SpielbergFilms interviews Steven Spielberg
On Saturday, July 15, I had the honor of attending the Chicago International Film Festival’s (CIFF) Tribute to Steven Spielberg. Mr. Spielberg was in Chicago to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the CIFF for his three decades of incomparable work as a filmmaker. Through the kindness of DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg, SpielbergFilms was able to attend the pre-event red carpet, and then the event itself in which one of Mr. Spielberg’s closest friends presented him with the CIFF’s Gold Hugo award.
I compiled pages of notes while I was waiting for the red carpet activities to begin —personal observations, anticipatory thoughts of the potential of finally meeting Mr. Spielberg after nearly 30 years of admiring his work, funny asides on some of the chaos the media brings on their heels to events such as these. For the sake of brevity and focus on what follows below, I’ll keep the majority of these items stored away for another day.
Two quick personal memories to begin, however.
First, while I was wandering around the press area set up within the lovely Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, I noticed an oddly shaped little statue resting on a windowsill. At first, it almost looked like a religious statue, so I wandered over to see what such a malapropos effigy would be doing sitting in the hotel.
Right as it dawned on me that I was looking at Mr. Spielberg’s Gold Hugo, Monique from PMK/HBH (the public relations firm who organized the event for the Fest) walked up beside me and said she was just coming to retrieve old Hugo. Kindly, she let me hold the award and asked if I’d like to read the inscription written to Mr. Spielberg. Apart from ever holding his three Oscars, it was pretty neat.
Next, despite my hope of always presenting myself as professionally as possible on SpielbergFilms, I’m going to get personal if you’ll grant me a moment. I was waiting in the press area for a good hour, hour-and-a-half before the event began, and my anticipation at finally seeing Mr. Spielberg in person, let alone potentially meeting him was overwhelming. I felt like the poor sap in all the war films that loses it in the foxhole right before the battle commences. Would I run out into the fray prematurely, madly, only to be shot down?
Of course not. But I had to keep drying my hands and calming my racing mind just the same.
And then, Monique destroyed that Zen state I’d been struggling for by rushing out to the red carpet with an excited, “Mr. Spielberg is coming, Mr. Spielberg is coming!”
The room burst into a din of sound, popping flashbulbs and activity.
I was positioned at the last spot on the carpet so I was able to get a view of Mr. Spielberg working his way through the various media. (When I first met with Monique, she was embarrassed to tell me I was at the end of the line, but having never been on a press line I didn’t see anything bad with this, plus I was told Mr. Spielberg wanted me there so I could wander freely throughout the event. Can you beat that?) From my vantage, it was incredible to see Mr. Spielberg at work. We’ve all seen the edited sound bites and read what information reporters bring back from such events, but seeing a view apart from what the camera captures was telling. You’re unlikely to come across many who know how to address the press better than Steven Spielberg (what with over 30 years in the industry), and I was watching a master as he talked with CBS’ Bill Zwecker in the most friendly, animated way.
During his walk down the press line, I could also see writers and photographers pushing and jockeying out of their assigned stations and into a throng intent on getting the best images and tidbits of information they could from Mr. Spielberg. Through it all, he remained incredibly focused on the individual reporter he was addressing, grace and calm in an absolute hurricane.
Eventually, the moment drew near as Mr. Spielberg rounded the bend and talked with a friendly journalist from the Tribune’s Metromix.com that I’d been talking with for the last hour. The journalist asked Mr. Spielberg one great, serious question and one really funny, intentionally silly question (about whether Spielberg would want to battle dinosaurs, aliens or sharks).
Then, the eye of the storm fell upon me. Thirty years of living and breathing the wondrous, horrifying, inspiring, and transcendent images that Steven Spielberg has given us all came to a pinnacle for me as I was introduced to Mr. Spielberg as Steven from SpielbergFilms.com.
Awalt: Hi, sir. I’m pleased to finally meet you! I’m Steven.
Spielberg: Wow. SpielbergFilms.com. How are you? Wow. You got my letter?
Awalt: I’m good. I did, thank you so much.
Spielberg: We finally meet!
Awalt: Yeah, we finally…I’ve been wanting to meet you since 1978, so…
Spielberg: Oh my god. Well your website’s really, really good.
Awalt: Thank you.
Spielberg: As I said in my letter, it’s a great way to find out what the heck’s going on out there. You’re there first. I don’t know how you do it!
