Steven Spielberg – The Sunday Times

Power is not a sports car, or a thousand dollar suit, or a first-class plane ticket. It’s not a supermodel on your arm, or a 1996 Dom Perignon in your fridge. That’s just money. No, power is walking into a London hotel room at the age of 64, as Steven Spielberg has just done, wearing the most extraordinary pair of silver high-top trainers – shoes a man half his age would consider inappropriate – because, when you’ve made Schindler’s List, Jaws and Saving Private Ryan, who’s going to tell you your trainers look ridiculous?

Power is making, and keeping, a promise to your wife – as Spielberg did in 1994 when he established Dreamworks – that, every day you work in Los Angeles you will be home for dinner with your children. Because, when you run Hollywood, who’s going to mess with your schedule? And to be powerful is to sit, weeping in the stalls of the New London Theatre, as Spielberg did when he saw the National Theatre’s production of War Horse in 2010, and to decide – then and there – that you will make the movie. It’s the ability to set hundreds of millions of dollars in motion in response to an impulse, the facility to turn a moment of personal vulnerability into a blockbuster.

As Spielberg tells me in his gabbled mid-American: “I never know what’s going to come down the pike in terms of a story or idea that seizes me in the middle or the night, or when I’m driving to work, or when I’m playing with my kids. But that’s the magic of being in a business where you can pull an idea out of the clear blue sky and two years later it’s showing in dark movie theatres on 25,000 screens across the world. It never gets stale.”

That’s the magic of the business if you’re Spielberg. He can pull an idea out of the clear blue sky, and make it a movie. Few others in the industry have this luxury. I don’t think he’s bragging – real power means not having to show it – but Spielberg’s perspective on movies only emphasises what an extraordinary career he has had. In 2011, with two Oscars and three billion dollars of personal wealth behind him, Hollywood remains for him the ultimate train set.

Perhaps that’s why, when we meet, Spielberg seems – if not humble, exactly – affable and folksy. In his autumn years, the beard may now be greying and the lines around his throat deeply cut, but he exudes the nervous energy (and footwear choice) of a teenager.

The film Spielberg is in London to promote, War Horse, is an adaptation of a much-beloved play – performed to hundreds of full houses in London and New York – that uses spookily life-like puppets to portray the animals. The play was itself adapted from a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, which tells the story of a teenager in rural Devon whose horse is sold into the cavalry to fight in the trenches of the First World War, and the boy’s attempt to save him.

Spielberg’s take on War Horse is pure, exquisitely executed schmaltz. Despite several moments of breathtaking film-making – including a memorable shot of horses riding through high fields of wheat – there is also an anaesthetic quality to the movie. We rarely see anything truly shocking from the most shocking conflict of all. The Great War has been tidied up for pony-loving tweens. The English countryside, meanwhile, is rendered as pretty as a chocolate box.

No doubt, however, Spielberg knows how to push his audience’s buttons. By the end of War Horse I felt as manipulated as one of the National’s puppets. But why, I wondered, had Spielberg chosen this project? One of the things that audiences in America and London love about the play is the technical wizardry of the production. In the film, you risk losing that sense of wonder.

“How [the National Theatre] told the story was just a wonderful piece of theatrical magic,” says Spielberg. “But that would not have made me want to make the movie. The heart of the movie and the heart of the play was not so much how they manipulated the puppets, but the fact that this boy lost a horse that was the most important thing in his entire life, and went looking for it in the middle of a war. And that’s what I responded to.”

War Horse cost around $90 million, and was shot last year in a number of bucolic British locations, including rural Devon, where Morpurgo conceived and wrote the book two decades ago. During his time here, the director fell in love not only with the landscape, but with our odd English ways. Spielberg liked that the crew called him “Guv”. He and his kids also became “sappy devotees” of the X-Factor.

Spielberg has long held a soft spot for Britain. In 1981, for instance, while filming Raiders of the Lost Ark in Tunisia, he kept illness at bay by having Sainsbury’s food shipped over from London. Meanwhile, it was during another emotional night in the West End that he discovered Sam Mendes in 1997.

“When I was making Saving Private Ryan, on my one day off I went to the National Theatre and I saw Oliver! which is one of my favourite shows,” says Spielberg. “I had no idea who directed it but I couldn’t believe how much it looked like a movie. The way it was staged, the way it was lit. And then, when I saw The Blue Room at the Donmar Warehouse [also directed by Mendes] that’s when I was convinced that this guy was a movie director and perhaps he didn’t even know that yet.”

Spielberg’s instinct proved sharp. He sent Mendes the script for a film Dreamworks was developing called American Beauty. The resulting movie landed the studio its first Best Picture Oscar, as well as an armful of other awards. It also seems to have cemented Spielberg’s love both for musicals, and for British theatre. Indeed, he tells me his two big remaining ambitions are to direct a new screen musical – although he has yet find a script and a score up to his standards – and to direct a stage play. Where?

“West End, Sam Mendes’ theatre, why not?” he says. When Spielberg talks about “Sam Mendes’ theatre” he means The Donmar Warehouse – even though the Donmar hasn’t been Sam’s since Michael Grandage became Artistic Director in 2002. Nevertheless, I’m sure the tiny Covent Garden space could sell a few seats for a Spielberg production.

Spielberg’s set for War Horse was, as all his sets are, guarded closely. One always hopes, with big budget movies, that the maestro will go a little Francis Ford Coppola, and stories of tantrums and walk-outs will leak. No such luck. The cast of mainly British actors who took the lead roles – Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis, Emily Watson et al – have either been silent, or have had only sweet things to say about their director. Michael Morpurgo, meanwhile, remembers Spielberg, turning to him during one particularly successful scene and saying, of his actors, that it was like “working with Ferraris.”

Even if there had been outrageous set gossip, it’s unlikely we would have heard it. As Steven Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, once noted, “his reach is so great and his power so boundless that, when people in Hollywood talk about [Spielberg], it sounds as if they are talking about God, with one difference: people are not afraid to bad-mouth God.”

The question remains: why War Horse, why now? Spielberg’s career has embraced a kaleidoscope of material – from Saving Private Ryan to The Goonies. What was it about this story that so affected him? He can’t quite say.

“Sometimes,” he says, “themes that are familiar to my life reach out and grab my attention and pull me to them. With War Horse I wasn’t looking to make a movie about the First World War or about horses. It’s just that when I went to see the play I was overcome with emotion.”

Later in the interview, however, he gives a more revealing answer: “everything goes back to my childhood.”

Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1946 into a Jewish family. His mother, Leah, was a pianist, and his father, Arnold, an electrical engineer. It has often been reported – in fact, it has become a central plank of the Spielberg creation story – that in a peripatetic childhood that took the family to New Jersey and Arizona, the nerdy kid had a difficult relationship with his father. Arnold eventually divorced Leah when Steven was 18 years old, but cracks had appeared long before. Spielberg has said that he and his three sisters could cut the tension in his parents’ marriage “with a fork and spoon at dinner.”

This, then, is the narrative of the greatest career in Hollywood: Spielberg was unhappy, and, because he was unhappy, he sought solace in illusion. He directed his first short film when he was 12 years old for the Boy Scouts – an 8mm movie entitled The Last Gun. He hasn’t stopped since. Talking to The New Yorker in 1994, Spielberg recalled that when he made that first film, “the Boy Scouts cheered and applauded and laughed at what I did, and I really wanted to do that, to please again.” But movies were not just his gift; they were his defence. After the triumph of The Last Gun, Spielberg won over a school bully by casting him in one of his films.

It’s also no co-incidence that, given the way in which Spielberg views his own childhood, that so many of his films mine narratives which contain lost or traumatic upbringings: The Goonies, ET, Hook, to name three obvious examples. War Horse, clearly, is another. Moreover, the director says that some of his most successful work has emerged directly from specific instances in his early life – for instance, Saving Private Ryan.

“I knew survivors growing up,” he says. “My father served in Burma, based out of Karachi. He had reunions [with his squadron] every year so I was always brushing shoulders with veterans. Always listening. Sitting at their knees listening to them tell stories. Some of them talking about flying; others talking about friends they lost; others talking about their hands shaking before every mission. And that just made me, I guess, go and see a lot of war movies. I think I saw every war movie that was ever made, growing up as a kid. And so when the script for Saving Private Ryan came along I didn’t even think.”

While Spielberg is capable of these snap decisions, he has also been known to drag his feet. So it was with Schindler’s List – his beautiful, harrowing Holocaust movie. Spielberg has talked often of his complicated attitude towards faith, and his cultural heritage. As a boy, he remembers being too embarrassed by his orthodox Jewish grandfather to invite his gentile friends home after school – something that caused him considerable shame when he became an adult. When Thomas Keneally’s book, Schindler’s Ark, came along, Spielberg knew he wanted to make the movie, even if he couldn’t say why.

“I was terrified about making that movie,” he says. “I was terrified about bringing any sense of shame to a survivor community that was already living with very mixed emotions, especially the guilt of ‘why did I survive?’ I grew up knowing survivors because my grandmother, back when I was a little boy in Cincinnati, taught English to Hungarian Holocaust survivors. They all came to our house, all speaking Hungarian and all of them had numbers on their arms.”

It’s easy to forget, in the wake of the film’s success, how much of a risk Schindler’s List represented for Spielberg. There was no need for him to make that film. At the time, Spielberg was best known as the maestro of the multiplex – the presiding genius behind ET and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was doing just fine.

The material in Schindler’s List, meanwhile, had the power to be incendiary. Of all the stories from that dark period, why should Spielberg focus on a good Nazi? The answer, he says, is that the tale of a flawed German businessman who saved hundreds of Jews from extermination had crept under his skin. The book was released in 1982. Schindler’s List was released in 1993. Why the delay?

“I wasn’t ready, emotionally.” Was he worried that he might be accused of re-engineering the horror of the Holocaust as entertainment? At this, he prickles. “Entertainment is a loosey-goosey word,” he says. “It is widely interpretive.”

I rephrase. Was he concerned that the Holocaust was a proper subject for Hollywood?

“I didn’t see this as a Hollywood drama,” he says. “I saw this as a Jewish-Polish drama. Once we got to Poland to confirm the facts that Thomas Keneally had already done in his journey to write the book, I immediately threw all the toys that I usually bring to movies as a way to enhance the story out the window. I decided to tell the story as simply and as close to the truth as I possibly could, without any of the slick Hollywood technological tools that are available to all of us… And I didn’t expect the movie to make its budget back.”

Schindler’s List did more than recoup its budget. Not only did the film gross 321 million dollars worldwide – much of which Spielberg funnelled back into Jewish and Holocaust-awareness charities – but it became a touchstone for global discussion of the worst crime of the 20th Century. What is perhaps less well-known about Spielberg’s work on the movie is that – during a four month shoot in Krakow, in Poland – he was also working on Jurassic Park. He would shoot nightmarish scenes from Schindler’s List during the day, and then touch-up animated sequences of dinosaurs at night. How was that psychologically possible?

“Well, I wouldn’t have normally wanted to do that,” he says. “But I had put Schindler’s List off for a number of years, and I was suddenly seized with a real sense that I needed to make the picture. And I was working on Jurassic Park already. It was very difficult emotionally for me, as when I came back from filming [Schindler’s List], I just wanted to be with my family. I didn’t want to be with a T-Rex. But I felt like it was a small price to pay.”

Nevertheless, the episode tells you something about Spielberg. Few other directors would, or could, have done what Spielberg did with Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park – but perhaps that is where his real genius lies. He is, and has always been, able to compartmentalise. Not only is he an executive at Dreamworks, the studio he co-founded in 1994, but, at any one time, he is working on dozens of projects, either as a director, or as a producer, or as a consultant. He makes movies, video-games, rollercoaster rides, and television. Despite all this, he always makes it home to his wife and seven children in the Pacific Palisades by 6pm.

Indeed, Spielberg’s adherence to the home-by-six rule is so legendary that a fellow Hollywood director told me, on condition I do not name him, about another of the great man’s rules: that once he is at home, no one should deliver bad news to him until the morning. Spielberg laughs when I ask him about the no-bad-news-after-six rule, but says it’s nonsense.

“The only rule I have is that I am physically on the premises of my house between 6 and 6.30pm, so I can have dinner with my family” he says. “That’s true. It doesn’t work when I’m physically directing a movie but it works when I’m going to the office as a company executive and as a producer.”

Whatever the truth of the no-bad-news rule (and my Hollywood Deep Throat insists on its veracity) it’s a measure of Spielberg’s status within the industry that there is a rumour mill around the humdrum of his domestic routine.

The senior deity in Hollywood is sensitive to his elevated position, hence the other, widely-circulated nugget about Spielberg: he never leaves a play or a screening part-way through. The reason behind this rule, I hear, is that – should he leave early – the psychic blow to the performers would be so concussive as to render them motionless after his exit. In a play, one can just about see why that might happen. But in a film screening? Who’s going to know?

In any event, Spielberg does not deny the story.

“It’s rude to leave a play and it’s rude to leave a movie,” he says. “I think you have to suffer through the worst of a movie, even something you’re disappointed in. I’m always thinking if something isn’t very good, I’ll stay to the end in case it gets better. I keep looking for that ray of hope when I’m disappointed by a picture or a show. It’s just plain rude to get up and walk out of something that someone has laboured over. Clearly, someone was passionate enough to make it.”

This is, I suggest, a wilfully naïve view of Hollywood. Has he looked at the multiplex lately? You don’t see many passion projects. Indeed, Ron Meyer, the President of Universal Pictures, recently made headlines by saying that his company’s “first obligation is to make money and then worry about being proud of what you do.” He added that his company makes “a lot of shitty movies.”

Doesn’t Spielberg ever feel ripped off?


Not even in Sex and the City 2?

“No. I feel more ripped off when I buy an app for one dollar 99, and it’s no good… Theatrically, I probably see more than 100 movies a year. I certainly get inspirational jolts by seeing as many movies as I do every year. I even get inspired by movies that aren’t very good. Because there’s always something good in movies that are collectively thought of as a failure. There’s good in everything, I find.”

A little later, however, Spielberg is rather less diplomatic about the Hollywood machine (a machine that, revealingly, he discusses as if he were excluded from its inner workings). He says that the prevalence of franchises – movies based on toys, or video games, that are designed as much to shift product as to delight and entertain – is a pernicious trend in his industry.

“I think producers are more interested in backing concepts than directors and writers,” he says. “I don’t think that’s the right way of making a decision about whether you’re going to back a film or not but a lot of these hedge funds – these independent groups that are coming up with the money – are looking at the big idea more than who the director or writer is. And of course they all want the guarantee of a big actor. My whole career has survived without big movie stars. Yes, I’ll do movies with Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks and I enjoy that. But most of my movies have had unknowns in them. And they’ve done pretty well.”

It is, perhaps, a measure of how Spielberg views the current state of Hollywood that his pre-production ritual on any new project is to watch four classic movies: The Seven Samurai, The Searchers, Lawrence of Arabia, and It’s a Wonderful Life. None of these films, you will note, were made in the last 40 years. Has there been nothing made since this golden age that inspires him?

“I guess the first Godfather,” he says. “There’s not a lot of films I’d watch that are made over the last 20 years because I’m much more of a romantic. I like to go way back to the source. I look at a lot of silent movies for inspiration because they’re all told visually and they’re all told with hyper-extended performance and with wonderful use of a frame. It’s just a way of getting my engine started.”

Spielberg’s engine shows no sign of breaking down. By my count he has six films in production – either as a director or a producer – and a further 24 films in development. This seems like an extraordinary workload. When’s he going to stop?

“I want to direct as long as I can,” he says. “Clint Eastwood is 81. He’s the best he’s ever been as a director. He made Gran Torino, a great movie, when he was 77. He was a baby.”

At this, Spielberg laughs rather sweetly. Our time’s up. Before I leave, he asks a string of questions about me, and my work. This apparent inquisitiveness could be a ploy, I think, to generate good press. But it doesn’t feel like that. You can’t direct films for 50 years without genuine curiosity for the world around you. And, when I tell him about a trip to Burma I have recently taken, this man of untrammelled power lights up like a kid on Christmas morning.

“Now that,” he says. “That could be a movie.”