Close Encounters of the Spielberg Kind
Although Steven Spielberg is one of the world’s most respected and successful directors, earning critical acclaim and billions at the box office, he hasn’t been the subject of a feature-length documentary — until now. In more than 30 hours of interviews conducted over a year, filmmaker Susan Lacy (PBS’ “American Masters”) got the Academy Award-winning moviemaker to talk at length about his influences, his films, their themes and how his life has informed them, resulting in an HBO documentary, “Spielberg,” which premieres Oct. 7.
“He is very shy about interviews, does very few. So this was quite an extraordinary experience to hear him really open up,” Lacy said at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour. She also got more than 80 of Spielberg’s colleagues, collaborators, friends and family members to comment as Spielberg dissects his work in the film.
Full of anecdotes and fun facts about iconic movies, the documentary also is intensely personal, with revelations about Spielberg’s childhood and family and how both affected his movies. His parents’ divorce and its impact on his family influenced “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” “Saving Private Ryan” was inspired by the stories he heard from his father, a pilot who served in World War II.
“His early movies drew on what he knew,” Lacy said of Spielberg, who grew up in the Phoenix suburbs watching television, reading comic books and chasing his sisters Anne and Nancy around with a Super 8 camera. He was also the target of bullying and anti-Semitism, which made him ashamed of being Jewish.
“He didn’t want to be connected to Judaism as a child because he didn’t want to be a pariah. Growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix in the only Jewish family on the street, it made him an outsider,” Lacy told the Journal.
Neighborhood kids would laugh when Spielberg’s grandfather called him by his Hebrew name, Shmuel. “I always wanted to fit in, and being Jewish, I couldn’t fit into anything,” he confides in the film. “I began to deny my Jewishness … I didn’t want to be Jewish.”
Lacy explained that when Spielberg met actress Kate Capshaw, who converted to Judaism before their wedding in 1991, “She said, ‘You must reconnect with your faith.’ Then he made ‘Schindler’s List,’ and it brought him back completely into the fold, and proud of being Jewish.”
Spielberg had read Thomas Keneally’s book about Oskar Schindler in 1982, but held onto it for a decade until it was the right time to make the film, which earned him two Oscars and led to the creation of the USC Shoah Foundation.
“It was, emotionally, the hardest movie I’ve ever made,” he told Lacy. “It made me so proud to be a Jew.”
Capshaw and Spielberg’s seven children are not in the documentary, but his sisters, his father and his late mother are “because they were there at the birth of his becoming a filmmaker and could talk about who he was at that time in his life,” Lacy said.
With 2 1/2 hours to work with, Lacy focused on Spielberg’s film directing, eschewing other projects and giving less play to his less successful movies, including “1941” and “The Color Purple.”
“He was not reticent to talk about failures,” Lacy said. “But if you want to tell a real story with a beginning, middle and end, and in any kind of depth, you simply cannot cover everything.”
It was more important, she said, to highlight the common themes in his oeuvre, including families’ separating and reuniting, the resilience of children, fighting for freedom and good people trying to do the right thing against all odds.
“Steven is actually an incredibly personal filmmaker,” Lacy said. “The box office has never been what’s driven him. What has interested him has changed and matured as he’s grown up. But that boy who loves movies, loves moviemakers — that kid is still in him.”
Just 21 when he made his first television movie, “Duel,” he stood up to the network, refusing to blow up the menacing truck at the end of the film. He insisted on shooting “Jaws” on the ocean, although it was a logistical nightmare to do so. “Having a vision and sticking to it, not letting anybody get in the way of it — that’s probably the best lesson you could learn from Steven Spielberg,” Lacy said. “ ‘Schindler’s List,’ a 3 1/2-hour, black-and-white movie about the Holocaust, could have been a huge flop. But it was something he needed to do, he knew how to do it, and he stuck with that.”
Lacy appreciated that Spielberg “in no way tried to steer this film and did not see it until it was finished.” So when he called to tell her he liked it, “I almost fell on the floor. What happens if Steven Spielberg doesn’t like your movie?” she said. “I’d set a very high bar, and I was nervous all the time that I would not achieve it. I hope I did.”
She came away from the project secure in the knowledge that Spielberg “is exactly who he seems to be. Sometimes you’re disappointed when you meet a hero and that did not happen with Steven,” she said. “He was everything I expected him to be and more. I’m not trying to be gushy here, but he’s a really, really good human being. He’s a mensch.”