From storytelling to spectacle, his name is synonymous with the best of Hollywood screen magic. Kim Izzo sits down with the masterful Steven Spielberg to discuss his latest summer movie and, yes, Montreal bagels.
“You could be happy here. I could take care of you. I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.” —Elliot, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
That promise was spoken in what many consider Steven Spielberg’s greatest and certainly most beloved film, yet those words could easily stand in for the filmmaker’s own pledge to us. His movies have captivated, provoked and uplifted our hopes and dreams for more than four decades and counting. It doesn’t matter your age; there’s a Spielberg film for you.
When I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to see Jaws, but my older siblings did and regaled me with terrifying re-enactments of pivotal scenes—perhaps the reason why I never learned to swim. But even as an eight-year-old, I recognized that there was something afloat because all the teens and adults were talking about the movie with such excitement. To my young mind, it was a spectacular mystery why everyone was so gleeful about being terrified. Of course, the answer was they were being entertained. Although at the time—the summer of 1975—they couldn’t possibly know that they were also seated in the front row at the launch pad of an artist’s masterful career.
“Steven Spielberg is one of cinema’s greatest narrative filmmakers and the greatest director of the collective cinema experience since Hitchcock,” says Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival. “What I think is most interesting about him is that he directs not to individual viewers and not usually as personal expression but as dialogue with a large audience. In the ’70s and ’80s, he made movies for crowds the way Bruce Springsteen wrote songs for stadiums. That’s in no way a diss. It’s how his films gain their enormous emotional and visceral power.”
Filmmakers from younger generations concur. “I think that what a lot of people will tacitly admit to themselves is that Steven has a level of visualisation and talent that just isn’t available to most of us,” says writer-director Shane Black, The Nice Guys and Iron Man 3. “To me, he is almost like going to film school, and I will endlessly go through Spielberg’s films shot by shot with the slow motion button just to see how he did it.”
Forty-one years after Jaws, Spielberg’s latest summer movie, The BFG, will be released on Canada Day. The film has garnered positive, even gushing, reviews after its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May. It has also drawn comparisons to E.T. not only for the subject matter but also because the screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, who passed away last fall, wrote both pictures.
Based on the 1982 book written by cherished children’s author Roald Dahl, The BFG tells the story of an orphan girl named Sophie, who is snatched from her bed in the middle of the night in London by the title character, a giant whose job it is to capture dreams by day and blow them into the sleeping minds of children at night. He is the only friendly giant in a hidden valley filled with marauding child-eating monsters with names like Bloodbottler and Fleshlumpeater. Together, BFG and Sophie hatch a plan to rid the world of the awful creatures that involves the Queen of England.
The plot is simple, but the imagery and technical wizardry of the film are not.
The film stars British stage actor Mark Rylance in a stunning motion-capture performance as the BFG. Rylance won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar this past February for his role in another Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies. During Cannes, Rylance told The Hollywood Reporter that what he’s learned most from Spielberg is how to tell a story. “Steven’s constantly thinking about that. You feel very confident as an actor that what you’re doing is going to be placed into a well-told story.”
Sophie is played by another Spielberg discovery—remember this is the man who gave Christian Bale and Drew Barrymore their starts—Ruby Barnhill. And the queen is portrayed by Downton Abbey favourite Penelope Wilton, who played Isobel Crawley.
“You’re going to need a bigger boat.” —Brody, Jaws
When I finally did see Jaws, it scared the daylights out of me even though I knew what was going to happen. But it was that film and another blockbuster two years later—Star Wars, a movie written and directed by Spielberg’s buddy George Lucas—that was responsible for my attending film school in the ’80s. My fellow students and I all idolized Spielberg. I recall one heated debate about whether he looked better with or without his beard—a conversation that was initiated by the male students who all copied his trademark look of jeans, sneakers and ballcap. Suffice to say that when I find myself at The Ritz-Carlton New York, seated on a sofa across from him, the moment feels surreal enough to be from one of his movies. All that’s missing is a beam of blue-white light and a John Williams soundtrack. But I’m nervous. What if he’s not the mensch that I want him to be?
Spielberg is smaller than I imagined. Even though I knew he wasn’t a big man, his work has loomed so large in my imagination that I somehow expected him to tower over me. Though to be fair, I’m 5 foot 10 to his 5 foot 7. Dressed nattily in a tweed jacket complete with waistcoat, tan trousers and hiking sneakers while wearing his trademark glasses (but minus the ballcap), we chat briefly about my film school—yes, I talked about me—and bemoaned the loss of actual film and how the magic of an editing room with reams of unspooling celluloid and moviolas was gone forever. But we are here to talk about The BFG and, following on the heels of adult dramas Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, I was curious what drew him to another children’s tale.
