When Steven Spielberg is enthused, his sentences pick up speed and momentum, the words coming in long, unpunctuated bursts that have you worried he’s going to forget to breathe.
Just over a month ago, he tells me, his eldest daughter Jessica had a baby girl, his fourth grandchild. Spielberg has seven children, aged between 19 and 39; now he is making up stories for his grandchildren the way he did for them. “They’re all stories of empowerment, and being magical or able to read your mom and dad’s mind, or your best friend being a Tyrannosaurus rex that only you know about and he lives in your backyard,” he explains excitedly.
We are sitting in the conference room of his production offices at Amblin Partners in Los Angeles, a two-storey building that looks like a cross between Fred Flintstone’s cave and a resort chalet, situated in a quiet corner of the Universal lot surrounded by lawns, palm trees and fake-looking boulders. On one wall of the room hang three Norman Rockwell originals and the Rosebud sledge from Citizen Kane, mounted inside a protective glass case. Downstairs are an editing suite, a screening room, a daycare centre and a restaurant-sized kitchen.
Spielberg continues with his story about the imaginary T rex: “Only one time, you got on his back and he took you to school, and he scared all the kids, but when you brought him in for show-and-tell, they realised that he was a nice T rex. They all sat around and listened to his stories.” These are the tales Spielberg likes to tell. “It’s all about making kids feel like they can do anything. That nothing’s impossible.”
Spielberg arrived tailed by a small team of assistants and assorted PR personnel waiting on his every word, like President Bartlet surrounded by his staffers in The West Wing. He is dressed in a natty suede jacket, his grey hair combed neatly; he is one of those men who never quite escapes the impression that the finishing touches to any outfit were provided by his wife. He sits down opposite me and clasps his hands together, a smile on his face, thumbs towards the ceiling with an attitude that says, “What’s next?” There is the sense of a formidable, fast-processing, friendly intelligence; courteously shutting down the 20 other things he has on the go in order to turn his attention to you. “Because I’m so compartmentalised in my thinking, I can think ahead a lot,” he tells me. “I can think very deeply forward, and that’s my problem. It’s a blessing and it’s a curse.”
When Spielberg was a child, his mother would tell him that his grandparents were coming to visit from Ohio, saying, “It’s something to look forward to, they’re coming in two weeks”, and he would count down the days with her. Arguably, this countdown never stopped. Looking forward turned into the Spielberg occupation par excellence; from it derives his signature genre (sci-fi), his signature tone (optimistic), his signature narrative mode (Hitchcockian suspense), even his signature shot (an expectant face in closeup). Recently, while completing post-production on his new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, and getting ready to shoot the virtual-reality sci-fi thriller Ready Player One, while also in talks with Tony Kushner on another script, he exchanged emails with the screenwriter David Koepp about ideas for a fifth Indiana Jones sequel. “I said, ‘I know you’re mixing and prepping and doing interviews,’ ” Koepp recalls. “‘Do you have the head space for this? You may be trying to do air traffic control in your head right now.’ He wrote back and said, ‘Let me worry about the air traffic control, you circle and chatter.’ OK, here you go. I dumped all my ideas on him. There’s a remarkable amount of head space.”
It goes beyond multitasking, Spielberg says; it calms him down, keeps him from the monomania of falling too in love with whatever it is he’s doing, or thinking it is the best thing he’s ever filmed. It can also trip him up – sometimes literally. On the set of The BFG, a film about the friendship between a kindly giant and a little girl that mixes live action and motion-capture animation, and frequently required directing on three different scales at once, the floor was festooned with snaking camera cables. “He was always tripping,” says Mark Rylance, who plays the BFG, when I ask which aspect of the director’s behaviour he would zero in on if he were ever asked to play him. “It’s a hazardous place with the cables and stuff anyway, but he has a tendency to trip. We would laugh at him and he would laugh, too. His mind is so full of ideas, full of thoughts. I asked him once what element he is: earth, water, air or fire. Would you believe he said air? If you did the actor’s exercise where you try to locate a person’s centre of gravity, it would not be down here, it would be up in his heart and in his head.”
The BFG is Spielberg’s 30th feature film and would seem to hail very much from the childhood dreamer that gave the world ET and Jurassic Park, rather than the darker, film-maker-turned-keeper-of-the-national-conscience who made Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. If during the noughties, when the director was juggling expensive candy like The Adventures Of Tintin with works such as Minority Report and Munich, the question for audiences was, which Spielberg is going to show up? The answer, at least over the past few years, would seem to be: both. Last year we had Bridge Of Spies, a noirish cold-war thriller that was as brisk as any of his entertainments, and now we have The BFG, a children’s film to be sure, but adapted from the spiky Roald Dahl, whose work for children is always laced with more troubling currents.
At the Cannes film festival this year, Spielberg’s adaptation drew both a five-minute ovation and a grilling from journalists on the issue of Dahl’s antisemitism. In particular, a comment Dahl made about Jews to the New Statesman in 1983 (“even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason”) that had resurfaced, putting the maker of Schindler’s List in a quandary. “I didn’t know much about Roald Dahl, his personal life, when I took on the challenge of The BFG,” Spielberg says. “Later, a journalist made me very aware of some of the things he said. I started to look into his life and realised that he was the kind of person that, in a very unacceptable way, based on all my values and standards, would sometimes purposely say things to get a rise out of people, just to watch their reactions. I think a person who is truly antisemitic, that comes out in the work. It comes out in the laundry. And nothing in anything he’s ever written has held up a mirror to some of the statements he made in 1983. I wasn’t going to claw back my belief in his writing, his heart. I don’t truly believe somebody with such a big heart, who has given so much joy and so much epiphany to audiences with his writing, was an antisemitic human being.”
Spielberg’s generous view of Dahl is coloured by a certain amount of projection: joyful, big-hearted epiphanies are more his line of work than they are Dahl’s, but then, as faithful as the film is, particularly to the delightfully mangled English of the original (“I will be nothing but skin and groans”, “I is sleeping only once in a blue baboon”), the BFG can’t help but be a portrait of its maker, just as Oskar Schindler was a kind of self-portrait. There, it was Spielberg the showman and business altruist. Here, it is Spielberg the dream-maker and corporate entertainment giant. Bullied by the other giants who call him “runt”, the humble, simple-minded BFG wants only to be left alone to do his job: bottling dreams to fill the heads of sleeping children. “I is hearing all the wondrous and terrible things,” the BFG tells Sophie, “all the secret whisperings of the world,” a line of Dahl’s that glances both at the maker of ET (a film Spielberg once called a “whisper from my childhood”) but also Schindler’s List, Munich and Spielberg’s more politically engaged films.
Rylance agrees: “Obviously there is an aspect of Steven that is very aware of the world’s difficulties, not only the history of Jewish people, but the violence and politics of both England and America,” he says. “He let the BFG be aware that his brothers are not always behaving in a way he would agree with.”
The film was written by Melissa Mathison, Spielberg’s screenwriter on ET (and Harrison Ford’s former wife), who died of cancer before The BFG could be completed. Spielberg didn’t even know she was sick, although she left the set in Vancouver a couple of times to see a doctor; he thought it was colitis. Mathison had been complaining of lack of sleep. “She came back chipper and full of energy. One time after a visit, towards the end of shooting, she didn’t come back for a couple of days and, when she did come back, she was sad. I said, ‘Are you OK?’ She said, ‘Yes, I’m fine’, but there was a sadness. I thought it was related to the fact that we were only a couple of weeks away from wrapping. We were almost done shooting the film and I thought she was feeling the weight of having been so connected to the material for so many years, and now it was just going to be moving into post-production. Later, I found out she had gotten some bad news.”
He tails off. A master manipulator of emotions on the screen, he is more awkward about them in real life. He was in tears in the edit suite when it came to adding the final dedication, to Mathison. “It was really devastating to lose her, but particularly for Steven, after having started way back on ET and having been on this whole journey,” says his longtime producer Frank Marshall. “You can’t replace that kind of a relationship.” The film is in many ways a record of their friendship, as was ET: a two-hander about a small, lonely child who befriends a non-human fantasy figure who struggles with English and turns out to need rescuing.
I ask Spielberg how much of him there is in the BFG. “Me?” he says. “I think Melissa added both of us, of course. She added a large dollop of herself, and I think the part of me she probably put in was the trogglehumper, the bad dream – because she knows that a lot of my fears have given rise to a lot of my stories. The stories always vanquish the fear. Melissa knows me so well, and we’ve often talked about my obsession with things that scare me. Everything has to start with fear. Loss, loneliness, being challenged and pursued by big forces. It’s the loneliest story I think I’ve ever told. These two lonely people find a way to make a difference. Those are touchstones that attracted me to the book. I read it to my kids, and the bullying was one of the things that I painfully associated with my own childhood. And also being able to grow out of my fears and often, when I do, feeling taller than the tallest giant. Size doesn’t matter when loneliness is what our lives have meant to us.”
Spielberg has only recently opened up about the bullying he received at high school in Phoenix, Arizona, and at Saratoga high in California. He was taunted with antisemitic slurs (the other kids sneezed “A-a-jew!” as he passed in the corridor) and beaten up after school. Children would tear past the house shouting, “The Spielbergs are dirty Jews!”
Spielberg responded by smearing peanut butter over their windows. One of his tormentors looked a little like John Wayne, so he cast him in one of his home movies, a second world war fighter pilot drama called Escape To Nowhere, shot on his dad’s Super 8 and using bags of flour for the explosions. The bully never touched him again. He learned an important lesson that day: film is power. “Most of my friends were made through the camera,” Spielberg says. “Rather than make friends, then go off down to the soda fountain or go to where the kids would hang out, I would just go home and write my scripts and cut my films. I was pretty much isolated, but I had a hobby that I was obsessed by. I would come home from school and I would not go to friends’ houses to play. I would go to my bedroom and I would sit with my little editing machine.”
Viewed this way, his career is one of the biggest instances of over-compensation in the history of movies, his films, like those early home movies, a way of controlling and mastering an inhospitable universe, making friends of enemies, absorbing threats. Accused by critics of hanging out in the kiddie pool for too long, he set himself on the path to cinematic maturity that would eventually lead to Schindler’s List, only to follow up in the same year with Jurassic Park – an astonishing stretch and, to his detractors, a sign of suspicious facility.
His films have attracted their share of bullies, too. Their moon-shots, playfulness and slam-dunking of box office records offend the notion of auteurist cool that drives admiration for directors such as Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick. In his 2008 autobiography, Miracles Of Life, JG Ballard noted of his publicity tour for Empire Of The Sun that, “Americans were unfailingly friendly and helpful, though I noticed an almost universal hostility to Steven Spielberg. One journalist asked me, ‘Why did you allow Spielberg to make a film of your novel?’ When I replied that he was the greatest film director in America, he promptly corrected me: ‘Not the greatest, the most successful.’”
Forbes magazine has estimated Spielberg’s wealth at $3.6bn. For serving as executive producer on Jurassic World, he is said to have made more money than Universal. “There are no intermediaries, there are no people to please. There is no studio presence, there is only his voice,” says Koepp, who wrote the first two Jurassic Parks. Or, as producer Lynda Obst, who developed Interstellar with him, says, “Steven is the studio.” He is known as a steely negotiator. There was something Koepp didn’t want to write into a script once; Spielberg kept reminding him that he had forgotten to do it. “I said, ‘I’m not forgetting, I just really don’t want to write that.’ He says, ‘You shouldn’t, you don’t have to, you absolutely don’t have to, but when I shoot it, here’s how I’m going to do it.’” Koepp wrote the draft.
Not that the last few years haven’t been choppy. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull was ripped apart by fans and critics alike for its George Lucas-originated McGuffin: anyone could have told them Indy shouldn’t be sharing the screen with space aliens. In the same year, DreamWorks, the studio Spielberg launched with David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, parted ways with its partner Paramount. The costly $150m flop Cowboys & Aliens further winded the company, and in 2013 a glum Spielberg shared the stage with George Lucas at the opening of a cinematic arts school at the University of Southern California, lamenting the fact that, after struggling to find financiers, Lincoln came “this close” to being an HBO movie; he warned of the industry’s impending implosion-by-superhero.
Spielberg is more sanguine now. DreamWorks was rebooted last year with a $200m cash injection from Participant Media, under the name of Spielberg’s original production company, Amblin Partners. Returning to the Universal lot, where he made Jaws, Spielberg memorialised the moment by taking a picture with his iPhone. “What I said was that the industry becomes completely dependent on a certain diet,” he tells me. “If the movie industry becomes too dependent on a certain genre, then the day that genre loses its popularity, like the great American westerns, which went to TV – the minute that happens, unless there have been attempts to create new genres, new stories, big entertainments, the industry could take a collective hit.” He pauses, then adds, “I distinguish superheroes from science fiction. Science fiction will be around for ever.”
Next up for him is the sci-fi thriller Ready Player One, also starring Rylance. After that comes The Kidnapping Of Edgardo Mortara, a Tony Kushner adaptation of David Kertzer’s book about a Jewish boy in Bologna, Italy, in 1858, who is forcibly taken from his family to be raised a Christian, also with Rylance; then it’s Indy 5 for Disney (no aliens this time) and possibly a remake of West Side Story, which Spielberg has dreamed of adapting “for decades”.
In a recent speech to Harvard students that went viral, Spielberg told them, “I’ve always said to my kids, the hardest thing to listen to – your instincts, your human personal intuition – always whispers; it never shouts. Very hard to hear.”
Has he always heard it himself? Spielberg shakes his head. “It’s not like I’m always being whispered at. It comes when I least expect it. I mainly listen to see if there’s anything urging me forward when I meet a book or a script. I have a strong gut feeling about what I’ve just read. It takes a very, very, very quiet, tiny whisper to get me to say, ‘This one is for me. I’m not going to give this away and produce it through my company. I’m taking this for myself.’” The older he gets, the more he needs some chord struck with his childhood in order to commit to a project.
Meanwhile, he works on the stories he tells his grandchildren. “Just the joy of being able to make stuff up and the joy of getting them to laugh, or getting them to be scared, knowing that I’m going to rescue them from their fear in about nine seconds. That kind of fireside storytelling is the stuff I think dreams are made of. I just love doing it. I’ve always done that. I look forward to it, the same way I look forward to making the next movie.”
Has he copyrighted any of them? Spielberg laughs. “I have not yet copyrighted a single story I’ve told any of my kids or grandkids. It’s fine. If any story inspires them, they can have it.”
• The BFG is released on 22 July
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