Steven Spielberg Interview

In the new book James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, the renowned filmmaker sits down with Guillermo del Toro, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and more to get their perspectives on the importance and impact of the sci-fi genre.

Below, you can read an exclusive excerpt from the interview Cameron conducted with Steven Spielberg.

James Cameron Steven Spielberg Interview

STEVEN SPIELBERG’S UNPARALLELED CAREER has spanned five decades and encompassed every imaginable genre, but it is to science fiction that the director has returned most often, creating enthralling modern classics such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993) and its sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005). His latest feature, the dazzling adaptation of Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel Ready Player One, will see him depict an entirely new virtual reality universe on screen—one that closely mirrors our own. In a wide-ranging conversation, Spielberg and James Cameron discuss the lasting legacy of Stanley Kubrick—the visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey filmmaker who became Spielberg’s close friend and confidant—as well as the dangers posed by artificial intelligence, and the fears that have fueled the writer/director/producer’s unbridled imagination since his early childhood.

JAMES CAMERON: Most filmmakers my age and younger would say that you were the guy right ahead of them that blew their minds and made them want to do what they do. You created a vision of cinema that I don’t think had existed before.

STEVEN SPIELBERG: Well, there’s always a guy ahead of all of us. There’s a whole bunch of guys ahead of me. George Pal, Stanley Kubrick. Willis O’Brien. I think what inflamed my imagination when I was a kid was simply fear. I needed to do something to protect myself against everything that I was afraid of, which was most everything when it got dark. My parents felt that television—and this is back in the early ’50s—was the worst influence on any child. I don’t know how they knew this before the [Marshall] McLuhan era, but they somehow knew this. So they prevented me from watching television. I could only watch, like, Jackie Gleason, The Honeymooners. Or Sid Caesar, [Your] Show of Shows. But I couldn’t watch Dragnet, or M Squad, or any of those really cool detective series in the ’50s.

JC: So, you never got terrified by the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz?

SS: Oh, I did. I was terrified by that. And I was terrified by the forest fire in Bambi. That might have scared me more than the devil that comes out of the mountain in Fantasia. But I think because I was kind of media-starved by my parents doing what they thought was right, I started to imagine my own shows. If I couldn’t watch television, I would just dream up something for myself to enjoy.

JC: You started making short films?

SS: Yeah. Well, long before that, I just started dreaming. I did a lot of sketching. Terrible sketches, but I used to sketch a lot of scary pictures.

JC: You were processing the world back out in the form of something visual.

SS: Yeah. It always had to do with a pencil and a piece of paper, and of course later the 8mm movie camera.

JC: I remember when I saw Mysterious Island in the third grade. I raced home and started doing my own version of Mysterious Island. I think that’s the creative impulse. You take it in and [then want to] create [your] own version of it.

SS: I think when I first saw Earth vs. the Flying Saucers at a movie theater, and you couldn’t see the saucer men because they were covered in large masks that were a part of their exo-suits—there was one scene where they removed the mask from an extraterrestrial that one of the soldiers shoots. I was terrified by
seeing the face. I did the same thing. I went home, and I started drawing iterations of the face—not to calm myself down but to make it scarier than the filmmakers had. I would make it scarier than [the one] they had scared me [with].

JC: Well, you scared the crap out of everybody with Jaws. Right? You know monsters. And aliens are sometimes monsters. But not always. You [took an] alternate view of aliens when you did Close Encounters.

SS: I think it all started with the atomic bomb going off in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first real influence were the Japanese. Certainly Toho’s Godzilla [1954] was the first film really to trade on a kind of cultural, national fear of what had already been perpetrated on a country. From that moment on, everything that either came out of Tokyo Bay or anything that came out of the night sky was aggressive, hostile, and took no prisoners. I had my fill of that as a kid. I saw all the B-horror films. I saw all the Allied Artists horror films. I saw the Monogram horror films. I saw the Hammer films. Everything. And I couldn’t find a decent alien that made me feel like I wanted to get to know him or her better. All the aliens were out to destroy the human race.

JC: And we always beat them at the end, which was our way of saying that human cleverness and courage will overcome these monsters created by science. It was a way of keeping the boogeyman of nuclear war at bay.

SS: Exactly. It’s vanquishing any hostile threat. You can equate the ending of most science fiction movies in the ’50s to most World War II John Wayne movies in the ’40s and ’50s.