“I thought it was a beautiful relationship. It was two extraordinarily different characters, not just because BFG is getting crumbly in his very elderly state,” explains Spielberg. “But that Sophie is so young and curious, and she brings so much youth out of BFG, and BFG is able to put so much wisdom into Sophie. It was just a lovely two-hander. And it reminded me of my own relationship with my grandfather, Fievel, from Russia.”
He had read the book to his children, Max, now 31 (with first wife, Amy Irving), and continued to read it as a bedtime story to his other kids (with second and current wife, actress and artist Kate Capshaw), Theo, 27, Sasha, 26, Sawyer, 24, Mikaela, 20, and Destry, 19. He also has a stepdaughter, Jessica, 39, from Capshaw’s first marriage. Initially developed by screenwriter Mathison, Spielberg’s long-time producing partner Kathleen Kennedy (now president of Lucasfilm) acquired the rights to the book and brought the project to him.
“I didn’t have a nostalgic urge to go back to the family movie. I just fell in love independent of a career plan. I fell in love with the possibility of being the first to turn Dahl’s arguably best book into a live action movie, and so that’s what really got me excited.”
Being able to bring Mathison’s final screenplay to life added emotional weight to the project and gave Spielberg an opportunity to work with her even though she had passed away. “She’s still alive for me. I haven’t said goodbye to Melissa yet because I can’t say goodbye to her when I’m working with her every day in the cutting room,” he explains. “She’s taking the journey with me.”
The BFG was filmed entirely in Vancouver. The director has shot portions of his other films in Quebec City and Montreal and raves about working in Canada, both with the crews and the pool of actors available to him. The food, however? That’s another story. “There’s no such thing as Canadian food,” he tells me. I suggest poutine, which causes him to politely grimace. “Here’s what there is, for me. There’s certainly a syrup for your pancakes. There’s nothing better than Quebec maple syrup. And there’s also the greatest Montreal bagels. The bagels in Montreal are the best bagels I’ve had anywhere in my entire life, and I’ve had bagels all over the world. Nothing is as good as the water that they use to make the Montreal bagels. They’re great.”
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” —Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park
Spielberg did not invent the blockbuster—which has erupted into a succession of soulless tent poles and superhero movie franchises, a far cry from the humanity he brings to the screen—he was simply in the right place at the right time.
“They give me a lot of credit or they give me a lot of blame for creating something that my forefathers had done time and time again. Gone With the Wind was a blockbuster in 1939. Rudolph Valentino invented the first cultural blockbuster when he played The Sheik. There have been blockbusters since The Great Train Robbery or even since Méliès made A Trip to the Moon in 1902,” he says emphatically. “The only credit that I’ll take when people say that about Jaws is I am responsible for discovering the summer as a great time to open a movie and get a lot of people going to that movie. But it wasn’t my decision to open Jaws in the summer. That was [Universal Studio head] Lew Wasserman’s decision. So I didn’t even make that decision.”
While that may be true, his name remains synonymous with the term. When asked to name his favourite summer blockbuster of all time, comedy legend Dan Aykroyd (who starred in his own blockbuster, Ghostbusters, in 1984 and appears in this summer’s highly anticipated all-female reboot) names a Spielberg film. “Jurassic Park. Dinosaurs should retake the Earth immediately!” Same for TIFF director and CEO Piers Handling: “Jaws started the blockbuster phenom. It arrived in the summer, was smart, beautifully filmed and conceived and scared the living daylights out of everyone. A horror film set in bright sunshine.”
Whether Spielberg invented the blockbuster or not isn’t the point so much as that he continues to create work that lives up to the name. Also announced this spring was that he would be directing a new Indiana Jones movie starring Harrison Ford (who was married to screenwriter Mathison for more than 20 years before divorcing in 2004). “I am excited about it and I get to work with Harrison for the fifth time,” he says. “He wasn’t too old to be Han Solo again. And he basically amassed a whole new hoard of fans. And Harrison’s always stayed relevant, and he is in great condition. Despite having a door close on his leg and break it in two places and despite a near fatal plane crash, he’s in tremendous physical shape.”
As a fan of the films, I practically beg him not to doom Indiana to the same fate that (spoiler alert!) befell Han. “I will never kill off Indiana Jones, I can tell you that much. I will never, ever kill off Indiana Jones.”
“It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.” —Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark
Spielberg is 69 (he will turn 70 in December) and has been blessed with excellent genes. Both his parents are still alive and well—mother Leah Adler is 96 and father Arnold is 99. And always by his side is wife Capshaw, 62. The couple are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary this year—an unusual marriage milestone in Hollywood.
“Twenty-fifth? Oh my God, I better go shopping,” he laughs when I remind him. “Kate’s the love of my life, and we just love being together. We love talking together. And we love playing in the world together, and I think that the secret of a strong and durable marriage is that the person you’re most excited to talk to at the end of the day is your spouse.”
