Spotlight On: Steven Spielberg

Welcome to Spotlight On, where we do a deep dive into the careers and styles of our favourite actors, directors, writers, cinematographers… anyone who excels in their craft of making movie magic.

This week, we are focusing on one of the greatest living directors on the planet, Mr Steven Spielberg. Few directors have had such an impact on Hollywood and audiences worldwide as The Beard and his filmography is a journey through some of the greatest films over the last 50 years.

A Brief History

It’s not the easiest task to give a brief history of one of the most influential filmmakers of the last 5 decades but bear with me. Spielberg’s filmmaking journey started at a young age, making his first short The Last Gunfight to earn his photography merit badge for Boy Scouts. This thirst for filmmaking eventually led Spielberg to take on an unpaid editing internship at Universal Studios. Whilst at the studio, Spielberg directed 26min short titled Amblin’ which sparked the attention of studio vice president Sid Sheinberg who offered him a seven-year directing gig – making him the youngest filmmaker to sign a long-term deal with a studio – a partnership which would continue to this day.SSjawsThe 1970’s was an absolute career explosion for the young director. His first feature-length film, Duel (1971), was a made for TV thriller that gave audiences a taste of the tension and terror that Spielberg crafts in a number of his films. His first theatrical release, The Sugarland Express (1974) followed shortly after, and whilst it fared poorly at the box office, Spielberg’s directorial talents were recognized by critics. Whilst his experiences making these films proved Spielberg had the right stuff, it was his next film that would truly test his skills. Jaws (1975) hit theatres with screams of terror and had audiences thrilled. Considered the first true summer blockbuster, Jaws smashed records, earned awards and generally skyrocketed Spielberg’s name high into the public conscious. Behind the scenes, the film was a nightmare – over budget and delayed on a number of occasions, Jaws was a true trial by fire for all involved. Using his newfound fame, Spielberg was able to write and direct his next film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, earning him his first Best Director nomination. His final film of the decade, 1941 (1979) was another learning experience – his first poorly reviewed film.SStempleofdoom

Of course, the 1980’s would see Spielberg kick into full swing at being, well, Spielberg. Collaborating with friend George Lucas, the two would create our favourite archaeologist adventurer, Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) would hit theatres as a love letter to the serials of 1930’s/40’s and would prove to be a massive hit with audiences worldwide. Speaking of massive hits, Spielberg followed up Raiders with a return to science fiction with the wonderful E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). This heartwarming story of a boy and his alien friend went on to become the top-grossing film of all time, and cemented Spielberg’s place in the pantheon of Hollywood greats. Following E.T., Mr Spielberg briefly dabbled in The Twilight Zone: The Movie, directing the ‘Kick the Can’ segment. In 1984, Spielberg and Lucas returned to the world of Indiana Jones, bringing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the screenThis darker, violent tale proved you can give nightmares to children worldwide, and still make a massive hit. Whilst it’s not looked upon fondly by the director, it did provide Spielberg the opportunity to meet his future wife, Kate Capshaw.

Next, in an interesting turn, Spielberg drew his attention to a story of African-American women during the depression in 1985’s The Color Purple. His first true dramatic picture, this moving tale featuring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey was a critical and box office delight. Following on from this, Spielberg stayed in the drama genre with 1987’s Empire of the Sundirecting a young Christian Bale in this WW2 set story. To close out the decade the beard would return, once again, to our favourite archaeological professor in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), riding these characters into the sunset, followed by his first foray into the romantic comedy with the moderately successfully Always (1989).SSSchindlerSpielberg would kick of the 90’s with a pair of films that would have easily sat within his 1980’s filmography. Hook (1991) told the story of a Peter Pan who had grown up and while it received mixed reviews, it performed well at the box office (and in the hearts of 90’s kids everywhere). His follow-up would return Spielberg to the familiar adventure genre. Using the combined wizardry of Stan Winston and ILM to bring dinosaurs to life, Jurassic Park (1993) would resonate with audiences worldwide to become the highest-grossing film of all time, the third of Spielberg’s films to do so. His next film, would prove to be one of the most emotionally demanding films of his career. Schindlers List (1993) told a Holocaust story unlike one that audiences had seen before – and earned Spielberg his first Director and Picture Academy Awards. Schindlers List would also mark a turn in the director’s career, moving towards the more dramatic, and true life stories.

