When someone asks you to name a director, you probably say "Steven Spielberg". But how much do you really know about the inventor of the Summer Blockbuster (Jaws, 1975)? This 2017 documentary explores the life and career of Steven Spielberg, and how they interlink. It is told through interviews with the man himself, as well as his parents and many famous faces he's worked with through the years.
It was produced by HBO and released on October 7th, 2017.
Though born in the Midwest, Steven Spielberg grew up in Phoenix, Arizona — a state he became as enamored with as the Military Superhero. Here he was part of a very small Jewish population, though occasionally ashamed of his faith. Throughout his childhood he shot short films for fun, living near an airfield and playing adventure with his friends, recreating war scenes. When earning his photography scout badge, his father's still camera broke so he shot a short film, instead. The documentary does not mention his move to California as a high school senior and attending film school, choosing instead to highlight the "boy from Phoenix" nickname awarded him during his various trips to film studios, with various industry staff recounting it almost seemed like he hung around backlots so much that he commandeered an office in editing and the production added him to payroll rather than kicking him off. This turns the romanticism of Spielberg's introduction to filmmaking Up to Eleven, highlighting his natural talent and seeming destiny. Sid Sheinberg speaks of his discovery of Spielberg fondly, recounting a then 20-year-old cinephile Like a Son.
Spielberg also talks a lot about his family life, revealing to the people who can name seven of his films that he, in fact, has seven children. The first child he lists is the only one that's technically not his — Jessica Capshaw, who he adds that he's extremely proud of. Despite this, there is a larger focus on his past relationships with Amy Irving than current wife Kate Capshaw, who does not appear. However, there are multiple home movie clips of the Capshaw-Spielberg children in the 1990s and 2000s included as archive footage.
There is also a lot of focus put on Spielberg's working relationship with George Lucas, with Spielberg being named as the first person to believe in Star Wars when it was being proposed to the rest of the Movie Brats. This is elaborated on with Spielberg's involvement with that franchise through the decades. The documentary does in part attempt to create a rivalry here, though, pitting Lucas' Star Wars films against Spielberg's Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It does suggest there was a brotherhood in creating the Indiana Jones films, comparative to attributing a lot of credit for Star Wars to Spielberg where it may be unsubstantiated. The working relationship with Harrison Ford is briefly discussed.
Many of Spielberg's early films are brought to the know for the audience, including Amblin' — the inspiration for the name of his production company — and Duel, for which he was recognized as having large potential at a young age. The director also brings up his struggle to create the films exactly how he wanted with limitations of technology, values of the time, and his own relationship to the subject matter.
The technological troubles are discussed in general ranging from his very early childhood works, provoking applause for his ingenious editing skills and Stock Footage, to the quality of the shark dummy in Jaws being a large reason to create more suspense in the film as well as the world famous leitmotif, starting Spielberg's longstanding reliance on John Williams.
The values he mentions are specifically discussed in relation to his adaptation of The Color Purple, Spielberg suggesting that he did not feel wrong for being a white man to make this movie but that he did a disservice to the LGBT Community in choosing to tone down the lesbian narrative between Celie and Shug. He does not make excuses for this, though friends of the director remark on how the Spielberg family have been unapologetic advocates for equal rights for all even when it was unpopular; this is supported greatly by the number of queer works produced by and starring his wife Kate (The Love Letter, A Girl Thing) and stepdaughter Jessica (The L Word, Grey's Anatomy), and is particularly driven home when looking at the time of the film's release and Spielberg openly supporting the women of Hollywood amidst the multiple allegations of industry-colluded sexual harassment, for which he has faced no accusations himself and has instead been hailed as a gentleman in the documentary and in media at the time in late 2017.
In terms of subject matter, Spielberg's long relationship with Schindler's List is given much screentime. He bought the movie rights as soon as the book Schindler's Ark was released in 1982. However, he did not believe he was the right man for the job because of his more distant relation to the concentration camps and his lack of connection to his Jewish upbringing. He unsuccessfully tried to hire other directors, including friend Roman Polanski, who refused because he had personally been incarcerated in a ghetto during The Holocaust and saw his mother die in Auschwitz. As Spielberg needed to mature into being close enough to the Holocaust to make Schindler's List, Polanski needed time to grieve over his experiences before being able to later make Holocaust movie The Pianist in 2002. By 1988, Spielberg had secured Martin Scorsese to direct, but at this point had a son, Max, and a burgeoning relationship with Kate Capshaw. He held back on making the film at this point after talking with Scorsese, the thought process given to Spielberg being that, in a few years, he may owe it to his family to have created this narrative for their collective heritage as Scorsese is not Jewish, he's Italian (he would direct the Universal remake of Cape Fear instead). After divorcing from Irving in 1989, Spielberg was reinvigorated in his faith when Kate Capshaw insisted on converting to Judaism before marrying him, and they had two children — Sasha and Sawyer — before going to Poland in 1992 to make the movie with four of the five children (Capshaw's daughter and adopted son Theo, and their children together; Spielberg's son Max was living with his mother).
The movie is in stark contrast to Spielberg's previous foray into the world of the Nazis, the 1979 comedy 1941, but also coming off the back of his more recent WW2 drama Empire of the Sun of 1987. This is credited as part of the maturation process he underwent in the late 1980s as he decided to make the film, as well as explored as a powerful Spielberg film in its own right. There is no mention of his lesser-known 1989 WW2 movie Always. Spielberg and Ralph Fiennes discuss the character of Amon in Schindler's List, and how he had to be presented as a more kind person than the real life Nazi because how evil the real man and his actions were, if shown realistically, would have seemed to be too dramatic and a stereotypically incurably evil Nazi to be believed, which they feared would distract from the story. They had to give the villain they wanted to be seen as evil some redeeming features that the real man didn't have in order to be "realistic".
Archive footage shown, where the people do not themselves otherwise appear in the documentary, includes: Goldie Hawn, Joan Crawford, Dinah Shore, Marcia Lucas (George Lucas' ex-wife) and Dan Rather behind the scenes of the Star Wars movies, and home movies of Amy Irving, Theo Spielberg, Jessica Capshaw, Sasha Spielberg, and photographs of Spielberg's other children and extended family.
- J. J. Abrams (Super 8, Star Wars)
- Leah Adler — Spielberg's mother, who died during post-production and thus to whom the film is dedicated
- Bob Balaban (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, co-author of Spielberg, Truffaut & Me biography)
- Christian Bale (Empire of the Sun)
- Eric Bana (Munich)
- Drew Barrymore (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, god-daughter of Spielberg)
- Cate Blanchett (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)
- Steven Bochco (former writer at Universal, New Hollywood researcher)
- James Brolin (Catch Me If You Can)
- Bill Butler (Jaws)
- Rick Carter (Amistad, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, What Lies Beneath, Lincoln)
- Francis Ford Coppola (Movie Brats)
- Peter Coyote (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial)
- Daniel Craig (Munich, The Adventures of Tintin)
- Tom Cruise (Minority Report, War of the Worlds)
- Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
- Brian De Palma (Movie Brats)
- Laura Dern (Jurassic Park)
- Leonardo DiCaprio (Catch Me If You Can)
- Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Always)
- David Edelstein (film critic)
- Roger Ernest (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Sugarland Express, Slipstream)
- Sally Field (Lincoln)
- Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List)
- Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Indiana Jones)
- David Geffen (co-founder of DreamWorks with Spielberg)
- Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park)
- Doris Kearns Goodwin (Lincoln)
- Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Bridge of Spies, Band of Brothers, The Pacific)
- J Hoberman (film critic)
- Dustin Hoffman (Hook)
- Holly Hunter (Always)
- Annette Insdorf (film historian)
- Joanna Johnston (Indiana Jones, The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Munich, War Horse, Lincoln, The BFG)
- Michael Kahn (literally every Spielberg directed or produced film since 1977note )
- Janusz Kaminski (Class Of 61, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, Jurassic Park, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin, Lincoln, War Horse, Bridge of Spies, The BFG)
- Lawrence Kasdan (Continental Divide, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark)
- Jeffrey Katzenberg (co-founded DreamWorks with Spielberg)
