Steven Spielberg | Close Encounters
E.T.: Come…Elliot: [solemnly] Stay…E.T.: [puts his finger to his glowing heart] Ouch.Elliot: [mimics the same action, tearfully] Ouch.E.T.: [E.T. and Elliot embrace each other, then E.T. puts his glowing finger to Elliot’s forehead] I’ll… be… right… here.
Elliot: [tearfully] … bye.
I have been told that June 11 is the 35th anniversary of the release of E.T. I have been waiting for E.T. for quite some time. To phone home. My daughter is not Elliot, but she is as close as it can get. E.T. could have made another friend.
It’s the early ‘50s. A father dabbles incompetently with his camera… His son sits crying in the corner. The boy has just watched Disney’s Dumbo on the tube… Yet, he continues to watch… He sees the Night on the Bare Mountain sequence from Disney’s Fantasia. At night, he would shiver under the blankets trying to free himself from the monsters of his own imagination. They were everywhere, under the closet, between the quilts…everywhere. His relationship with them was eerie, they crept out of discreet creaks in the walls and spoke to him. He would freeze at the sight of trees, the clouds, the dark. He liked being scared. He found it stimulating. What can you say about a boy who considered his actual date of birth less significant than his birth year, 1947, when the phrase “flying saucer” first came into existence? A boy for whom science fiction was fact, and its depiction, a reality. A boy for whom life wasn’t a duel – it was a film…
He was a boy who never grew up. A man, who had never been robbed. A man, who had never seen a fight, or ever fought. A man, who had never seen a corpse. A man, who had never eaten Italian food, until he came to New York… A man who jumped off a Universal Studios tour bus on a whim, and ended up going down in history.
The back lots of Universal were not only vital inspiration for a guy in the throes of a dream, they also became his first abode, when he stumbled upon a decrepit janitor’s closet, and set up shop in its premises. The guy who had never made it to film school, and studied English instead, was perched on the precipice of his fantasies.
The world of “35 millimeter” for Steven Spielberg began with the unglamorous “8 mm”. His first recorded film depicted a three-and-a-half minute stagecoach robbery, and was shot on a shoestring sum of ten dollars. He was only 12. The possibilities were endless. He chose to exercise them. One year later, he made a 40 minute offering entitled “Escape to Nowhere,” and at 16, ventured into territory most comfortable to him, filming a 140 minute epic on UFOs. The film was obviously destined to make cinematic history years later, as Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Meanwhile, Spielberg found himself thrown off the sets of Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, and rusting in his makeshift studio, until his first big break came when Denis Hoffman gave him the opportunity to make a 20 minute short film. The project, titled Amblin’, attracted attention at the Atlanta Film Festival, and went on to give its name to Spielberg’s entertainment company.
“Before I go off and direct a movie, I always look at 4 films. They tend to be: Seven Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia, It’s A Wonderful Life, and The Searchers.”
Spielberg’s cinematic success was not only due to his pictorial perception and intensive analytical ability, but also due to his sheer drive. For instance, during the filming of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery starring Joan Crawford, the neglected Spielberg asked writer friends Barry Levinson and William Link to keep him company on the sets. Levinson talks of Spielberg’s rendition of their script, Murder By The Book, “Our script was awful, but Steve’s work was dazzling, electrifying. He took all sorts of chances. He’d do a five page scene in one take, choreographing the people and the camera.”
It was only a natural succession to filming episodes for productions like “The Psychiatrist”, and “The Young Sherlock Holmes.” The 1971 feature film, Duel, based on a Richard Matheson story, was filmed in a hurricane period of 16 days. His next film, Something Evil, provoked cult appreciation when it was released in America in 1972. The New Yorker called it “one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies.”
In 1974 came the Goldie Hawn starrer, The Sugarland Express, based on a real-life incident that occurred in Texas in 1969. By now, Spielberg had firmly planted his roots in direction, and the character of his earlier Duel and Something Evil were evident in the film. Scriptwriters Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood would later be immortalized as the two missing spacemen at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Unfortunately, the film turned out to be unsuccessful, and this was put down to bad ad campaigning. Producer Richard D. Zanuck said, “We couldn’t get any one visual idea that would express what the picture was.”
In the wake of Sugarland’s failure began the preparations for what was destined to become one of the biggest box office grossers of all time. The filming of Jaws, co-written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, began on the day that Spielberg was informed that The Sugarland Express was a disaster. Consequently, he had second thoughts about doing the film, as the shark-and-human-menace scene was similar to the truck driver scene in Duel. He almost didn’t make Jaws, because he was worried about being called a “shark-and-truck driver.” Taking the plunge despite these doubts, Spielberg set about the 52 day filming operation, that eventually ended up taking triple the time. The mechanical model of the shark, nicknamed Bruce, was a 24 foot long polyurethane structure weighing a ton and a half. This only added to the problems, sinking on its first introduction to water, and exploding at the next. It was also found to be significantly cross-eyed. The film portrayed the terror of the residents of a small town called Amity, and smashed the box office clean.
In fact, Spielberg was so confident that he would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Jaws, that he invited a camera crew to film his reaction to the nominations, “Jaws is about to be nominated in 11 categories, you’re about to see a sweep of the nominations, we’re very confident.”
