Steven Spielberg: 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' Director on Science Fiction in Suburbia - Rolling Stone
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Science Fiction in Steven Spielberg’s Suburbia

The director of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ talks moviemaking, UFOs and the night sky

Steven Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third KindSteven Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Steven Spielberg working with a movie camera on the set of his film, 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' in 1977.

Columbia Pictures/Getty

Steven Spielberg could see it all from the picture window of his house high up in Hollywood’s Coldwater Canyon. The purple smog was at low tide, thick, noxious air resting like a horse blanket on the hills and the city. In the clearness above it, a fine blue sky turned dark. A thin slice of moon appeared just over the hills.

Short, wiry and easily amused, the director wore jeans and a beat-up sweat shirt with a Jaws logo on the back. He was suffering the week’s wait before his new movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, would go public and set new attendance records, before the phrase “close encounters” would become a new catchword in the funny papers and monologues, as “jaws” had in 1975.

Close Encounters itself was about, well, it’s like that story of a tree so tall it took two men to see the top of it. Unidentified Flying Objects, let’s say, on the street where you live. Spielberg had watched his movie forty-eight complete times, shot new footage and recut some scenes right up to the last minute before he allowed the studio to lay hands on his film canisters. His nails looked like he’d gotten his last manicure from a pencil sharpener. But he seemed so focused, so resolute. He wasn’t nervous, was he?

“Every nerve ending!” he croaked. “Can’t you see them standing up in my arm?” He led me through the house of high ceilings and Arizona decoration, talking not much faster than an auctioneer. “It seems like all the forces of nature and Zeus are mustered against you. Like Fantasia: dodging lightning bolts from the clouds. That’s exactly what happened on this film.”

Nineteen million dollars wouldn’t scare Spielberg. He’d spent that much telling his story, and in Hollywood today that means a dandy incentive plan. “If I ever stop to consider that if Close Encounters doesn’t break even,” he said, firm of face, “Columbia Pictures will be a pinball machine company…aaah, I would be very disturbed.” (John Milius, the director and Spielberg’s skeet-shooting pal, had told him, “Either it’ll be the best Columbia movie, or it’ll be the last one.”)

Last time out, just to survive the Jaws previews, he’d had to boil himself in Valium. “I was semiconscious throughout the entire movie,” he recalled enthusiastically as he settled beneath a white lamp in the sitting room. “I remember I was in a daze and couldn’t sit down in a theater seat, so I stood by the exit. In the second reel of the picture, after the kid was killed on the raft, I see our first walk out. Which is a very scary thing, when you see a person walking out of your movie. And this person begins walking up the aisle. And then begins running, then begins speeding! I realize, this guy not only hates the movie, he’s running out of this film. He passes me, then he stops. And he begins throwing up all over the carpeting of the lobby. Found his way into the bathroom. Came out, wiping his mouth, went back to his seat. Suddenly,” Spielberg crowed joyfully, “I was, you know, conscious again.”

We laughed it off. I told him that seeing Close Encounters left me with a long night full of pursuit dreams. He was delighted.

“When I was making the movie I had dreams that were very strange. I had dreams of being pursued, and being watched, and dreams of things outside my window that were trying to get me to come outdoors. Which I refused to do. I had many of those dreams, beckoning me to leave the house and stand in the backyard…that made me wonder what they meant, and why was I supposed to go out in the backyard, and why was I so frightened about standing out in the backyard when I was asked to go out and look at the sky?”

He settled back in his chair. Outside his picture window was the puffy evening mist.

Close Encounters is a long dream that asks us to go outside and look at the sky. The sky is full of questions. But you have to figure it out. Passive viewing won’t work. Like Jaws, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. The Great Being’s presence is not exploited so much as the mystery of the arrival is dramatized.

When we finally see the spaceships, we know only that we see shapes, shadows, lights. Nothing is specific.

The movie opens: danger music surrounds a furious desert sandstorm. Two headlights drift out of the windy depths. Is that what we think it is? A figure gropes along a battered fence, shouting, “Are we the first ones here?”