- Ben Kingsley (Slipstream, Schindler's List, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence)
- Kathleen Kennedy (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Poltergeist, Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple, Twister, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Always, Hook, Gremlins, Schindler's List, War of the Worlds, Munich, Hereafter, Lincoln, The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, The BFG, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, co-founded Amblin Entertainment with Spielberg, President of Lucasfilm)
- David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, War of the Worlds)
- Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln)
- George Lucas (Movie Brats)
- Laurie MacDonald (The Terminal)
- Frank Marshall (The Color Purple, Raiders of the Lost Ark, co-founded Amblin Entertainment with Spielberg)
- Janet Maslin (film critic)
- Melissa Mathison (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The BFG)
- Todd McCarthy (film critic)
- Ronald Meyer (former President and CEO of Universal)
- Dennis Muren (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park)
- Liam Neeson (Schindler's List, Star Wars, Lincoln)
- Walter Parkes (Twister, Amistad, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, former President of Amblin Entertainment)
- Michael Phillips (Close Encounters of the Third Kind)
- Martin Scorsese (Movie Brats)
- A. O. Scott (film critic)
- Sid Sheinberg (mentor to Spielberg, "father" of Universal)
- Adam Somner (Indiana Jones, War of the Worlds, Munich, The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, Lincoln, The BFG, Bridge of Spies)
- Anne Spielberg — Spielberg's sister
- Arnold Spielberg — Spielberg's father
- Nancy Spielberg — Spielberg's sister
- Sue Spielberg — Spielberg's sister
- Tom Stoppard (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
- John Williams (composer to Spielberg)
- Oprah Winfrey (The Color Purple)
- Robert Zemeckis (1941, What Lies Beneath, Monster House)
- Vilmos Zsigmond (The Sugarland Express, Close Encounters of the Third Kind)
Tropes present in the documentary:
- The All-American Boy: Spielberg (despite Phoenix being the fifth largest city in the US). Used in two ways: shows his Small Town Boredom and the adventures he'd make for himself with the aid of a camera, and to make him "that kid from Phoenix" as an Affectionate Nickname and an endearment factor when he starts to work at Universal.
- Alliterative Family: Several of the Spielbergs. Steven, Sue, Sasha, Sawyer.
- Amateur Cast: Spielberg's boyhood friends acting out war scenes.
- Cool Old Guy: Steven Spielberg seems just about as friendly and adorkable but driven and intelligent in the present as in the archive footage.
- Family Man: Spielberg talks lovingly about his children, first about when Max is born, then getting to know Jessica, and so on.
- First Girl Wins: Subverted, as it looks like it's heading that way when after a career-forced separation Spielberg and Amy Irving finally marry. A Foregone Conclusion, however, since in 2017 the audience is aware that Spielberg has been with Kate Capshaw for nearly 30 years.
- Freakier Than Fiction: Discussed. It's pointed out that to keep the gritty dramatic realism of Schindler's List, they needed to tone down how evil the Nazis (specifically Amon Goeth) were so that it didn't seem like an excessively moral-rights-trip portrayal.
- Harmful to Minors: Spielberg seems to be a great dad, besides the whole family trip to death camps thing. Potentially also the war games with his friends as a child, but they were adventurous boys in the 50s/60s.
- Hell Hotel: Or to some effect of really creepy vacation, because Spielberg took his kids on a nice trip to Poland... specifically, to the concentration camps where he was filming Schindler's List. They ranged from age 16 to 1.
- Informed Judaism: Spielberg was bullied for being Jewish despite not being overtly religious at all growing up.
- Like a Son to Me: Sid Sheinberg was clearly very fond of the outgoing but reserved young Spielberg, and their relationship is presented quite like this. Sheinberg gave Spielberg every opportunity and had faith in his creative choices from the start.
- Massive Numbered Siblings: For Spielberg himself it's not too excessive, in that he's the eldest of four. However, he has seven kids of his own and many of them have long enough names that when he lists them it sounds longer.
- The Mentor: Sheinberg to Spielberg, and Spielberg to Zemeckis.
- Merit Badges for Everything: Spielberg making one of his earliest films to get a photography badge, and the question of there really being a badge for that.
- Military Superhero: Discussed, with actors and producers as well as film critics expounding on the many militaristic films of Spielberg, but also mentioning how obviously some of them come across as critical.
- Multiple Reference Pun: The tagline, "direct from the heart", playing on the double meaning of 'direct'.
- Patriotic Fervor: Spielberg demonstrates his patriotism not only to the United States, but also to Arizona and the military in particular.
- Romance on the Set: Shown twice for Spielberg and once for George Lucas.
- Second Love: The incredibly loving relationship between Spielberg and Kate Capshaw.
- Talking Heads: Most of the interviews are done this way, thankfully broken up by more engaging direction.