When proved wrong, however, he said, “Oh, I didn’t get it! I wasn’t nominated! I got beat out by Fellini. For my record, I am outraged that I wasn’t nominated for Best Director for Jaws. This is commercial backlash. When a film makes a lot of money, people resent it. Everybody loves a winner. But nobody loves a WINNER.”
The 1977 film Close Encounters of The Third Kind was destined to be a hit from the word go. With financial backing from Columbia, along with Spielberg’s own state of monetary well-being, the Paul Schrader-scripted original was slashed in the last forty minutes by Spielberg, into a storyboard that he referred to as “all phantasmagoria.” The majority of the filming was done at a deserted aircraft hangar in Mobile, Alabama in great secrecy. In the role of Roy Neary was actor Richard Dreyfuss, whose ability Spielberg was familiar with from the earlier Jaws. The film also has the bizarre claim-to-fame of casting noted French director Francois Truffaut as the scientist Lacombe. Spielberg says, “I wanted a man-child, ingenuous and wise, a father figure with this very wide-eyed young outlook on life. I didn’t want the stoic with the white hair and pipe.” For the role of the UFOs were cast 50 six-year old girls. Speaking about the tone of the movie, Spielberg said, “The movie is very gentle. I wanted it to feel like an embrace.”
Spielberg’s next big venture never attained the popularity or credit it deserved. The film, 1941, written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, was inspired by three real life historical events, namely, the sighting of a Japanese submarine off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1942, the following “Great Los Angeles Air Raid”, and the 1943 fights between sailors and unlisted civilians. It was originally intended to be directed by John Milius, but when he went on to land the direction deal of Big Wednesday, Spielberg assumed the role of director. For Spielberg, it was an opportunity to work with Toshiro Mifune, who played Commander Mitamura. Spielberg was acquainted with Mifune’s roles in the classic Akira Kurosawa Samurai films. George Lucas had this to say about the failure of the $26.5 million production, “Steve’s direction was brilliant. The idea was terrible.” In Spielberg’s words, “The film does cater to the lowest moral character in all of us, without licking the sewer. It’s just a tongue’s reach away from good sewer humor, but falls short of classic comedy.”
Big ideas always start with small dreams. Raiders Of The Lost Ark was a living manifesto to the statement, as its conception began when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were on vacation in Maui in 1977, making a sandcastle. While Spielberg preferred to shoot a James Bond style movie, George Lucas opted to pay a tribute to Saturday matinee serials. The two concepts merged, ultimately resulting in the creation of Indiana Jones, a character named after Lucas’ wife’s pet dog. The Indiana Jones was played by Harrison Ford, after Tom Selleck declined the role, landing the former one of the biggest roles of his lifetime. The film borrowed scenes from other movies to prevent budget over-runs. For instance, the shots from inside the submarine were taken from Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. Also, footage from the 1972 film Lost Horizon was used for the shot of the plane flying over the Himalayas. In addition to the scores of miniatures created for the film, Spielberg used 4,500 snakes to create the burial ground of the Ark of the Covenant. Raiders was created by combining the aforementioned legend of the lost Ark of the Covenant with Adolf Hitler’s passion for the occult.
“If a person can tell me the idea in about 25 words or less, it’s going to make a pretty good movie. I like ideas, especially movie ideas, that you can hold in your hand.”
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, released in 1984, was a sort of prequel to Raiders, with its ad campaign reading, “The Hero Is Back”. Yet, it never achieved the same level of success.
The 1982 classic E.T. was inspired by a project called “After School”, which was an experiment on what kids between 8 and 14 years of age did after school hours. Another project, an idea for a science fiction movie, titled Night Skies, was combined with the first, and soon, a guy called Carlo Rambaldi was entrusted with the goal of creating “ET”, which was supposed to be an alien human hybrid character. The character was supposedly got by morphing the facial characteristics of Carl Sandburg, Albert Einstein, and Ernest Hemingway. The film, as with all of Spielberg’s feature films, boasted a John Williams soundtrack.
Spielberg referred to this prized project as “a song of joy from a peerless popular artist who can sing it as though he believes every note. Only a heart of stone could not find it irresistible.”
The year 1985 afforded Spielberg the opportunity of producing the film The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, composed of a set of letters spanning thirty years. When Spielberg approached Walker, her advice was that “the final cast must seem like they have stepped straight from the book.” For a director totally unfamiliar with the customs of a Negro Community in the South, it was another case of touch-and-go. Music producer Quincy Jones was the one who finally convinced Spielberg to make it, after Spielberg declared that a black person should direct the film, by replying “You didn’t have to come from Mars to do E.T., did you?” The film is famous in more ways than one, for it marked the cinematic debut of Oprah Winfrey. It also racked up its fair share of controversy, being criticized as racist for depicting African men as savage. Subsequently, when 3 of the nominated actresses for Best Actress lost out, the Academy was accused of racial discrimination against the film by the National Association of Colored People. Incidentally, the film’s 11 Oscar nominations did not include one for Best Director.
Spielberg’s visionary creative force is only substantiated further, in each of his subsequent films. For the Jewish lad whose rudimentary influences were the likes of Bambi and Dumbo, it has been a long journey.
For Spielberg, the vision lives on.
All else is a far encounter.
“I dream for a living.” – Steven Spielberg