Ever since his teens, when he was making 8mm films on his dad’s home-movie camera, Steven’s enthusiasm for cinema hasn’t dimmed.
“I just love it,” he says. “Ray Bradbury was a friend of mine. A great science fiction writer. And [he] always said, ‘I can’t get to the end of the day without writing something. Eighty per cent of the things I write have never been published, because I write every day. I write to write. I write to tell a story. I can’t live without it.’ And I feel that way about filmmaking. Even if nobody came to see my movies, I would go off and make another one.”
Arguably not even Steven’s old friend, Star Wars creator George Lucas, has been more influential in Hollywood these past four decades. In the ’70s, Steven practically invented the blockbuster with Jaws. In the ’80s he brought us E.T. and Indiana Jones, two of cinema’s most enduring characters. In the ’90s, he made the dinosaurs roam in Jurassic Park then won two Oscars for his searing Holocaust drama Schindler’s List. More recently, he’s veered between sci-fi (Minority Report, War of the Worlds), historical dramas (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies) and even animation (The Adventures of Tintin).
His latest work, The BFG, pairs him with another master storyteller – the late Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. First published in 1982, Roald Dahl’s The BFG tells the story of a young orphan called Sophie who is kidnapped by a 25-foot humanoid – the Big Friendly Giant (aka the BFG).
Steven describes it as, “The first fairytale I think I’ve ever made”, yet this tale of loneliness and loss is also wickedly funny. Not known for his out-and-out comedies, it’s arguably the most irreverent movie of Steven’s career.
For all its good-natured humour, scripted by E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison, Steven admits that the making of The BFG was “touched with a lot of sadness”. Melissa died last November, aged 65, from neuroendocrine cancer.
“The saddest I’ve been was when I saw the film for the first time,” he admits. “I haven’t had a chance to mourn Melissa because she’s accompanied me after her death throughout the entire process. I’m not saying she’s a ghost in my life, but her spirit continues to accompany me through the completion of The BFG.”
But of all his films, E.T. is the one Steven has seen the most times.
“I’ve seen E.T. with all my kids. They’ve never seen it alone for the first time, because they usually see E.T. when they’re very young and I need to talk them through the scary parts.”
Married to actress Kate Capshaw, his youngest child, Destry, is now 19 – but Steven maintains that age is irrelevant. “All my kids are still kids. I’m still a kid. I have four grandchildren who are technically children still!”
With homes in New York, California, Florida and the Hamptons, Steven’s family has always come first. When he struck a deal in 1994 to found a new studio, DreamWorks, with fellow moguls Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, one of the conditions was that they would all go home every night in time for dinner. Being away shooting, missing those important moments, “are the real downs”, he says. “Everything else, you just have to take with a grain of salt.
A movie does well, or not as well as you’d hoped. Some movies get great reviews, some movies don’t. That’s part of what I do for a living.”
Raised with three sisters in an Orthodox Jewish family, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Steven’s own childhood wasn’t easy. His mother, Leah, was a restaurateur and concert pianist, while his father, Arnold, was an electrical engineer who later helped develop the first computer at electronics company RCA when the family moved to New Jersey. Bullied at school for his parents’ religious beliefs,
Steven was a lonely child: “I was that way when I was younger before having children, before getting married,” he nods. The solution? “To fill my own life with enough dreams that I could pretend I’m not lonely.”
It’s no surprise he gravitated towards Hollywood after majoring in English at California State University. He took an unpaid internship in the editing room at Universal (where he sometimes had to don a suit and borrow his father’s suitcase to stride past security), where he made an award-winning short, Amblin’, which led to a seven-year directing contract at the studio – and his made-for-TV-feature Duel. He remembers the press tour like it was yesterday: “I’d never left the country, except to go to Mexico. And I went to Europe for the first time – I did nine countries in two weeks! How about that for a first time ever in Europe?”
By the 1975 release of Jaws, Steven had become a household name and one of the youngest millionaires in the US. He has had his pick of projects ever since. There was also a detour into business when, in 2000, Steven teamed up with Ron Howard and Jeffrey Katzenberg in an attempt to create an online film content portal (pop.com folded after 11 months and a reported $50 million investment). Ever since, Steven’s focus has remained on his chosen medium, film – although who actually does the choosing remains a point of contention.
“The film chooses me,” he says. “Often I don’t want to make the film that chooses me to make. I sometimes fight against the urge or intuition to jump into something… I say I’m not prepared to tell that story. Schindler’s List chose me. Saving Private Ryan chose me. I didn’t choose them. They haunted me until I finally made them. They don’t leave me alone.”
If this sounds rather mystical for a movie mogul whose net worth is valued at $3.6 billion by Forbes, regardless, there can be no doubting his commercial savvy – nor for his capacity for hard work. Steven was making The BFG at the same time as cutting 2015’s Bridge of Spies, his sublime Cold War drama that scored him the 16th Oscar nomination of his career. Bouncing between two projects is a regular occurrence for Steven: “The biggest overlap was Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park. That was the most disconcerting overlap I’ve ever had I my life! It was almost too much to bear.”
Four years later, he managed three films in a year: Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World, slavery drama Amistad and WWII drama Saving Private Ryan. “Everybody said, ‘How can you possibly do that?’ And I’d say, ‘Read up on your history of Hollywood. John Ford directed four movies in a year. Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh the same.’ That was what the business used to be like… It’s not that I admired them, that I wanted to imitate that. It’s just that it can be done. If you’re a storyteller, how can you possibly take a break from telling a story?”
There are three new movies lined up including the fifth Indiana Jones film, scheduled for release in 2019.
“We have a release date for the movie. We have a start date for the film. That’s all I’m saying about it!”
Steven is also adamant about who he will work with. “Mr Ford is definitely the one and only… I will never make an Indiana Jones movie called Indiana Jones without Mr Ford.”
Ford isn’t the only person Spielberg has shown loyalty to over his career. Remarkably, he’s made 27 features with the legendary composer John Williams, dating right back to 1974. Likewise, Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has been with him since Schindler’s List.
“Janusz is my right arm. He’s part of my right eye, too.” Then there are his protégés; Robert Zemeckis, who went on to make the Back To The Future films, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams, who Steven has known since he was 15 years old. “It seems crazy,” he marvels. “It’s crazy how old I am!”
Recently, he met with László Nemes, the Hungarian director who won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for Holocaust drama Son of Saul this year. Steven admits it was a film that “came very close to breaking my heart”.
“I’m actively looking for something to do with him right now,” he says. “I gravitate towards people who make movies differently from me, because then I have something to learn.”
The BFG is in cinemas now.