TCA 2017: HBO gives first look at ‘Spielberg’ documentary

Over the last 50 years, Steven Spielberg has brought us many of the most popular films of the age. From Jaws to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List to the E.T., he is an expert at making us afraid, and making us think. He’s also notoriously reluctant to speak about his work, because he fears ruining the “magic” of film-making. With over 60 directorial credits on his resume, Steven Spielberg has never done an audio commentary.

But now, in his 70th year, Spielberg has given 30 hours worth of interviews to famed documentarian Susan Lacy (who worked for years on the American Masters series that aired nationwide in the United States on PBS). Lacy has taken those 30 hours, along with interviews with some of Spielberg’s former collaborators and industry insiders (J.J. Abrams, Christian Bale, Francis Ford Coppola, and Tom Hanks among them), and turned them into a full length documentary to air on HBO on Saturday, 7th October.

According to Lacy, Spielberg was surprisingly candid. After initially having only scheduled four two-hour sessions with the Director, Lacy ended up instead doing seventeen interviews over the span of a year. “I’m a very in depth interviewer,” says Lacy, “We were still deeply in childhood after two hours, and he said, ‘Boy, this was fun. When are we doing it again?”

She adds that the joy of interviewing Spielberg was witnessing the absolute joy he takes in his craft. “He would be enthusiastic like a kid talking about it because it was fun for him to remember it and he loves making movies.” She emphasizes, “If there’s a filmmaker that loves making movies, it’s Steven.”

“I have read, you know, ‘He knows the camera, and he’s editing while he’s shooting.’ But until you actually see it and hear him talk about it, and you are able to take his story, and show it, and illustrate it, it’s really hard to understand that.  But I was saying earlier today in an interview that every actor I interviewed, and I interviewed everybody from Daniel Day-Lewis, to Jude Law, to [Leonardo] DiCaprio. I mean everybody. Matt Damon. That’s what they were most impressed with, how much he understands of the process of film-making, and how he sees ahead when he’s shooting. He knows exactly how he’s editing that, and that’s extraordinary. And I think there are very few filmmakers that have that skill, and it impressed everyone.”

Much of the documentary deals with the road that took Spielberg from his childhood in Phoenix, Arizona, to becoming one of the greatest film-makers of all time. Lacy thinks its the fact that he has held onto much of that childlike joy in the process that defines Spielberg and his films.

“I think he is a populist, and I think he is an artist. And I think his early movies drew on what he knew. He was a kid of the suburbs.  He was a child of divorce. He grew up in Phoenix.  They did not have an art house film, you know, down the street. He watched television, and read comic books, and he lived in suburbs. So he drew on that. I think Steven is actually an incredibly personal filmmaker, and he’s not thought of as a personal filmmaker. But if you look at his work, I think you see that. And then as he grew older and he had children — you know, for the most commercially successful filmmaker in history, the box office has never been what’s driven him.  I think what’s driven him is what interests him and where he is at that point in his life and what he thinks is important to say. That’s changed. That’s matured. That’s grown up as he’s grown up. But that young boy who said, ‘This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I’m going to die trying,’ who loved the mystery movies, who loves movies, loves movie makers, I think that kid is still in him.”

While the two did talk about Spielberg’s contemporaries, men like Coppola and Scorcese who he counts as both friends and of whom he describes himself as a fan, the majority of their time on other filmmakers was spent on those who influenced him when growing up. “We did talk a lot about the directors from the ’40s, which were really — that’s the director he wanted to be. He actually said, ‘I really wanted to be one of those workhorse directors from the ’40s, who had a team of people that they knew what they were doing. They knew what you wanted.’  You were not judged by changing genres. You could do a romance. You could do a Western. You could do a war movie. You could do a film. And he admired Howard Hawks.  He admired John Ford. And, in fact, I had a whole section in the film at one point about that and how he created in a sense the same — they had a studio that provided that whole infrastructure to make movies so you could make one and then make another, make another, make another. He created that for himself without a studio, and that’s what has enabled him to make so many films. But it was fun to talk about that and to compare Lovely [ph] and Wyler, and he references them in his films, I mean, in the same way that Pinocchio and Peter Pan show up in lots of movies in subtle little ways. The work of the filmmakers he admired from that era show up too.”

As for the best lesson Lacy thinks an aspiring artist could learn from Steven Spielberg? “He was 21 years old when he made Duel for the network, and they wanted him to blow up the truck at the end. They wanted a big explosion. And he said, ‘I won’t blow up the truck.’ He was 21 years old.  He was 23 when he did Jaws, and he knew it wasn’t going to work unless he shot on the ocean, which created its own round of problems, but he stuck to it. I would say having a vision and sticking to it, not letting anybody get in the way of it would probably be the best lesson you could learn from Steven Spielberg. The decision to make Schindler’s List, a three-and-a-half-hour, black-and-white move about the Holocaust, that didn’t come out of any kind of, you know, focus group. That was a belief, something he needed to do, and he knew how to do it, and he stuck with that. There was no guarantee. It could have been a huge flop.”

Spielberg airs on HBO on Saturday, 7th October.