Awalt: I’m hoping I don’t get a lot of things wrong for you, since it’s important to me to convey to your fans what you’re doing and not get things wrong. There’s so much on the Internet that’s wrong about your work, like that rumor that you were going to do ‘Angels and Demons.’
Spielberg: Oh yeah, I read that on your website, and I didn’t even know I was doing it until I read your website, and then you debunked it in the same breath! Which I appreciate. Thank you. No one’s ever approached me to do ‘Angels and Demons,’ and if they did, I would say no.
Awalt: Why’s that?
Spielberg: Because it’s not my genre, not my thing!
Awalt: Thrillers though, you’re phenomenal with thrillers! Okay, I’m going to have to ask you some questions that I know if I don’t ask, my readers will kill me.
Spielberg: Go ahead.
Awalt: Is ‘Indiana Jones’ going to be the ‘sweet dessert after the bitter herbs’ of ‘Munich’ that you’d mentioned in the one interview?
Spielberg: Well you know, George and I have been promising it for a lot of years now, but I’m making every attempt to keep my promise. I just want to make sure that the fanbase is given the best ‘Indiana Jones’ anybody could possibly make, and until I can assure myself that at least I’m trying to make the best ‘Indiana Jones’ film of all time, the development will continue. The process of developing the script will continue, and it continues right now with David Koepp writing the script.
Awalt: That was a surprising turn!
Spielberg: Well David Koepp is a great closer. And he’s done some great projects for me, you know all of them. And I feel that if anybody can do it and pull this together, David can.
Awalt: The Darabont screenplay. You’ve probably read some of the controversy.
Spielberg: It’s a wonderful screenplay!
Awalt: That’s what I’ve heard you thought of it.
Spielberg: I liked it a lot.
Awalt: Are you going to use any parts of it in the final version of the film?
Spielberg: I am not.
Awalt: Will it ever see the light of day?
Spielberg: Someday… [hesitates] No, I don’t think it will. Darabont wrote a wonderful screenplay and Frank’s a very close friend of mine and we’re collaborating on a number of things, but sadly ‘Indy 4’ will not be one of them.
Awalt: Understandable. Online, there’s been talk about Breck Eisner on ‘Jurassic Park IV.’
Spielberg: That’s not true. Joe Johnston is standing by.
Awalt: First dibs on it?
Spielberg: First dibs on it, and Joe is my go-to ‘Jurassic’ guy now.
Awalt: There’s been talk about Joe Johnston that says he took the negative flack about ‘Jurassic Park III,’ and said in public that any faults with the film are his faults. There was talk that you didn’t care for the film, but it was profitable, and I’ve never heard you badmouth it in public, and I doubt you would, but…
Spielberg: Oh no, I don’t feel that way at all! I think the film is witty and clever, and I think Joe did an amazing job putting together those battles. And I think those battles Joe put together… I was jealous of the spinosaurus attack on the airplane! That scene where the spinosaurus attacks the airplane and the passengers inside the airplane was every bit as good as I thought the main road attack in ‘Jurassic Park’ was. So I’m a huge fan of Joe’s, and he’s the right guy to do the fourth one.
Awalt: That’s perfect! That’s great to hear. ‘Lincoln.’ How viable is it still?
Spielberg: It’s viable. The script’s being written, and hopefully sometime in September/October of ’07 I’ll have the chance to start that. I can’t guarantee that, it’s just, once again, like ‘Indy 4,’ that script is in process.
Awalt: Could it go before ‘Indy 4’?
Spielberg: I don’t know, you know, everything’s in process right now.
Awalt: And the studio, you’re having some massive changes there?
Spielberg: Well the massive changes were accomplished once Stacey Snider [the new CEO of DreamWorks] came on board.
Awalt: Came on early too, right?
Spielberg: Well, no, came on when her contract allowed her to come on. Universal allowed her to come on, and she came on right at the legal moment she was allowed to.
Awalt: So it was a smooth switchover then?
Spielberg: It was a very smooth switchover thanks to Ron Meyer, who is CEO of Universal, who really made this happen for us, and I really appreciate that.
Awalt: You said you’d been going after [Snider] for something like 12 years…
Spielberg: Well actually I tried to hire her a couple of times when she was at TriStar, when she was at Sony and she always said no, and then she went to Universal.
Awalt: [laughs] She said no to you?
Spielberg: That’s because Universal was a bigger challenge for her. We were just starting DreamWorks. It was a very small cottage…it was a boutique, and Stacey felt she wanted a bigger challenge and Universal gave her ten years of great training and now she’s taking all of that know-how, and she’s applying that to DreamWorks at Viacom.
