Trevor Hogg profiles the career of legendary Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg in the first of a five part feature...
“My childhood was bad and it was good. It was chaotic; it was noisy; it was real loud. I have a big family, with three younger sisters,” stated American filmmaker Steven Spielberg whose reserved father, Arnold, was an electrical engineer for General Electric and his doting mother, Leah, a former concert pianist. “My dad was of that World War II ethic. He brought home the bacon, and my mother cooked it, and we ate it. I went to my dad for things, but he was always analytical. I was more passionate in my approach to any question, and so we always clashed.” Leaving behind his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, the young boy found himself and his family being transplanted to New Jersey and then to Arizona. Certain rules had to be followed in the Spielberg household. “My parents rationed television and motion pictures. I could only see films in their presence and usually pictures that appealed more to them, which today you would call of the General Audience nature, like Danny Kaye [White Christmas] pictures, musicals like The Court Jester  and Funny Face  with Audrey Hepburn [Roman Holiday], and Disney films.”
The desire to become a filmmaker came out of necessity for the legendary Hollywood director. “It developed because my father would take a lot of home movies on our camping trips. I had an outdoorsy family and we would spend three-day weekends on outings in sleeping bags in the middle of the wilderness up in the White Mountains of Arizona. My dad would take the camera along and film the trips and we’d sit down and watch the footage a week later. It would put me right to sleep.” To correct the situation Spielberg produced his first theatrical productions. “I began to actually stage the camping trips and later cut out the bad footage.” Spielberg’s interest in the cinematic craft accelerated when he took a novel approach to achieve a childhood goal. “I was a Boy Scout who wanted to get a merit badge in photography. The prerequisite was that you had to tell the story with still photos. Rather than shoot stills, I took my movie camera and made a little Western three minutes long, using friends of mine from the same Boy Scout troop. I cut the film in the camera [didn’t do any splicing when I got home] and showed it to the Boy Scouts a week later. Not only did I get my merit badge, but I got whoops and screams and applause and everything else that made me want to do it more and more.” Wanting to recapture the moment, the twelve year old was soon at work creating a follow-up to The Last Train Wreck (1957). “It influenced me enough to want to go off and make another Western, seven minutes long – using two rolls of film. It [The Last Gun, 1959] was a little more sophisticated.”
“I made a war film next called Fighter Squad , because I was inspired by those 8mm Castle Film capsule documentaries of the Forties,” recalled Steven Spielberg whose cinematic ambitions fueled his ingenuity. “They were in black and white and they had great gun camera shots of tracer bullets flying out and Messerschmitts catching fire and plunging to earth and tanks and trains exploding. I’d buy seven or eight of those films and pull out all the exciting shots and write a movie around them.” The resourcefulness of the aspiring filmmaker did not end there. “I used young people in the neighbourhood, friends of mine from school. If I needed a shot of a young flyer pulling back on the stick of a P-51, we’d go out to the Skyharbor Airport in Phoenix and climb into a P-51[after our parents got us permission] and I’d shoot the close-up of the stick being pulled back. Then I’d cut to a piece of stock footage of the airplane going into a climb. Then I’d cut back to a close-up of a fourteen year old friend of mine grinning sadistically. Then another close-up of his thumb hitting the button. Then another stock shot of the gun mounts firing. I’d put the whole thing together that way.”
When it came to making a movie which people would want to see Steven Spielberg set about mastering the art of storytelling. “Most of my scripts were written on the backs of graded arithmetic papers, in loose-leaf notebooks, anywhere I could find something to write on. Most of the time I would write the scripts, commit them to memory and then tell people what to do. It wasn’t until much later that I would sit down at a typewriter, write a shooting script, make Xerox copies and hand them out. But it was one of the best lessons I ever learned. I learned to keep a film in my head, then dole out what was needed to be told to people who were performing and who were being the technicians.” Recognition for his flourishing cinematic talent was beginning to go beyond Spielberg’s residential neighbourhood with the release of his forty-minute war picture Escape to Nowhere (1961). “One of my films won first prize at an amateur film festival, the Canyon Film Festival in Arizona, and the prize was a 16mm camera…I was fifteen. But I knew I couldn’t afford 16mm processing...so I traded the camera in on a Bolex-H8 8mm movie camera. It was very fancy equipment at the time. At the same time, with a little help from my dad, I got a Bolex Sonerizer, which was the first piece of technology capable of recording sound directly onto 8mm film with a magnetic coating down the side. Now I was able to make pictures, send the cut footage to Eastman Kodak and have them put the magnetic stripe on and send it back to me. Then I would post-sync all the dialogue, sound effects and music in our living room.”