The name Spielberg is German for “play mountain.” He has a fine sense of play. There is wit even in the white knuckle scenes. A house is under siege by unknown forces and the woman inside (Melinda Dillon) sees all the electrical appliances go berserk and she clutches her child (Cary Guffey) to her bosom. Suddenly the stereo snaps on and it’s Johnny Mathis crooning “Chances Are.” They appear to be slow dancing!

“When I was making the movie I had dreams that were very strange. I had dreams of being pursued, and being watched, and dreams of things outside my window that were trying to get me to come outdoors.”

We care about these characters. Unlike disaster movies where you see the usual crowd of schlemiels get rubbed out, Close Encounters was made by a man who is interested in people. At the lead is Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, an everyday kind of fellow who encounters a UFO. His head filled with inexplicable visions, his American world turned upside down, he has a new destination, unnamed. He is possessed, and we know where that gets you.

Spielberg sings to innocence. We see one dazzled face reverberate in three people — a baby boy, a synthesizer musician whose duet with the extraterrestrials is the first dialogue, and finally the Distant Stranger. Even Francois Truffaut, the French director Spielberg persuaded to perform here, has a magical, saintly face.

Spielberg gets the “Visual Effects Concepts” credit, even while working with special effects wizard Doug Trumbull, of 2001 fame, and a stable full of the best cameramen. His movie frame is a broad, deep canvas, swept by locomotion. “It’s like a tapestry,” he once said, describing the job of gathering together all his images. He draws every scene in intricate detail before shooting. Aided by state-of-the-art cameras with computer memories, he superimposed layers and layers of shots on film, giving the appearance of absolute reality to all manner of weird monkey business. To an Alabama landscape he added a sky full of stars, miniature trees and many Great Beings. The colossal Mother Ship was inspired by an oil refinery in Bombay which he saw all lit up one night. He thought it would scare the daylights out of anyone if it landed in their backyard. The spaceship model now fills his three-car garage.

The night sky is so important it almost becomes one of the movie’s characters. Sitting in Spielberg’s darkening living room, I mentioned that most of the strange events in this movie happen at night.

“Most do happen at night,” he nodded, “although there were some spectacular daylight sightings that I’ve read about. But also, I wrote the screenplay from eleven to eight o’clock in the morning because I was editing Jaws in the daytime. I’d come home, have dinner, rest for a few hours, and start writing Close Encounters. Subconsciously you begin writing about your environment while you’re behind the typewriter. I expect if I had written the film in daylight, there would be more daylight scenes, and perhaps some daylight encounters.

“I’m a night person, basically. I always stay up late, I sleep late in the mornings. I love the night.”

Our attention was drawn to the skies in this movie.

“Oh, the starry skies.” He pushed his wire-framed glasses up his nose. “When I was first planning the movie, I felt like I had to frame everything with more sky than ground. So a lot of the shots have more sky than ground. I felt the sky was as important to the suspense and mystery of Close Encounters as the water was to Jaws. In Jaws, all you had to do was cut to the water and it was an implied threat, the simple water horizon line. In Close Encounters, I felt the sky was important as a positive energy mural.

“This film will only be successful if, when people see it, they come out of the theater looking up at the sky. If they come out looking for their car keys, we’re in big trouble.”

Do you fly?

“Ho, ho, me? Elevators and airplanes, forget it. Terrified.”

He turned serious. “My whole thing about taking special effects to the limit — where there is nothing to criticize because you can’t see how it was done — it stems from being in school and hearing the word ‘fakey.’ You know, you could go back to class on Monday after everyone’s seen a movie over the weekend. ‘How’d you like the film?’ ‘Ah, that was kind of fakey. Those weren’t dinosaurs, those were big lizards with things glued on their backs. That wasn’t a brontosaur, that was a Gila monster.’

“I really do think that kids notice flaws in films more than adults. I get a lot of letters from kids who say, ‘I love Jaws even though the shark was only mechanical.'”