Awalt: For a while we covered your production works, but I wanted to focus more specifically on your work as director, but I should still ask: ‘Transformers.’ How excited are you about that?
Spielberg: Well the dailies are fantastic.
Awalt: Any effects work, or just physical so far?
Spielberg: I have seen no effects work so far. I’ve only seen the scenes with the characters and a lot of the action, we call them plates, but it’s plates with first team characters running around and hiding and fighting and it’s pretty amazing what Michael Bay’s doing with the camera, and with the performances.
Awalt: That’s great. Now, the ‘wormhole project,’ that’s what we’ve been calling it on the site [laughs].
Spielberg: Oh, is that wormhole? It’s called ‘Interstellar.’ That’s the name. It’s a detailed treatment by Dr. Kip Thorne, and I’m working with Lynda Obst, who’s the producer, and Kip Thorne on this project.
Awalt: What appealed to you… I know it was just in a treatment state when you signed on to it and without a finished screenplay you said, ‘I’m on it’?
Spielberg: It was a concept that blew my mind and it was not foreign to me. My father, who was on one of the original teams at RCA that developed the very first commercial computer, my dad is sort of an amateur astrophysicist.
Awalt: I heard you took him with you to CalTech.
Spielberg: I took him with me to what I guess you’d call the roundtable, with some of the foremost computer physicists and astrophysicists, and behavioral psychologists from around this country and it really appealed to me based on all of my dad’s influence, with all of the reading I’ve done over the years. You know I produced the Stephen Hawking documentary with Errol Morris a number of years ago.
Awalt: I didn’t know that! What’s the name of it?
Spielberg: Yeah. ‘Brief History of Time,’ you know. [Spielberg took no final credit on the finished film.]
Awalt: Oh yeah! I didn’t know you were on that! How did I miss that?
Spielberg: Yeah, Kathy Kennedy and I executive produced it a number of years ago. I got a chance to spend a day with Stephen Hawking, which was one of the most illuminating days of my life.
Awalt: So undoubtedly ‘Interstellar’ is going to be a more cerebral science fiction, or science fact I should say?
Spielberg: It’s going to… I don’t want to categorize it yet, ‘cause I’m just at the beginning of the process.
Awalt: Some people say ‘2001’…would you? I see that online a lot…
Spielberg: I don’t see it as ‘2001.’
Awalt: That’s kind of putting it in a shoebox before anyone even knows what it is.
Spielberg: That’s right.
Awalt: Well that’s exciting. Well… [offers hand to shake]
Spielberg: It was great talking to you!
Awalt: Phenomenal finally meeting you.
Spielberg: I finally met you! Good luck. Keep that going. Keep the site going! It’s really good…
Awalt: Thank you very much; it’s an honor to do it. Thank you. Thank you for everything.
[Next, the PR reps bring Roy Scheider over while Mr. Spielberg is still standing with me. They ask if I would like to talk to Mr. Scheider. Would I like to talk to Roy Scheider?]
Awalt: I would love to talk to Mr. Scheider. Hi, sir, what an honor to meet you.
Spielberg [to Scheider]: Be nice to this guy. He has a website on all of my movies. It’s brilliant!
Awalt [to Spielberg]: Thank you, sir.
[Spielberg departs and leaves me to talk with Mr. Scheider.]
Awalt: I’m excited about ‘The Shark is Still Working,’ everything you’ve been doing with the guys.
Scheider: Oh yes! You know those guys?
Awalt: Yeah, I know them, and I’m in the documentary briefly with you… [Nervous laughter on my behalf since I am but a gnat on a god’s beard and this, this is Amity’s Chief Brody I’m talking with after all!]
Scheider: Oh, oh my goodness!
Awalt: I’m friends with the producers, and they’ve just had so many wonderful things to say about you.
Scheider: Oh good, thank you. Hopefully they’ll have a sale. I think they will.
Awalt: Oh, if Universal doesn’t buy it…
Scheider: Oh, I think they will… I thought it was terrific!
Awalt: Did you see a cut?
Scheider: I narrated it. I did the narration.
Awalt: Yeah, they told me, but I’m not supposed to tell anyone yet and so I didn’t want to mention it. But yeah, it’s phenomenal. They couldn’t have picked anyone better to narrate it…
Scheider: Thank you, thank you.
Awalt: … You’re the voice of ‘Jaws.’
Scheider: [laughs] I love it!