Steven Spielberg: ‘I didn’t think anybody would go to see ET’

His new film ‘The Post’ neatly captures the Trumpian zeitgeist. But the director worries that ‘four-quadrant superhero franchises’ will drive these old-school films out of cinemas

Staring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks 'The Post' tells the true story of a newspaper exposing a massive cover-up of government secrets that spans three decades and four US presidents

 

Wrapped in a heavy suit and scarf against the wintry London day outside, Steven Spielberg walks up without a coterie of minders, a trail of rose petals, or an individualised John Williams theme.

 I was expecting rather more pomp around the highest-grossing film-maker of all time.

“No fanfare; just you and me,” he says cheerfully. At 71, with a “not so great” back, he retains a wiry youthfulness.

“When I’m on set, I’m always on my feet,” he says. “Not being on my feet is harder.”

 He reaches for the firmest chair available, hoping to offset the thousands of air miles required to promote The Post, his 34th feature film.

It wasn’t supposed to be The Post. This time last year, Spielberg was knee-deep in pre-production on his long-planned adaptation of David Kertzer’s acclaimed The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, the true story about a six-year-old Jewish boy who was kidnapped by the Papal States during the 19th century.

Instead, The Post has been turned around in just nine months. As its director notes, the project required all the leverage that he and his all-star cast – Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep – could muster. “I don’t think anybody other than Tom, Meryl and I could have got The Post made this year and that quickly. We needed our clout. It’s no longer the kind of film that studios normally make.”

Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham in The Post: Spielberg was attracted to the story of “a woman finding her voice in a world where there were only men.” Photograph: Niko Tavernise/20th Century Fox
Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham in 'The Post'. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/20th Century Fox

Spielberg’s rush to make what he calls an “antidote to fake news” attempts to capture something of the zeitgeist. The Post revolves around the Pentagon Papers, the US government’s 7,000-page secret history of the Vietnam War. In 1971, the documents were leaked to the New York Times, who defied a Nixon administration warning to cease publication. When a preliminary injunction was granted against that newspaper, the Washington Post – headed by publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) – continued to run with the story.

Many commentators have been keen to characterise the film as Trumpian or post-Trumpian. But Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers, has noted that The Post would have been just as timely had it emerged during the Obama administration. Spielberg is inclined to agree. Somewhat.

“The main attraction for me was the Katharine Graham story,” says Spielberg. “A woman finding her voice in a world where there were only men. Where she had the authority, but, against an imbalance of power, she didn’t, as yet, have the courage of her convictions. She had to learn how to speak up. That was central for the survival of the Washington Post. That’s why the film could have been made under the Bill Clinton administration or the Obama administration. But I don’t think it’s lost on anyone that Nixon’s attempt to interfere with the free press has parallels with what is happening today. The attacks today are more insidious and dangerous. Nixon didn’t have a Twitter account. He did it through his attorney general John Mitchell. He attacked the press. He attacked the New York Times. He attacked the Washington Post. And he enjoyed doing it.”

Spielbergian things

The Post is the latest in a series of films – including Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and Munich – that upend our idea of Spielbergian, a term that has somewhat erroneously come to denote the spookily effective marriage of Hitchcockian suspense and childhood wonder, as found in such worshipful pastiche as Stranger Things or JJ Abrams’s Super 8.

Spielberg has long ago progressed beyond the optimistic tone, science fiction geekiness, and twin themes of divorce and suburbia that defined his earliest films. A deft juggler, he released both The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad in 1997; Ready Player One, a Running Man-style adventure based on Ernest Cline’s hit, dystopian novel, opens this March, less than three months after The Post. Still, the Spielbergian tag stubbornly remains the same.

Speaking to documentarian Susan Lacy in last year’s thorough biographical portrait, Kathleen Kennedy – who co-founded Amblin Entertainment with the film-maker, spoke of his disappointment at the sniffy reception afforded Empire of the Sun in 1987.

