"I don't have to keep studios happy. A long time ago I felt I did. I don't feel that anymore. I don't feel like I'm working for anybody but myself now."
Steven Spielberg smiles, and reaches for a mug of tea.
It's a beautiful autumn day on the lot at Universal Studios where Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment production company occupies its own little oasis. There are no signs leading to it, or on it. The two-story, Southwestern pueblo-style building sits at the end of a sloping road and seems to give off a distinctive aura. No matter how hot and smoggy the weather, the air here always feels fresh, the breezes cool, spiked with the pungent scent of eucalyptus.
Outside the closed door to his office, more enticing smells waft from the kitchen where the chef is preparing lunch for any of the 60 staffers who might want it.
At the moment, Spielberg almost looks the part of a movie mogul in his Hollywood casual/corporate sport coat and tie. But he is squirmy . Although he seems finally to be coming to terms with adulthood (he just turned 46)--speaking of his responsibilities as a father of five and of the emotional depths he had to plumb to make his latest film, "Schindler's List"--he may not have all those adult pistons firing just yet.
Bouncing around in a big overstuffed chair, he sits on one leg, then the other, while tugging at his patterned tie. "I had to wear this for a photograph," he says anxiously. "Does it match?"
Actually, the many parts of Steven Spielberg have never quite matched, at least to the legions in Hollywood who have pinned him under a microscope for more than 25 years now. Directing an episode of "Night Gallery" when he was only 20, then charging forth with a cavalcade of lovable or scary creatures in films that dazzled with technical derring-do, made him a Wunderkind and kept him there, long after he was one. Which only tried Hollywood's patience. That the Wunderkind had a Midas touch, and soon became one of the richest men in Hollywood, didn't endear him either. And when his attempts at more sophisticated "real people" stories, such as "The Color Purple" and "Empire of the Sun," failed to move many critics, or members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he found himself a Neither-Nor.
Neither was he a director who simply made fabulistic stories; nor was he a man who produced great art. Rather, he was a polymorph, one who had reserved for himself a most curious status. He was a Great Director with an asterisk after the designation--a Great Director in a genre that wasn't the main dramatic event. This seemed to annoy people, too.
Now comes "Schindler's List." The just-opened movie is the most ambitious, difficult, reality-based movie Spielberg has done, and it carries with it box-office-sinking baggage. It is shot in black and white, runs three hours and 13 minutes, and it concerns what has to be the most unentertaining chapter in modern history: the Holocaust. Coming on the heels of "Jurassic Park," his far-fetched special-effects blockbuster that is heading toward a record $900 million at the box office worldwide, it may only confound the issue of Spielberg's place in the scheme of Hollywood even more.
Or it may, finally, erase the asterisk for good.
"BONNIE!" IT IS NOT THE FIRST TIME THAT SPIELberg's sudden, ear-splitting shout, in the middle of a pleasant conversational sentence, has caused his visitor to jump, and his assistant, a thin, pale woman, to come flying. She hovers in the office doorway uncertainly.
"Where's the place we get our bagels?"
"I'll find out," she promises and departs. After which the director leans back in his chair and calmly resumes the conversation.
SPIELBERG'S WORK ALMOST ALWAYS HAS BEEN about Spielberg's imagination, which strikes some as that of a kid reading comic books then drifting off to sleep and letting the fantasies run amok. Evil was portrayed by a hellbent diesel truck ("Duel"), a killer shark ("Jaws") and cartoonish Nazis in two of the "Indiana Jones" pictures. Good came in the form of superhero-types and friendly extraterrestrials ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.--The Extra-Terrestrial"). And in all of his pictures, good triumphed in the end.
But in re-creating the story of Oskar Schindler, a German by birth, a Nazi by affiliation and a war profiteer by trade, who saved 1,300 Jews from Nazi death camps, Spielberg was confronted with shades of human gray against the backdrop of one of history's darkest episodes. For once, there was nothing his imagination or his technical wizardry could add to the story.
"I knew it had to be a document, not a melodrama," Spielberg says. "I had to be a reporter, not a director." But the reporter had trouble facing the facts. For a long time, he couldn't bring himself even to visit a concentration camp. "I don't look at sad, ugly things very often," he admits. "I'm a real strong avoider. Most of my movies aren't real life. There were moments in 'Color Purple' and 'Empire of the Sun' that had real life in them, but they're not start-to-finish real life. And this time, I knew I had to look. Then, when I started looking, I couldn't stop."
