Filmmaker has fueled our imagination for nearly 40 years
So what do you give the guy who has everything? Another honor, presumably. And if anyone deserves an additional accolade, it’s Steven Spielberg — or so his colleagues insist.
The prize this time is the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s Cecil B. DeMille Award, given for lifetime achievement. But the specifics don’t necessarily matter, for Spielberg, we are told, is a mensch for all seasons, not just awards season.
“He gave me my first break in the biz,” says fellow helmer Robert Zemeckis, referring to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (1978), which Spielberg exec produced. “If he sees talent, he just has it in his DNA to give that person a break. That is a very rare trait in our business.”
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski knows all about that. The double Acad Award winner earned his first Oscar for “Schindler’s List” (1993), his first major feature. “I think my career was affected in a monumental way,” the lenser says. “I wouldn’t say Steven made my career — I knew I would do mainstream film at some point — but having Steven in my life speeded up that process by about 10 years.”
Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning playwright, didn’t exactly need a helping hand, but when Spielberg offered him the chance to write his first original screenplay — for the Spielberg-helmed “Munich” (2005), a gig that ultimately earned Kushner an Oscar nom — he found the director patient and supportive.
“My first draft of ‘Munich’ was 300 pages,” recalls Kushner, “but Steven never said make it shorter. And he never asked, ‘Why is it taking two weeks longer than you said it would?’ When we started working on the script, we went over it line by line. I’d never done anything like it before. We worked for about a year while he was filming ‘War of the Worlds,’ and then I got on a plane to Malta with him for filming ‘Munich.’ He said he wanted me to be there. I was sitting right behind him on the set, which is not necessarily the done thing. But that’s how it was pretty much the whole shoot.”
David Koepp has worked with Spielberg for more than 15 years, from “Jurassic Park” to “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” The screenwriter says, “The process of sitting around thinking up stories with Steven is the same, I imagine, as it was for him as a kid. Somebody says, ‘What if …,’ somebody else says, ‘Yeah, and then …,’ and it goes from there in a fun and low-pressure kind of way.”
Spielberg is also good at keeping the room quiet and sane, says Koepp, “especially in the early stages, when stories are at their most fragile. You feel unafraid about dreaming up nonsense.”
That ability to mentor — to foster innate talent and gently encourage its growth — is a Spielberg trademark. But equally important is the helmer’s gift of empathy.
“I guess that’s the thing I’ve always most appreciated,” Zemeckis says. “In the early days of my career, when Steven was producing the movies I was directing, that’s the great gift I was given, because he was first a director and then a producer. If I came to him with a problem, he knew what I was going through, and he helped the movie from a directorial point of view, not from a producer’s point of view. ”
That ability to identify with the struggles of others extends beyond his own specialty. Kushner calls Spielberg, whose last screenplay credit was “Artificial Intelligence: AI” (2001), “a great dramaturge,” lauding both his script savvy and forthrightness.
“He’ll say if he doesn’t understand something,” the playwright adds. “He doesn’t flatter. But he’s nice about it. I found him unbelievably responsive and encouraging — and frighteningly smart. His sense of narrative construction is jaw-dropping.”
And whereas other directors lean toward treating actors like cattle — a sentiment widely attributed to Hitchcock — Spielberg clearly does not. “I respect how he treats actors,” Kaminski says. “He doesn’t patronize them. He admires and loves actors. That’s tremendously important. And they admire him. They’ll jump into fire for him — as we all will.”
In praising Spielberg, Kaminski prefers to steer clear of the “M” word, emphasizing the helmer’s desire for mutual respect. “I don’t think I would call him a mentor,” he says. “A mentor is someone you wish to emulate, and that’s not the case. He’s a colleague and an inspiration. He’s someone I want to make movies with.”
Spielberg’s professional loyalty is another cause for praise. Along with Kaminski, who has lensed every Spielberg-helmed feature since “Schindler,” the director has made a habit of collaborating with producer Kathleen Kennedy, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams, among others.
“This provides familiarity and comfort,” Kaminski maintains. “If things are good, why change? That’s why it’s good to use the same people. Loyalty is a big factor in his life.”
Spielberg’s storied work ethic is also a consistent theme. “He’s tireless,” Kushner marvels. “While he was wrapping ‘War of the Worlds,’ we were prepping ‘Munich.’ We stopped filming ‘Munich’ in October, and it was in theaters in December. Steven and Michael Kahn were in his trailer editing every day during lunch. But it’s a relaxed calm in him, not manic energy. He’s genuinely happy in his work, which I think is a rare commodity.”
That may be partly due to Spielberg’s Ozzie-and-Harriet-like family life, another rare commodity, especially in Hollywood. “He’s not an eccentric,” Kaminski says. “He’s well-rounded. It would be easy for someone like him to lose that. I respect him for maintaining a semi-regular life. That’s really important for any filmmaker — maintaining a sense of reality.”
Reality, strangely enough, is something of a constant in Spielberg’s movies, if by reality one means a connection to the truth. As Koepp notes, “No matter whether the subject matter is dark and real or bright and fanciful, all Steven’s films are sincere attempts to get at moments of relatable human feeling.”