JC: It was atomic destruction and Communism mixed together, and it all had to be vanquished.

SS: It had to be vanquished. And so, the Red Menace was the angry red planet. And then Mars suddenly became an enemy—and not a wonderment. My father was the one that introduced me to the cosmos. He’s the one who built—from a big cardboard roll that you roll rugs on—a 2-inch reflecting telescope with an
Edmund Scientific kit that he had sent away for. [He] put this telescope together, and then I saw the moons of Jupiter. It was the first thing he pointed out to me. I saw the rings of Saturn around Saturn. I’m six, seven years old when this all happened.

JC: You spent a lot of time staring at the sky?

SS: A lot of time looking at the sky. The working title of E.T. was Watch the Skies. Which is sort of the last line from The Thing [From Another World, 1951]. I just remember looking at the sky because of the influence of my father, and saying, only good should come from that. If it ain’t an ICBM coming from the Soviet Union, only good should come from beyond our gravitational hold.

et interview

JC: He was kind of a visionary.

SS: He was a visionary about that, yet he read all the Analog [magazines]. Those paperbacks? And Amazing Stories, the paperbacks of that. I used to read that along with him. Sometimes, he’d read those books to me, those little tabloids to me at night.

JC: [Isaac] Asimov, [Robert A.] Heinlein, all those guys were all published in those pulp magazines.

SS: They were all published in those magazines, and a lot of them were optimists. They weren’t always calculating our doom. They were finding ways to open up our imagination and get us to dream and get us to discover and get us to contribute to the greater good. Those were the stories, and just looking up at the sky, that got me to realize, if I ever get a chance to make a science fiction movie, I want those guys to come in peace.

JC: And you did exactly that. Your dad took you to watch a meteor shower once, right?

SS: He did. It was a Leonid shower. I only know what the shower was because over the years, my dad keeps reminding me which shower it was! But I was very young. We were living in Camden, New Jersey, so that must mean I was about five. He woke me up in the middle of the night—it’s scary when your dad walks into your bedroom, and it’s still dark, and he says, “Come with me.” That’s freaky when you’re a kid! He took me to a knoll somewhere in New Jersey, and there were hundreds of people lying on picnic blankets.

JC: That scene is in Close Encounters. It’s the same scene.

SS: Absolutely. I put the scene in Close Encounters. I got out there, and we lay down on his Army knapsack, and we looked up at the sky.

Every 30 seconds or so, there was a brilliant flash of light that streaked across the sky. A couple of times, some of those objects broke up into three or four pieces.

JC: You have a single light that splits into multiple lights and goes past everybody . . .

SS: In Close Encounters, yeah. All this stuff that’s imprinted when you’re very young, you don’t want to divest yourself of it. I think one of the most important things as a filmmaker, at least of the kind of awe-and-wonder-type stories that we’re both attracted to, is to stay that kid. Part of that means fighting off the natural urge of cynicism as we take everything in. It’s a battle.

JC: You’ve done two incredible, influential films on the idea of first contact. Obviously Close Encounters led to E.T., which I think of as kind of Close Encounters 2, the more personal [story].

SS: I think of it the same way, which is why I [initially] took the E.T. script to Columbia [Pictures]. I thought I owed it to them since they gave me the financing to do Close Encounters. I thought, I’m not going to go running off to Universal [Studios] with a script about extraterrestrials. So, I took it to Columbia, and when they passed, that’s when I brought it to Universal.

JC: With E.T., you took many of those first contact themes and just made it very family-centric, or kid-centric, I should say.

SS: E.T. was never meant to be a movie about an extraterrestrial. It was meant to be a story about my mom and dad getting a divorce. I started writing a story—not a script per se— about what it was like when your parents divide the family up, and they move to different states. I was working on that before I made Close Encounters. When I did the scene of the little alien, Puck, coming out of the mothership and doing the Kodaly hand signs in Close Encounters, it all came together. I thought, wait a second! What if that alien doesn’t go back up into the ship? What if he stayed behind? Or what if he even got lost, and he was marooned here? What would happen if a child of a divorce, or a family of a divorce, with a huge hole to fill, filled the hole with his new best extraterrestrial friend? The whole story of E.T. came together on the set of Close Encounters.