As a Jew born in 1947, Spielberg grew up hearing adults speak of "the Great Murder." In his grandmother's Cincinnati home, he even encountered a group of death-camp survivors whom she was tutoring in English. One man showed Steven the number tattooed on his arm, making a magic trick of it, showing one of the numbers as a 6--then twisting his arm around to make it a 9. The trick, more than the meaning, made an impression.
In Phoenix, where the Spielbergs moved when Steven was 7, theirs was the only house on the block not lighted up at Christmastime, and he became self-conscious about being the only Jewish boy in his class. Recently, he confided to his mother that he used to tape his nose, hoping to make it turn up.
"Oh, God. Oh, my God!" he whoops when asked about this. "It's true! I used to take a big piece of duct tape and put one end on the tip of my nose and the other end as high up on my forehead line as I could. I had this big nose. My face grew into it, but when I was a child, I was very self-conscious about my schnozz . I thought if you kept your nose taped up that way it would stay . . . like Silly Putty!"
Despite the occasional anti-Semitic remarks he endured, the historic plight of the Jews was something Spielberg largely ignored. "I used to sit around the set of two of the Indiana Jones films watching stuntmen at the catering table in their starched tunics with their SS emblems and their red and white swastikas and I would just take it for granted," he remembers. "I would sit with them and we would nosh together, and then we'd go off and shoot the scene, and I wouldn't think twice about what kind of humanity could have fit themselves into those canvas and wool articles of clothing. It wasn't until I made 'Schindler's List' that I really just kind of woke up." He pauses. "It was a real strong wake-up call."
YEARS AGO, IN AN INTERVIEW, SPIELBERG COMplained: "Sentimentality, that's my tattoo. It's like the media have tattooed sentimentality on my forearm and now I can't get rid of it."
If sentimentality worked--or was excused--in "E.T." and "Close Encounters" and all those "Back to the Future" movies he co-produced, it also was seen as a failing in "Empire of the Sun" and especially in "The Color Purple," Alice Walker's raw, angry, black coming-of-age story set in the first half of this century. The 1985 movie was simplistic, critics felt, overlaid with a pretty, Hollywood gloss. Spielberg ignored the criticism. Mainly it came from people who had read the book, he decided, and had their own visions of what the movie should be. Besides, there were plenty of good reviews, and he read those. Bad reviews, he simply doesn't read. "I bruise easily," he explains, "and why put yourself through the pain needlessly? It's just not productive."
But now, looking back, he sees things he didn't then. "There were certain scenes I couldn't bring myself to shoot," he says, "some of the grittier ones because I didn't grow up that way. Or, if I had been a woman, maybe I could have. But being a man, I didn't know how."
One vital passage in the book was when Shug Avery shows Celie her vagina in a mirror, signaling the awakening of Celie's sexuality and her independence, a scene that does not appear in the film. "Any woman director would have done that brilliantly," Spielberg concedes. "And I was afraid of it. I didn't know how to direct actors to do that. Now, because of 'Schindler's List,' all that's changed. I did things in 'Schindler' that I didn't think I could bring myself around to do."
IT WAS SID SHEINBERG, PRESIDENT AND CHIEF operating officer of Universal's parent organization, MCA Inc., who sent Thomas Keneally's book, "Schindler's List," to Spielberg shortly after it was published in 1982. The story, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in Britain, recounts how Oskar Schindler traveled to Krakow, Poland, in 1939 on the heels of the German army, angling for a way to strike it rich. He bought an enamelware factory and hired Jewish laborers because he could pay them cheaper wages (in fact, the money was paid to the German government; the workers lived on rations). Schindler, an imposing, larger-than-life character, was a bon vivant who kept a wife in Germany and a German mistress in his Krakow apartment, while conducting an affair with his Polish secretary. He plied his fellow Nazis with black market brandy, cigars and bushel baskets of food in exchange for favors. And then, for reasons that he took to his grave in 1974, he risked his life and spent his fortune to save his Jewish workers.
Given the emotional and historical grist of the story, why would Sheinberg send the book to Spielberg, who had by then made "E.T." and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and who was the reigning King of Popcorn Movies?
