Years Active: 1959-present
Alma Mater: Cal State University, Long Beach
Associated Movements: New Hollywood, Film Brats
Influences: David Lean, Frank Capra, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick
Ask anybody with a passing interest in movies who they think of when they hear the word “director”, and 9 times out of ten, you’ll get the same name: Steven Spielberg. The man is undoubtedly the most successful director of our time, perhaps of all time. He single-handedly invented the blockbuster with 1975’s JAWS, but he’s also responsible for some of the most viscerally powerful “serious” films ever made: SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998). He’s one of the biggest personalities in entertainment, recognized the world over with several entries in the top ten highest-grossing films of all time. His brand has bled over into new media like videogames and television and his influence can be felt in the ambition of every single up-and-coming director. Simply put, Steven Spielberg IS movies.
There’s a growing pool of cinema enthusiasts who are quick to discredit Spielberg as a studio hack or a peddler of maudlin entertainment. I’ve certainly been guilty of downplaying his accomplishments on occasion, which is a hard feeling for me to grapple with since much of his work has directly inspired me to pursue film as my life’s work. No matter your stance on the man, you have to respect his contribution to the art form, as it has indelibly shaped the very fabric of the entertainment industry.
The earliest film I can remember seeing was a Spielberg film. It was E.T: THE EXTRATERRESTIAL (1982). I could have only been three or four years old at the time, and I remember it well because it was during a tumultuous period in my brand-spanking-new life. My younger brother had just been born, and due to our growing family, my parents moved us out of the home in the working-class southeast Portland neighborhood in which I was born. As my architect father was designing and building the house that I would eventually spend the bulk of my childhood in, we lived in a small apartment out in the suburbs, with a large, vacant field serving as a backyard. One day my mother sat me down in front of our TV and popped in a VHS cassette of E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL while she prepared dinner. I don’t know why I connected with it at such an early age—perhaps the film’s suburban setting subconsciously connected with my own alienation that stemmed from my new, similarly-suburban surroundings. By the end of the film, I was a sobbing mess. Just soggy as all hell, blubbering as the credits rolled. My mother leaned out from the kitchen to ask what was wrong. I remember my reply very distinctly, delivered between wet gasps of air as my little frame shook: “It’s just SO SAD!!!”.
Most people don’t really begin to start forming concrete memories until about four or five. And indeed, this early period of my life I can only remember in brief snippets, like a hazy half-forgotten dream (oddly enough, I can still remember some very vivid dreams from that time). But there was something about this movie that just cut right to the core of my little heart, searing itself into my permanent memory before I could really begin to process what I was even watching. It’s a great illustration of cinema’s profound emotional power in the hands of a capable filmmaker. Like laughter or music, cinema is a global language in its own right, transcending borders and cultures and connecting us all to the greater human experience.
Spielberg is an aspirational figure for many wannabe filmmakers because he’s proof positive that anyone with talent and passion could go on to become the biggest filmmaker of all time. Many of these filmmakers, myself included, will find parallels between Spielberg’s development and their own—to a point. In fact, the parallels stop right around the internship phase, unless you too got signed to a television-directing contract after showing your short film to an executive at Universal. My point is that Spielberg didn’t have the luxury of connections to get him in the door. What got him there was the singular desire and drive to make movies.
Spielberg was born in 1946, in Cincinnati, OH to a concert pianist mother and electrical engineer father. He moved around a lot as a kid, spending good chunks of his childhood in New Jersey and Scottsdale, Arizona. The Spielbergs came from an Orthodox Jewish heritage, which Spielberg would grapple and explore with in his films later in life. As a child, he initially found himself embarrassed by, and at odds with, his family’s faith. As you can imagine, Orthodox Jews were probably rare in midcentury Arizona, so he was self-conscious about its strange perception to his WASP-y set of friends.
Despite his exotic heritage (to Arizonians, at least), Spielberg grew up like any other prototypical suburban American boy in the mid-twentieth century. He was quite active in the Boy Scouts, and as fate would have it, it was his stint in the Scouts that would lead to the making of his very first film. The twelve year-old Spielberg found himself with a photography merit badge to complete, but his father’s still camera was broken. Instead, he got permission to make a movie with his father’s working motion picture camera. He conceived and shot a short western, called THE LAST GUNFIGHT (1958). And just like that, Spielberg was bit by the bug. Hard.
I spent the majority of my childhood and teenage years making movies with my neighborhood friends, so it’s reassuring to see that Spielberg did the same thing when he was young. Even at such an early age, his aptitude for composition, pacing, and grandeur is immediately apparent. It’s interesting that the subject matter of his early amateur work deals with the same themes as his professional oeuvre. Amongst his movies in this time period, he shows a preoccupation with alien encounters and World War 2, no doubt inspired by the stories his father would tell him after returning from the war. He’d later realize a lot of these themes again on a professional level, such as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Looking at the whole of his filmography, one notes that a substantial percentage of his work takes place in the World War 2 era. It’s clear that the conflict and the resulting cultural shifts profoundly shaped him, giving him an appreciation for history and dramatic stakes.