In conversation and in his work Spielberg often refers to his childhood. In fact, his next picture will be Growing Up, tales of his suburban glory in places like Scottsdale, Arizona, and Haddonfield, New Jersey. Spielberg calls his childhood “my eight-millimeter days,” meaning he’d caught the bug pretty early by pirating his dad’s home movie camera and staging dramas out of family camping trips, hollering that his mother couldn’t open the beans until he got the camera loaded.

After assembling dozens of home-movie short subjects, he made his first big-budget feature at sixteen when his father, a sci-fi fan and “in computers,” invested $500 in his two-hour science-fiction epic, Firelight. Spielberg calls the UFO movie a predecessor of Close Encounters. A local movie house was persuaded to play it for one night.

I wondered if his gifts for storytelling came out of some family tradition.

He answered instantly. “I used to tell my sisters bedtime horror stories all the time, and make them up as I go along. I could feel them twisting under the sheets and wanting to escape the room, and I’d make them more horrible. The more they squirmed, the more horrible the stories would get. And I’d usually cap off the story by letting them fall off to sleep and going to the window with a flashlight and prowling around.

“I remember one day a famous movie came on TV, a very famous William Cameron Menzies film called Invaders from Mars. The brains behind the bad guys is a severed head with tentacles coming out of the neck, and in a fishbowl. So I had a skull, a plastic skull that Revell built, and it was in my room, and I put an Air Force flak cap on the skull with some red lights under it, and I stuck it in a long walk-in closet we had. I blindfolded my sisters, put them in the closet with this thing and locked them in. They were screaming for hours.”

He giggled over it still. “I saw a shrink — primarily to get out of the Army — when I was eighteen. I really didn’t have a problem that I could articulate, I didn’t have a central dilemma that I was trying to get the psychiatrist to help me with. So I would just talk. And I felt at times that the psychiatrist disapproved of the long lapses in conversation, because he would sit there smoking his pipe and I’d sit there with nothing to say. So I remember feeling, even though I was paying the fifty dollars an hour, that I should entertain him.

“So I would go in, once a week, and for those fifty-five minutes make up stories. And sometimes the stream of consciousness, on the chair in his office, gave me great movie ideas. I would test all these scenarios on him. If he put down his pipe, or if he looked at me and began nodding his head, I’d realize I’d be getting to him. I determined after six months of this that he was human like the rest of us, and he was responding to exciting tales, or he was getting bored at the slow parts. And I was able, during those sessions, to go home and write some of the ideas down. And I got a feeling that, in all my movies, there’s something that came out of those extemporaneous bullshit sessions.

“I was never part of the drug culture. I never took LSD, mescaline, coke or anything like that. In my entire life I’ve probably smoked three joints. But I went through the entire drug period, several of my friends were heavily into it. I would sit in a room and watch TV while people climbed the walls. …

“I’ve always been afraid of taking drugs. I’ve always been afraid of losing control of myself. That’s one of the things I found when I was bouncing stories off the shrinks. I found that I could never lose control: I felt I would never regain it. One of the reasons I never got into drugs is that I felt it would overpower me. Take over me.”

“I was never part of the drug culture. I never took LSD, mescaline, coke or anything like that. In my entire life I’ve probably smoked three joints.”

The psychiatrists kept him out of Vietnam. His grades kept him out of the University of Southern California, where rising hotshots like John Milius, George Lucas and several screenwriters earned the rep “USC mafia.” Spielberg sweltered away at Long Beach State, still getting crummy grades. He attended all the student film festivals.

“George Lucas was always the star of the student film festivals then. You’d look through a lot of stuff and fall asleep. But George’s films would come on, and they’d be polished and professional, and you’d wonder what in hell he was doing in college.”

Just as the roots of the French New Wave of the Fifties seem to point to the French Cinématheque, America’s point mainly to three universities, USC, UCLA and NYU. Today they remain a brotherhood of friends. Spielberg offered to shoot a second-unit sequence for Lucas’ Star Wars, in which the Imperial Stormtroopers would get shot and issue great clouds of green steam. But it took too long to develop the green steam. So Spielberg tried to fit the Star Wars robot, Artoo Detoo, into Close Encounters. (Along with a shark, it can be spotted on the surface of the Mother Ship.) And Spielberg was supposed to play a clarinet in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, but he got caught in a time warp. Anyhow, Scorsese received last-minute editing help from George and Marcia Lucas. And Lucas started out as an assistant to Francis Coppola, who’s presently making Apocalypse Now, which was originally written by John Milius and was once to have been directed by Lucas — and there’s a thousand stories like this in the naked city. While all these talents could throw in together, Spielberg thinks that would be the beginning of a terrible friendship, and would much rather just go hang out at “Shangri-Coppola.” Spielberg and Lucas are collaborating on an original sci-fi story to make together.

Spielberg, now producing a picture called I Want to Hold Your Hand, joins Milius, Lucas and Coppola in sponsoring another crowd of freshmen moviemakers.

While Spielberg was still taking college dramatics, he’d drive up to Hollywood and crash the movie lots. He’d put on a suit and tie, carry an attaché case and walk with authority through the gates of Universal Studios. He found an empty desk and set up a base of operations. He even talked the switchboard into listing his name. He walked into a Hitchcock set, and was thrown off. He walked into a men’s room and wondered if Bogart ever peed there.

After two years of doing this, Universal became his first home, when a short called Amblin‘ earned him a seven-year contract as a director. His very first assignment, at age twenty-one, was directing Joan Crawford in a three-part Rod Serling tele-movie for Night Gallery. She plays a wealthy blind woman who buys the eyeballs of a hard-up gambler just to get twelve hours of sight, which she gets on the night of a power blackout. For a television production, it was impressive, swirling with a few nice visual kinks.

Then he didn’t work for another year.

The usual television fare — Owen Marshall, The Name of the Game, Marcus Welby, M.D.— led to two more TV movies, Something Evil, about demonic kids, and in 1971, Duel, which by some votes is the best TV movie ever made: given theatrical release in Europe, it won awards and grossed about $6 million. In Duel, Dennis Weaver plays a feckless Mr. Everybody driving along a desert blacktop, harassed by a hard-charging gasoline truck. The truck becomes a Great Being — all you see of the driver is one dangerous, hairy arm. Simple plot. But a fine study in terror.

He has about 200 cars barreling down the road in his first feature, Sugarland Express. Goldie Hawn chased through tank-town America by a jillion thrill-hungry cops. It earned him stars within the movie community, but no cigar. While rummaging around one day in the offices of producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, he saw the pre-publication galleys of Peter Benchley’s book, Jaws. So he filched the galleys. Then he called back and told them a good story.

He was twenty-six. Approximately the same age that Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock The Lodger, Stanley Kubrick The Killing, Francois Truffaut The 400 Blows and John Ford The Iron Horse.

One difference with Spielberg: he cleared about $4 million out of the deal. (Jaws‘ position as America’s highest-grossing picture was about to be usurped by Star Wars the week Close Encounters was released.)

The profits and the nature of the movie mean that his name will forever be judged in the realm of the fantastic, of special effects, machinery, of Great Beings.

Spielberg thinks it all started with Duel, which inspired European critics to say he could bring machines to life, squeeze blood from a rock.

But more than that, he has a great hand with Americana. Spielberg’s scientific speculation might be right up there with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, but as for down-home visuals, he’s got Norman Rockwell looking over his shoulder.

Spielberg applauds directors like William Wellman and John Ford because “they love the behavior of people.”

Richard Dreyfuss said that Spielberg has a love affair going with the suburban middle class. “He thinks they’re fascinating,” Dreyfuss said once, shaking his head. “I don’t share his fascination. But he could do whole movies about block parties, if he wanted to. Tupperware parties. He could make the greatest Tupperware party of all time.”

During filming, Spielberg handed Teri Garr, who played Dreyfuss’ disbelieving housewife, a copy of Bill Owens’ book of photos, Suburbia, and said, “Pick your wardrobe.” Otherwise, he said, actors who were raised in Beverly Hills would think that this tract-house living was just science fiction.

“Really,” he claimed, “they have no idea of what it’s like to grow up in what I consider to be a normal environment: the yelling and the screaming and the mashed potatoes, the television on twenty-four hours a day, and the radio, the vacuum cleaner, and the neighbors walking on the grass, the fights in the backyard, the kids and the block parties. All that tradition.

“So, for a lot of the actors who didn’t grow up that way, I had to sorta clue them in that this is not in the realm of science fiction, how people live today. I remember several times Teri was mentioning, ‘Is this because it’s a science-fiction movie that we’re living this way?’ I said, ‘No Teri, this is the way I grew up. You’re living my life. She looked at me and said, ‘You had a pretty weird upbringing, didn’t you?’ Not to me, I didn’t. Not to me, I didn’t. Not to any of my friends in Phoenix, Arizona.”

All the children’s performances were dandy and accurate. But the little lad, Cary Guffey, steals everything but the title.

“The trouble with kids is that they all grow up,” the director said in a faraway voice. “I hope Cary, the little boy…he’s in a wonderful place right now, it’s almost Zen. He’s so smart. He’s five now…. His mind is developing so quickly, it’s amazing.”

And this was the first movie he ever saw in his life.

“When he first saw Encounters, the first thing he said to me”— dropping into a cranky child’s voice — “‘I really loved the movie, but how come you cut out all my best scenes?’ First thing he said! I didn’t cut anything of his.”

The child’s face was filled with such wonder, what was he looking at while you filmed him? “Aaaah,” he grinned, “that’s the secret.”

Several scenes were shot from a child’s point of view. Neary sees shapes of a vision in his pillows and mashed potatoes, much as described in Kipling’s poem, “The Land of Counterpane,” where a child imagines his bed blanket to be a battlefield.

“I really wanted to take a child’s point of view. The uneducated innocence that allows a person to take this kind of quantum jump and … go abroad, if you will. A conscientious, responsible adult human being probably wouldn’t. Especially if his life had a lot of equilibrium, he certainly would turn down the chance to go that far abroad. As opposed to someone like Neary, whose whole life sprouted out of model trains. His den-workshop. Because, for me, Neary was not so much the father of the family of four, but a member of that family, no different than any of the kids.

“I think in order to want to go on that journey, you’d have to have that naive wonderment. He was, for me, in my mind, a prime candidate. He was ready even before anything happened to him.”

Dreyfuss, as Neary, had such a swell burning passion to understand his destination, it was like watching Van Gogh in Lust for Life.

“That’s great, that’s what I intended.” He rose in his seat. “That’s what I was trying to get across. It’s funny, because I used the Van Gogh analogy to Richard many times. When I justified the psychotic behavior in building the mountain in the den, I used the Van Gogh madness parallels several times. A person who is an artist — and Neary is an artist, probably all the people who wound up there are artists of some sort, even if they had no external ability, they certainly had something inside of them that made them worthy…

“I played that scene for comedy, but it was important that there be that…lust for life. The lust for discovery.”

Another nice thing. The crowds that moved through Sugarland, Jaws and Encounters are not just faceless crowds. We see personalities, and we get an emotional reading. The Wyoming train station scene is a big heart-tugging send-off right out of the old war movies.

“That’s how I saw it too.” He laughed. “I sorta saw it as refugees out on the train before the Germans moved into the outskirts. Like, Is Paris Burning? That was one of the more fun scenes to shoot. It’s fun working with crowds. Everybody in the crowd wants to be a movie star, so, of course, people who had never seen a motion picture camera in Alabama suddenly learned all the tricks about how to upstage their best friends. Interesting to watch that. The biggest problem with crowds, of course, is people smiling, laughing or looking at the lens. We had the same problem on Jaws, in the scenes of crowds panicking on the beach. The assistant director didn’t say the right words, you know: ‘The shark is eating your best friend, run for your lives, blood everywhere!’ Half of them would crack up and fall into the water, laughing hysterically.”

