Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Spielberg on his Career

Richard Schickel's great new book Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective offers a unique perspective into the films of Steven Spielberg. Unlike other books, what makes this one so unique, is that Spielberg participated in the making of it by giving Schickel, his friend and collaborator, lengthy interviews as well as by writing its Foreword (which I transcribed bellow).

On Spielberg as an interviewer Schickel writes,
“There is, however, a tone here that I think is unique – a willingness to diverge from the subject at hand, for instance, a willingness to speak anecdotally that I don’t find very regularly in other sources. He does not give very many interviews – at least compared to most other directors – and he tends to stick narrowly to the point of the occasion.”
And on the book Schickel writes,
“This is, then, a short working portrait of a man I find likable and whose work – particularly in its range and technical finesse – I find astonishing and rewarding and in important respect still undervalued. He is really too fecund for his own good, which is not to say that he lacks for wealth, prizes, and the general high regard of the moviegoing mankind.”
Schickel is right when he says that Spielberg doesn't give too many interviews (he rarely comes up on online film-criticism aggregation sites). But when he does speak about his work, whether on DVD special features or the rare public appearance, he offers great insight into his working process, career evolution, and artistic aims. 

For example, his comments in memorial publications (e.g. E.T., Schindler's List) are revelatory and more recently the foreword to Lincoln: A Cinematic and Historical Companion offers great insight regarding the problematic nature of hero-worship while portraying a historical figure (it's more serious in tone then the otherwise great DVD making-of). The DVDs of his films usually come with a wealth of supplementary material, like introductions and making-of documentaries, with some of the highlights being Munich, War Horse, Amistad, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, and the Indiana Jones series.

Another great resources is Paul Bullock's website From Director Steven Spielberg, where you can find a plethora of information about the director, ranging from memorabilia to reviews of the films, to, and one of its great finds, the speech Spielberg gave at the 149th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

In the following Foreword Spielberg comes off as both modest and humble, very conscious of his position within the industry, balancing between entertainment and artistic films, while bringing a certain moral seriousness, with the hope of raising the standards of what is a popular art-form. In one word, he's classic. - D.D.
Steven Spielberg's Foreword
There are a couple of things this book is not. It is not a full-scale biography or a disguised autobiography. It does, however, consist of excerpts from a number of interviews Richard Schickel has conducted with me over the years since we first met. In them, I have commented on the movies I’ve made in a career that began with some television shows I directed in 1969 at Universal.
I have been fortunate to have had commercial success and a certain amount of critical favor. I have made movies that I’ve been proud of; and those that turned out to be less than I meant them to be did not sidetrack me for long. More important – far more important – I have had an extraordinarily happy life. I have done the things I love best to do – directing movies (28 of them over the course of four decades) and, above all, have enjoyed the blessings of a loving family life.
Family is not a matter that greatly concerns this book. My conversations with Richard have centered around the films I have made (and some that for one reason or another, I decided not to make), and that’s as it should be, I think. Richard agrees that what someone of public prominence owes to his audience is an accounting of those activities – in my case movies – that he offers to them for their approval. They may, or may not, be interested in why certain choices were made over the course of my career, which is now starting to surprise me with its longevity. I am not ruling out the possibility of someday writing some sort of memoir about my life, but I don’t think that I’ll be doing that in the very near future. I love making movies, whether I’m directing them myself or producing the works of younger directors with pictures that interest me – and I think will interest a larger audience. I can honestly say that I am as enthusiastically committed to film today as I was all those years ago when I first began making my amateur pictures when I was in high school.
In fact, my commitment has probably grown, as my techniques and ambitions have inevitably expanded. I still like to make movies of the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park variety. They present more challenges to me as a director than may seem obvious to some people. They’re fun to make and, apparently, fun for audiences to see. But there’s no doubt in my mind that, from the time of The Color Purple, I’ve been increasingly drawn to darker material. As you grow older, you just naturally want to turn to stories that take up more serious subjects than, say, big sharks and even bigger dinosaurs.
This does not mean that I disown any of my films, even the ones I now realize that I might have done better. We can sometimes, maybe perversely, love our failures as much as we do our successes – if only because we can learn more from them than we do from our hits.
That, however, leaves out of the conversation the matter of luck, of which I have had a good share. It begins with the mentors I was fortunate to acquire very early in my career.  I cannot say enough about men like Sid Sheinberg, Lew Wasserman, and Richard Zanuck, who saw something in me that I didn’t fully see in myself. I was lucky, too, in that I did not have to undergo a long apprenticeship. I was making television shows at Universal when I was in my early twenties and I directed Duel, a made-for-TV film that was later released here and there as a feature, when I was 24. Four years later, when Jaws was bedeviled by all the difficult conditions that shooting on water imposes – not to mention a mechanical shark that refused to behave – it was Sid who stood by me when almost everyone else wanted to shut down the production, or, at the very least, fire the director. The first time Sid and I talked about my working at Universal he had said he would stand by me in good times and bad, and he was true to his words. The picture was finished – belatedly – and it was a success. I will always have ambivalent feelings about, because it was such hard and scary work. But there is no question in my mind that it was Sid’s grace under pressure that permitted me to continue my life as a director when the issue was very much in doubt.
So, yes, luck. And the instinct to avoid certain pitfalls and to embrace certain opportunities. And enough knowledge to realize acceptably most of the jobs I took on – understanding that disappointments are inevitable and not to be whine about.
I hope this book turns out to be part of my good luck. I have never, in the past, cooperated with books about me. But the author is a friend and occasional colleague, and we seem to talk easily and he makes no pretense of being definitive – and I respect his judgment. Within his narration he has simply recorded a number of my thoughts about the work I have been pursuing for so long. There are more, but I these are enough for the interested reader to get an idea of how I try to approach my work, and the pleasure I unfailingly derive from it. Although normal retirement age is around the corner, I want to go on working forever as, apart from anything else, directing movies is both my purest passion and my greatest pleasure.

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