Let’s go back to 1967: Where were you during the revolutions in sex, drugs and rock & roll?
I wasn’t. I was a teetotaler. I used to collect soundtrack albums from movies that I loved. I wasn’t smoking grass or taking LSD, though many of my friends were . . . . I know, I know. I’m a disappointment [laughs]. But I was just too busy making pictures. I was at Cal State Long Beach making short films. I was obsessed with making movies.
What else were you obsessed with?
Staying out of Vietnam and getting my grades to a point where I could retain my student deferment, which is what all students coveted during the Vietnam War. That was also around the time I was sweating out the draft lottery. I had a high number. I was lucky.
If you were called, you would have put on the uniform and picked up a gun?
My immediate political activity was based on self-preservation. I had a draft counselor. I legally did what I could to not go. But if I had to go, I would have gone. That’s the truth.
Let’s go back to the music influences.
My mom was a concert pianist, so I was raised on Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms and Beethoven. I was going to high school in Phoenix, Arizona. I was a little bit behind the curve. The paradigm for change came when I moved away to college. That’s when the White Album came out and I couldn’t get enough of the Beatles. For the first time, I began to get into what was considered normal for somebody my age [laughs].
Did Rolling Stone have an impact on you?
Long before MTV, Rolling Stone was the touchstone to the music world. In some instances I got to know my favorite groups better by reading Rolling Stone than I did listening to their music. Rolling Stone has done a number of cover stories featuring me and my actors. What I especially remember was the one that had E.T. on the cover with the banner a Star is Born. I still have that one hanging in my office at Dream Works.
We’re in your office now, and I see something else mounted on your wall. It’s Rosebud, the iconic sled from Citizen Kane, the 1941 Orson Welles film widely regarded as America’s best. But what about your generation?
George Lucas, Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, we are all part of the same generation: 1967. We found each other that year.
And yet you all approach your craft differently. You were the guy who redefined movies with Jaws in 1975. It was a monster hit that changed the way movie are released — now on thousands of screens instead of hundreds. You and George Lucas, who amped up the blockbuster mentality with Star Wars, are blamed for everything sad that’s happened to movies since — the merchandising, the infantilizing of the audience. How do you deal with that?
I deal with it by not taking it seriously and not believing it, because it doesn’t bear any fruit for me. George and I simply made movies that we thought could be entertainments. At the time, George and I would look at each other and say, “What about Gone With the Wind?” Why weren’t they writing about how much Gone With the Wind made in 1939? We didn’t invent the tent pole.
Pauline Kael said that “it’s not so much what Spielberg has done but what he has encouraged,” meaning the regression of the culture into fantasy.
I just so admired Pauline. She made it fun to read reviews. But she’s wrong. George and I didn’t create what she claims we did. She was the one who started the idea that what George and I had done was dangerous. People started believing that theory and taking it a step further.
But didn’t your penchant for fantasy, from Jaws to Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park, get you pegged as a technician with no interest in art?
No apologies. The first thing I wanted to do, having been given this amazing opportunity to be a Hollywood movie director, was, to have fun and to share that fun with the audience had. I many opportunities to deal with darker arts. And I rejected it because I was in a different place in my life.
What got you to that darker place, where you could tackle the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, war in Saving Private Ryan and terrorism in Munich?
As I got older, I felt a responsibility that comes along with such a powerful tool as filmmaking. But it’s still coming from the same place inside me. Schindler’s List — I made it for the survivors of the Holocaust. I made Saving Private Ryan for the survivors of the war, like my father and the men he goes to the reunions with every year. In Munich, I ask questions about America’s war on terror and about Israel’s responses to Palestinian attacks.
Were you sheltered from political issues growing up?
Not at all. It’s true that the first thing I think about when I think about the Sixties is when we landed on the moon. The second thing I think about is Jack Kennedy being assassinated in Dallas. So those images define the Sixties for me, that and the Cuban missile crisis. But I also remember my parents talking about integration. Martin Luther King and Jack Kennedy and the Holocaust, those were the three topics that were talked about in my house. Although they never referred to it as the Holocaust.
What did they call it?
They called it “the Great Murders.” I know that sounds a little melodramatic. For me as a kid growing up, the word “murder” was unmistakably attention-getting. And the word “Nazi,” as in “the Nazis murdered the Jews, the Nazis would have come here and done it in America had they won the war.”
How did that make you feel growing up?