Next Steven Spielberg branched into a genre with which he has become synonymous. “I did science fiction movies and, with the Bolex, I was able to shoot a sequence, rewind the film and then shoot double-exposures – people disappearing, beautiful young women turning into ghoulish nightmares. I’d use the old Lon Chaney dissolve trick – applying a little more makeup every few feet and dissolving from one stage of malignant facial growth to the next until I had Vampira.” To complete his cinematic vision, Spielberg ventured into the realm of post-production. “I edited everything myself. Once I discovered how important a cut was, I never cut in the camera again. I would shoot all the master shots on one roll, all the close-ups on another roll and all of the action and trick shots on a third roll. Then I would break the film down and hang all the separate shots on pins on a little makeshift cutting rack in my bedroom at home. I’d label each one of them with a piece of tape, identifying it by number, what was in the scene, and where it was to go. Then I would pull each one of its pin and cut the way they cut today. So I really assembled the film. I became a film editor before I became a professional director.”
Producing his independently-funded pictures had become more expensive resulting in Steven Spielberg adopting an enterprising financial solution. “The audience was usually composed of children under twelve. I sold tickets for a dime [later raising it to quarter] and they’d come over to my house. We’d used the family room and they’d sit on card-table chairs. That was my first audience – youngsters. I made a film at sixteen called Firelight, which was a very ambitious science fiction film that ran two and a half hours. It was made with a sound stripe and had sync dialogue, music and sound effects created in the camera involving four, five, and sometimes ten passes on a single piece of film. I showed the film a buck a head to 500 people. The film cost $400 and I made $100 profit on the first night it showed. My father was transferred and we moved the next day to San Francisco – actually twenty-four hours after the premier of my first sophisticated full-length movie. After that my life changed and I went without film for about two years while I was trying to get out of high school, get some decent grades and find a college. I got serious about studying.”
Even though he was able to indulge himself in his creative passion, Steven Spielberg reflects on his childhood with a hint of regret. “All the guys who discovered girls early never had anything to do with my movies. The guys who were dating at twelve and thirteen thought making movies was kid stuff, and so most of the friends I had helping me on those films were the late-starters in life.” The director’s younger sister Anne sees things differently. “He had more friends than he remembers having. I don’t think he realized the crushes that some girls had on him. Some of my friends had major crushes on him. If you looked at a picture of him then, you’d say, ‘Yes, there’s a nerd. There’s the crewcut, the flattop, there are the ears. There’s the skinny body.’ But he really had an incredible personality. He could make people do things. He made everything he was going to do sound like you wished you were a part of it.” Assessing his short films, Steven Spielberg remarked, “They were recognizably home movies with youngsters with cowboy hats and German combat helmets. It is a joke to see them today. What surprised me was there was technique in some of the earliest films, the fast cutting.”
Addressing the Hollywood folklore about him deviously inhabiting an empty office on the Universal Studio lot, which allowed him to establish the necessary industry contacts to get his moviemaking career started, Spielberg remarked, “The first job came when Sid Sheinberg, who was president of television production at Universal at the time, saw a twenty-four minute short I had made called Amblin’ . I made the short while I was a student at Cal State, Long Beach, but not as part of the film program of Cal State; it was done on my own with $15,000 from Dennis Hoffman, an independent producer. When Sid Sheinberg saw it, he just said, very simply, ‘I’d like you to spend the next seven years of your life here at Universal Studios. Along with that, you will be directing, writing, and producing. How would you like that? How does that sound?’ Well, it sounded fine to me. There were no other jobs in the offing, and I had just turned twenty-one. It was a dream come true. He immediately put me into a TV movie, a pilot trilogy called Night Gallery. I shot the second section with Joan Crawford [Mildred Pierce], a forty-three minute story written by Rod Serling [Twilight Zone]. I didn’t work for a year after the show came out.”
