Spielberg – a consummate director, an incredible career in film

The 2017 HBO documentary SPIELBERG by Susan Lacy salutes one of the greatest film directors there is.

SPIELBERG. In the same way that blockbuster movies are often marketed with simply the surname of the headline star, director Susan Lacy in her feature-length documentary for HBO last year must have felt that just the surname of this particular film director would suffice for the title. And how right she was because what a unique and incredible career Steven Spielberg has had to date. Making films in almost every genre since his auspicious feature debut with the TV movie Duel in 1971, he’s one of my favourite artists in cinema. So as soon as I heard the documentary was arriving on-demand, I sought it out.
A 1980s portrait of Steven Spielberg

A 1980s portrait of Steven Spielberg

Clocking in at 2 hours 20 minutes, it’s certainly a detailed look at this icon of modern movies. From his early days as part of a now quite extraordinary collection of other filmmakers – Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and George Lucas (amazing!) – Lacy profiles almost every one of Spielberg’s features in some form up to his 2016 film The BFG, whether’s that’s just with clips or in-depth interviews. On a second viewing, there’s only the rather curious omission of his beautiful 1989 romantic drama Always. Although there’s a brief extract of an interview with one of its’ stars Holly Hunter, it’s strange this wonderful remake of the 1943 movie A Guy Named Joe wasn’t more profiled, as it’s one of my SPIELBERG favourites.

But even without that, this is a dazzling journey through a roster of films that I grew up with and which have a special place in my heart. And it’s in the meaty chapters dealing with Jaws, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich that the documentary is at its most riveting, revealing terrific behind-the-scenes tales of how these landmark movies were made.

With Jaws, hearing again the legendary stories of how the shark (nicknamed Bruce) didn’t work properly. This luckily leads to a masterstroke of creativity incorporating John Williams’ score to a much greater effect. In Schindler’s List, how the director worked specifically with his leads Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes to deliver such astonishing performances. With Jurassic Park, watching special effects maestro Dennis Muren unveil the technology that could make dinosaurs live again on screen. In Saving Private Ryan, listening to its star Tom Hanks recount how they shot the phenomenal opening sequence. And with Munich, how the very final shot brilliantly ties together the horror of that moment in Germany in 1972 with another horrific event that would follow in America in 2001.

Steven Spielberg directing Liam Neeson in Schindler's List

Directing Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List

Interspersed with all of these fabulous movie moments, the documentary also explores Spielberg’s personal life to similarly engrossing effect. From his relationship with his three sisters and how they were a part of his early film. To the tumultuous marriage of his parents Leah Adler and Arnold Spielberg, which would eventually provide an emotional template for many of his movies. That of the absence of a father or the connection between a father and his son.

We also see how important his second marriage to the actress Kate Capshaw, whom he met on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984, has been. It has not only provided a loving and fulfilling home life for the director but also helped him reconnect with his faith. And it’s this which arguably leads to the greatest moment in his illustrious career when he made Schindler’s List in 1993. And then was rewarded with ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Director’ Oscars the following year.

Returning to the film part of his life, it’s great to listen to all the contributions from the other talented artists who’ve been part of Spielberg’s crew for so many years. There’s producer Kathleen Kennedy, editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren and composer John Williams. And of course the array of dazzling actors he’s worked with, including Hanks, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale. There’s also Spielberg’s enduring fascination with David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia. We hear how formative the movie was for the young film-maker and how it continues to be a touchstone for him. He watches it every year, marvelling each time in Lean’s masterly visual storytelling.

So, if you’re a lover of all things cinema – like me – and also find it fascinating to hear about how the truly gifted artists do what they do, then track down Lacy’s documentary. It’ll be one you’ll return to again and again, just like Spielberg’s wondrous films.