The Master: Steven Spielberg On Turning 70

The world's most influential film-maker talks about his ​latest masterpiece, The BFG

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There isn't an official Esquire reading list yet — part of the unfinished business of the Michael Gove education revolution — but when it appears, Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls will surely figure prominently. Subtitled How the Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, it's the rollicking true story of a bunch of baby-boomers, rebels and auteurs and the remaking of the movie industry in the Sixties and Seventies, which bequeathed us the business called show that we know and love today. 

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But one of the biggest names in cinema is an awkward anomaly at the centre of Biskind's story, a thesis-threatening misfit. While his fellow film-makers were enjoying the benisons of the permissive society, necking Quaaludes and installing their kids' ex-babysitters as fluffers on set, this future maestro was content to gawp at re-runs of I Love Lucy ("I would sit in a room and watch TV while people climbed the walls"). What other directors took to bed with them could fill the charge sheet of the LAPD; this guy went on location with a pillow stuffed with celery (he found the scent soothing). He fell out with the first writer of what became Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) over precisely whom the aliens would meet when they asked to be taken to our leader.

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"If somebody's going to represent me and the human race to get on a spaceship, I don't want my representative to be a guy who eats all his meals at McDonalds," yelled the writer.

"That's exactly what I do want," sighed Steven Spielberg — for yes, it was he. A misfit at school, his passion was film, and he occupied his lonely hours with a Super 8mm camera. Biskind's chapter on the rise of Spielberg and the making of Jaws is entitled "The Revenge of the Nerd".

All of this chimes with something that we fellow Happy Meal-scarfers sense about Spielberg, doesn't it? For better or worse, he has never been cool. Among Biskind's Fab Four cineastes, who also included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman, Spielberg was essentially Paul McCartney: affable, home-loving, uxorious, a good dad (he has seven children) and blessed with a rare gift for a euphonious hit. And like Macca's long and storied career, Spielberg's is a source of mingled awe, pleasure and, if we're honest, embarrassment.

Long, long ago, we used to drift off to sleep to ET, but we'd prefer not to be reminded of that now. After the Queen's Christmas message, we'll happily sit and watch Jurassic Park one more time, but it doesn't rate in our frowningly curated listicles. And, as in the case of the creator of Wings and The Frog Chorus, we rather wish Spielberg had had the decency to fold his eponymous deckchair and walk off into the end credits some years back.

ET (1982)

Well, more fool us. Because whether we like it or not, he's the film-maker of modern times, the old master of the multiplex. His own story arc is as gleaming and lip-smacking as those golden arches he likes so much (without the dip in the middle). And it's in perfect sync with the evolution of his industry today. 

But I mustn't get ahead of myself and blow my fist-pumping, chest-swelling finale, my Act Three. I'll borrow from the best in the business instead and set my scene, not before time, amid the plumped soft furnishings of a hotel somewhere in Mayfair.

Spielberg's longtime London legman has dropped by, just to see that everything is the way Steven likes it. And who's this but a big cheese from the Bourne franchise — one of the biggest and pongiest, in fact — who's excused himself from a studio shoot across town to give Steven a comradely bear hug.

Spielberg himself enters the room, a moment after his chunky, almost remedial sneakers and the terrible orthodontics of an outsized coffee beaker clamped to his jaw. A PA murmurs something solicitous and Spielberg replies, "No thanks, I'm working my Starbucks."

Minority Report (2002)

I take this as my cue to gesture at a chilled bottle on the table. "Would you care for some Claridge's water? It's been passed by the management…" I say.

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How would this silky gambit go down with your on-fire younger director, I wonder, your Sebastian Schipper, say? Or M Night Shyamalan? It's an old dad joke — it may have been my old dad who told it to me, in fact — and happily for me, it hits the spot with Hollywood dad himself, who emits a great, wheezy laugh.

" coin a very old line. I'm glad you've heard it before."

"Uh huh, yeah."

Since the Cold War nail-biter Bridge of Spies last year, the endlessly protean Spielberg has helmed an adaptation of Roald Dahl's BFG. But I'm here to ask questions on your behalf, dear reader, and I know that deep down, what you (and I) want to know is whether our feel-good favourites have one last jolt of electricity in them.

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Are you going to do a swerve away from Indiana Jones after completing the upcoming fifth movie and pick up James Bond, as we all hope over here?

"No, I tried and failed to be a Bond director, when Cubby (Broccoli) wouldn't hire me back in the Seventies. But I tried! You know I went to him twice, and he just said no — in a very sweet way. So I'll never be a Bond director because I want to respect Cubby's original decision not to hire me."

You don't think you could make it up with the Bond people after all this time?

"No, no. I love the Bond films, I love what Sam Mendes has done with them, I just love it. I hope Sam continues with it, I hope Daniel (Craig) continues with it, it's certainly up to them, but I'm a huge Bond fan and these are the best Bonds since the Sean Connery Bonds."

You could bring Connery back as Bond's dad, couldn't you?

Spielberg laughs. "I brought Sean Connery back as Indiana Jones's dad…"


"So, I did have a dad thing going there."

Our conversation turns to America's dad thing, or mom thing: who will be the First Parent in the White House after the presidential race? Will you be festooning your Chevy with Donald Trump bumper stickers, do you imagine?'

"What does that mean, 'festooning my Chevy'? Oh, you mean my Tesla, festooning my Tesla! My electric car!"

Whatever you're driving these days. I didn't really imagine you ran an old pickup. Maybe back in the day...

"I have a Ford pickup, actually. A 1962 Ford pickup. It's a very good car."

Are you a car buff?

"I am, I'm sorry."

But what about The Donald, as people persist in calling him, are you thrilled? There's a future biopic there, if nothing else, isn't there?

"I think what will determine the viability and commerciality of a future biopic will be the outcome…"

And the outcome? Where's your money?

"History will tell us what the outcome is. I'm not going to take a position on that except to say that as everybody knows, I'm a supporter of Hillary Clinton."

Spielberg goes on: "My politics are subliminal to my work. And my politics in my life are private. So I didn't use a movie like Bridge of Spies as a shoehorn for anything other than reliving what happened at that time to those people."

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Now 69, Spielberg has been nominated for 16 Oscars and won three. But it's his fate to be remembered as a popcorn director, perhaps the best there's ever been, as deft a manipulator of our juices as the most in-demand detox guru in Beverly Hills. His pictures have returned more than $9bn, making the Spielberg back catalogue the highest grossing of all time. As one early critic noted prophetically, he makes movies, not films, and none the worse for that. For my money, you have to sit through a lot of films to find anything to pack the punch of Jaws, 40 years old or not.

We know you as a storyteller — but do you ever feel, perhaps this time I'll let them know what I think a bit? 

Spielberg reminds me that his lengthy filmography is, in fact, marbled with movies which have a message.

"I did it with Schindler's List (1993). Who I was was relevant, what I believed in and how strongly I felt." A question about the migrant crisis in Europe prompts Spielberg to recall setting up his Shoah Foundation more than 23 years ago. 

"I started it to get Holocaust survivors who were willing to talk about what happened to them to be witnesses to the history that befell them, to recruit a generation of young people through the resource of education who would refuse to be bystanders. And based on what's happening today, nobody can afford to be a bystander."

Spielberg says he also channelled his own point of view into Amistad (his 1997 film about slavery), and other works of historically-themed celluloid. "But television is the greatest conduit. If you have a political agenda and really want to turn some heads and change some hearts and minds, television is the greatest for that because it reaches so many people."

Is there a TV series which you wish you'd made?

"Homeland is a great show, especially the last series. As current as the headlines."

As you get older, you give up the fantasy of being a leading man — James Bond, Indy — or rather, it gives you up. Things get in the way. Things like making a living, like biscuits, like the unsparing level gaze of the shaving mirror. But in the place of this fond foolishness, as if to compensate for it, is a daydream about being a director. The power you'd have! But what's it really like? The director Sydney Pollack once calculated he had spent half of his life waiting for Robert Redford to come out of his trailer. So I encourage Spielberg to speak freely about the actor who has given him the most issues on set. Not counting the shark.

The BFG (2016)

"Well, that's the best answer to your question — that shark was a complete prima donna and would not come out of its dressing room! Its dressing room happened to be the Atlantic Ocean but we could not get the shark to make an appearance. It broke down because of mechanical problems beyond our control. And the shark's no-show saved us, because I just went ahead and made the movie anyway. I went back to a Hitchcock mode, using the ocean as the nemesis, or at least the threat. And I think it cranked up the suspense a lot more than if we'd made the film the way it was in the screenplay, with the shark showing up in every sequence."

Inspired! Do you think directors have become boring? I've had the privilege of interviewing, dare I say it, some of the slightly younger guys, and they're always on point, on message. I'm not saying they're shills for the corporations, but one yearns for the days of the bullhorn and jodhpurs...

"I don't miss the bullhorn, but I kind of miss those pants that stick out," admits Spielberg. "I think I'm kind of an anachronism. I think I would have functioned very, very well in the Thirties and Forties being a movie director. I think that in a sense that was really my era, and still to this day my favourite movies come from back then."

No kidding. Much of the Spielberg oeuvre has the sensibility of a John Ford Western, complete with unimpeachable heroes and even stagecoach stunts. But Spielberg's career doesn't just hark back to the last days of the studio system; it's also a template for Hollywood's next hotshots.

This is where we came in. Halfway through that last question, I realised I was asking Biskind's Nerd about boring directors. But in this, Spielberg turns out to have been the true pioneer. For better or worse, a near-manic work ethic and a precocious familiarity with the kit are what get results. Christopher Nolan, of dimension-mashing Inception (2010), started out aged seven shooting films on his father's Super 8. It's the same story in the case of the much-garlanded Peter Jackson, remembered by school friends in New Zealand for wearing a duffel coat "with an obsession verging on religious". He, too, cut his teeth on a home cine-camera when he was still knee-high to an orc. The revenge of the nerd, indeed.

A picture from Spielberg's beloved golden age, The Wizard of Oz (1939), tells us about the end of innocence in the saturated palette of a sweetshop: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." But his own movies insist, truthfully or otherwise, that it's not gone for good. You can always phone home.  

Stephen Smith is culture correspondent of BBC Newsnight

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