JC: Going from the monster of Jaws, the great terror of the unknown, what’s under the water that you can’t see, to something angelic like Close Encounters—you really created a kind of alternate spirituality, or alternate religion. This idea that that which is above us isn’t going to come from the traditional places, it’s going to come from contact with an infinitely superior civilization.

SS: Yes. An infinitely superior civilization is going to find the best in you, and you will present the best part of yourself, as [Abraham] Lincoln said, “the better angels of [your] nature.” That’s what goodness does. Good doesn’t inspire evil; good propagates a greater good. And that’s what I thought that the best science fiction does.

close encounters

For me, 2001[: A Space Odyssey] had a profound impact on my daily life. I was in college, and it was the first time I went to a movie where I really felt like I was having a religious experience. And I wasn’t stoned. I didn’t smoke or do any drugs and I didn’t drink. I was a pretty straight shooter. I walked into the [theater] and saw 2001 for the first time on the opening weekend. And I remember two things. The first thing I remember was the images of space were not as dark as I thought they were going to be. There wasn’t a lot of contrast. You know why there wasn’t any contrast? Because everybody was smoking grass in the theater. They polluted the actual atmosphere!

Stanley would have flipped out if he had seen that he didn’t have the true absence of light—black—on his screens because there was too much marijuana smoke. I saw it seven or eight more times in better viewing conditions. But that first weekend . . . I think they even went back and changed the [marketing] campaign to call it “the ultimate trip.” Because it was appealing to another side of our culture, the drug culture.

JC: People were dropping acid. I watched the film—this was before any kind of home video—eighteen times in its first couple years of release, all in theaters. I’ve seen every kind of audience response to it. I remember at one, a guy ran down the aisle toward the screen, screaming, “It’s God! It’s God!” And he meant it in that moment.

SS: I had a guy in my theater who actually walked up to the screen with his arms out, and he walked through the screen. Only later were we told the screen was in louvers. It wasn’t just like a white piece of material.

JC: That must have blown people’s minds.

SS: People were blown out because the person disappeared into the screen! During [the] stargate [sequence] of all times.

JC: I had such a strong physiological response to the movie. I related to it as falling down the stargate, down this kind of infinite tunnel. I went outside on the sidewalk in the sunlight—it was a matinee—and threw up. Honestly, it had such a physiological effect on me. And I knew I’d seen something important. I could only process part of it at the age of fourteen. I got the bone turning into the spaceship. I even got the Star Baby at the end, the next stage in evolution. I didn’t understand the Regency hotel room.

SS: That went over my head, too. But what I thought was amazing was that I was so lost in Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley’s deep thinking, or whatever symbology they intended or profound meaning they were trying to achieve, it was better that I was left in the dust of their creation. It made me see some things more clearly than if I [had] understood it [all].

JC: You poured yourself into it like a Rorschach.

SS: I fell between the cracks of their filmmaking and of their conceptual partnership, and it was a beautiful crack to fall down in. The crack I fell through was the stargate. I think we all fell into the same stargate and came out this side, making movies.

JC: Stanley avoided the problem of what the alien would look like by just not showing it. You met that challenge head-on [in Close Encounters], and I think you pulled that off given the technology of the time.

SS: At the time, what I really wanted to do was throw so much backlight into my camera that all the little E.T.s would be almost like silhouettes, and they would be more impressionistic. The costumes were very flimsy. They were like the old Cat People movie. Zippers up and down the back, something you really couldn’t shoot in front light. I thought the less you see, the more we can imagine our own extraterrestrial. We can put our own face on it. I only really allowed the face of the [special effects artist] Carlo Rambaldi creation, Puck, to be revealed.

JC: Did you learn that on Jaws—the less you see, the better?

SS: I did. All the technical snafus on Jaws—it was impossible making that film on the actual Atlantic Ocean. Saner people would have done it in a tank, and today they’d do it in CG. They’d do it on a computer. But I like being at sea. I kind of liked being out there. It was a horrible experience at the same time because I was facing the end of my career. Everybody was telling me this was going to end my career. I believed them because we were getting one or two shots a day.

JC: But that made you better.

SS: What it made me was tenacious. Not that I had anything to prove to anybody but myself, but I was not going to get fired, and I wasn’t going to fail. It might fail me, if the audience didn’t show up, but I wasn’t going to fail it.

Excerpt provided by Insight Editions from James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. © 2018 AMC Network Entertainment LLC. All rights reserved.

You can purchase James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction here.

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