A few things to learn about Spielberg Movies
Spielberg described 2005’s Munich as “a prayer for peace. I was always thinking about that as I was making the picture.”
“I kind of dried it out,” Spielberg said of 1997’s Amistad, which failed to capture a huge audience. “It became too much of a history lesson.”
“The big difference in The Color Purple is that the story is not bigger than the lives of these people,” Spielberg said of his Oscar-nominated adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel. “I didn’t want to make another movie that dwarfs the characters. But here the characters are the story.”
Prior to the production's start date in May 1980, George Lucas and Spielberg set up shop in the old Lucasfilm corporate headquarters to begin the casting process. Actors and actresses in consideration for the lead roles of Indiana Jones and his tough but beautiful companion Marion Ravenwood included Jane Seymour, Debra Winger, Mark Harmon, Mary Steenburgen, Michael Biehn, Sam Shepard, Valerie Bertinelli, Bruce Boxleitner, Sean Young, Don Johnson, Dee Wallace (who would later go on to star as the mother in Spielberg’s E.T.), Barbara Hershey, and even David Hasselhoff.
For Indy, Lucas and Spielberg eventually settled on actor Tom Selleck. But when CBS got wind of what the two were up to, the network legally barred Selleck—the lead of the hit show Magnum, P.I.—from appearing in the film. Spielberg then suggested Harrison Ford as a quick replacement, but Lucas was reluctant to cast Ford because he was already Han Solo in his Star Wars films. But Spielberg’s quick thinking prevailed, and Ford was added to the cast just two weeks before principal photography began. (A similar snafu happened with Danny DeVito, the first choice to play Indy’s jovial companion Sallah, who couldn’t take the part due to his contractual obligation to appear on the popular ABC show Taxi.)
When asked about his first feature, Duel, Spielberg described it as “an indictment of machines. And I determined very early on that everything about the film would be the complete disruption of our whole technological society.”
The 1987 World War II drama, which introduced Christian Bale to the world, was a bit of a departure for Spielberg. “I made a movie to satisfy me, not the audience,” the director said of his choice to delve into darker terrain. “It’s as dark as I’ve allowed myself to get.”
“I wasn't very involved with the making of the film, but I thought Spielberg did a great job and only changed very minor things,” Frank Abagnale, Jr., the inspiration for Catch Me If You Can, told WIRED. “In real life I had two brothers and a sister, he chose to portray me as an only child. In real life there was a back and forth relationship with my father (Christopher Walken in the film) but in real life once I ran away from home I never saw my parents again and my father passed away while I was in prison. And when I escaped from the aircraft I escaped from kitchen galley where they service the plane, but in the movie they had me escape from the toilet. But other than very minor things, I thought he stayed very straight to the story.”
“I never made War of the Worlds for a family audience,” Spielberg said of his 2005 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel. “It was a very intense post-9/11 apocalyptic movie about the end of everything.”
- Total Recall was another movie adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story. The Minority Report movie rights were held by cinematographer-turned-director Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister) at one point, who ended up getting a producer credit on the film without ever setting foot on set. Eventually Cruise approached Spielberg about an early version of the script, written for de Bont by Jon Cohen, which Spielberg hired Scott Frank to rewrite. When Cruise and Speilberg’s schedules were finally both clear at the same time, they went to work.
- Toyota paid $5 million to get a futuristic Lexus called the Mag-Lev in Minority Report. Nokia shelled out $2 million for the characters to wear Nokia headsets. The Gap, Pepsi, American Express, and Reebok got in on the sci-fi action, too.
- At the time, Spielberg claimed that he had not taken a salary on a movie in 18 years. And he wanted Cruise to do the same. Instead, the two reportedly agreed to receiving no upfront money in exchange for approximately 15 percent of the box office apiece. (The film made more than $358 million worldwide.)
“That’s the one film that I can honestly say, if I had to do it all over again I’d make Sugarland Express in a completely different fashion,” Spielberg said of the 1974 crime drama.
- Though Spielberg is already an extremely wealthy man as a result of the many big-budget movies that have made him one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, he decided that a story as important as Schindler’s List shouldn’t be made with an eye toward financial reward. The director relinquished his salary for the movie and any proceeds he would stand to make in perpetuity, calling any such personal gains “blood money.” Instead, Spielberg used the film’s profits to found the Shoah Foundation, which was established to honor and remember the survivors of the Holocaust by collecting personal recollections and audio visual interviews.
- Thirty-three years after dropping out of college, Steven Spielberg finally received a B.A. in Film and Video Production from his newly minted alma mater, Cal State Long Beach, in 2002. The director re-enrolled in secret, and gained his remaining credits by writing essays and submitting projects under a pseudonym. In order to pass a film course, he submitted Schindler’s List as his student project. Spielberg describes the time gap between leaving school and earning his degree as his “longest post-production schedule.”
“I’m making the third Indiana Jones movie to apologize for the second,” Spielberg announced. “It was too horrific.”
After finding great success with—and loving the experience of directing—Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg’s main motivation for stepping behind the camera for its sequel, 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, was jealousy. “I got separation pangs,” said Spielberg. “I knew that if I didn’t direct Temple, someone else would. I got a little bit jealous, and I got a little bit frustrated.”
- Contrary to popular belief, Saving Private Ryan is not based on the Sullivan brothers, a group of five brothers who were all killed in action while serving in the US Navy during World War II on the USS Juneau. The movie is actually based on the Niland brothers, four siblings who all served in the US Army during World War II. Three brothers—Robert, Preston, and Edward—were supposedly killed in action, which caused their remaining brother, Fritz (whom the titular Private Ryan was based on) to be shipped back to America so that the Niland family wouldn’t lose all of their sons. Edward, who was originally thought dead, was actually found alive after escaping a Japanese prison camp in Burma, making two surviving brothers out of the four who fought in the war.
- Frank Darabont was hired to do uncredited rewrites on Saving Private Ryan, and created the role of the Bible-quoting sniper, Private Jackson, to be played by country singer Garth Brooks. Brooks dropped out of the movie after Spielberg came onboard and cast Tom Hanks in the lead role. Apparently Brooks didn’t want to play second fiddle to Hanks, but Spielberg offered him a chance to play another role of his choosing. Instead of a specific role, Brooks allegedly said he wanted to play the “bad guy,” but in Saving Private Ryan there is no real bad guy other than the entire Wehrmacht, so Spielberg ultimately decided to drop Brooks from the movie.
- The D-Day scene alone cost $12 million because of the logistical difficulties and the realistic scope needed to complete the sequence. The entire budget of the movie was only $70 million. Spielberg didn’t storyboard any of the D-Day sequence.
- The logistics of Spielberg’s original plans to bring the dinosaurs to life were inspired by the Universal Studios “King Kong Encounter” ride. Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr designed Kong as a full-size animatronic with an inflatable balloon-like skin surrounding a wire frame. Unfortunately, the plans to build all of Jurassic Park's dinosaurs as similarly full-size animatronics proved too costly.
- Spielberg wasn’t 100 percent happy with the wide test shots of the dinosaurs—they just weren't photorealistic enough. So Muren and his ILM team, spurred by their revolutionary experience in designing and incorporating fully computer-generated characters into films like The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, showed Spielberg an early CGI dino test of a group of Gallimimus skeletons running through a field. Spielberg was in awe of the ease of movement and realism of the effects, but he was still wary that they wouldn’t hold up under intense scrutiny—and he didn’t want to scrap Tippett’s practical animation talents altogether. So the director urged Muren and ILM to go further. When they came back with a CG test of a fully rendered T. rex walking across a field in broad daylight, the director decided to go full CGI for some shots.
- With his newfound success following the back-to-back smash hits of
Jaws in 1975 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, Spielberg wanted to tell a smaller, more personal story for his next film. Entitled Growing Up, the proposed movie was inspired by the divorce of his parents when he was 15 years old. It included the feelings of alienation Spielberg felt being Jewish in an all Gentile neighborhood in Arizona and was told from the perspective of three children.
When the project was shelved, Spielberg moved on to another big budget film, 1941, but the basic idea stayed with him. Around the same time, Columbia Pictures demanded a sequel to Close Encounters. Spielberg wanted no part of that, though he had a small idea about what would have happened if an alien didn’t go back to the mothership at the end of that movie. To ensure they didn’t make the sequel without him, he instead commissioned writer/director John Sayles to create a script for a pseudo-sequel called Night Skies, about a suburban family terrorized by a group of aliens with one befriending the family’s son.The project was too dark in tone for Spielberg, though, and ultimately, he had Columbia just re-release Close Encounters in a Special Edition with additional scenes. But he still recognized the potential of a film like Night Skies, so he and screenwriter Melissa Mathison then combined Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical story with the benevolent alien visiting a boy on earth to create E.T. The idea of the terrorized family was refashioned as another eventual Spielberg production: Poltergeist.
- The original ending in the script had the shark dying of harpoon injuries inflicted by Quint and Brody à la Moby Dick, but Spielberg thought the movie needed a crowd-pleasing finale and came up with the exploding tank as seen in the final film. The dialogue and foreshadowing of the tank were then dropped in as they shot the movie.
- Visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren and his team at Industrial Light and Magic were tasked with creating organic special effects to surround the potentially inorganic looking E.T. puppet. Surprisingly, the iconic shot of the boy and alien flying across the full moon was mostly a "real" shot. It took Muren and his team weeks to find the right spot to film a low moon among trees, so they used maps and charts to coordinate the scene once they found the right spot. In the shot, Elliott and E.T. are puppets that were added with special effects in post-production, but the rest is photo-real.
Much has been made out of the bomb that was Spielberg’s attempt at more of a straight comedy, the 1979 war comedy 1941. But the director himself has a pretty good handle on what went wrong with the film. “What happened on the screen was pretty out of control,” he said, “but the production was pretty much in control. I don’t dislike the movie at all. I’m not embarrassed by it—I just think that it wasn’t funny enough.”
- Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.
- Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with
Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.
- The shark doesn’t fully appear in a shot until one hour and 21 minutes into the two-hour film. The reason it isn’t shown is because the mechanical shark that was built rarely worked during filming, so Spielberg had to create inventive ways (like Quint’s yellow barrels) to shoot around the non-functional shark.
- Originally, Jaws ended just like Moby Dick. The script had the shark die of harpoon injuries inflicted by Quint and Brody. Spielberg tossed the idea after he decided the movie needed a big crowd-pleaser, hence the exploding tank.
- Plenty of actors have been nominated for their work in Spielberg’s movies, but it wasn’t until 2013—when Daniel Day-Lewis took home the Best Actor Oscar for his work in Lincoln—that Spielberg directed any actor to an actual Academy Award win.
- “We were playing with one of the most beloved, and mysterious, characters in American history,” Spielberg said of 2013’s Lincoln. “I wanted to make sure that everybody on the film understood that.”