Director John Milius said that he’s fired a shotgun into the air to get a crowd into real panic. Spielberg did the same on Sugarland.

“I wanted to get a startled reaction from an actor. I had the propman give me a gun with a full load of blanks and just at the right moment, without the actor knowing it, I pulled the trigger and the gun went off. I got the reaction from the actors, they jumped a mile. But in the background, 3000 birds flew out of the trees.”

The India sequence, with 2000 extras emoting heavily, presented some different problems. “It’s hard to describe, because I had hardly been through anything like that before. That kind of poverty, that kind of hunger. The 2000 extras were all lined up in phalanxes, waiting to perform, shake their hands and chant and wave. All of a sudden a jack rabbit ran through the ranks and, to a man, 2000 Indians took off after the jack rabbit on a cross-country chase. We didn’t get them back for forty-five minutes. It’s on film; the cameras were rolling. We were speculating on whether it was sport or hunger.”

Marshaling the crowds proved to be fun next to the task of directing another director, Francois Truffaut, who plays the part of Lacombe, a French scientist and UFO expert. It took four full weeks for Spielberg to understand that not only was Truffaut Truffaut, but also a performer, and they could talk, shoot the breeze and act like folks. Dreyfuss claimed he never got past the ga-ga stage with Truffaut. You’d think, because Truffaut has acted in two of his own movies, that he likes to act.

“He does,” Spielberg said slowly. “He likes to be himself. He doesn’t like to act… I don’t think he ever played a character in any of his films, but he’s a good enthusiast of his own personality. Which is all I wanted. I cast him because of his interviews, and how I saw him in Day for Night, and how I saw him in Wild Child.

Just imagine: another director standing around noticing Truffaut Scenes on your movie set.

“There were several things where he made suggestions that I used. Little touches here and there. Truffautesque touches. Truffaut asked me to show him off-camera how I wanted him to behave on. I stood in front of the camera and Truffaut watched me, and as I acted out his part, he imitated my every facial move. When I saw the dailies next day, I realized what a bad actor I was. I just wouldn’t do that anymore.”

Was he experimenting with you?

“I think he was, but he told me that he does that occasionally to some of his actors when he makes his movies. If he can’t explain the emotion in so many words, he plays it out and the people can see what he’s thinking.”

A feisty little cocker spaniel named Elmer skittered around the corner and lunged at Spielberg. Denied by his master, he gnawed on the visitor’s ankle. “Did you know there was a song in Close Encounters?” Spielberg asked, giving Elmer a swack. “You want to hear how the song works? You’re one of the only people who’ve heard this.”

Stepping quickly, he disappeared upstairs to where his work desk was spread out like Mission Control. It’s hardly a desk, not with its built-in video unit, paper shredder and bottling plant. He dropped the needle on John Williams’ soaring, ethereal soundtrack. It filled the room. The movie’s original finale was to feature Cliff Edwards, as Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, singing “When You Wish upon a Star.”

Two versions of the movie were previewed in Dallas, with and without the song. The Texas score cards put the kibosh on the song. Spielberg cocked his head and framed his hands. “This is how it used to be. This is just leading up to the walk….”

We sat there dumbstruck as Cliff Edwards’ high graceful voice replaced the Williams score. It bathed us in memories. When it was over I didn’t know whether to sniffle or change religions.

“That’s what the Dallas audience told me they didn’t want to hear! But the whole movie began with that song. I made this movie because of the Disney song. That came first, that and the idea of a UFO movie.”

Was it an image left over from Pinocchio?

“No. Just the song, the lyrics and the feeling the song gave me when I was a kid listening to it. The song meant stars, magic.”

All the sound in this movie sets a new standard. There were nerve-jarring tones during the UFO flyovers, surely intended to squeeze the viewer’s stomach. He paused, like a magician not sure whether he should reveal a trick. “There were voices when the messengers came by,” he said finally. “Twenty women. A cappella.”

