TIME Magizine

Interview 1978

Steven Spielberg by Dave Pirie

Film directors are not best known for their modesty or their tact. And to be signed by Universal Pictures to an exclusive seven year contract before turning 21 would be enough to turn most of them into monsters of the first kind.

Nor do Steven Spielberg's accomplishments stop there. Only a couple of years later he made 'Duel', probably the most critically acclaimed made-for-TV movie in television history. And before he had quite turned 30 his name was on not one, but two, of Hollywood's all-time box office hits. On his last two films alone he was entrusted with around 25,000,000 dollars of other people's money.

The record is so formidable that it's hard to envisage the man behind it as anything less than a thoroughgoing egomaniac. And the prospect of a long hotel room interview shortly after he wrapped 'Close Encounters' seemed more likely to test our therapeutic than any critical ones.

But unfortunately life sometimes defies the bland character assumptions of the movies: Steven Spielberg turned out to be the most engaging and unassuming of film makers. His conversation is shy and thoughtful, warming especially to his first passion: movies. Spielberg made his earliest film at the age of 12 and you get the feeling that his child-like enthusiasm for the movies has - in complete contrast to someone like Bogdanovich - actually helped to isolate him from the usual neuroses of power.

At Long Beach State. I was actually just staying there so I wouldn't have to serve in Vietnam.

Locked into the technical side of film from such an early age, he seems to enact his present eminence less like a superstar than a slightly absent-minded scientist - one so immersed in his own experiments that he is not too surprised to find more and more resources at his disposal. Unlike Orson Welles and other young prodigies who came to films via other media, Spielberg is essentially a pure film freak who has spent almost all his life absorbing popular movie culture. Consequently he needs no alibis.

But unlike so many other new American movie-makers Spielberg did not start off in film school. 'I began making a lot of films in high school. But I didn't go to film school, in fact I majored in English. At Long Beach State. I was actually just staying there so I wouldn't have to serve in Vietnam. If the draft had not been after me I probably wouldn't have gone to college at all. So over those four years I did almost nothing except movie-making. I was able to make enough money working in the cafeteria and doing odd jobs to be able to buy a roll of film, rent a camera from Burns & Sawyer and go out on weekends to shoot small experimental films...'

After raking together enough cash to make a short called 'Ambulance', Spielberg hawked it through Universal, where people knew him as a kid who was always hanging around.

'I had met a lot of people. None of them were willing to help me. Matter of fact I couldn't get a producer to sit down and look at anything. The toughest thing to do was to get someone to sit down and look at your work. But I knew some of the editors from hanging around the editing rooms and one day I met a man called Chuck Silvers in the hall. And I showed him a few of my films. He did take the time to see them. He was very nice to me. He got the film to the head of Universal Television. And eventually this man summoned me to his office. He was sitting there in his French provincial office overlooking Universal. Just like a scene out of "The Fountainhead". And he said "I'd like you to work here under contract. Start in the TV area, and then maybe branch out and do a feature." It was all very vague. So I signed a seven year contract without consulting an agent.'

Not yet 21, Spielberg was put to work straight away on the pilot for what would become the TV series 'Night Gallery': 'It was a very macabre story starring Joan Crawford. I read the script and I said. "Jesus, can't I do something about young people?" And he said: "I'd take this if I were you." I was so frightened that even now the whole period is a bit of of a blank. I was walking on eggs. I was told not to change one word of dialogue or they'd have me. They'd put sprocket-holes up and down my sides. And I had no idea I was telling a story. To me it was just a menu of shots. It was a memorandum of things to do that day. It was only when I saw the show years later that I suddenly discovered the story I was telling.'

After this traumatic initiation, Spielberg was repaid by not being asked to do anything else for at least a year. His contract was suspended: 'I was regarded on the Universal lot as a folly, a novelty item, bric-a-brac for the mantlepiece. Something to joke about at parties. I even left Universal for a year. And then finally I got back into television on a series called "The Psychiatrist". I guess I was 22 then and they felt I was old enough to direct television. So the ice cracked and I got in. And I did "Marcus Welby" and "The Name of the Game" and "Colombo", and this and that until "Duel" came along.' 'Duel' was the remarkable made-for-TV movie based on a short story by Richard Matheson about a man fighting an anonymous truck. Released in Europe as a theatrical feature, it established Spielberg in many critics' eyes as a cool and brilliant handler of hardware, perhaps even an unconscious visual poet of the technological society.

And he said "I'd like you to work here under contract. Start in the TV area, and then maybe branch out and do a feature." It was all very vague. So I signed a seven year contract without consulting an agent.