“People kept accusing me of trying to prove myself,” recalls Spielberg. “And they wouldn’t have been wrong. It was important for me to prove myself in genres that I wasn’t known for. I watched Robert Mulligan films [To Kill a Mockingbird; Same Time, Next Year] and I loved watching those pictures and I knew I had those pictures in me. But I had only been making films for wide public consumption. Even when I wasn’t. I didn’t think anybody would go to see ET. I thought it was the most personal movie I had ever made. Or it at the time. But that became a widely consumed, global success. There were other more – quote-unquote – adult stories that I wanted to tell. And the critics weren’t kind to me. I was moving outside of the box they had placed me in. So when I made Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, I got a lot of criticism. Many people who hadn’t liked my previous populist films surprised me by liking Empire of the Sun. But most considered it to be an anomaly: a minor footnote between Indiana Jones films.”

Schindler’s List, a script he rejected many times, and instead offered to chums Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese, would finally hush the Spielberg dissenters.

“It was not the first time I was taken seriously as a filmmaker,” he recalls. “But it was the first time that the subject matter was beyond reproach. And I hadn’t screwed it up. I hadn’t sentimentalised it or Hollywoodised it. I had allowed myself to be brutal with the facts of the Shoah. It took at lot for me to divest myself of all the easy tricks to get the audience on my side. But when I made Schindler’s List I didn’t care if the audience saw the movie or not. I just wanted to get that movie out of me. I wanted to get people to look at Holocaust survivors. And I wanted people to have a more difficult time denying that the Holocaust ever happened.”

From 8mm to €9bn

The most popular storyteller of all time – with a box office gross of more than $9 billion and a personal fortune of $3.6 billion – attributes his success to his parents. The son of concert pianist Leah Adler and computer engineer Arnold Spielberg, Steven was the youngest and only boy among his four siblings. Early 8mm adventure films made during his Arizona childhood display both artistry and a scientific bent.

This is finally the moment wherein the movie industry stands up like Howard Beale in Network and says: ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’

“I don’t spend my time thinking about how the balance works,” he smiles. “It just somehow does. It’s just lucky genetics between my piano artist mom and my computer inventor father. My brain is both parents.”

His mother died, aged 97, last year. She remains a towering influence, he says: “She was a tremendous force in my life. More like a sibling than a parent.  From Kathleen Kennedy to Stacey Snider to Laurie MacDonald, women run my companies. Right now, at my current company, Amblin, every single division – casting, marketing – has a woman in the lead role. That all comes from my mom. Her profound influence on me as a child. She gave me every good reason to respect women.”

As we meet, he has just told a press conference that Oprah Winfrey would make a “brilliant president”, further fuelling speculation that began with Oprah’s rousing speech at the Golden Globes. He’s hopeful that the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will rectify the Globes’ failure to nominate Greta Gerwig for best director for Lady Bird, and equally hopeful that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements will revolutionise Hollywood and beyond.

“I predict Greta will get an Oscar nomination so it’ll be a moot point in a few weeks. But there’s a big, big movement happening right now. The casting couch has been around since William Shakespeare, but this is finally the moment wherein the movie industry – to use a movie analogy – stands up like Howard Beale in Network and says: ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.’ This isn’t a 24-hour news cycle; it’s a permanent movement. Right now, I’m very interested in #TimesUp. It’s the one that’s going to pay for representation for those people who aren’t celebrities and who can’t make the news with just a tweet or a blog. Farm workers. Factory workers. Women who have been abused in the fields for decades. Women who work in restaurants and hotels. All segments of American and global society.”

A young Steven Spielberg directing Joan Crawford in an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery
A young Steven Spielberg directing Joan Crawford in an episode of Rod Serling’s 'Night Gallery'.

Spielberg has often said that everything scared him as a child. But that’s hard to reconcile with the cocksure young man who arrived in Universal Studios while he was still a student. Legend has it that the youngster simply moved into an empty office and started making phone calls. He was soon championed by studio vice-president Sidney Sheinberg, who gave Spielberg his first directing jobs on Columbo and the 1969 pilot episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.