Were they saying anything?

“No. Just voices. I could’ve put anything in there. But I didn’t want jet sounds. I wanted something that could be interpreted as silence. The sound of silence. Because so many who report a close encounter with a UFO don’t report any sounds at all. And if the UFO was on top of them or over their car, they would report sounds akin to a swarm of bees. Or a telephone transformer overloaded. We spent weeks experimenting with sound at Todd-A-O. Sat around for days, coming up with new sounds. Had a great time. Didn’t get much work done, but had a great time.”

The extraterrestrial visitors, designed and built by Carlo Rambaldi, were another kind of problem. “They were always the same, based on reports, on third-kind eyewitness encounters over the years. I mean, Aborigines who’ve had third kind encounters described the same features as Betty and Barney Hill from New Hampshire, and people in France. Russians. All describe the same: the spindly arms, the four-foot stature, the waiflike eyes. In third kind encounters, it’s all the same. That’s one of the things that perplexed me.

“An English lady came up to me at a press conference and she wanted to know more. What do they eat? How do they function? Where do they come from? Where is man going, what’s going to happen? She wanted to know everything the sequel would tell her. I just told her, ‘Jesus, use your imagination.'”

I walked into the bathroom to splash my face with cold water. The walls were lined with on-set photographs and cartoons. A Peanuts takeoff on Jaws signed by Charles Schulz, and a Road Runner signed by Chuck Jones. When I returned, Spielberg was over by the picture window, watching TV. It was Body and Soul; John Garfield walking through a nighttime montage of saloons, dames, payoffs.

Spielberg stared at it as if it were the shadows of forgotten ancestors. You’ve never heard a movie picked apart until you’ve heard a director do it. “There were better filmmakers years ago,” he said after a while. His voice was reverent. “There’s just a handful today, as opposed to dozens of filmmakers in the old days.

“People have forgotten how to tell a story,” he sighed, taking his seat again. “Stories don’t have a middle or an end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning. Occasionally something comes along in the Kipling sense of good storytelling, or the old Saturday Evening Post yarns, or Mark Twain, Hemingway….

“By the same token, you have so many moviemakers who want the effects before the story. Not just the special effects, but they want the affectation before the once-upon-a-time. You need good storytelling to offset the amount of technique the audience demands, the amount of spectacle audiences demand before they’ll leave their television sets. And I think people will leave their television sets for a good story before anything else. Before fire and skyscrapers and floods, plane crashes, laser fire and spaceships, they want good stories.

“That was the reason I spent so much time on the story of Close Encounters, because I didn’t just want to make a UFO movie, where something lands, people get on, and it takes off again. I figured I had to write a mystery story. As opposed to just a special effects movie.”

His face and voice fell into a serious expression.

“Movies for me are a heightened reality. Making reality fun to live with, as opposed to something you run from and protect yourself from. And they used to make them all the time. Frank Capra the most notable. He and John Ford and Preston Sturges had more heart, as filmmakers, than everybody else.”

We fell into silence. His eyes rose to the TV screen, pulled as if by magnets. Garfield was lacing up the gloves. “Don’t they have a fight here where he comes up against an opponent who’s too strong for him?”

When I left him that night, he was standing in front of the set, watching a program called The UFO Connection. Pictures of flying saucers flashed on the screen. “Maybe I ought to watch this,” he said. Then he jerked back. “That’s a cloud,” he sniped. “And that’s a hubcap. I know all these hoaxes and how they’re done.” Next were aerial pictures of mysterious land shapes which narrator Rod Serling suggested might be UFO airports.

Spielberg’s voice changed in midcroak. “Not Von Daniken again! Those aren’t runways. They didn’t need runways.” His head revolved with disbelief. He spoke with the authority of someone who had studied their habits intimately, and had no doubts. Like maybe he’d even been there. Like maybe he saw it all outside his picture window.

In This Article: Coverwall, Steven Spielberg


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