For nearly thirty years, Joseph McBride has been a remarkably perceptive writer about American film and film history, writing groundbreaking studies on directors such as Orson Welles, John Ford, and Howard Hawks, as well as the highly acclaimed biography Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. In his latest book, Steven Spielberg (Simon and Schuster), McBride examines the life and the films of history's most successful film director with a thoroughness and a critical perspective that have been unmatched by previous writers. This is, in effect, the story of how Steven Spielberg grew up, both within himself and in the eyes of a critical establishment which dismissed him for years as an entertainer rather than a serious artist.
RH: Spielberg's a figure who's held a great deal of interest for you for some time, long before you started this biography.
JM: When I first noticed him, I was watching a TV movie called Something Evil that he directed in 1972. It was fairly routine, but in the middle of it was an amazing fantasy sequence with some elaborate, surreal visual imagery and I thought, "Whoever made this is an incredibly talented visual filmmaker," found out his name, and made a mental note... Actually, I was aware of him before that; I came to Hollywood for the first time in 1970 and then again in 1971, and had read in Variety about this young director, 24 or 25 years old, and I thought it would be interesting to interview this guy. I just didn't get around to it because I too busy talking to John Ford and Orson Welles at the time for the books I wrote about them.
But over the years I kept following his films and wondering why, even though the public loved him, the critics and academics looked down their noses at him, not taking him seriously. I kept waiting to see a good book on him and the stuff that came out on him was basically cut-and-paste jobs. There wasn't even a good critical study. Finally I figured that somebody should do one and decided that I'd do one. I thought about it as early as E.T. but figured that he was too young at the time. But I kept thinking about Spielberg while I was working on my book about Frank Capra, which kept me busy from 1984 to 1991. After that, particularly when he announced that he was finally going to do Schindler's List, I felt it was time.
I also thought that this would be an interesting contrast to my Capra book. Frank Capra was a man who was ashamed of being an Italian- American immigrant, who always tried to assimilate and deny who he was and that, I think, helped really destroy him as a person. Spielberg was the opposite -- he tried to escape his ethnic identity because he was ashamed of being Jewish when he was a kid, and because he was persecuted to some extent, but as he got older, he stopped running away from it. He embraced it, accepted who he was, and Schindler's List is one high point of that trajectory. I find writing about that refreshing and enjoyable compared to Capra's tragic decline.
RH: One of the great things about this story for me was precisely that -- it really is, in a sense, about how Spielberg becomes mature enough to make Schindler's List. We see him grappling with increasingly mature projects throughout, and this book helped put that grappling into perspective.
JM: He got a lot of heat from critics for his previous attempts to make serious films, like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, which I think are underrated films. The Color Purple has problems, but it's a very powerful, impassioned film about an abused woman and I think that he could really relate to that character -- as a Jew, he felt an empathy with black people. One of the things I found out in my research is that when he was young, he had a great passion for the civil rights movement, like many young people of his generation. So this film really wasn't a stretch for him, but critics still asked why a white Jewish guy would make a film about a black woman and assumed that it was a cyncical attempt to get an Academy Award, which I think was a terrible insult to him.
And then Empire of the Sun was uneven -- the first half is better than the second half, but that first half is so tremendous that he should have gotten more credit for it. But it was about a child, and a lot of critics won't take a film seriously if it's about children. One critic called it "shamelessly kiddie-centric," an incredibly bigoted remark -- as if there was something shameful about making a film about a child.
RH: Ironically, one of the first people to tell Spielberg that he should make a film about kids was an idol of film critics, Francois Truffaut.
JM: Yeah, while he was making Close Encounters, Truffaut kept saying, "Why are you making these big Hollywood films? You should make a film about keeds." I used to see Truffaut from time to time in Hollywood, and he used to tell me how much he admired Spielberg, but that he wished he'd make a film like Small Change, and finally I was able to tell him, "Spielberg's making his film about kids, but it's about a kid and an extraterrestrial." Truffaut thought that was hilarious; it cracked him up.
But the very popularity of E.T. was held against it and Spielberg in many circles; how could he be serious if he makes a film that makes $400,000,000? I think we have a Puritanical separation in this country between art and entertainment; if it's fun it can't be serious, and if it's entertainment it can't be art. But for Spielberg there's really no distinction. Schindler's List is an entertaining, popular film -- it's not an art house film, but it is a film with a lot of passion and suspense and even gallows humor, a lot of popular elements that allow it to speak to a large number of people, which is why it's such a success. It's not like Shoah, a great film but difficult for many people to watch. Spielberg takes a difficult subject and makes it accessible for huge numbers of people around the world, which I think is a great gift.
RH: And it's a gift which, when you contrast him to some of the other directors of his generation, who came out of film schools, that's...I don't want to say that he was completely self-taught, because he did have the opportunity to watch a lot of great directors at work, but he was extremely self-motivated and got where he was without a lot of formal training.
JM: He couldn't into film school at USC or UCLA because his grades weren't good enough, and ended up going to Cal State Long Beach, which didn't even have a film department at the time. But he was in college mostly so he wouldn't have to go to Vietnam and to keep his father happy; he spent most of his time hanging around Universal. One of the myths that I dispel in the book is that he found an empty office and took it over. His father had some connections at Universal and he got in to meet people. Chuck Silvers got him a job as an apprentice in the editing department, which gave him a desk and a phone and an opportunity to roam the lot.
Spielberg was very much an autodidact, but he had the benefit of a kind of apprenticeship that most people didn't get in those days. It was virtually impossible to break into filmmaking back then unless you were the son of a cameraman or something, but Spielberg was such a remarkable kid that people took notice of him. He was thrown off some sets, but many directors let him hang around and watch. He was such a passionate, creative kid that people at Universal gave him an extraordinary amount of latitude.
RH: He started building the myths about himself very early. In addition to the empty office story, he also claimed to be a year younger than he really was.
JM: A lot of directors create legends about themselves; it's a profession in which your whole job is storytelling, so people start rewriting the story of their own lives. My biography of Capra is a dismantling of the myth he created for himself in The Name Above the Title, which was basically a novel about Hollywood. Spielberg's was much more selective about the stories he chose to tell. In 1971, he began shaving a year off his age, for reasons which are still not entirely quite clear, but which may have to do with a contract that he signed with the producer of his short film Amblin' when he was 21, which is the subject of a current lawsuit I cover in my book in great detail. But from 1971, and for some time after that, the press printed the false version -- that he was born in 1947, rather than 1946.
The Los Angeles Times discovered the truth and printed it in 1981, but it went largely unnoticed until a few years later. Still, all I had to do was call the Cincinatti Board of Health and ask for a copy of his birth certificate -- the kind of elementary research that a lot of film historians and journalists don't bother doing.
RH: It's not the only case in which Spielberg's been able to avoid close attention from the press. His involvement in the making of Twilight Zone: The Movie and the incident that led to the death of Vic Morrow and two children was pretty much ignored.
JM: What's remarkable is that even though he's the co- producer of that movie, Spielberg never had to give a deposition or appear in court. A lot of other people had to testify, but he managed never to be called. It's unclear whether he had any knowledge of the practices that led to the illegal hiring of those two children, but a lot of his closest associates were involved in an inquiry from which he managed to insulate himself. He's very effective at controlling his image and keeping the press at a distance, even though he gives a lot of interviews.
RH: How did that effect your research and writing of his biography?
JM: This is an unauthorized biography; I don't believe in authorized biographies, because the writer generally loses too much control over the telling of the story. So when I started the book, I sent him a letter, telling him that I'd admired his films for a long time, that this would be a serious, in-depth book, and that I'd welcome the opportunity to talk with him if he cared to do so. I was told that he doesn't talk to people who write books about him, that he wants to write an autobiography at some point.
So I didn't get to talk to him, and when I first contacted many people, they called Spielberg's office and asked, "Should we talk to this guy?" Generally, his people said that it was fine to talk to me if the person wanted, and they actually said nice things about my work, so that opened some doors. There were a few people, like his mother, that he did discourage from talking to me, but I did get to talk to his father, which I'm very proud about, because we almost never hear about Spielberg's father and his role in Spielberg's life. His father worked very closely with him on his teenage films; it wasn't until Spielberg wanted to make films as a career that his father tried to discourage him, and it's that aspect of their relationship that Spielberg has often highlighted in interviews.
Many biographies seem to rush over their subjects' childhoods in about ten pages and then move on to what they consider the exciting parts. Writers don't seem to bother talking to the people from their subjects' childhood, even though a person's personality is formed in early childhood. So I wanted to write a biography in which every year of Spielberg's life was treated with the same weight and space in the text, and except for a bulge in the middle dealing with Jaws and Close Encounters, I've mostly achieved that.
RH: When you were doing the research for this book, did you find yourself crossing paths on the biographical trail with John Baxter (whose biography of Spielberg was recently published by HarperCollins)?
JM: No, he only interviewed about twenty people; most of the material in that book is from previously printed sources. So Spielberg's background was very much virgin territory for me, which was great. I like to do books about things that haven't been explored thoroughly and most of the more than 300 people that I interviewed had never talked about Spielberg for the press or biographers before. I spent an awful lot of time on his childhood, and found people who'd been waiting twenty, thirty years to tell their stories -- journalists had just never called them until now.
A lot of writers just don't do the work, and I don't see the point of simply repeating what's already been said, especially in cases where a lot of it is wrong. I'm an old newspaper guy. I ring bells and knock on doors and try to find out what really happened. Spielberg lived in six different places growing up, which meant six times the amount of work, but that makes the end result six times as interesting as well.
Suggested further reading|
Patrick McGilligan | Gavin Lambert
All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan