Steven Spielberg: Force Behind the Box Office, From 'Jaws' to 'E.T.'

"I'm trying to make movies by shooting more from the hip and using my eyes to see the real world," blockbuster director says

Steven Spielberg circa 1982. Credit: Images Press/IMAGES/Getty

At 34, Steven Spielberg is, in any conventional sense, the most successful movie director in Hollywood, America, the Occident, the planet Earth, the solar system and the galaxy. Three of his movies – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark – are action-fantasy classics that rank among the biggest moneymakers of all time. Before the summer is out, they may well be joined by E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a lyrical piece of sci-fi about the human, and alien, condition (conceived, coproduced and directed by Spielberg), and a crowd-pleasing shocker, Poltergeist (coproduced and cowritten by Spielberg but directed by Tobe Hooper). Spielberg is the scion of a suburban upbringing and a public-school education. His mother was a concert pianist and his father a computer scientist who moved his family of four children "from Ohio to New Jersey, Arizona, Saratoga and Los Angeles." From age twelve on, Spielberg knew he did one thing best: make movies. When college time came, he enrolled in film school at Cal State Long Beach. In 1969, on the basis of a 24-minute short called Amblin',' Spielberg was able to sign with Universal, where he directed episodes of Night Gallery, Marcus Welby and Columbo; the terrifying TV-movie Duel; his first feature, The Sugarland Express; and his breakthrough, "primal scream" thriller, Jaws.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is another breakthrough for Spielberg. His previous movies have all been spectacles of some species, even the out-of-control slapstick epic 1941. Their escapism grew out of Spielberg's childhood fantasy life: "When I didn't want to face the real world," He says, "I just stuck a camera up to my face. And it worked." Making E.T., however, compelled Spielberg to face the reality of his childhood pain and left him feeling "cleansed." Now, he says, "I'm trying to make movies by shooting more from the hip and using my eyes to see the real world."

The day after a triumphant out-of-competition screening of E.T. at Cannes in May, I spoke to Spielberg in his New York City hotel suite. He exuded casualness, from his NASA cap to his stockinged feet, as well as confidence that his most intimate movie might also prove to be his best loved. Talking about E.T., Poltergeist, his favorite contemporary, directors and the troubled state of the motion-picture business, Spielberg seemed itching to take on the world.

Everything seems to have come together for you with E.T. Certainly few filmmakers have had such a good shot at being both profoundly personal and phenomenally popular.
You know the saying, the book wrote itself. This movie didn't make itself, but things began to happen from its inception in 1980 that told me this was a movie I was ready to make. I'm not into psychoanalysis, but E.T. is a film that was inside me for many years and could only come out after a lot of suburban psychodrama.

What do you mean by suburban psychodrama?
Growing up in a house with three screaming younger sisters and a mother who played concert piano with seven other women – I was raised in a world of women.

In a lot of your movies, the women or the girls are the more elastic characters, emotionally.
That's right, they are. I like women, I like working with women. E.T. had a plethora of them. A woman coproducer, a woman writer, a women film editor, a woman assistant director, woman costumer, woman script person, women in construction, women in set design, a woman set dresser. I am less guarded about my feelings around women. I call it the shoulder-pad syndrome; you can't cry on a shoulder that's wearing a shoulder pad. This is something from my school days of being a wimp in a world of jocks.

How much of a wimp were you?
The height of my wimpery came when we had to run a mile for a grade in elementary school. The whole class of fifty finished, except for two people left on the track — me and a mentally retarded boy. Of course he ran awkwardly, but I was just never able to run. I was maybe forty yards ahead of him, and I was only 100 yards away from the finish line. The whole class turned and began rooting for the young retarded boy — cheering him on, saying, "C'mon, c'mon, beat Spielberg! Run, run!" It was like he came to life for the first time, and he began to pour it on but still not fast enough to beat me. And I remember thinking, "Okay, now how am I gonna fall and make it look like I really fell?" And I remember actually stepping on my toe and going face hard into the red clay of the track and actually scraping my nose. Everybody cheered when I fell, and then they began to really scream for this guy: "C'mon, John, c'mon, run, run!" I got up just as John came up behind me, and I began running as if to beat him but not really to win, running to let him win. We were nose, to nose, and suddenly I laid back a step, then a half-step. Suddenly he was ahead, then he was a chest ahead, then a length, and then he crossed the finish line ahead of me. Everybody grabbed this guy, and they threw him up on their shoulders and carried him into the locker room, into the showers, and I stood there on the track field and cried my eyes out for five minutes. I'd never felt better and I'd never felt worse in my entire life.

You once said you managed to win over some of the jocks by starring them in a film called Battle Squad. By making films like Jaws, were you still trying to ingratiate yourself with hard guys?
Yeah, hard liners. Hard, cynical liners. But not just three or four jocks in my elementary or junior high school. I'm talking about millions of people.

Do you mean that making movies is a way of showing off?
With the exception of Close Encounters, in all my movies before E.T., I was giving out, giving off things before I would bring something in. There were feelings I developed in my personal life...that I had no place to put. Then, while working on Raiders, I had the germ of an idea. I was very lonely, and I remember thinking I had nobody to talk to. My girlfriend was in California, so was George Lucas. Harrison Ford had a bad case of the turistas. I remember wishing one night that I had a friend. It was like, when you were a kid and had grown out of dolls or teddy bears or Winnie the Pooh, you just wanted a little voice in your mind to talk to. I began concocting this imaginary creature, partially from the guys who stepped out of the mother ship for ninety seconds in Close Encounters and then went back in, never to be seen again.

Then I thought, what if I were ten years old again – where I've sort of been for thirty-four years, any way – and what if he needed me as much as I needed him? Wouldn't that be a great love story? So I put together this story of boy meets creature, boy loses creature, creature saves boy, boy saves creature – with the hope that they will somehow always be together, that their friendship isn't limited by nautical miles. And I asked Melissa Mathison, who is Harrison Ford's girlfriend and a wonderful writer, to turn it into a screenplay.

Did you hire her because you admired her work on The Black Stallion?
I did admire The Black Stallion, but it was more because Melissa was one of the few people on the Raiders location I could talk to. I was pouring my heart out to Melissa all the time.

In E.T., the view of growing up is both uplifting and painful. If Elliott hadn't befriended E.T., he'd still be one lonely kid.
To me, Elliott was always the Nowhere Man from the Beatles song. I was drawing from my own feelings when I was a little kid and I didn't have that many friends and had to resort to making movies to become quasi-popularand to find a reason for living after school hours. Most of my friends were playing football or basketball or baseball and going out with girls. I didn't do those things until very late.

Is E.T. your imaginary revenge –— turning the Nowhere Man into a hero?
Oh yeah, absolutely. When I began making E.T., I thought that maybe the thing to do was go back and make life the way it should have been. How many kids, in their Walter Mitty imaginations, would love to save the frogs or kiss the prettiest girl in class? That's every boy's childhood fantasy.

Have you been able to fulfill your own childhood fantasies?
Let me tell you an interesting story. The German director Wim Wenders called me yesterday and said, "Do an interview for me; I'm asking one question: what is the future of the movie business?" I agreed and showed up at three in the afternoon at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. I walk into the room, and there's a 16-mm movie camera, a microphone, a Nagra [tape recorder] and lights and a crew of six people. They turn on the equipment and they leave me all alone in the room! Finally, I answer the question —– straightforward, analytic, sort of like the Wall Street Journal. I'm proud of myself until I talk to Harrison Ford. He says he would have taken all his clothes off and sat there in the nude, not said a word for ten minutes, then, when the film had run out, walked out fully dressed and thanked them all for a pleasant experience. After all, they weren't going to see the film for forty-eight hours —– it takes that long to process it! Now, that just shows me that I'm not as far along in my development as Harrison is. I guess I still haven't been able to shake off the anesthetic of suburbia.

The anesthetic of suburbia –— that implies that it protects you from pain and from any kind of raw feeling.
And real life. Because the anesthetic of suburbia also involves having three parents –— a mother, a father and a TV set. Two of them are equilibriums, but one of them is more powerful, because it's always new and fresh and entertaining. It doesn't reach out and tell you what to do.

To me, the key suburban feeling is claustrophobia. Sitting in the den, waiting for the Good Humor truck to come. 
I love that. Remember Pinky Lee? I used to sit in the den, listen for the Good Humor truck and watch Pinky Lee on TV. There was no privacy in suburbia because my mom's friends would come in the morning, drink coffee and gossip. And it was claustrophobic. It's a reality to kids; in suburbia you have to create a kids' world apart from an adult world –and the two will never eclipse. In an urban world, the adult world and the child world are inseparable. Everybody gets the same dose of reality every day. On the way to school, on the way to the drugstore, on the way home, on the way shopping, it's all the same. In suburbia, kids have secrets. And that's why I wanted E.T. to take place in suburbia. What better place to keep a creature from outer space a secret from the grownups? 

How heavily did you base the movie on contemporary suburban experience, as opposed to your own memories?
In today's world, a twelve-year-old is what we were at sixteen and a half. So a transformation happened once I cast the film with real kids. Not stage Hollywood actors, you know –— kids who've never been in a casting director's office or an art director's room. Real people, just real people –— that's who we cast.

Dialogue changed considerably. I never would have called my brother, if I'd had one, "penis breath" in front of my mother. It's not the most popular word in the Pac-Man generation's vernacular, but it's a word that's used every once in a while, and it conjures up quite gross and hilarious images. I wanted the kids to say something that would shake up the mother, 'cause I wanted her to laugh first, then reprimand, instead of just saying, "How dare you say that in my house!" That's the Fifties mother, the one who got attacked by the Martians who ate the dog. Today's parent, being my age, would burst out laughing and then suddenly realize, "Omigosh, I'm the father, I can't laugh at that. Sit down, son, and never say that word again, or I'll pretend I'm my mom and dad back in the Fifties, and you'll have to learn from them."

I think kids tend to look at adults as just melodramatic excuses for people. A lot of kids look up to look down. And I found, even when I was giving Henry Thomas [Elliott] direction, that if I was out of touch with his reality, he would give me a look that seemed to say. "Oh brother, he's old." I could always tell when I was reaching Henry. He would smile and laugh, or he'd say, "Yeah, yeah, right." I was constantly being rewarded or corrected by people three times less my age. I was moving faster than the kids. So I slowed myself down and began to metabolize according to them instead of Steven Spielberg.

Did that scare you?
The thing that I'm just scared to death of is that someday I'm gonna wake up and bore somebody with a film. That's kept me making movies that have tried to outspectacle each other. I got into the situation where my movies were real big, and I had a special-effects department and I was the boss of that and that was a lot of fun. Then I'd get a kick out of the production meetings –— not with three or four people, but with fifty, sometimes nearer to 100 when we got close to production –— because I was able to lead troops into Movie Wars. The power became a narcotic, but it wasn't power for power's sake. I really am attracted to stories that you can't see on television and stories that you can't get every day. So that attraction leads me to the Impossible Dream, and that Impossible Dream usually costs around $20 million.

François Truffaut helped inspire me to make E.T. Simply by saying to me, on the Close Encounters set, "I like you with keeds, you are wonderful with keeds, you must do a movie just with keeds...." And I said, "Well, I've always wanted to do a film about kids, but I've got to finish this, then I'm doing 1941, about the Japanese attacking Los Angeles." And Truffaut told me I was making a big mistake. He kept saying, "You are the child."

To me, your biggest visual accomplishment is the contrast between suburbia in the harsh, daytime light, when everything looks the same, to the mysterious way it looks at night. By the end, you get a mothering feeling from the night.
Yeah, it is Mother Night. Remember, in Fantasia, Mother Night flying over with her cape, covering a daylight sky? I used to think, when I was a kid, that that's what night really looked like. The Disney Mother Night was a beautiful woman with flowing, blue-black hair, and arms extended outward, twenty miles in either direction. And behind her was a very inviting cloak. She came from the horizon in an arc and swept over you until everything was a blue-black dome. And then there was an explosion, and the stars were suddenly made in this kind of animated sky. I wanted the opening of E.T. to be that kind of Mother Night. You know, you come down over the trees, you see the stars, and suddenly you think you're in space –— wow, you're not, you're in a forest somewhere. You're not quite sure where; you might be in a forest on some distant planet. It was Melissa's idea to use the forest; at first, I thought of having the ship land in a vacant lot. But she said, "A forest is magical... there are elves in forests."

Poltergeist seems to be the antithesis of E.T. in just about every way.
E.T. is my personal resurrection, and Poltergeist is my personal nightmare. A lot of things in both movies really came from my growing up. Poltergeist is about my fear –— of a clown doll, of a closet, of what was under my bed, of the tree in New Jersey that I felt moved whenever there was a wind storm and scared me with its long, twiggy fingers. But Poltergeist is just a suburban ghost story. It's meant to be a thrill a second, with humor. The most important thing that I wanted to do with this movie was portray a simple, suburban American family that has a sense of humor about life and about science. They enjoy science a little too much. The mother becomes too curious about the poltergeist phenomena for her child's own good, and then is put into the responsible position of rescuing the child. My favorite part of the movie is from the beginning until they get the kid back. My least favorite is the last fifteen minutes. It was fun; I really didn't take it that seriously. After most movies, you can return to the safety of your house. For this movie, I would have liked to steal the ad line from Jaws II: "Just when you thought it was safe to go home... Poltergeist."

You've coproduced both E.T. and Poltergeist. E.T. seems to have gone very well, Poltergeist seems to have had trouble. How did you react to facing turmoil as a producer?
Well, the turmoil is essentially created by wanting to do it your own way and having to go through procedure. That is why I will never again not direct a film I write. It was frustrating for Tobe Hooper [the director], and it was frustrating for the actors, who were pretty torn between my presence and his on the set every day. But rather than Tobe's saying, "I can't stand it. Go to Hawaii, get off the set," he'd laugh and I'd laugh. If he'd said, "I've got some ideas that you're not really letting into this movie, I would love you to see dailies, consult, but don't be on the set," I probably would have left.

Has a producer ever held you in line and helped you in the way, say, Darryl Zanuck is supposed to have helped John Ford?
George Lucas, on Raiders. He didn't come in and cut my movie or dictate policy or style or substance. But he was always available to talk, and he was never lacking in ideas. You'll laugh at this: the only similar experience I've had with somebody I trust and believe in is Sid Sheinberg [president of MCA]. Through the years he's been an invaluable support and sounding board. But he's corporately so high up that he actually has to struggle down the ladder to roll up his sleeves.

You've said that you want to start a children's crusade, leading new talent into the Movie Wars. Does it make sense to do it on your own? Or do you have a chance of making a huge and lasting change only if all the guys with power to do it –— you, George Lucas, maybe Francis Coppola —– joined forces?
I don't know what it would be like to put George Patton, Omar Bradley, Mark Clark, Napoleon, Margaret Thatcher and Stonewall Jackson in a room together and say, "Okay, now we have to put our heads together and hire a great army." I don't know whether it would blow up in our faces or whether we would be able to consolidate and transform the motion picture business. Right now, we've all got our own universes to make movies in. Francis lives in a world of his own, George lives in a galaxy far, far away but close to human audiences, and I'm an independent moviemaker working within the Hollywood establishment. But all of us share one thing: each of us would like to do to the film industry what Irving Thalberg did to it fifty years ago.

Is it possible to do that in Hollywood today?
Let's put it this way: if I decided to take two years off from my life, I'd do it only to run an independent studio for a couple of years. And somebody's gonna have to gamble along with me; somebody's gonna have to give me maybe $150 million. And they'll either never see that money again, or they will multiply it by a factor of a hundred, maybe a thousand. It's just a matter of whether Francis or George or I decide to step into the shoes that have been worn by agents for the last eight, nine, ten years and try to apply what we know about how important ideas are, and how important execution is, and how important the casting is, and hire the kinds of directors that would allow us to have as much input as the David O. Selznicks, the Louis B. Mayers, the Jack Warners and the Howard Hugheses of the past –— not by being tyrants, but by being experienced parents.

I don't know of more than four executives in this town who know how to cut a movie and how to execute one. The people who are in charge today wouldn't know how to save a Heaven's Gate if indeed it needed saving. Now, I'm of the school that doesn't think that Heaven's Gate needed to be saved. I think that the overall attack that was launched on the director, Michael Cimino, is more interesting and worthy of analysis than the Heaven's Gate cataclysm. Because Heaven's Gate, which is a very, very flawed movie, is one of the most carefully crafted movies of all time. Nobody wrote that Raise the Titanic cost around $30 million; everybody destroyed Cimino because his movie cost $30 million. Way down deep, I think the outcry was a primal scream from movie lovers, saying. "Please bring the budgets down, please give us better ideas and more entertainment, and give us more intellectual stimulation as well as the pleasure of butter on the popcorn. Don't crush yourselves under the weight." I wish Cimino had been left alone, because, of all the new guys coming up, Michael's got a chance to be David Lean [Lawrence of Arabia]. Michael has a showman inside that doesn't know where he's at yet. Michael is maybe as technically skilled as Billy Friedkin, Francis Coppola, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. And once he gets himself a story that's accessible to the masses, he's gonna be hard to stop.

Do you see any other directors breaking away?
The thing is, anybody who is being given the chance to make a movie has already "made it." That's why making films today is like walking a tightrope over a crocodile pit. The crocodiles are not the critics, they're the economy. If a movie doesn't make money, it's harder to launch a second picture.

But to answer your question, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale [Used Cars], Hal Barwood and Matt Robbins [Dragonslayer] – mark my words, they'll break through. Bob Towne [Personal Best], Ridley Scott [Alien], Hugh Hudson [Chariots of Fire], John Carpenter [Halloween] will get there. De Palma certainly will, if he's not already. John Milius [Conan the Barbarian] will have his breakthrough film some day. Certainly George Miller [The Road Warrior]. I like this guy Michael Mann [Thief], and Allan Parker [Shoot the Moon]. But they are more of the Scorsese-Coppola school than... our group.

You say that with a twinkle in your eye. You don't mind there being...
I don't mind having two groups. I think the business is one big melting pot anyway. I'm just saying that there are different sensibilities. I think George Lucas and I and some of the others —– the Chicago to California group as opposed to the Chicago to New York group –— are more frivolous with the imagination. The West Coast has different sensibilities than the East Coast.

I think the other group –— Francis and Marty and some of the European filmmakers –— bring a lot of their urban development into their movies and take their films very seriously. They internalize who they are and express that on film. I think if you put everybody together and rated them, Marty would have to be the best filmaker of our generation. George Lucas is the best moviemaker. You see, George and I have fun with our films. We don't take them as seriously. And I think that our movies are about things that we think will appeal to other people, not just to ourselves. We think of ourselves first, but in the next breath we're talking about the audience and what works and what doesn't.

How do you respond to the idea that what Scorsese does is more adult than what you guys are doing?
Well, it is more adult, because it appeals to our anxiety riddled, darker side. It appeals to the unknown persona. My movies and George's appeal to things that are lighter in nature. I think the difference is terrific. Can you imagine if everybody made Raiders of the Lost Ark last year? I think studios were spoiled the first day Gone with the Wind made more money than any movie ever. I think from that moment on, decision-makers wanted movies that would be hugely successful. So every time I see a small picture take off, whether it's Animal House or Diner, I cheer. I think it's bullshit when people say the success of Raiders precludes the success of Diner. I think a success like Raiders feeds the pocketbook that's gonna finance Diner. You can't have a Diner without Raiders. But you can't have good movies without Diner. So, we need each other. Should we all join hands and sing, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke"? [Laughs.]

You talked about your group deferring to the audience occasionally. But in the case of E.T., it seems you didn't have to do that.
Well, when I started E.T., I was fat and happy and satisfied with having the films I had on my list. And I just didn't feel I had anything to lose. I actually had nothing to lose. I had nothing to prove to anybody except myself – and any people who might have wondered if I ever had a heart beating beneath the one they assume that Industrial Light and Magic [the Lucasfilm special-effects company] built for me.

Does it give off a real glow?
Yes, that one.

Do you think it will help, hurt or make no difference to have Poltergeist and E.T. come out at the same time?
I think it might help. I think one gives life to the other. They don't compete. Had I made Forbidden Planet and E.T. —– those films compete. But Poltergeist is a thrill-a-minute roller-coaster ride through ghosts and haunted houses and various kinds of nonviolent bloodletting, "polter-letting," let's say. And E.T. is just a whisper from my childhood. These films aren't gonna clash at all.

What comes next?
Well, I know I'm gonna backpedal for about a year because I want to do Raiders II next. I'm gonna have a lark this summer by doing a twenty-two minute episode of The Twilight Zone in color and wide-screen. All I've got is about ten shooting days and a million bucks to make my show, including postproduction. I've put together a group of directors: John Landis [Animal House], Joe Dante [The Howling], George Miller [The Road Warrior] and myself. Two of us are doing remakes of old episodes, and two of us are doing originals. It'll come out as a quartet this Christmas titled The Twilight Zone.

Will you and George Lucas collaborate on Raiders II?
Just like the last time. George has the story, I'll have a lot of the scenes. Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, the grown-up kids who did American Graffiti, will be doing the script. Harrison Ford will continue, but there'll be a new cast. 

Raiders II is for Lucasfilm and Paramount, Twilight Zone is for Warners. Poltergeist was for MGM, E.T., for Universal. Why do you go to different studios all the time?
A moving target is harder to hit [laughs]. That's probably it.

So it's a way of reasserting your independence....
Actually, after E.T., most of the movies I'm involved with, I'm gonna own the copyright and the negative. The studios will provide distribution services for a negotiated fee and a piece of the profits. I want to eventually own my own movies. I want to control when they go to cable and when they don't. I want to control when they go to free TV. I don't want to have an inspiration like E.T. fall on my head out of the sky and then have all the business and financial decisions about it taken over by a bank.

I won't be able to do this every time. If I come upon a story where the budget's gonna be $20 million or $25 million, then I'll finance it with a major studio because I wouldn't want to raise that money by selling off territories overseas. Nobody can raise that much independently. I just want to keep moving fast, so nobody can say, "I know what makes him work. It's easy. Anybody can do it."

Don't let them get too comfortable with the resident genius.
Nobody's a resident genius, but being a resident anything bothers me. Once you're at a studio for more than three weeks, you're just another name on a directory at the dead end of a corridor. That goes whether you're Fellini, Francis Coppola or just getting started out of NYU.