His 1961 short, FIGHTER SQUAD, would be the first time Spielberg ever tackled the subject of World War 2. Even in his teen years, Spielberg accomplished big production values with inspired resourcefulness. In filming a story about WW2 fighter pilots, he used his father’s access to military equipment to achieve an unbelievable degree of authenticity. He even went so far as to shoot in the cockpits of grounded fighter planes, which he shot using 8mm black-and-white film seamlessly intercut with stock footage of aerial dogfights. I did something similar in one of my own early shorts, whereby I cut in the climactic explosion shot from Terence Young’s DR. NO (1962) when I needed a big explosion to happen in my story. There’s a tactile joy and magic to editing when you first discover it, and the purity of youth makes for some charming resourcefulness. It was this very resourcefulness that would propel Spielberg to unparalleled heights throughout his career.
Also in 1961, Spielberg filmed the short ESCAPE TO NOWHERE, inspired by a World War 2 battle that occurred in East Africa. Spielberg shot it on 8mm color film with his friends and siblings in the dusty Arizona chaparral that was his neighborhood’s backyard. Originally running 40 minutes long, there’s only a 2 & ½ minute excerpt that exists for public eyes. The excerpt depicts a heated battle, with no real coherent sense of geography or who’s who. Due to the limitations of childhood, Spielberg’s actors are all dressed the same—army pants and helmets, and white t-shirts—and probably all are using the same handful of rifles. Young boys frequently play war in their backyards, filling in the majority of the battle with their imaginations. ESCAPE TO NOWHERE is just like playing war as a kid, only fully realized. There’s a palpable homemade, amateur element to the film, understandably due to Spielberg’s resources at the time, but he makes up for it in sheer zeal and energy.
However, even at age 13, it’s striking to see his craftiness with homegrown special effects (stomping on shovels to kick up dust in simulated landmine explosions) and his imaginative approach to composition and camera movements—one handheld tracking shot is clearly intended to emulate a dolly, etc. It’s unclear whether the soundtrack on the excerpt—Wagner’s “Ride of The Valkyries” laid on top of a booming sound effects mix—accompanied the original film or was the work of whoever uploaded it to Youtube. If it’s original, it shows Spielberg’s innate sense of spectacle and understanding of sound’s crucial role in film. It also predates his filmmaking contemporary Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous use of it in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) by nearly twenty years. Regardless, ESCAPE TO NOWHERE is a captivating and chaotic look at Spielberg’s fascination with World War 2 and how it shaped his approach to one of his finest films, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
Spielberg’s success as a filmmaker can’t be attributed to talent alone. He’s also proved himself as a cunning businessman and studio head. The long, (somewhat) healthy life of his own Dreamworks Studios is a testament to his grasp on the business side of filmmaking. The origins of this aspect of his career can be traced back to his very first amateur feature film: 1964’s FIRELIGHT. In shooting a story about alien UFO’s terrorizing a small town (a forerunner to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), the 18-year old Spielberg set about making his first serious-minded film. By this point, he knew that filmmaking was what he wanted to pursue as his career, and he was eager to get started on it. Shooting again with friends and family in Arizona, Spielberg put in $600 of his own money, emerging with a 150 minute long 8mm sci-fi epic. FIRELIGHT became his first work viewed by a paying audience when he booked a screening at the Phoenix Little Theatre and charged 75 cents a seat. The budding entrepreneur turned a profit of only one dollar, but the fact remains that he had nonetheless turned a profit. It was a formative night in what would become an exceptional career.
Unfortunately, only a few minutes of FIRELIGHT are available for public view, and they seem to be random excerpts taken throughout the film. Again, however, these excerpts show a young Spielberg already in control of his craft, with his now-signature style beginning to find its footing. The excerpts depict a dark film, with high-key lighting giving an unworldly glow to the proceedings. A variety of suburban, Americana character archetypes—the high school couple on a date in dad’s pickup truck, the young child playing in the yard, etc.—look up in awe as a red flare of light (standing in for the UFO) slowly jerks across the screen. The sound design reflects the grand cinematic ambitions Spielberg has for the story, even if his limited visual resources can’t quite pull it off. It’s a curious prelude to his further exploration of alien life forms in films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005).
During this early amateur period, Spielberg made another short, the unfinished SLIPSTREAM (1967). Like THE LAST GUNFIGHT before it, it is unavailable for public viewing so I can’t consider it in the context of Spielberg’s development. It’s unclear to why the film was unfinished, but it probably owes to the fact that the young Spielberg was embarking on college, and the significant life changes it brought likely derailed the project.
While Spielberg’s amateur work is scarce, the scraps available to us give intimate insight into the mind of an auteur who would go on to help make cinema what it is today. By starting out in childhood, Spielberg got a head start over his contemporaries. He had already been making movies for ten years by the time he received attention for his 1968 short AMBLIN’. Thusly, when Hollywood came knocking, Spielberg was ready.