Their eldest child, Jessica Capshaw (who stars on Grey’s Anatomy as Dr. Arizona Robbins), had her fourth baby on May 9, making him a grandfather for the fourth time. A role he relishes. “I love it. I love it. And there’s no refund on the return of the bottle. Because you can’t wait to get it back the next weekend.”
Their youngest, Destry, started college, leaving Spielberg and Capshaw empty nesters for the first time. “My wife’s an artist. She paints, and so she’s got that, and I make movies, and so we’re pretty busy,” he says. “And our kids—we never really have an empty nest. They all come back. They come back on weekends, when they’re in town. They go back to their bedrooms and they mess them up and don’t clean them up the next morning, just like they used to. If you’re a good mom and dad, the good news is that you can’t get rid of them, and you don’t want to.”
“Whoever saves one life saves the entire world.” —Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s List
Spielberg grew up in Arizona in a non-Jewish neighbourhood. As he told 60 Minutes in 2013, people would spew slurs such as “The Spielbergs are dirty Jews.” The taunts and bullying got to the young boy who tried to hide his religion and told people his last name was German. He spoke openly of denying his faith and that as a child he was the outsider, telling Lesley Stahl he was “like the kid that played the clarinet in the band…which I did.”
Years later, he made peace with his Judaism, fuelled by his wife’s conversion to the religion prior to their marriage. He has credited her with his renewed faith, which led him to direct Schindler’s List in 1993. One year later, Spielberg founded the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, which recorded video testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses of the atrocity. Currently, the collection has amassed more than 53,000 video testimonies.
If struggling with religious identity wasn’t tough enough for the young Spielberg, then at 19, his parents’ divorce caught him off guard, and he became estranged from his father for decades even though it was his mother who ended the marriage. But the family trauma fuelled one of his greatest hits, E.T., which he has said began “with me trying to write a story about my parents’ divorce.”
Loneliness and isolation is a theme that ripples throughout all of his films, which is part of the magic that makes them resonate with millions. “[His films are] in many ways the same movie: an outsider comes to the rescue of a threatened group and gains entry to that group as a result,” explains Bailey. “His films have shown a remarkable technical ambition and esthetic variety, but thematically they’re very much of a piece. That’s what makes him an auteur.” Which is something that Spielberg would agree with. “I just think as an artist you keep working those things out subconsciously,” he explains.
Exploring these recurring themes, Spielberg’s films have spanned genres and subject matters. Back in 1975, you could be forgiven for not imagining the director behind Jaws would explore childhood trauma as he did in E.T. and The BFG, race in The Color Purple, Amistad and Lincoln, the horrors of both world wars in Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and War Horse, technology and science in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The list goes on. Though there was a time when he might have envisioned a different future, telling an interviewer in 1982, “There will be some day when I’ll probably get old and go on the lecture circuit and talk about all the movies I should have made.”
He says now, “That was spoken from the naiveté of youth. The privileges of youth, I could say anything I want and get away with it. Now I can look back and say that was a pretty naive comment to have made.”
Is he surprised how his life turned out? “Of course, because you never know where it’s going to take you, and so I’ve just gone along for the ride. I feel like I’m riding on the coattails of my own career and I don’t even know where that’s taking me.”
We certainly know where he’s been. Back in the ’70s, Spielberg and his fellow young filmmakers—Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, to name a few—were part of the New Hollywood, a creative shift that began in the mid-’60s and ushered in an era of artistic and commercial revival for the movie industry. These auteurs rocked the old studio system and shook the establishment. But as time moved on hasn’t he become the establishment?
“I’d be silly to think that I wasn’t. I feel very young. I don’t feel like the establishment but I know I am,” he admits. “And when I’m sitting around with my establishment buddies and we’re all telling war stories about the good old days, when we’re telling those stories, we never—none of us—never, ever feel like the establishment. But the second we look around or we part company and we go our separate ways, we know we’re a wave that broke on the beach and we’re just trying to remain relevant.”
It is surprising to hear him say that, and I wonder if at this stage in his life did he think it was possible to still have life-changing moments in his work? “Oh my God, absolutely,” Spielberg tells me without hesitation. “We all age according to the laws of nature but we change according to the epiphanies that we have on a daily basis. We all have them, and age isn’t a barrier from change.”
Then, like the final scene in Act 3, our conversation is over, and we stand up. I extend my hand. “I could talk to you all day,” I gush like the fan-girl I am, thrilled that his mensch status has only grown in our short time together.
“Me, too,” he agrees, and I think he means it. “It was fun talking to you.” We shake hands then he smiles. “I want to give you a hug. I really enjoyed our conversation.” And so we do. Then it’s time to call “Cut,” and he’s gone.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2016 issue with the headline, “Dream Weaver,” p. 37-42.