Steven Spielberg stood outside the main theater on the Paramount Studios lot last week, waiting for the premiere of a documentary that had already put him through an emotional wringer.
"It was like pulling a bandage off very, very slowly," said the Oscar-winning entertainment mogul in recalling the first time he had viewed the film about a year ago. "I had to watch it in stages, in dollops. But when the bandage finally came all the way off, I realized it didn't hurt so bad."
What had initially unnerved Spielberg was the subject of the documentary: Steven Spielberg.
The film, simply titled "Spielberg" and premiering Oct. 7 on HBO, is the most extensive and insightful examination to date of the filmmaker, who is at once the most popular and successful in movie history, and one of the most private and elusive creators in Hollywood.
Said the 70-year-old Spielberg, "I knew in watching the film, I would have to face myself. I had a couple of nice cries. But I was very pleased. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it with Susan."
"Susan" is Susan Lacy, the creator of the groundbreaking "American Masters" series on PBS, which centered on revelatory profiles of several prominent artists and musicians, including Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and the late Mike Nichols. Lacy left PBS four years ago after signing a multiyear deal with HBO to produce and direct documentaries. "Spielberg" is her first project for the pay-cable network.
The 2 ½-hour film utilizes generous clips from blockbusters ("Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", "E.T the Extra-Terrestrial"), more serious endeavors (the Oscar-winning "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan"), films that stoked controversy ("The Color Purple") and even misfires ("1941"). The filmography traces the evolution of the artist who first fell in love with movies as a young boy and later blossomed into a master craftsman and storyteller whose phenomenal financial and commercial success changed the face of the film industry.
"Most people don't think of Steven as a personal filmmaker," Lacy said last week in an interview a few hours before the premiere at Paramount, where she would be joined by Spielberg and some of the A-listers who have appeared in his films, including Tom Hanks, Vin Diesel and Holly Hunter.
Lacy continued: "They think of him as a commercial filmmaker. They don't think of him the same way that they do a Marty Scorsese. I thought he was not as valued a director because he's so successful that it's kind of hard to look at him as an artist and as a personal filmmaker. So that's what I wanted to do — I wanted to tell that story and tell it through his films."
The film also illustrates how Spielberg's personal turmoils and triumphs have emerged as themes in his work. His unconventional upbringing — which included being bullied as a child and the divorce of his parents leading to bitter estrangement from his father — and his longstanding denial of his Jewish heritage followed by an overwhelming embrace; his divorce from his first wife, actress Amy Irving; and his bliss with second wife, actress Kate Capshaw, and their large multicultural family are all factors that come into play in "Spielberg" the film and Spielberg the filmmaker. Also prominent are home movies of Spielberg at work and at play, many of which have never been seen.
Weighing in with testimonials and anecdotes are members of Hollywood's elite — directors Scorsese, George Lucas, Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola, as well as Hanks, Hunter, Leonardo DiCaprio, Liam Neeson, Dustin Hoffman, Oprah Winfrey and Christian Bale, who made his film debut as a 13-year-old in Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun."
Lacy characterized "Spielberg" as "the most challenging film I've done. Steven is a living legend, and he is still with us. And to do a film about the most famous and successful director in the world is itself a challenge. I chose not to think about that too much. If I had, I don't think I would have been able to make the film."
The two convened for "at least 15 interviews, minimum two hours each." Lacy also conducted close to 90 additional interviews.
Despite his massive success, Spielberg has long maintained a low public profile — he rarely grants interviews and has never recorded a DVD commentary for any of his films. Still, convincing him to participate in the project proved to be relatively easy for Lacy — the two had established a good rapport when she had interviewed him for a few previous "American Masters" installments, including a profile on artist Norman Rockwell. ("He has one on the biggest private collections of Norman Rockwell in the world.")
"I think we took a couple of times to really warm up," Lacy said. "But from the beginning, we trusted each other — I trusted that he was going to be open with me, and he trusted that I would make a good film."
She said there were "absolutely no ground rules" for the project, though there were delicate areas. His divorce from Irving remains "a sensitive and tender topic" for Spielberg, although he does address it in the film. "They're still friends, and they share a son. It wasn't a bitter situation — it just didn't work out. I said it had to be in the film, that we couldn't ignore it," Lacy said. Also, Capshaw, who starred in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," declined to be interviewed, although she did provide Lacy with some home movies of the family.
Still, tackling the depth and expanse of Spielberg in 2 ½ hours was a daunting task — at one time, Lacy considered extending "Spielberg" to two nights. And even though Spielberg is a Hollywood hyphenate — studio owner, film producer and executive producer of numerous television series — Lacy chose to focus mostly on his achievements as the director of more than 30 films.
The tone of the documentary is primarily positive — it is clear that Lacy is a huge admirer of Spielberg's work. Much of the project is weighted toward his career highlights — about 25 minutes is devoted to "Schindler's List." His less successful films, such as "1941," "War Horse," "The BFG," "The Terminal," "Hook" and "Always" are barely discussed or absent from the film.
Still, Lacy pointed out that she did include less than positive views on Spielberg in the documentary. Some film critics take shots at what they said was the downplaying of the gritty realism of novelist Alice Walker in his adaptation of "The Color Purple," and "Empire of the Sun" screenwriter Tom Stoppard takes exception to the sentimentality of that film.
Lacy acknowledged that some viewers and observers of Spielberg may find fault with the tone of the documentary.
"I am proud of the film," Lacy said. "Now I'm just nervous on how people will react. I know there will be those who will feel I wasn't critical enough. But, hopefully, people will get past that."
What matters most to her is Spielberg's stamp of approval. When he called and said he loved it, "I felt myself shaking. I was in tears and said, 'You have to know what this conversation means to me.'"
And Spielberg said the documentary gave him a fresh perspective on his work and life: "It's not that it taught me about the past, but it gives me renewed encouragement about moving forward and continuing my life as a director, and as a father and husband."
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)