I was a scared kid. I was born a nervous wreck, and I think movies were one way of transferring my own private horrors to everyone else’s lives [laughs]. It was less of an escape and more of an exorcism. I was really able to alleviate those fears by making scary movies.
So these were the movies you were making as a kid?
These were the 8mm films. My audience was mainly whoever lived next door or inside my house. I have three younger sisters who I enjoyed petrifying. I wasn’t popular in school, probably because I was Jewish in a predominantly gentile neighborhood. And also being this wimpy little kid whose hobby was scoffed at by other kids at school. I got out of that jam the minute I picked up a camera and took the bullies who had been preying on me for years and made them stars in my 8mm movies.
You’ve made other bullies the stars of your criticism, such as the Bush administration and its handling of the Iraq War. Do you see a political figure on the horizon who can change things?
The key figure ahead of us will be the next president of the United States, as long as he or she is a Democrat.
Chances are, he or she will be a baby boomer like you. How do you think your generation will be judged in forty years?
That it was akin to a land rush, where settlers staked out a plowshare and defended it tenaciously. Our parents fought World War II and made this world a free place. And we took full advantage of the blood they spilled. We certainly reaped the benefits. We were born into the “can-do” generation. And I think we’ve been doing great stuff, albeit not in contact with each other often, and more often than not, for ourselves, independent of a bigger plan.
And what’s the dark side of that?
Just narcissism, a collective and personal narcissism.
What worries you about the future?
As a Jew, I worry about the growing anti-Semitism in the world. As a father, I worry about my children growing up in a world where I see darkness.
How many children do you have now?
I have seven kids.
Do they feel intimidated that their dad is such a powerful figure?
They have a much stronger sense of themselves than we ever had.
Do they review your movies for you?
Absolutely, the second they see them. And they don’t love them all, either.
Does this generation have it easier than you did as part of a family unit?
It’s a more argumentative generation. Today with television and the Internet, with kids putting up Web sites that feature all of their pet projects and their petpeeves, they are really able to broadcast who they are to the world. That’s the big paradigm shift from the 1960. And kids have so much more to offer. They know more, they have more information.
And what’s the most significant thing they’re doing with that information?
One thing is that they’re taking back television. They’re seizing it. I think this whole explosion of reality TV, in which I am also involved now, is really indicative of American youth saying, “We’re not satisfied just watching television, we want to star in our own TV shows. We want you to discover us and put is in your own TV show, and we want television to be about us.” And I think that is all about the MySpace, text messaging, iPod revolution that has been taking place for the last ten years. Look at the numbers of people that are watching reality television today. You cannot ignore what that means sociologically.
What about technologically? Since the Sixties, we’ve gone through everything from videos to DVDs and downloads.
It’s just made movies portable.
But I am sure you didn’t make Jurassic Park or War of the Worlds to be seen on a video iPod.
I make all of my movies to be seen in a movie theater, because I believe in the social experience. I believe people have a better time in the company of strangers.
What it making movies for iPods or for computer screens were the only options’
I would change my approach to cinema, to be able to get more information to fit into that small square.
Do you think you’ll have to do that?
The business is going to have to do that whether I ever commit to do a movie that way or not. It’s based on where the profit centers are. For me, film is an art form first. But now that I have a studio, and I’ve had Dream Works for thirteen years, it’s also a business that I can’t ignore.
Can the business hurt that art form?
Yes. The business of downloading movies onto the smallest possible screen will certainly do significant damage to the art form by today’s standards. But who’s to say there aren’t going to be designer art forms where artists will be able to design for the smaller venues? And then you’ve created a new art form.
So are you optimistic about what the future holds in this new digital world?
Yeah, I am. Look, we’ve become a fast-food nation, and that includes how we get our entertainment. Kids are happy to spend four hours blogging and e-mailing each other. As opposed to my generation, who used to spend that same number of hours sitting in a movie theater. Kids are already telling us what they want. They want variety. They want a big-screen movie, but they also want You Tube videos downloadable on a hand-held device. They basically are saying, “We can multitask.” They are saying, “You, Spielberg, are an old fogey, you and Lucas and Coppola and Scorsese. You guys can’t multitask, but we can, so we demand a wide berth to be able to receive our entertainment. Don’t limit us to just one form, because we are a different generation. We are not you.’
So without rejecting what you represent, they can invent something new?
They can. And if they invent something great, all of us will follow.