Duel personality

Night Gallery would prove something of a touchstone. Years later, Spielberg would produce and direct a segment of the Serling-inspired 1983 anthology Twilight Zone: The Movie. Spielberg’s first feature film, Duel, was scripted by Twilight Zone regular Richard Matheson.  

“Everything you want to know about storytelling Rod Serling can teach you in three acts in 28 minutes,” laughs the director.

Night Gallery would introduce the budding director to Joan Crawford. Remarkably, the Oscar-winning star and Spielberg would remain firm friends until her death in 1977.  

“She was very intimidating,” he recalls. “Did you see the great mini-series with Susan Sarandon? The Joan we saw in that mini-series was hidden from me by Joan herself. She could have blasted me for being a young 22-year-old director with acne; I had bad acne in those days. It was only years after her passing it was revealed that she hated the fact that a 22-year-old first-time director was assigned to direct the great Joan Crawford. She even tried to get me fired. Twice. She wanted Henry Cahill or George Marshall or King Vidor. But on set she treated me like I was one of those guys. Like a prince. And I’ll never forget her for that.”

There were some really good independent movies made this year – Three Billboards and Lady Bird and I, Tonya

By 30, Spielberg was an established “movie brat” alongside his contemporaries Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Scorsese and George Lucas. Years later, with half the pack in semi-retirement, they remain in constant touch.

“My dad is 101 next month and he fought in World War II,” says Spielberg. “He’s part of the greatest generation. In a much less important way, but in a way that continues as a creative solidarity, I came from the greatest generation of film-makers. I’m very proud to have been part of that.”

Many commentators see Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’s Star Wars as the progenitors of the contemporary blockbuster. But neither of those men could have predicted the rise of the “four-quadrant superhero film”. Though he says he’s a huge fan of Patty Jenkins and the “big message of Wonder Woman”, the rise of the franchise film is a troubling development, says Spielberg.

“I think the obsession with four-quadrant and superhero movies puts legitimate cinema in jeopardy. It worries me that audiences will only go to the movie when they trust the brand. And I worry that some of our small great movies will only be made for the small screen. I probably watch five old movies a week and five new movies a week. And it’s the old films more that make me want to keep directing. But there were some really good independent movies made this year – Three Billboards and Lady Bird and I, Tonya. And a very good studio movie called The Shape of Water. Those films have a chance to win a lot of Oscars this year.”

The Post is on general release from January 19th 

Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks on the set of The Post. The film’s story of Nixon attacking the media has parallels today, except, says Spielberg, “Nixon didn’t have a Twitter account.” Photograph: Niko Tavernise/20th Century Fox
Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks on the set of 'The Post'. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/20th Century Fox

Spielberg ’s fear of westerns

In 1958, Spielberg became a boy scout and was awarded the photography merit badge after making a nine-minute 8mm western called The Last Gunfight. It’s one of the few genres he hasn’t returned to in his Hollywood career. Why?

“I’ve got three westerns in development but I don’t know that I’m going to make any of them,” he says. “Westerns are hard to make. The genre allows you to be very operatic. And it demands the audience made huge leaps of faith and bring a tolerance for the incredible. I would only make a western if it was mythological. I’m not interested in bringing any kind of social realism or social progress to the genre. I would only make something if it was as operatic as The Searchers or as audacious as Red River. But the idea of making a western as good as my forefathers have made scares me.”

Spielberg’s true-life tales

Amistad (1997)

In 1839, 53 kidnapped Africans rose up and killed the captain of their slave ship. Thinking they were headed home, they became lost at sea and wound up on American soil where they stood trial for murder.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

In the 1960s, teenaged cheque-forger Frank Abagnale Jr adopted various disguises to evade the FBI’s fraud squad as he journeyed around Europe.

Lincoln (2012)

As the civil war rages on, president Abraham Lincoln seeks to abolish slavery through the 13th amendment.

Munich (2005)

In the wake of the Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympics, the Israeli government covertly hunts down the Palestine Liberation Front in Operation Wrath of God.

Schindler’s List (1993)

German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler saves more than 1,000 Jews from the Holocaust by employing them in his factories during the second World War.

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