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John Williams Startles Steven Spielberg by Telling Him He’s Not Retiring After All

The surprising exchange — surprising most of all to Spielberg, who said, 'I just found out that he's not (retiring)' — occurred at the end of a 50-year-encompassing conversation sponsored by the American Cinematheque.

Steven Spielberg and John Williams attend as Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment present Spielberg/Williams - 50 Years of Music and Movies: A Conversation with Steven Spielberg and John Williams at the WGA Theater on Thursday, January 12, 2023 (photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)
Alex J. Berliner

John Williams is retiring after he finishes the score for the forthcoming Indiana Jones movie — right? Well, Steven Spielberg certainly thinks so. Or thought so. He was corrected on that notion at the very end of a 90-minute conversation between the two film giants Thursday night.

At the event, sponsored by the American Cinematheque and held at the Writers Guild Theater, moderator (and Variety film music writer) Jon Burlingame addressed the elephant that was gingerly lingering around the edges of the room: “A final question for each of you. John, are you really retiring from films? Are this” — “The Fabelmans,” the last film to come up for discussion — “and the Indiana Jones film to come your last work for the medium?”

“Well, Steven is a lot of things,” replied the composer. “He’s a director, he’s a producer, he’s a studio head, he’s a writer, he’s a philanthropist, he’s an educator. One thing he isn’t is a man you can say no to.”

“You never told me that before today,” said Spielberg, slightly, happily rattled.

Williams pointed out that Arnold Spielberg, the director’s WWII-veteran father, died at 102, was still working at the Shoah Foundation when he was 99 and 100. “This is what he expects from me,” said the composer, although it was clear Spielberg had held no such expectation.

Continued Williams, “I had a 90th birthday and I met a woman at my age up in Boston. She was a very nice lady, exactly the same age as I, and I said to her, the greatest decade in a man’s life is 80 to 90, if you have your health, because if you get to 90, there’s an enormous compensation. You see everything with such magnetic vision that you recognize the most beautiful thing in the world are Peruvian butterflies. There’s nothing more beautiful than that. And so it’s the greatest decade. And she said, ‘No, the greatest decade in a person’s life is 90 to 100. So I’ll stick around for a while… But also, you can’t retire from music. I said earlier, it’s like breathing. It’s your life. It’s my life. And so a day without music is a mistake.”

Quipped Spielberg in reply: “I gotta get working, to find out what the hell I’m doing next.”

When Spielberg fielded the final question — how he would you sum up the 50 years the two have spent working together — the director said, “It’s very hard to sum it up because we’re still in it together, and so I feel when I start to think about summing it up, it’s almost like we’re both retiring at the same time. I just found out that he’s not. So, obviously I this is a whole new wrinkle to the story, other pages, other chapters.” Turning back to Williams: “I can’t believe you said that tonight. This is extraordinary!”

Alex J. Berliner

Undoubtedly the hottest ticket in town Thursday — with dozens of optimistic standby hopefuls in line, hoping for seats to open up — the event has Burlingame picking about a dozen film clips from the 29 feature films made together by the director and composer who would most likely be picked by popular acclamation as the leaders in their fields who best kept the gold going after the golden age of Hollywood.

Spielberg said that he’d sought to enlist Williams for “The Sugarland Express” after developing an obsession with Williams’ scores for two Mark Rydell films, “The Reivers,” for which he “wore out” the soundtrack album, and “The Cowboys,” which then had no album, but some of which the budding filmmaker had still committed to memory.

Arriving at a fine-dining Beverly Hills establishment, “I said, ‘I’m looking for Mr. Spielberg,'” Williams recalled. “We got to the table and there was a kid sitting there, who should be about 17 or 18, truly. And I thought, maybe this is Mr. Spielberg’s son. We sat down and began to chat a little bit. And one of the parts I remember, Steven — I think accurately — the headwaiter came over and offered Steven a wine list, because he was the host, and he picked it up like it was something out of Mars. He obviously hadn’t seen a lot of wine lists in his 17 years of life. I spoke to him for a few minutes and immediately realized, first of all, this kid was extremely bright, and he seemed to know more about film music than I did… and was almost a scholar in his level of information about it… I looked at ‘Sugarland Express’ and it was so magnificently edited, particularly the action sequences, like nothing I’d seen at that level for a long time, that I quickly agreed to join Mr. – I mean Master — Spielberg.”

(Williams used his presumably deliberately inaccurate rendering of Spielberg’s age as a running joke during the conversation before the director finally said, “I have to correct you. I was 24… It was the acne.”)

After a bit of joint admiration for the Toots Thielemans harmonica soloing that made up much of the “Sugarland” score, more attention was paid to Spielberg’s sophomore theatrical feature, “Jaws.” “Steven was interested in my score to ‘Images’ for Robert Altman… very unsuitable for a adventure film like this,” the composer added, underscoring the obvious.

“I temped the entire movie with the score from ‘Images,'” Spielberg admitted. “And that wasn’t ‘Jaws’ when we did that. It was a different movie. And you saw the movie with the ‘Images’ score and you said, ‘No, no, no, no. This isn’t a Robert Altman picture. This is a pirate film.'”

Of the movie’s famous two-note theme, Williams said, “I played it for Steven (on the piano) and he said something like, ‘Are you serious?’ And I said, ‘Well, by the time we get the cellos in … I think it may work.’ So he said, ‘Let’s try it.’ And we, we tried it. He seemed happy.” Spielberg admitted he was genuinely taken aback: “I was scared when he first played it for me on the piano because after you finished playing it on the piano the piano, you looked up at me and you were smiling, and I started laughing because I didn’t know you that well. I thought you were pulling my leg. And John said, ‘No, this is serious.’ … I was very lucky, you know, because God knows the shark never worked, but Johnny did.”

Steven Spielberg and John Williams attend as Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment present Spielberg/Williams – 50 Years of Music and Movies: A Conversation with Steven Spielberg and John Williams at the WGA Theater on Thursday, January 12, 2023 (photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages) Alex J. Berliner

“Jaws” came up again in a comical moment that touched on Spielberg’s own instrumental prowess, or lack of it. When Burlingame asked if “the two of you have never had a disagreement over a musical approach,” both avowed that they’d never found themselves in dispute in five decades of consistent work. “I mean, what am I gonna do, sit down and write the music myself?” asked the director.

“I think you probably could,” Williams replied, but added, “Don’t play the clarinet.” Spielberg explained: “I play clarinet in ‘Jaws’ because I play it so badly. There was a little high school band marching down the street. John said (to the studio band), ‘Well, you know, we usually do things to sweeten it, but we need you to sour this.’ We had a great first (clarinet player) and he sounded too good. And I said to him, ‘You’ve gotta make it worse.’ So he handed the clarinet to Steven.”

Spielberg provided a definitive answer to whether he ever inhaled, via a part of the conversation that followed the showing of a less legendary piece of Williams’ work, a brilliant jazz theme for the opening credits of “Catch Me If You Can.” Jazz is “something that we share in common,” Spielberg said, “because when I was in college at Long Beach State, I used to hang out at jazz clubs. I used to go down to down to the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. I went to Shelly’s Manne-Hole, (the nightclub of) Shelly Manne, and Shelly wound up performing on both ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Jaws’ in percussion as a session player. But I had long before hung out with Shelly. I think I smelled my first marijuana in jazz clubs — not on campus, in jazz clubs. That’s where I got a real whiff of it for the first time — and probably a contact high, too, although I’ve never smoked the stuff… It was really amazing because I actually got to watch Lionel Hampton, six feet away. I got to watch Art Tatum, an old man at the time. … Just a little bit after ‘Duel,’ I was directing a TV movie and I was directing Sandy Dennis, and I’ve been to all these jazz clubs and suddenly in walked Gerry Mulligan to my set. I had no idea why he walked onto the set, because I didn’t know he was married to Sandy Dennis. So jazz had been a big part of my upbringing.

“And so John surprised me” (on “Catch Me If You Can”). He said, ‘Look, unlike what we usually do, you’re not gonna come over to the office. I’m not gonna try to play this on the piano because, quite frankly, it’s impossible. Just show up at the session.’ And I got to hear it for the first time, cold.”

Alex J. Berliner

Spielberg’s most solemn films, “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List,” were addressed, with a clip of the final scene of the former moving some of the audience, even divorced from the body of the film. “The trumpet and the low strings — musically, it honors all of the veterans both today and yesterday,” said Spielberg. “It’s such a great honor that the military is always asking if they could perform this score.This is one of the most requested scores throughout our entire United States military. The Marines, the Army, it’s played all the time because it has the deepest reverence and respect for those who have laid their lives upon the altar of freedom.”

Talk turned to the present as a “Fabelmans” clip was shown in which Michelle Williams, playing a fictionalized version of Spielberg’s mom, does an impromptu dance in front of her family (and her lover) on a camping trip at night. Although it’s presumably silent in the real-life setting for the scene, Williams’ score was intended to evoke “a kind of music that can invoke or create a kind of dream state, where gravity is suspended and emotion is slowed down and we ruminate about our situation in the universe.”

Added the composer, “I knew both Steven’s parents and admired them… I hope it is worthy of them, whatever I’ve done in this.” “Oh, it is,” Spielberg answered.

In further discussing “The Fabelmans,” the filmmaker said, “You know, I’ve spent my entire life leaving home to go make movies. This is the first time I got to come home to make a film. Which is why this is so important to me and why I think it was so important to our collaboration on this. Because I had never done anything that made me really feel that I was exposing something that, 10 years ago, I never would’ve dreamed of talking about.

“My mother encouraged me to tell the story. At (her) restaurant, the Milky Way, I’d go in there and she’d always say, ‘Steve, throughout our entire lives, I’ve given you a lot of good material. When are you gonna do something with it?’ And Tony Kushner, who wrote this with me, was on the other side of me actually pushing me to take some of these memories and put them down on paper and then find a way to express this. But I think after my mom passed and after I lost my dad… what’s today? January 12th? Today would’ve been my mother’s birthday.” The audience clapped. “You know, she would’ve loved that round of applause, because she was a performer.”

Alex J. Berliner

Speaking to their overall shared legacy, Williams said, “Why have Steven and I stayed together for 50 years? What held us together was the fact that I loved this man immediately, when he was a baby. But Steven grew up loving the great past of the film industry with the kind of psychology of: Can’t we be as good as the people who came before us? He loved the old composers. He loved Korngold, he loves Franz Waxman and (Max) Steiner and all this kind of things. So in a certain sense, Steven’s affection for film was not retrograde — quite the opposite of that — but he was listening back into the accomplishments of these people before, I’m sure in a way that he does directorially also. Not that he is not a forward-moving force, but he’s connected to a past. And I think one of the things I wanted to do with music is to write as well as Korngold … In a way, I was kind of looking in the same direction that Steven was always in our love for fulfillment and our desire to measure up to the shoulders we stood on. Something like that, I think, explains our mutual sympathy artistically.”