Spielberg: Empire of the stunner

PGA Awards: David O. Selznick Achievement Award in Motion Pictures

When Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” landed ashore in the summer of ’75, it marked a sea change. Not only did it give birth to the modern blockbuster, but the impact of Spielberg — this year’s Producers Guild of America’s David O. Selznick honoree for lifetime achievement — was immediate, and his influence on movies and moviemakers continues unabated.

“That was my first Spielberg experience,” says J.J. Abrams, who recalls the “Jaws” effect on his boyhood. “That movie left an enormous impact. Not long ago, I was putting my son to bed, and I gave him this lacquered wooden plaque that I had made as a grade school project. I had made mine with the ‘Jaws’ poster. That’s how big that movie is for me.”

“Jaws” was not the first film to breach the $100 million milestone stateside (that would be “The Godfather”), but with a 1975 tally of $260 million — more than $1 billion today adjusted for inflation — it established a new benchmark, and earned more than twice of any film released that year.

The net effect on Abrams can be seen in the filmmaker’s “Super 8,” which is, as he terms it, an “unabashed” tribute to both Spielberg and specifically to “E.T.,” another Spielbergian Saturday-matinee movie whose importance has allowed it to also be perceived as a more serious, Saturday-night movie. It’s this ability to take the tropes of matinee entertainments and pitch them into high relief, with a cinematic brio and audacity to present images, effects and events on screen that have never before been done, that perhaps most distinguishes Spielberg’s work as a producer and director.

Without films like “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Jurassic Park,” it would be hard to imagine films like “Avatar,” “Transformers,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” It’s as if Spielberg established the template to allow filmmakers like James Cameron and Peter Jackson, with whom he collaborated on “The Adventures of Tintin,” to shoot for the moon.

Even if Oscar best pic winner “Schindler’s List” (1993) cast Spielberg in a more serious light, the gravity and weight of that Holocaust drama was counterbalanced by “Jurassic Park,” released the same year. “Jurassic” raised the bar on CGI and grossed $47 million its opening weekend, going on to earn an unheard of $900,000-plus worldwide. To date, Speilberg’s movies, whether he produced, exec produced or directed, have earned nearly $8.5 billion in North America alone.

Abrams himself finds the best, briefest term for Spielberg’s talent: “He’s a showman. That means whether he’s the director or he’s in a producing capacity like he was with me on ‘Super 8,’ he’s conscious of delivering a movie that combines emotions, interesting characters and ideas, but also more than anything entertains and is a crowd-pleaser. And he’s certainly the greatest influence on me for that reason.

“My favorite movies,” Abrams adds, “are B movies done A. So it may be easy to recall the shark attacks in ‘Jaws,’ but what makes that movie great are all the strong scenes between the characters, the sheriff (played by Roy Scheider), Robert Shaw’s fantastic scenes on the boat.”

Another movie that Spielberg executive-produced last summer, the Jon Favreau-directed “Cowboys & Aliens,” also happily flies in Spielberg’s space in its good-natured combo of the western and sci-fi genres — even though, surprising as it is, Spielberg has never himself made a western.

“He was my mentor,” says Favreau, “and the main reason I took on the project was that Steven was producing, allowing me an incredible opportunity to work side-by-side with him, and learn. We come from really different backgrounds — me from improv and comedy, him from cinema — and I wanted to just take in his ideas, and even the way he went about his work.”

However, Spielberg doesn’t view his role as producer through the lens of a mentor, but as a facilitator.

“I do believe my purpose when I’m producing is to give the full weight of my support to the director I’ve hired,” he says. “I can be effective at getting the director what he wants, once the director knows what he wants, and that sometimes doesn’t happen until the day of shooting.”

Since “making a movie is the most fluid art form in the world,” Spielberg says, “things work and things fail 10 times a day. I can help a director by hiring experienced personnel (production managers, assistant directors, location managers) who will work with me to organize a production with enough contingencies in case of foul weather or an illness or mechanical breakdowns, that the director never has to worry about plotting those solutions. A good producer knows how to put out fires long before the director ever smells the smoke. It’s also important for me to help get everybody out of (his) way, including myself.”

Favreau, like Abrams, says Spielberg the producer is ever-attentive and brimming with ideas and enthusiasm when he’s in the room with you. During the phases when both directors were making their movies, Spielberg was either preparing or directing both “War Horse” and “Tintin,” making it all the more remarkable that they echo each others’ view that Spielberg worked with them “as if he had nothing else to do but this,” says Favreau.

“As a gift, he gave me an iPad loaded up with classic Westerns,” the actor-director adds, “so it was like a film school working with him. He screened ‘The Searchers’ for us, since the main storyline in ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ borrows from the quest plot in that film, and he did a running commentary as we watched it.”

“Steven is very optimistic,” says Abrams. “He’s someone who’s able to see the best version of whatever project he’s working on. He’s got enormous ambition of things to be at their best, but what I found is that while he has a constant ability to imagine moments in scenes and maybe make them better, he also has the ability and sense to never mandate those suggestions. He’ll let you consider his ideas, and take them, alter them or not. It’s like when you were a kid and ordered the bottomless chocolate milk. He’s like this bottomless idea factory.”

Favreau and Abrams both observe that Spielberg the producer never cites Spielberg the director, but instead mentions previous Hollywood masters and models — his idols, just like Spielberg is their idol.

“He doesn’t bring up his movies when we talk,” Favreau notes, “but he’ll bring up John Ford all the time, or guys like Billy Wilder. I think he’s inherited Ford’s DNA.”

Abrams stresses that Spielberg would “try to emphasize that, even though I was making a movie that drew directly from his own movies, with scenes and characters that totally parallel those in ‘E.T.,’ that he didn’t come up with this stuff in the first place, but was drawing on others.”

While helmers who have worked with Spielberg can hardly stop talking about his collaborative tendencies, Spielberg himself says there are distinct limits to this: “There’s plenty of room for collaboration, but no room for more than one chef in the kitchen.”


“The Artist
Thomas Langmann
Pedigree*: Cesar nom for “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1” and “Mesrine: Killer Instinct” (2008)
2011 Best pic awards, noms to date: Alliance of Women Film Journalists; Boston Society of Film Critics; Detroit Film Critics; European Film Award nom; Golden Globe (musical/comedy); Independent Spirit Awards nom; Indiana Film Critics; Las Vegas Film Critics Society; New York Film Critics Circle; New York Film Critics Online; San Diego Film Critics; Screen Actors Guild nom (ensemble cast); St. Louis Film Critics; Vancouver Film Critics Circle; Washington, D.C., Area Film Critics Assn.

Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel and Clayton Townsend
Pedigree: Mendel Oscar-nominated for “Munich” (2005) and “The Sixth Sense” (1999), as well as a BAFTA nom (“Sixth Sense”);
2011 Best pic awards, noms to date: Broadcast Film Critics Assn. nom (Comedy Movie); Golden Globes nom (c
omedy/musical); Screen Actors Guild nom (ensemble cast)

“The Descendants”
Jim Burke, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Pedigree: N/A
2011 Best pic awards, noms to date: Broadcast Film Critics Assn. nom; Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics; Golden Globe (drama); Houston Film Critics Society; Kansas City Film Critics; Los Angeles Film Critics; Satellite Awards; Screen Actors Guild nom (ensemble cast); Southeastern Film Critics

“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Cean Chaffin and Scott Rudin
Pedigree: Three Oscar noms and one win (“No Country for Old Men,” 2007), and three PGA noms and one win (“No Country”) for Rudin; two Oscar noms and two PGA noms for Chaffin.
2011 Best pic awards, noms to date: N/A

“The Help
Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus and Brunson Green
Pedigree: N/A
2011 Best pic awards, noms to date: Golden Globes nom; Screen Actors Guild nom (ensemble cast)

Graham King and Martin Scorsese
Pedigree: Three Cesar noms and a PGA nom for Scorsese; two Oscar noms and one win (“The Departed, 2006)” and two PGA noms and a win (“The Aviator,” 2004) for King.
2011 Best pic awards, noms to date: Austin Film Critics; Golden Globes nom; National Board of Review

“The Ides of March
George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Brian Oliver
Pedigree: Heslov Oscar-nominated and PGA-nominated for “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005); Oliver Oscar-nominated and PGA-nominated for “Black Swan” (2010)
2011 Best pic awards, noms to date: Golden Globes nom

“Midnight in Paris
Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum
Pedigree: N/A
2011 Best pic awards, noms to date: Golden Globes nom; Screen Actors Guild nom (ensemble cast)

Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt
Pedigree: De Luca Oscar-nominated and PGA-nominated for “The Social Network” (2010); Horovitz won the PGA award for “Grey Gardens” (2009)
2011 Best pic awards, noms to date: Golden Globes nom

“War Horse
Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg
Pedigree: Kennedy has six Oscar noms, three noms and a lifetime acheivement award (2008) from the PGA, and four BAFTA noms; Spielberg has five Oscar noms and one win (“Shindler’s List,” 1993), five Cesar awards and one honorary award; and three noms, six wins and a lifetime achievement award from the PGA.
2011 Best pic awards, noms to date: Golden Globes nom; AFI Award

* Refers only to best pic awards and noms from the Academy, PGA, HFPA, BAFTA and Cesars

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