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Interview: Steven Spielberg

BY Jonathan Dean

3rd Apr 2023 Celebrities

Interview: Steven Spielberg

The cinema maestro was only 16 when his life changed after he filmed his mother flirting with his father’s best friend. Six decades on, The Fabelmans director gets personal

When Steven Spielberg was 16 he found out that his mother was having an affair. He was on a camping trip with his three younger sisters, his father Arnold, his mother Leah and Bernie, Arnold’s best friend. As passionate about film-making as a teenager as he is now, Spielberg recorded everything on his Super 8. His camera caught a flirtatious moment between Leah and Bernie. It was the moment that changed his life.

“What was strange,” he recalls, “was I saw everything with my naked eye, but only believed it when I saw a frame around it later, on my editing machine.”

Spielberg’s mother would soon marry Bernie while Arnold, remarkably, took the blame for the divorce to protect Leah’s standing with her children—a noble act that led to many years of estrangement from his son. It’s a theme recurrent in so many Spielberg films.

"I realised the power of cinema young. That early film I made changed my relationship with my mother. That was how I found out about her affair"

“I realised the power of cinema young,” he says. “That early film I made changed my relationship with my parents, especially my mother. That was how I found out about her affair. After that I no longer looked at her as a parent. I saw her as a human with all the vulnerabilities I saw in myself. I wish I could have had another ten years looking at my mum as my mum, but that secret brought us together. I was as close to my mother as I’ve been to anyone.”

The Fabelmans

Portrait photo of director and cinema maestro Steven Spielberg
The legendary director Steven Spielberg. Credit: Matt Crossick / Alamy Stock Photo

Spielberg is at home in Los Angeles. Spectacles, grey cardigan, blue checked shirt—he is calm and simmering with stories. At 76 he is one of the grandfathers of modern cinema, along with his old friends Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, with whom he has knocked about since his twenties. I look around the room. A monochrome vase, a wooden table stacked with books. Very little gives away how Hollywood this man is until he pops out a fat cigar—at ten in the morning. Pick your five favourites by him (For me? Jaws, ET, Saving Private Ryan, AI, Minority Report) and you could name a different five tomorrow.

Now, for his 33rd film, he has made The Fabelmans. Nominated for seven Oscars, it is about his childhood. Why The Fabelmans? He says all his films are like an Aesop’s fable with a moral, and what joy it is to watch his formative years unspool. The names are changed, but it’s all true. The young Spielberg in the film is called Sammy. Like Sammy, Spielberg shot a war film with mates. He cajoled his sisters into experimental horror at home—“I was a Grimm’s Fairy Tale of a brother.”

“My mother used to say, ‘When are you going to tell our story? I provided so much material!’” Spielberg smiles. Did he always think he would make an autobiographical film? “It was never part of a plan because I’ve never had a career plan. But I have always ached to talk about things publicly I had only spoken about privately, so when I had nothing else to do in Covid, it was a good time to collect memories. Also I had just lost my mother.”

Leah died in 2017, Arnold in 2020. They divorced in 1966, shattering their son. The past remains raw. The director says his father would be hesitant about making these stories public, but then the pain was mostly his. Spielberg remains in awe of his father’s “sacrifice” and is clearly moved as he tells me that his sisters said The Fabelmans “honours” their parents. “The most nervous screening I’ve had,” he says of showing it to Annie, Susie and Nancy.

"Showing 'The Fabelmans' to my sisters Annie, Susie and Nancy was my most nervous screening"

It is interesting, I say, that when Scorsese made Silence, a meditative epic on death, he said there was “no doubt” he made it because he was 76. But Spielberg, at the same vintage, is not looking to the end of life, but back to the start. Why? He smiles. “Because every morning I wake up it’s the first act of something,” he says. “I’ve never looked at any phase of my life as a third act.”

Films about broken homes

Spileberg and his lovable alien character ET
ET The Extra-Terrestrial
(1982): Spielberg with his lovable, homesick alien. Credit: Screenprod / Photononstop / Alamy Stock Photo

So Spielbergian. The optimism and sugarcoating of what we struggle to face. Critics, over his career, have accused him of oversentimentality, especially his endings, but throughout his various imperial phases the director—whose films have made a combined $16 billion—has been hiding his demons, mostly about the divorce, in plain sight. ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds, Catch Me if You Can, Empire of the Sunall feature children from broken homes. Even Saving Private Ryan is about the reuniting of a family.

“It’s all through my work,” he says. “I couldn’t be wearing a larger sign. I don’t think there’s a film I’ve made that doesn’t confront complicated issues of identity.” Does he think people missed such messages? “I frankly never thought they cared much about my life because they cared more about the stories.

"I don’t think people cared that ET is about three kids whose father is no longer at home. It's a visitor who puts a broken family back together"

“I don’t think they cared that ET is about three kids whose father is no longer at home,” he continues. “That began as my divorce story, then morphed into what it is: a visitor who puts a broken family back together. Then, on Close Encounters [of the Third Kind], when the boy catches his dad crying, so screams, ‘Cry baby’? That happened when I was ten and saw my father crying. But viewers were more interested in the mothership.”

Popping Spielberg on the therapist’s couch, I ask whether making movies was a way for him to assert control over fictional family lives in a way that he did not have as a child. “Making movies gives you the false sense of security and a delusion of grandeur you have control,” he says. “But none of us have any control whatsoever".

The power of cinema

A young director Steven Spielberg in the animatronic mouth of his shark from Jaws
Jaws (1975): Spielberg poses with the model shark. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd /Alamy Stock Photo

Spielberg’s favourite film is David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia. He saw it when he was a teenager and almost gave up. He simply thought he could never make a film as good. “I still haven’t!” There must, though, have been a time when he thought maybe, just maybe, he was good enough? “It was probably after Jaws,” he says of his 1975 shark blockbuster. “It made me see what a movie could do to an audience".

Still, Lawrence of Arabia stays with him. He rewatches it every year. Which of his own would he suggest people see annually? “Oh gosh, I could never answer that,” he says. “Sometimes, though, I wish I could see ET through the eyes of someone who never saw it, but that will never happen.” He seems almost sad about that.

Lean’s film was more than just a spectacle for Spielberg. He talks about the scene most personal to him, when Lawrence gets to the canal and the British officer yells: “Who are you?” It has stuck with him through every film he’s made.

“The film cuts to the big close-up of Lawrence,” Spielberg enthuses, “listening to the question he’s been asking about himself, but failing to know the answer to. That’s what we do when we make movies. Sometimes we just stand on the other side of the canal, screaming across it, ‘Who am I?’ All art is that. Every movie I’ve directed has posed the question, ‘Who am I?’”

Childhood

Brian DePalma, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese in 1984
Spielberg (centre) with Brian DePalma (left) and Martin Scorsese (right) in 1984. Credit: Mediapunch Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

For a direct answer, we now have The Fabelmans, which Spielberg co-wrote with Tony Kushner after being spurred on by his wife, Kate Capshaw. In the film you learn that Spielberg’s mother once brought home an errant monkey. You see that the first film he shot involved crashing a train set. You also learn that young Steven was bullied at high school. It was mostly antisemitic, but he was an odd kid filming everything. That stuck out in the 1960s, although he never lacked in confidence. Weekends were spent with peers, messing about on his short films.

“I wasn’t popular,” he admits. “But even kids who didn’t like me loved making movies. The camera popularised me in school. Without it I wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

Now, though, film is very different. Not just in the making of it, with an iPhone to hand for the next Spielberg to shoot with, but, also, how audiences enjoy movies. Nobody makes films like Spielberg any more—especially not for children. Nowadays films aimed at teenagers are a sugar rush of lights, CGI and action. Spielberg trusted that they had attention spans—nothing really happens in the first 45 minutes of Jurassic Park. Now Hollywood thinks otherwise.

“Kids today do have the attention, if they give it a chance,” Spielberg says. He knows that cinema has more competition than before. “What kids today don’t have as much as the kids of my generation is the patience. For idle, quiet, contemplative time away from any kind of activity. That is what’s lacking—patience. But if you can compel someone to watch something . . .” I tell him that my children, aged eight and five, enjoyed Close Encounters and ET and he is delighted. A third generation of fans snared. “That makes me really happy.”

The importance of film today

The FabelmansThe Fabelmans, based on Spielberg's young discovery of a love for film. Credit: TCD / Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

We end where we started—on the power of cinema. Other than showing The Fabelmans to his sisters, the film that Spielberg was most nervous about screening was Schindler’s List. He made it for Holocaust victims and says he needed the support and “edification” of Jews who made it through. That is his most important film, but he is more worried than ever by antisemitism. The end—in which survivors visit the grave of Schindler, the German who saved them—was tagged on late, after the director feared people would not believe the story he had told.

“Holocaust denial was on the rise again—that was the entire reason I made the movie in 1993,” he says. “That ending was a way to verify that everything in the movie was true.” He sighs. “I have never made a movie that so directly confronted a message I thought the world needed to hear. It had a vital message that is more important today than it even was in 1993, because antisemitism is so much worse today than it was when I made the film.”

Tell stories that interest you

He also made Schindler’s List as a tribute to his parents and the family’s Judaism, which he had shied from when it made him a teenage punchbag. That film, like all he does, was looking to answer, “Who am I?” Now, The Fabelmans is the director’s most “Who am I?” film yet. It ends with a great scene in which an irascible John Ford barks career advice at Spielberg in the 1960s.

The director laughs. He enjoys that memory. And there are plenty more where that came from. One aside is about not liking The Shining when he first saw it and how annoyed that made Stanley Kubrick. What a life. With his hero Ford in mind, what advice would he give budding film-makers now?

“Tell stories that interest you,” he insists, without a pause. “Don’t tell stories you think will be interesting to others.” And he is not done yet: either with his career or his advice. “But the most important thing is moving on to the next one,” he says, restlessly. “There is nothing more important than moving on".

Jonathan Dean for The Sunday Times / The Interview People`

This article is the cover feature from the April 2023 issue of Reader's Digest. To buy the issue digitally, physically or subscribe click here. 

Spielberg on cover of April 2023 issue of Reader's Digest

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