill they all felt when they saw their first digital dinos, and realised they were witnessing the future of cinema. “It was like the moment when sound came to movies,” he says.

8. … And yet his greatest gift is a director is his skill with actors.
Ever wondered how Spielberg gets such natural, heartbreaking performances from small children in movies like E.T. and Close Encounters? The documentary explains it, via on-set footage of the director talking his kids through scenes, crouching just behind the camera. He seems genuinely happy in those clips, creating something on the spot – as though he and his actors were just playing with toys in a sandbox, with no one else around.

This method doesn’t just work with youngsters, either. The doc features interviews with the casts of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, who were amazed by how spontaneous and improvisatory Spielberg can be. During the Schindler shoot, he’d sometimes grab a camera and run alongside his actors, shouting out suggestions for what they should say next and where they should go. (Liam Neeson says he initially bristled at the coaching, until Ben Kingsley encouraged him to trust that it was heading somewhere.) On Ryan, it took 27 days to complete the Omaha Beach opening because Spielberg kept extemporising and experimenting, moving the action along “one yard at a time.”

9. September 11th inspired both Munich and War of the Worlds.
Next to Schindler’s List, Lacy spends the most time in her doc on Munich, an often misunderstood project that saw Spielberg working through the moral complications of fighting terrorism – and not finding any reassuring answers. The film was a reaction to 9/11 and the Iraq War, two events that had tested the director’s left-leaning ideals and Jewish identity.

But Munich wasn’t the only one of his 2005 projects to grapple with what was going on in the real world. The emotions of the times affected the way Spielberg told stories even in War of the Worlds, which put an unusual twist on the science-fiction thriller genre. His summer movie shows a catastrophic alien invasion, but from the perspective of an ordinary guy who’s just trying to keep his family safe – and, like so many Americans at the time, is unsure if any of his choices are the right ones.

10. He’s struggled with becoming “a mature filmmaker” – as have his critics.
Early in Spielberg, critic David Edelstein quotes from Pauline Kael’s generally positive review of the director’s debut feature film The Sugarland Express, where she hails the young filmmaker as phenomenally gifted, but warns that he may not be “deep.” The director himself cites that same review later, admitting that Kael was right – at least about his early work.

A lot of this documentary is about Spielberg’s fitful attempts over the years to make movies aimed at adults, and how early efforts like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun fell short because he lacked gravity and sophistication. Not until Schindler’s List did he really find a way to modify his style to suit heavier material. Yet still, despite all the Oscars and the box office billions, some critics still doubt that he’s the right person to tackle certain subjects (like, for example, terrorism in Munich).

This has been Spielberg’s story since he broke into the business. In the doc, Scorsese sympathises with his friend’s plight … but only to a point. He says that anyone who can make back-to-back smashes like Jaws and Close Encounters has set the bar so high that he’s going to be compared to that for the rest of his career. But what choice does he have? As Scorsese says, “You get yourself into shape, and you jump over the bar again.”