Asked about the hitchhiking picture which serves as the namesake of his production company, Spielberg confessed, “Amblin’ was an attack of crass commercialism. I had made a lot of little films in 16mm that were getting me nowhere. They were very esoteric. I wanted to shoot something that could prove to the people who finance movies that I could certainly look like a professional moviemaker….The only challenge that’s close to my heart about Amblin’ is I was able to tell a story about a boy [Richard Levin] and a girl [Pamela McMyler] with no dialogue. That was something I set out to do before I found out I couldn’t afford sound even if I wanted it.” Spielberg added, “When I look back at that film, I can easily say, ‘No, wonder I didn’t go to Kent State,’ or ‘No wonder I didn’t go to Vietnam or I wasn’t protesting when all my friends were carrying signs and getting clubbed in Century City.’ I was off making movies, and Amblin’ is a slick byproduct of a kid immersed in film.”
Steven Spielberg is a strong believer in being proactive. “Studios aren’t buying qualities like eagerness and enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. They want material evidence that you’re a moviemaker who’s going to turn a profit. They want to see and feel how good you are before they’re going to give you $300,000 to make a movie. I began by making 8 and 16mm films, some for $15 a piece and some for $200. You can’t excuse yourself by saying, ‘Well, I can’t raise the money to make the short film to get into the front door and show my work.’”
Directing episodes for television series such as Marcus Welby, M.D. (1970), The Name of the Game (1971), The Psychiatrist (1971), Columbo (1971) and Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law (1971), the young director found his big screen filming sensibilities being frustrated by the unwillingness of those in the TV industry to breakaway from traditional shooting techniques. “Fancy footwork isn’t smiled upon in TV,” declared Steven Spielberg who was responsible for creating a one-hour show in six days. “The one thing I refused to conform to was the television formula of close-up, two-shot, over-the-shoulders and master shot. I kept hoping that every time I’d make a TV show, enough people would see it and like my work and give me a feature to do, but it took a number of years before they began knocking on my door.”
Helping Steven Spielberg gain the attention of Hollywood was a television movie about a man (Dennis Weaver) terrorized by a predatory truck driver. To map out the story, the young filmmaker created a forty yard long and five feet tall production board. “I did it at first as a visual overview for myself, because the script was so verbose,” explained Spielberg on how he went about making his 1971 effort Duel. “I had to break the script down and visualize the entire movie on a road stretched all around the production office. I divided up each key moment and gave it a nickname and was able to walk the network people through the entire story.” The unconventional approach became an indispensable tool. “I think without the overview I would be a little confused about where to the put the cameras, and I shot it in sixteen days. It was really a movie that should have been done in fifty days.”
Watched by 15 million American TV viewers, the small screen picture was a major hit for Steven Spielberg. “After Duel came out on television, that first week, my agent received ten or fifteen feature film offers.” With additional scenes added, the road thriller was given a European theatrical release. “Dylis Powell saw the picture and she flipped out for it,” recalled Spielberg who credits The Sunday Times film critic as being an instrumental supporter. “She gathered all the London critics together in one room and showed it to them one night, and the criticism got Universal and the C.I.C. to release the picture in Europe.”
Two more TV movies were helmed by the Ohio native. A demonic-possession horror tale starring Sandy Dennis (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and Darren McGavin (A Christmas Story) called Something Evil (1972) aired on CBS; NBC broadcasted Savage (1973), a story about a journalist played by Martin Landau (Ed Wood) who discovers a blackmail plot. “You can do five bad television shows but you cannot make five bad motion pictures; ‘bad’ meaning films that aren’t received critically and commercially,” observed Spielberg who had originally planned to make his theatrical feature debut with White Lightning (1973) starring Burt Reynolds (Boogie Nights). “And so I just waited and waited and waited. I had a little bet with myself that the first movie I ever directed would be from my own story and it was really sort of a mental deterrent for other projects that came along. I’d say to myself, well, I could direct this, but I couldn’t film this and then The Sugarland Express . I had read a story in the Citizen News that was about the Texas hijacking and I wrote the original story…it was worth waiting for.”
Continue to part two.
For more on Steven Spielberg, visit the official Dreamworks website.
Five Essential Films of Steven Spielberg
Movies... For Free! Duel (1971)
Short Film Showcase - Amblin' (1968)
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.