But Spielberg talks with unexpected penetration about the film's implications:'The hero of "Duel" is typical of that lower middle-class American who's insulated by suburban modernisation. It begins on Sunday: you take your car to be washed. You have to drive it but it's only a block away. And, as the car's being washed, you go next door with the kids and you buy them ice-cream at the Dairy Queen and then you have lunch at the plastic McDonald's with seven zillion hamburgers sold. And then you go off to the games room and you play the quarter games: the Tank and the Pong and Flim-Flam. And by that time you go back and your car's all dry and ready to go and you get into the car and you drive to the Magic Mountain plastic amusement park and you spend the day there eating junk food. Afterwards you drive home, stopping at all the red lights, and the wife is waiting with dinner on. And you have instant potatoes and eggs without cholesterol, because they're artificial - and you sit down and you turn on the television set, which has become the reality as opposed to the fantasy this man has lived with that entire day. And you watch the primetime, which is pabulum and nothing more than watching a night-light. And you see the news at the end of that, which you don't want to listen to because it doesn't conform to the reality you've just been through primetime with. And at the end of all that you go to sleep and you dream about making enough money to support weekend America.

'This is the kind of man portrayed in "Duel". And a man like that never expects to be challenged by anything more than his television set breaking down and having to call the repair man.'

Spielberg admits that 'Duel' and 'Something Evil' - the astonishing occult thriller that climaxed his TV career - were among the last films he's actually enjoyed shooting. 'Jaws' in particular was a production nightmare: 'The problems were so enormous on "Jaws" that even after a week I forgot I was in the film business. I thought I was working for the Oceanographic Institute. Which was just as well because it was in the first week that I learned my very first theatrical feature, "Sugarland Express", had died at the box office. "Jaws" was about four hours a day shooting, eight hours anchoring boats and trying to fight the ocean and get the shark to work. The shark didn't work so often that I was forced to cut it continually on about the fourth frame. If I didn't, you'd see what the shark was made of, how the eyes really looked and the air bubbles roaring out of the mouth.'

The huge success of 'Jaws' has partly served to obscure how much pure visual dexterity Spielberg brought to a relatively conventional story. He works from his own sketches, laboriously mapping out every shot in advance of production: 'On every movie I make, unless there's enough money for me to have a personal sketch artist, I sketch out all my shots in advance and then use them to edit the movie in my head. This really paid off on "Jaws" which was the most intricately sketched movie I've done. At the start of shooting "Duel" I did about four or five hundred individual sketches and stuck them to the walls of the motel in the desert where we were shooting. I can still see them wrapped around the living-room, wrapped around the bedroom, even wrapped around part of the bathroom. But the tough thing is somehow to get these conceptions on the screen. It's terrible because it preoccupies most of my REM [rapid eye movement, i.e. dreaming] hours at night. I'm thinking of lost film most of the time.'

"Jaws" was about four hours a day shooting, eight hours anchoring boats and trying to fight the ocean and get the shark to work. The shark didn't work so often that I was forced to cut it continually on about the fourth frame.

One 'lost' film which Spielberg has now managed to reconstruct with the help of Columbia is the prototype of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'. Ironically, the new blockbuster is partly based on a two-hour film about UFOs called 'Firelight' which Spielberg made with 400 dollars borrowed from his father while he was still at school. Spielberg appears to be so much at home both with the visual arts and electronic technology that he was the obvious person to make the first high-budget Hollywood feature about flying saucers. But 'Close Encounters' is quite different from either the popcorn munching kid's adventure tone of 'Star Wars' or the hysterical paranoia of the UFO exploitation features of the '50s.

It is less a mystery or even a science fiction story than a film about wonder. Its true progenitors are not Heinlein and Asimov but Disney and DeMille. In fact there are explicit references to both these film-makers in the film and, like their work, 'Close Encounters'is determinedly and intentionally naive. The bizarre thing is that, while moving into this almost-impossible-to-recapture territory, the film remains so effective.

The basic theme takes up a favourite hypothesis of every UFO enthusiast: namely that the US government has been covering up all UFO sightings while quietly preparing its own reception for the aliens. In fact in one superbly Spielbergian moment the top secret personnel set out for their mysterious rendezvous in a fleet of trucks masquerading as the icons of consumer America: Baskins-Robbins, Coca-Cola etc.But the difference between 'Close Encounters' and the earlier cinema of wonder is that while DeMille and Disney could make their audiences gasp with the tackiest special effects, Spielberg and 'Space Odyssey' maestro Douglas Trumbull have to go to much greater lengths. For one amazing sequence they hired a huge dirigible hangar in Mobile, Alabama, and set about creating an exterior night location inside it, including a night-sky studded with hundreds of arc-lights. ('A nightmare in lighting,' Spielberg says, 'at least 40 electricians had to be flown in to handle it.')

The result of all this may not be a masterpiece of intellectual sophistication. But it is the first film in years likely to give its audience a tingle of shocked emotion not based on fear, approaching, in fact, a child's first feeling in the cinema. And that is an emotion Steven Spielberg seems uniquely equipped to communicate.