Interview with Steven Spielberg

Raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Steven Spielberg was just twenty-one when he directed his first television movie, the pilot for Night Gallery. This was not his first filmmaking experience, however - far from it. From his early teens through his college career at California State College, Long Beach, Spielberg made several short films culminating in Amblin, a 24 minute short subject which won several awards and landed him the job directing Night Gallery. After directing a number of television episodes, the award-winning TV-movie Duel, and The Sugarland Express, Spielberg was asked to take on a movie version of the book Jaws. The phenomenal success of this movie, largely due to the twenty-six year old director, made Spielberg one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood. His next film Close Encounter of the Third Kind, which he also wrote, won him an Academy Award nomination for best director. In 1980, Spielberg joined with longtime friend George Lucas as director of the Lucasfilm, Ltd., release Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Q: Can you remember the first movie you ever saw?

SS: I was my first film when I was about five years old - The Greatest Show On Earth. What I remember most about it were the elephants and thr train crash, as opposed to the relationship between Charlton Heston and Betty Hutton, or Jimmy Stewart's fantastic portrayal of a clown. I remember the spectacule before I remember the personalities, which for a child is normal. But perhaps it is a clue to the kinds of movies I've been making like Jaws and Close Encounters as opposed to the kinds of films that I might make a couple of years from now.

Q: Did you go to a lot of movies during your childhood?

SS: Not a real lot. I was only allowed to go to those films that today would be considered G-rated. My parents were hypersensitive about my media intake, so they didn't let me watch too much television between the ages of one and twelve, and they screened the movies I was allowed to see. I think I was the only kid on the block who wasn't allowed to see violent movies so I would sneak out with friends and see them. So until I was twelve or thirteen, when I began making 8mm movies, I was not allowed to see anything that was not suitable for family enjoyment.

Q: I understand that before you were actually hired by Universal Studios, you just went on the lot in a suit carrying a briefcase and used an office.

SS: That's right, I did.

Q: How did you have the nerve to do that?

SS: I don't know. I wanted to be a moviemaker so bad that I would have done anything, short of killing. I just wanted to be on that lot. Once I was there, it was like being at Disneyland. Once you are past the turnstyle, you can do anything you want as long as you have an "E" coupon. Once I was on the lot, that was my coupon to every stage on the lot, and I was able to observe dubbing and editing. I spent most of my time in the editing rooms.

Q: Didn't anyone ask you who you were and what you were doing there?

SS: They always asked who I was. To the people I got to know real well, I would say, "I'm just some kid hanging around." I kept my identity a mystery to those people I didn't know very well. I only wore the suit the first three days to get on the lot. Once they knew me, I wore regular clothes. I was only a nerd for three days, not for the three months I spent sneaking around Universal.

Q: You were only twenty-one when you started directing for Universal. How did people react to your age?

SS: As Rodney Dangerfield says, "I got no respect." It was very, very hard to overcome the sense of being a novelty item. Once the amusement was over, after the first few guffaws or snickers behind the back, and people saw I was going to be on the set to make the TV movie or the episode, then they began to accept me as a director. Then, of course, the reputation grows and people say, "Well, he's a kid, but he's okay." The best thing was that I was getting older.

Q: How did you get involved with your longtime friend, George Lucas, on Raiders of the Lost Ark?

SS: George told ne the story in Hawaii in May, 1977, a week before Star Wars opened. He had gone to Hawaii to get away from what he thought would be a monumental disaster. At dinner one night, when George got the news that the film was a hit the first week and he was suddenly laughing again, he told me the story of Raiders. I said, "That's a really terrific story, George. It's something I'd like to do." About six months later he called me up and said, "If you're still interested, I'd like you to direct this when you get a chance."

Q: Was it difficult working with someone who is a good friend of yours?

SS: Where Raiders is concerned, George and I saw it pretty much alike. George and I have been friends a lot longer than we've been working together. We have only been working together for a year - we've been friends for eleven. It is very important, hit or miss, that nothing gets in the way of that friendship.

Q: Was Raiders of the Lost Ark a difficult fil to make?

SS: I see every film as a difficult film. A film like Raiders or a film like Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind is really no more or less difficult than a film like Kramer vs Kramer, a picture that essentially takes place in local exteriors and very contained interiors. Jaws was tough because you can't go out in the ocean and fight Mother Nature. The Coast Guard was laughing at us when we'd weigh anchor and get ready to photograph another vessel a few yards away. Minutes later both boats would be fifty yards apart. The Coast Guard would laugh and say, "Don't you know about the tides....they'll drag your anchors and your boats across the sandy bottom." But there are other movies that are made in small sets with three or four actors that are also extremely difficult.

Q: What qualities do you think a good director has?

SS: What makes a good director, more than anything else, is just having a good imagination. If you have a good imagination and you like to tell stories, and you feel you can turn around and communicate these thoughts to a lot of strangers, then perhaps you should write or start making 8mm movies.

K.J. and A.H.

Original text appeared in
Bantha Tracks
May 1981