Monday, July 7, 2014

On Firelight

Like all children of the 1950s, young Spielberg was captivated by the flying saucer craze and wished desperately to see one for himself. He didn't, but some of his friends did. While on a Boy Scout camping trip that Steven missed, his troopmates reported seeing a brilliant circle of red light rise up over the desert and fly off into the sky. When Steven learned that he had missed out on seeing a genuine UFO, he was devastated. He vented his frustration by writing a sixty-seven-page screenplay called Firelight - the story of three mysterious balls of light that descend on a small Arizona town and begin kidnapping the inhabitants. A team of scientist investigates the mystery and eventually discovers that the kidnappings are being perpetrated by members of an alien race called the Altarians, who transport the humans to their home planet and place them in a zoo. Typical for the era, the aliens are portrayed as menacing creatures who intend to have their way with the human race by brainwashing it into submission. 
To produce Firelight, Arnold and Steven founded a partnership capped American Artist productions, with both chipping in to cover the $600 dollar cost of filming. Steven once again recruited family members, friends, and classmates to work on the movie and to perform in it. Beginning in June 1963, Steven shot scenes in his home, in the homes of friends and neighbors, and in a variety of locations around Phoenix, including Camelback Mountain, Sky Harbor Airport (where Steven managed to persuade American Airlines to allow him to film on board one of its planes in between flights), and in a variety of locations around Phoenix, including Camelback Mountain, Sky Harbor Airport (where Steven managed to persuade American Airlines to allow him to film on board one of its planes in between flights), and in the Baptist Hospital (where he was given the use of an empty room and an oxygen tank). The production attracted a great deal of attention, and the Arizona Republic published two articles and a photo spread about the movie. Steven used a wide range of effects, from miniatures to stop-motion animation to some simple but effective opticals (e.g., the firelights were created by putting gels over lights and then superimposing them on the live-action footage) to bring his story to life.
Filming wrapped in December 1963, after which Spielberg began four months of post-production. He edited all of his footage into a 135-minute final cut, often (with his mother's permission) faking sick and staying home from school to do so. He created a sound effects track and then recorded the actors' dialogue over it. Finally, he composed a score on his clarinet, which he then got his high school band to play while he taped it. By March 1964, the film was finished. Through a family friend, Steven arranged to premiere Firelight at the Phoenix Little Theatre. An extensive publicity campaign was mounted, programs were prepared, and a spotlight was borrowed from a local merchant. Steven and the cast arrived at the theater in a limo. The screening sold out (grossing an estimated $800 for a net profit of approximately $200 - Steven Spielberg's first box office success). The film made a tremendous impact, earning cheers and applause from the enthusiastic audience.

By the time Firelight was finished, Steven knew that he had found his calling. He had become enthralled with the medium of film and the power it had to grab viewers and involve them in an immediate and visceral way. Moreover, he loved being the person who made that happen ("I love to grip an audience and watch them lean forward in theirs seats.... I like involving the audience on a level of total participation") and wanted to make doing so his life's work. "I knew after my third or fourth little 8mm epic that this was going to be a career, not just a hobby...."
An extract from Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film by Ray Morton (Applause, 2007) on Spielberg's first full-length feature, Firelight.

No comments: