Picture a giant boulder rolling toward you. That’s how fast you have to run through Steven Spielberg’s movies if you want to hit even the high points: Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler’s List… (The low points, like Hook, are also interesting.) This month, the Oscar-winning director, 64, debuts two new movies, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. And he just started shooting his next film, Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Here, he reflects on his twoscore-and-three-year career.
Let’s start at the beginning. I just watched your first short film, Amblin’ (1968).
Good, I’m glad. You got spared the pain of my sort-of attempt at a Pepsi commercial.
A lot of people know Amblin as the name of your production company, but probably few of them have seen the short.
It was going to be a tone poem about a boy and a girl who meet in the desert, hitchhiking their way to the Pacific Ocean. Very simple story. I wrote it in a day.
At the end of the short, you find out the boy is not a hippie. Inside the guitar case is just a suit, a tie, a book…
He was me, basically. He was dressed as a hippie, but he was a secret square. It was no secret that I was a square. And I think, to my children today, it’s still no secret.
I read somewhere that you were nauseous every day while making Amblin’. True?
Yes. I’ve always had shpilkes [Yiddish for ”nerves”].
You didn’t have a career yet — what were you worried about?
It’s not even about the career. I have shpilkes now and I have a career. I think it’s my fuel, basically — my nervous stomach. That’s what keeps me honest, right? And a little bit humble, in the sense that when I make a movie, I never think I have all the answers. I think I’ve stayed collaborative my entire career because I don’t have all the answers. I come onto the set — whether it was my first movie, The Sugarland Express, or Lincoln — and it cuts me down to size. It’s a good feeling to have.
Your first features, the TV movie Duel (1971) and The Sugarland Express (1974), are both about life — or death — on the road.
I’ve always been interested in that. I grew up in Arizona, and we subscribed to a magazine called Arizona Highways. It was always shots of roads going to infinity, going off into the vanishing point. One of my favorite movies was a film called Vanishing Point. And I remember a wonderful poster for a movie called It Came From Outer Space that had this lonely road going to nowhere, which I tried to appropriate a little bit for Close Encounters. So the idea of a straight-line highway going to a vanishing point is compelling.