Told entirely in his own words during a relaxed, comfortable chat with critic and film historian Richard Schickel, “Spielberg on Spielberg” continues the Turner Classic Movies practice of pairing well-crafted documentaries with mini-retrospectives, from the recent “Brando” to Schickel’s 2004 auteur confessional with Martin Scorsese. The result is a brisk, fascinating flight through nearly 40 years of Steven Spielberg’s filmography, though with so much turf to cover, there’s room to quibble about which movies deserved more expansive treatment and where the producers should have yelled “cut,” regardless of Spielberg’s fondness for a certain project.
Spielberg starts with the familiar tale of how he virtually stowed away on the Universal lot as a youth, before then-MCA honcho Sid Sheinberg offered him a seven-year contract to direct television. Due to his youth, he recalls being greeted with hostility by the crew during his first venture (a memorable “Night Gallery” starring Joan Crawford), which he followed with his career-launching exercise in TV-movie suspense, “Duel.”
Perhaps inevitably, Spielberg’s memories of “Jaws” represent a clear highlight, among them how the failings of his mechanical Great White forced him to “suggest the shark without showing the shark” — an approach, he says, that “probably added about $175 million to the box office.”
Spielberg also wryly reflects on a point-swap proposed by a nervous George Lucas — a piece of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” then in production, in exchange for a percentage of “Star Wars” — noting that he got the better of the deal. That segues to a candid assessment of the critical drubbing he received for the misguided comedy “1941,” an experience that informed his dramatic rebound with the blockbusters “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T. The Extraterrestrial.”
In discussing “E.T.,” Spielberg intriguingly explores John Williams’ enormous contributions to his films, noting that the composer “rewrites my movies musically” — and that only his soaring violins could have truly made those alien-rescuing bicycles feel airborne. From there, “The Color Purple” (“My first grown-up film,” Spielberg says) bridges the gap into the director’s serious mode in “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
It’s around here that the production begins to sag, primarily because Spielberg’s recent arc of movies (“A.I.,” “Minority Report,” “War of the Worlds,” “Munich”) isn’t as collectively satisfying as the major chapters that preceded it. In that respect, Schickel seems too deferential — providing the filmmaker an unchallenged platform to defend the chilly ending of “A.I.,” for example — time that could have been better allocated elsewhere.
Granted, Spielberg is such an influential, iconic director that even hearing him contemplate his rare failures and fizzles has merit; still, with only 90 minutes to encompass a career of such epic scope, it’s hard not to get a little frustrated wandering around “Terminal” when you could be wading deeper into “Jaws.”