"The point is, I don't start off thinking of Steven as a director of popcorn movies," Sheinberg says. "I got involved with his talent long before he ever made popcorn movies. I thought then, and at many points in his career, that some of his best work was not in that genre."
The story has often been told how Spielberg, 20, unemployed and trying to write scripts, made a 35mm short called "Amblin," which, after sneaking onto the Universal lot, he slipped to Chuck Silver, the studio's film librarian.
One night, after Sheinberg had finished watching a film, Silver asked if he would mind going back into the projection room. "He said there's this guy who's been hanging around the place who's made a short film," Sheinberg recalls. "So I watched it and I thought it was terrific." "Amblin" was a road movie about a boy and a girl hitchhiking to California. There was no dialogue. "I liked the way he selected the performers, the relationships, the maturity and the warmth that was in that short," Sheinberg says. "I told Chuck to have the guy come see me."
What appeared in his office, Sheinberg recalls with a smile, was "this nerdlike, scrawny character." When Sheinberg announced he wanted to put him under contract, Spielberg answered, "I just have one request and I'd like you to give me not so much a commitment, Mr. Sheinberg, but a promise. I want to direct something before I'm 21. That would be very important to me."
Sheinberg promised; "Night Gallery" followed.
"At the time, no one had any sense that Steven was going to do movies with special effects and creatures in them," Sheinberg says. "His early work in TV wasn't characterized by the genre that he became rather famous for. As a matter of fact, I had to coerce him a little bit to make 'Jaws.' But even 'Jaws' I saw not so much as the issue of the shark and the suspense, but the interesting relationship between the characters, the humor, the basic story of the place of perceived evil and how people react when there are threats." He pauses. "Come to think of it, there are certain of these thematic elements in 'Schindler's.' "
Spielberg says he knew as soon as he read the book that he wanted to make the film. He was captivated by the mysterious protagonist, a man of intriguing conflicts, at once self-indulgent and compassionate. "I call it the Rosebud question," Spielberg says, "why he did what he did. It wasn't to be a hero, I don't think, because he did have some modesty about him. That was part of his charm."
The combination of this Gatsby-like character and the chance to recount the tragedy of the Holocaust was irresistible to Spielberg. "This film is a remembrance," he has said. "I wouldn't have done it if I didn't think a story like this would remind people, in a way that people don't really want to remember, that these events occurred only 50 years ago. And it could happen in all its monstrosity again."
Spielberg knew this would not be a high-grossing commercial film. For the first time in his career, he phoned Sheinberg and said, "I don't want any money until you guys make all your costs back." And, in fact, it was not until he finished "Jurassic Park," the blockbuster that Universal Studios desperately needed, that he took the $22-million budget and went off to Poland.
At least one executive at Universal vehemently opposed the movie. "He said I'd be better served by allowing the studio to make a sizable donation to a Holocaust museum," Spielberg relates. "That put a fire under my tokus that I'll never forget."
Another form of inspiration came inadvertently from Billy Wilder when he made it known that he, too, wanted to direct "Schindler's." Spielberg, who considers Wilder one of the great geniuses of all time, briefly considered producing the movie and letting Wilder, who had fled Germany in the 1930s, direct it. "He made me look very deeply inside myself when he was so passionate to do this," Spielberg says. "In a way, he tested my resolve."
Still, the film was not getting made. Keneally tried to write a screenplay (unsuccessful in Spielberg's view), and another writer took four years but produced only one act. Time passed. Kathleen Kennedy, who came to work for Spielberg at about the time he first read "Schindler's List" and left a year ago to start a production company with her husband, recalls: "Whenever we would finish a movie, we would start talking about 'Schindler's' again. But there was always a problem with the screenplay or a question of who to cast. The thing is, when Steven wants to make a movie, he makes it. The screenplay gets fixed, the actors found. At the heart of it, he was suffering anxieties as to whether he was intellectually and emotionally mature enough for it. To deal with the complexities of the movie, he felt he had to be a complete adult."
Finally, two years ago, Steven Zaillian, who wrote "Awakenings," finished his version of the screenplay, and Spielberg felt he was ready. And he understood he could not--this time--make a sentimental movie. "I know I'm sentimental," he says. "I just really like people a lot. I'm always siding with the positive in human nature, so that tends to drive most of my movies into a category which some people can rightly claim is sweet and soft. To keep that from happening in 'Schindler,' I held most of the performances back."
Spielberg had seen a documentary about Oskar Schindler and he was struck by similarities between the German and Spielberg's close friend Steve Ross, the ebullient, larger-than-life chairman of Warner Communications who died of cancer last December. "I'd been talking to Steve for 10 years about this character Oskar Schindler, and I would always joke, 'If you were an actor I'd put you in the part,' " Spielberg recalls. "After I cast Liam Neeson, I asked Steve if I could show Liam some home movies I'd shot of him. I wanted Liam to see that he didn't have to push the charm or himself as an actor. The deeds were a strong enough statement unto themselves."
Besides Neeson, the film features only two key roles. One is that of Itzhak Stern, played by Ben Kingsley, the accountant Schindler hires for his factory, and who, through his clever machinations, shifts Schindler's focus from the bottom line to the perilous plight of his workers. The other role is that of Amon Goeth, the brutal commandant of the neighboring Plaszow concentration camp, played by the young British actor Ralph Fiennes.
When Spielberg read Zaillian's script, he felt they needed to flesh out the characters of some of the Jewish laborers, as had been done in the book. "But Steve said, 'That's not the way I see it. I see this as an overview, not as an internal view,' " Spielberg notes. "And I realized I didn't want this to be a movie about those five Jews whose story we were telling. I didn't want people to come away saying, 'Oh, yeah, the Holocaust. That thing that happened to those five people.' "
To shoot the film, he hired a young Polish-born cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who had worked with him on a pilot for a TV series a year or two earlier. "I had heard pretty scary things about Steven Spielberg," Kaminski says. "I heard he was very demanding, impatient, and that he had very specific ideas about lighting," something often left to the cinematographer.
But the collaboration worked and Spielberg, who usually does issue the orders, found himself seeking Kaminski's advice. "We didn't want the film to look like a documentary," Kaminski says, "but a film true to the years 1939 through 1945. Sometimes the photography Steven was familiar with and suggested would have been too glamorous. We didn't want it to look beautiful, just real."
Editor Michael Kahn would get the same message. "Steven would tell me, 'Let's not create performances, let the scene play through. We're not going to cheat the audience by manipulation,' " Kahn reports. "He also cautioned me, 'Don't use any Hollywood shots, stay with the real, stay with the hand-held.' "
Meanwhile, Spielberg was having a film experience like none other. "Naturally, there's a camera involved in every shot," he says. "But I don't have any recollections of a camera on the set. It's the darndest thing. It's never happened to me before."
Which is interesting, because when Kaminski sat down to watch the finished picture, he says, "After 10 minutes, I forgot I shot it."
Once again the thunderous yelp through the closed door produces the rattled assistant, who is told to get someone on the line. As I leave Spielberg's office, I tell him I must see "Schindler's List" very soon. I explain my deadline. He stares at me, expressionlessly, and doesn't speak. Bonnie ushers me out.
Later, someone from his office phones and scolds me. "Steven doesn't want to know about screenings," she chides. "We have to sneak them behind his back. That's why I can't show his movies at Amblin. I had to find a screening room on the Universal lot." She lowers her voice. "Come tomorrow at 3."
WHEN SID SHEINBERG SAW THE FILM AT A PRIvate screening, he says he had "this reaction I couldn't cope with. After a few minutes," he says, "I broke down. I had to go into a corner. I was embarrassed. We're supposed to be professionals here. This is supposed to be a film. We're supposed to be marketing it. It's business . I tried to compose myself but I was totally destroyed. Then I looked over at Michael Kahn."
Kahn, who has edited all of Spielberg's films since "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" in 1976, spent every day of the "Schindler" shoot reviewing footage with Spielberg. Kahn put together a rough cut. Then he spent six weeks in a rented studio near one of Spielberg's homes, in East Hampton, N.Y., honing his work. When the screening ended, he says, "I cried for 15 minutes. I don't want to be the one to say this is Steven's best film, I'll just say it's the best film I've ever worked on. I haven't gotten over it yet."
Clearly, these people were spouting something more than the usual movie hype and, indeed, comments from all sorts of people who worked on the film flowed from a similar vein. When the Israeli actress Adi Nitzan, who played a Jewish labor camp prisoner, stopped by to see Spielberg recently, she burst into tears. "Steven, I see you, I cry," she burbled.
Weeks after the screening, Sheinberg is still sounding balmy. " 'Schindler's List' is a masterpiece and I have never said this before, I assure you, on any motion picture," he says. "It will be in my memory long after the gross of 'Jurassic Park' has faded."
INSIDE AMBLIN'S LOBBY, DISPLAYED AS IF IN A museum, sits an enormous cinematic relic identified by a card as "The Western Electric Projector and Vitaphone Sound System," introduced in 1927. The bulky black projector is a far cry from Spielberg's first cinematic toy--an 8mm Kodak movie camera he borrowed from his father when he was 8.
"We were avid campers and we spent months of the summer vacation and holidays camping in the snow, or we'd fish for our breakfast at Beaver Dam," Spielberg recalls. "I started making movies of the trips and, of course, I would dramatize them. The events of the trips are pretty El Snoro, so I tended to sort of tweak reality and try to get a little more drama into catching trout."
Even then, he was fascinated by pictures--art books, comic books, TV. He wasn't much of a reader, more of a "gazer," as he puts it. He was an embarrassingly slow reader and dreaded having to stand up in class and read out loud, which is maybe why, he concedes, he reached for a camera instead of a pen.
There was one other career possibility as well. "I played the clarinet from the fourth grade on," he says. "I was in the band, the orchestra. I've marched in more rodeo parades and stepped in more horse pie than anybody I know. But I chose film instead."
His father was an engineer who worked on RCA's first computer in the late 1940s; his mother had been a concert pianist. There were three younger sisters. When Spielberg was 14, his parents divorced; the wrenching aftermath became a theme in his films.
"One of the healing benefits of being a filmmaker is that you can work through some of your life, have other people re-enact your feelings and traumas and ideas and then sit back and take a look at yourself," he says. "Martin Scorsese and other filmmakers are much more id oriented with their movies than I've been. But in all of my movies there's been something of me in them." He grins. "Either Universal or Warner Bros. is paying for my very expensive therapy."
At the time of his parents' divorce, Spielberg would retreat into his imagination. The harder it got at home, the more he would escape. He would soar into the sky and slip into the clouds and staythere until it was all clear to come home. "My wish list included having a friend who could be both the brother I never had and a father that I didn't feel I had anymore," he continues. "And that's how 'E.T.' was born."
The theme of children separated from their parents runs through some of his films, many of which are told from a child's point of view. It was what he knew and what he felt most comfortable with. "But I always believed he would feel confident at some point to do other things," Kathleen Kennedy says. "That's why I brought him 'The Color Purple.' After he read it, he said, 'I love this, because I'm scared to do it.' "
In a flash, she produces a cup of tea.
At this second meeting, Spielberg is wearing a big, floppy sweater and jeans, and appears more relaxed, though he is still bouncy. His office, done in an earth-tone kind of way, is filled with photographs and awards. A director's chair in the far corner of the office says "Nudge." The most sophisticated piece of machinery appears to be a telephone.
It is from this second-floor aerie that the Amblin empire is run. When Spielberg formed it in 1984, to give him and his producers, Kennedy and her husband, Frank Marshall, an umbrella under which to operate, Universal paid for the building. Even now, Universal continues to pay much of the company's overhead.
Asked what Universal expects from him, Spielberg laughs. "Everything! They expect to get everything first, but, of course, they don't." His box-office track record buys him complete independence; he is exclusive to no one. Most of the films he directs are distributed by Universal or by Warner Bros., but it's his choice, always. If Spielberg thinks one studio can better distribute a certain kind of movie than another, he'll go there. "I have no obligation to Universal, really," he says, "unless you want to look at this wonderful building and apply the word guilt ."
Nor does Spielberg answer to anyone concerning the content of his films. What he makes, he gets to show; it's his toy. "But that doesn't mean I work in a vacuum," he insists. "I have a group of longtime friends, mainly directors, whom I consult with all the time. And I consulted with Kathy Kennedy on everything. But basically, I respond to my expectations as a filmmaker. I'm very reactive on the set about performances and how the scenes are feeling, and I'm constantly putting the film through my own set of tests and contemplations and revisions. I've always been my own worst judge and critic."
On at least two occasions, Spielberg walked out of his own sneak previews. One was "Hook," the Peter Pan epilogue he made for Columbia. "I was upset by my sense that the film was not working on that audience in Texas," he says. "I gave it 40 minutes, then I got up and I went out to the car and I fell asleep in the back seat of the limousine." To his surprise, the audience apparently gave it a 96% approval rating. Although the movie grossed more than $91 million domestically, it left many critics wishing they could have slept through the movie, too.
The other screening Spielberg fled was "Raiders of the Lost Ark." "I find sneak previews terrifying," he says. "I stand in the back, I pace. Or sometimes I sit and become a member of the audience and I just love them loving what they're watching. Other times, I sit there with flop sweat pouring out of my ears."
A rough compilation of the domestic grosses earned by Spielberg's movies--those he directed--is a staggering $2.5 billion. But he's been far more prolific as a producer of other people's movies. "Poltergeist," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and the "Gremlin" and "Goonie" films, to name a few, have hauled in an additional $650 million. At the moment, Amblin is producing four more features. Like a Spielberg-created monster, the thing just keeps growing.
There is, for instance, the merchandising money. Long before most directors grasped the concept, Spielberg was off and running. He tried and failed to persuade the producer of "Jaws" to license the infamous shark. But he succeeded brilliantly at hawking "Indiana Jones" fedoras and "E.T." dolls, and now, of course, dinosaurs. One entertainment analyst estimated that retail sales for "E.T." items have surpassed $1 billion.
Not all of his brainstorms have succeeded, however. After producing "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" for Disney, Spielberg decided he wanted to become Disney. Three years ago, he persuaded Universal to build him an animation factory in London. Spielberg, or his people, recruited 350 of Europe's best illustrators and set up Amblimation. But the first, "Fievel Goes West," a sequel to "An American Tail," was a financial flop. A new feature, "We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story," recently hit the theaters to fairly good reviews; another is in the works.
So far, his efforts to produce a TV series have had iffy results. He executive produces two successful syndicated cartoon series, but the fantasy anthology "Amazing Stories," which ran for two seasons, did not garner high ratings. And Spielberg's latest, the pricey "seaQuest DSV," has gotten shaky reviews and has questionable prospects for a second season.
Still, around town, Spielberg is known as a crafty businessman and a tough negotiator. According to Forbes magazine, he has amassed $72 million. But Hollywood insiders scoff at that figure. "It's much more than that, believe me," attests one prominent agent. "No one crafts better deals for himself than Spielberg, often at the expense of the talent he hires."
"I never negotiate myself, I swear," Spielberg says. "I've got a good attorney and a good agent," he says, referring to Bruce Ramer and Mike Ovitz.
Kennedy, who made deals for him in her days with Amblin, says that whoever does the negotiating, Spielberg's strength lies in getting things done. "Steven has excellent business instincts, but a lot of the process doesn't interest him. He created a company from nothing and it evolved as we took on more and more projects. A lot of people have ideas, but Steven can actually execute them."
OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS,the many parts of Steven Spielberg have, at last, begun to come together to form a more complete picture. The growing-up process that Hollywood kept carping about finally kicked in. It wasn't as if Spielberg was determined to play Peter Pan forever, it's that growing up happens according to its own special clock. Spielberg's started ticking after his short-lived marriage to actress Amy Irving and the birth of their son, Max. This was followed by, according to Spielberg, "this little discovery period for the last five years of my life."
In 1991, he married actress Kate Capshaw, the female lead in the second Indiana Jones movie. Their union, and their combined brood of five, has broadened Spielberg's horizons and shifted his sails toward new shores. "The hardest thing for me right now is not making movies, it's raising my kids." There is 21-month-old Sawyer--right, for Tom--and Sasha, 3, his children with Capshaw, and Max, now 8. There is also 5-year-old Theo, a black foster child whom they adopted, and Jessica, 17, her daughter by a previous marriage. "It's an interesting group," says Spielberg, beaming. "I'd make them into a sitcom, but I don't do very well on TV. I don't want to screw around with my family and fail."
In recent years, his relationship with his father has begun to heal as the two of them have crossed paths. "I remember being bored to tears when my father had businessmen over to the house and they would always talk computers," Spielberg says. "My own technical proficiency is knowing how to use the yellow pages when something breaks. But for 'Jurassic Park,' I practically had to take night classes so I could direct the dinosaurs. I had to learn a whole new vocabulary in computer graphic imaging. I had to learn the same language of my father's vocation to do that movie."
Meanwhile, his father, who is semi-retired now, has begun to produce films. "They're sales films. He sends me his videos and asks me how I like the actors he's cast," says Spielberg, laughing.
In addition to repairing his family ties, Spielberg has been designing a role for himself in the Hollywood community. Although no one except studio heads or maybe Creative Artists Agency chief Mike Ovitz can generate the dollars Spielberg can or exercise the power he can, he says he does not wish to accede to a kind of Lew Wasserman overlord status. Instead, he sees himself more as a nurturer of talent, doing "for someone what Sid Sheinberg did for me."
He has given first-time directing jobs to Robert Zemeckis ("Back to the Future II" and "Back to the Future III"), Frank Marshall ("Arachnophobia") and Phil Joanou ("State of Grace"). He gave writing starts to Chris Columbus ("Gremlins") and Larry Kasdan ("Raiders of the Lost Ark"). And Amblin sponsors the Chesterfield Writing Project, in which writers are given mentors, who are successful professionals and, says Spielberg, "are paid to write a script about anything they want to."
Amblin also sponsors an award for first screenplays. Applicants send their efforts to a panel of judges, which often includes Spielberg, Michael Douglas and Barry Levinson. In addition, Amblin recently made a deal with Playwrights Horizon in New York to sponsor playwrights' projects in the hope of turning them into Amblin screenplays.
He grows animated when he talks about these projects, bouncing in his chair. "I like the word mentor . I've always seen myself as someone who appreciates what it feels like to get discovered. I feel very responsible to the next generation of filmmakers."
Suddenly . . . " Bonnie !" A second passes. "BONNIE!"
Once again, in she flies, poor woman.
"How many people are in the Chesterfield Writing Project?"
"I'll find out." (The answer is 10).
Spielberg has added one more morsel to his mogul's plate. He and Disney's film chief Jeffrey Katzenberg are the key investors in a chain of restaurants, the first of which will open in Century City next March. Called Dive!, it will feature--among other things, hopefully--submarine sandwiches. "After all these years, Jeffrey and I discovered we're better friends outside the business," Spielberg observes. "Because we're too competitive."
Who's more competitive?
Spielberg grins. "Jeffrey."
THE MANY PARTS OF STEVEN Spielberg seem at last to have come together in his filmmaking as well. "Schindler's List" is a remarkable piece of work. Spielberg displays a clarity of vision he never has before. There is not one indulgent scene, shot, spoken line or sentiment. "Audiences catching initial glimpses of 'Schindler's List' emerge in awe," writes Peter Bart in his Variety column, citing its "brilliance" and "audacity." "He leads his audience through history's grimmest moments and, miraculously, leaves them feeling somehow ennobled."
Whether or not "Schindler's" brings to Spielberg the asterisk-less status he craves--and it could--there will be more such movies. "Films like 'Color Purple,' 'Empire of the Sun' and 'Schindler's List' quadruple my satisfaction," Spielberg says. " 'Jurassic Park' didn't challenge me a tenth as much as 'Schindler's List' did. And even though I sometimes look upon that as selfishly indulgent, those are the kinds of subjects I am now finding fill me up the most."
In fact, Spielberg has wanted to expand his repertoire for some time, but so typecast has he become that even his staff has been fooled. "After I saw 'The Silence of the Lambs,' I thought, 'I wish I could have made that,' " he says. "The material had actually come to us, but my company passed on it because they felt it wasn't in character. We've spent so many years in a cinematic mind-set here, even my staff tends to pigeonhole me."
Which doesn't mean he'll abandon movies with fairy-tale themes or eye-popping special effects. "I'm still in business to satisfy the need I have as a stand-up entertainer to make audiences real happy when I can find material that I think will thrill them," he adds. If someone can get the script right, Spielberg will direct a fourth Indiana Jones, for instance, and on the slate possibly for next spring is an adaptation of Robert James Waller's best-selling romance, "The Bridges of Madison County." Who knows what will follow? "All my decisions come completely from my gut, not from my head. I've made decisions from my gut that turned out to be movies that weren't very good, and some that were very good." Spielberg smiles.
"It's a human gut, you know."
In the meantime, he is looking forward to taking a much-needed rest, three or four months if possible. "I'm just going to sit down and watch Court TV," Steven Spielberg says.