After a 3 year break where he set up Dreamworks, the beard would return for a marathon effort of three films back to back. First, a return to cloned dinosaurs with The Lost World: Jurassic Park  (1997). While not as critically acclaimed as its predecessor, the film was the second biggest of the year behind Titanic. Next, the true life story of an African Slave rebellion, Amistad (1997) underperformed at the box office. Finally, Spielberg would end the decade with his World War 2 epic, Saving Private Ryan (1998). This intense WW2 drama realistically captured combat violence in a way that audiences had never seen. Winning him his second directing Oscar, Saving Private Ryan was a huge box office and critical success and would see the first collaboration between Spielberg and Tom Hanks.SSPrivateRyanSpielberg jumped into the 2000’s with A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), taking the reigns on the project after original director and friend Stanley Kubrick passed away. This tale of a robot child looking for love was both dark and sappy and though it’s a technical marvel (and in my opinion, misunderstood), the film failed to ignite the box office. Continuing the futuristic trend of the new millennium, Spielberg next teamed up with Tom Cruise (their first collaboration) for Minority Report (2002). This futuristic crime thriller received strong reviews and earned big bucks at the box office. His other film of 2002, Catch Me If You Can, was much lighter by far, telling the unbelievable true story of teenager Frank Abernathy Jr as lied his way around the country posing as a doctor, lawyer, and a pilot. Spielberg continued this lighter tone with The Terminal (2004), a comedy following a man stranded on an airport. It marked his 3rd collaboration with Tom Hanks.

Next, it was time to return to extra-terrestrials, with a contemporary retelling of War of the Worlds (2005), reuniting with Tom Cruise. The film was a massive hit with audiences (except for all Dakota Fanning screaming..) and was somewhat of a return to Spielberg’s earlier days of intense, effects-driven tentpole pictures. If you haven’t already noticed, Spielberg likes to work. A few months after War of the Worlds hit theatres, the director finished work on Munich (2005) – an intense dramatic picture about the events following the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The film was critically acclaimed and was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Score, Adapted Screenplay and Editing. It won none. Finally, to finish out the decade, Spelberg reluctantly returned with friend George Lucas to bring Indiana Jones back to the big screen with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Indy’s return was a massive hit but fans of the franchise were upset with the amount of CG and lead-lined fridges.sscatchmeifyoucanSo, finally, this brings us to the 2010’s (phew). Spielberg’s next project was The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011). The director had been a huge fan of Hergé’s original comic and actually acquired the rights to the property in 1983. Using state of the art motion capture, Spielberg (along with producer Peter Jackson) was able to bring the beloved comic to life. His first animated directorial project, it’s amazing to see Spielberg work his magic in this new medium, with performance capture allowing him to still use similar framing and styling as any of his live action pictures. Following on from that, Spielberg returned to history for War Horse (2011), a rare war picture set during World War 1, and following a horse’s perspective through the various fronts. Based on the hugely successful stage play of the same name, it was nominated for six academy awards, including Best Picture.

Sticking with the historical theme, but now one closer to home, Spielberg set about to finally shoot his long talked about Abraham Lincoln biopic Lincoln (2012). Featuring an amazing Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day Lewis, this moving film brought to life the many battles Lincoln was fighting during his last four months. Continuing his historical journey, Spielberg next brought to life the story of a US attorney negotiating with the Soviet Union over the return of a down US pilot in 2015’s Bridge of Spies. Reuniting with Tom Hanks, this tense dramatic thriller was critically acclaimed including an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Mark Rylance. Rylance would stick with Spielberg again for 2016’s The BFG. This adaption of Roald Dahl‘s famous story saw Spielberg shoot his lightest film yet – a heartwarming picture that was accessible to children of all ages.ssBFGThe filmography of Spielberg is really a highlight reel of the some of the best cinema to hit screens over the last 50 years. The number of films that have impacted childhoods around the world on this list is staggering. Even at 70 years old, it’s very easy to place Spielberg on the top of the list of most influential filmmakers on the planet.

The Influences & The Influencer

What makes Spielberg films so beloved? It’s hard to put a finger on it, but there are a number of common themes that appear throughout his films. At the core, Spielberg is a fantastic storyteller, but his approach is always incredibly accessible.

A number of his films see ordinary people put through extraordinary circumstances (E.T., Close Encounters, The Terminal). As an audience, and especially as a child, this generates this feeling of “this could happen to me”, or “I can picture myself in this scenario”, and when they are juxtaposed with the larger than life images of spacecraft, aliens or dinosaurs, it adds a sense of reality that wouldn’t normally be there.

Another key driver in his films is the element of family, the relationships between parents and children and the tensions and dynamics that can create. Having lived through his own parents divorce, Spielberg continues to explore family relations in many of his films – whether it’s the fatherless Elliot in E.T., the father/son dynamic in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or the makeshift family that Alan, Tim and Lex create lost in a jungle of hungry dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

After being so driven by the Hollywood he grew up on, Spielberg’s films have now become that same sort of muse for the next generation of directors. Many filmmakers today are trying to capture that Spielberg/Amblin feeling – that feeling of wonder, excitement, and tension, as a homage to the films they grew up with. Look at JJ Abrams and Super 8, or even Stranger Things. There’s magic in Spielberg’s work that has captured a generation and now has that generation trying to work out the formula to recreate it!SSShortround

The Collaborator

Spielberg has been in this business long enough to know a good thing when he finds it, and he continues today to work with a number of key collaborators on every film. There are few partnerships in Hollywood as strong as Steven Spielberg and John Williams. The collaboration between these two maestros has produced some of the most profound and recognisable film scores, with Williams capturing the emotion, heart, terror and beauty of the images Spielberg puts on screen. With only 2 films in Spielberg’s filmography not scored by Williams, it’s clear that these collaborators enjoy working with each and we can only hope this partnership continues for many films ahead.

This video truly highlights the collaboration between these two powerhouses of cinema. Don’t cry.

The Producer

Not only does Steven Spielberg have an amazing track record as a director, but has a long history with fantastic projects as a producer. In the 80’s/90’s when you saw a film begin with the Amblin logo, followed by ‘Steven Spielberg presents’, you knew you were in for something special. From animation such as The Land Before Time and An American Tailto amazing live-action films like Back to the Future, Gremlins, and PoltergeistSpielberg’s producing credits are second to none.

Having Spielberg as a producer also has its merits – look at Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The beard was able to convince Disney, Warner Bros and a number of other animation houses to ‘lend’ their characters to the creation of the film. Getting Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse in the one frame would be impossible for anybody else, but not Mr Spielberg.

The Innovator

Right from the get go, Spielberg has been an innovator and not one to fear new technology. There is no better example of his innovation than on the set of Jaws. The Shark created for the film was notoriously flaky and would rarely ever work. With the film running over budget and over time, Spielberg took any directors worst nightmare and turned it into a revelation. With no shark to work with, Spielberg made the decision to film a number of shots from the point of view OF the shark. Keeping the shark hidden from audiences, and only showing his point of view enhanced the terror and proved audiences truly feared the unknown and unseen.

Did you know that the original plan for all the full-size dinosaur shots was to use Stop Motion? It’s crazy to think that Jurassic Park could have ended up being entirely different, but Spielberg’s decision to take a risk and put all his eggs in the ILM’s CGI basket paid off in spades.SSjurassicparkkids

Essential Viewing

There is so much of Spielberg’s filmography that is considered essential viewing… but if your brand new to cinema, and looking to understand why Spielberg is so celebrated, I’d recommend: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.,  Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindlers List, Saving Private Ryan.

Now if you’ve seen all of the above (I hope you have..), and looking for something off the normal Spielberg path, I’d recommend the following which I consider underappreciated: 1941 – His first real stumble as a director as he throws in everything but the kitchen sink into this WW2 farce – Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

The Future

So, what can we expect from Spielberg down the track? Two Spielberg films will hit theatres in 2018. First up, Ready Player One. This adventure film based on the book of the same name is an extraordinary tale of 80’s pop culture fandom and features many references to Spielberg’s own films. The flick should be a return to Spielberg’s large-scale adventure films of 1980’s and be a real treat for any fan of pop culture and video games! Secondly, his true-life story The Post again reunites the beard with Tom Hanks in a film about the uncovering of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post. A fifth Indiana Jones film is also set for release in 2020. Beyond that, anything is possible.

One thing we know for sure, his influence, style, and direction have brought joy to audiences worldwide and we can only hope we continue to get Spielberg films for decades to come.

That wraps it up for this edition of Spotlight On. Are you a fan of Steven Spielberg? What do you consider essential viewing? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook!