There is something odd in making a documentary film about a movie director, but, then again, most film helmers aren’t as iconic—or offer as much material—as Steven Spielberg.
Susan Lacy, who is most often associated with PBS fare like her American Masters projects, had this task in mind when she signed on to chronicle the career of, arguably, America’s most commercial director, in the HBO film, Spielberg.
Lacy spoke to journalists about her project, which premieres this fall on the cable channel, when she appeared at the show’s Television Critics Association panel on Wednesday at the Beverly Hilton hotel. Below, she shares some of her highlights from the experience.
“We didn’t talk about what I was going to do in the film and what I wasn’t going to do in the film at all,” Lacy says. “When I did the first interview with him, I think we had scheduled and budgeted maybe four interviews, which is the most I thought I would get from him. We did the first interview, and I’m a very in-depth interviewer. We were still deeply in childhood after two hours, and he said, ‘Boy, this is fun. When are we doing it again?’”
She says she did a series of about 17 two-hour interviews with Spielberg over the course of a year.
“I think he began to see, by the nature of the questions and the nature of the depth of them, what kind of film I was probably making,” she says. “I told him I was taking a somewhat thematic approach, and I asked him if he could identify the themes in his work. He said, ‘They are there, but that’s your job.’ I appreciated that, and I appreciated that he in no way tried to steer this film. He didn’t see it until it was finished.”
Susan Lacy, Photo Credit: Getty
“That was one of the great things,” she says. “I would ask a question about ‘How did you set that shot up in [his 2005 film,] Munich?’ And he would talk about it—he would be enthusiastic like a kid talking about it—because it was fun for him to remember it, and he loves making movies. I mean, if there’s a filmmaker that loves making movies, it’s Steven. Until you actually see it and hear him talk about it and you are able to take his story and show it and illustrate it, it’s really hard to understand that.”
“To hear him talk about the impact of his parents’ divorce, and that E.T. came out of a desire to fill the heart of a lonely child, it’s very different than reading it in a print interview,” she says. “He’s never done a director’s commentary. He is very shy about interviews, does very few. So this was quite an extraordinary experience to hear him really open up.”
“I think he is a populist, and he is an artist,” Lacy says. “And his early movies drew on what he knew. He was a kid of the suburbs. He was a child of divorce. He grew up in Phoenix. They did not have an arthouse [theater], you know, down the street. He watched television and read comic books, and he lived in suburbs. So he drew on that.”
Despite this, she say that she thinks, “Steven is actually an incredibly personal filmmaker, and he’s not thought of as a personal filmmaker. But if you look at his work, I think you see that.”
Lacy goes on to say, “As he grew older and he had children, for the most commercially successful filmmaker in history, the box office has never been what’s driven him,” she says. “I think what’s driven him is what interests him, and where he is at that point in his life and what he thinks is important to say. That’s changed. That’s matured. That’s grown up as he’s grown up. But that young boy who said, ‘This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I’m going to die trying,” who loved the mystery movies, who loves movies, loves moviemakers—I think that kid is still in him.”
Lacy says she spoke with Spielberg’s stars like Lincoln’s Daniel Day-Lewis and Saving Private Ryan’s Matt Damon and they all commented on his dedication to the craft of storytelling.
“It was a long period of doing interviews, because when you want Tom Cruise or Jude Law or Daniel Day-Lewis, they don’t happen overnight,” Lacy says. “It’s a lot of time spent in setting that up and finding the space in their schedule where they can do that. And then there were 28 films with two films that were in production, BFG and Bridge of Spies. So I was dealing with 30 movies.”
Because of this, Lacy says she “made the decision to focus purely on his directing,” leaving out his producing, DreamWorks and his incredible television career. “But that’s a lot to cover, so it was an enormous amount of material in the edit room. It was a long edit. It could have been a longer film.”
“I think he and John Williams did a thing about their relationship and how they work together,” she says. “I had two-and-a-half hours. So he certainly says in the film that his single-most important collaborator is John Williams, and that John Williams took everything he did to another level.”
“I was actually going to dedicate the film to both of them at the end,” Lacy says. “But then Steven’s mother died, and so I decided to dedicate the film to her alone.”
“She did not actually want to do an interview for the film,” Lacy says. “And they are very private in terms of their family life. There are seven children. So, I made a decision not to interview the children. I interviewed his sisters and his parents, because they were there at the birth of his becoming a filmmaker and could talk about who he was at that time in his life. He talks about the influence of his family. He talks about Kate. I just didn’t think it was absolutely necessary, but she really did not want to do an interview.”
Despite the box office success of his films, Spielberg’s only won one best picture Oscar. “It’s not a subject I avoided particularly, but I also thought by making a real statement about winning the Oscar for the first time with Schindler’s List after having six films in the top grossing films of all time was already my statement about that,” she says. “I don’t generally, when I make films about very accomplished people, spend a lot of time on awards in general. I do think that, if I were him, there’s time I would have thought this is personal, but we just didn’t go there. We didn’t talk about it.”
“Well, we did talk about [Doom] and it’s his least favorite film of that franchise for good reasons,” Lacy says, adding that Spielberg sees it more as writer George Lucas’ project. “But he was not reticent to talk about failures. I just didn’t have time to spend a lot of time on the failures. I think I got the key points.”
She says he admits that he’s not a “funny filmmaker,” so “he kind of made the mistake of 1941 of going overboard, which he talks about.” While Lacy says she doesn’t think The Color Purple is as bad a movie as a lot of people seem to think it was, she does think Empire of the Sun “is a movie that hurt him—the critics didn’t get it, and we talked about that at some length.”
“I do, of course, deal with the SHOAH Foundation,” Lacy says of the nonprofit he founded that’s dedicated to Holocaust remembrance. “I mean, it’s not an encyclopedic film. Encyclopedic films feel that way. You have to make choices. If you want to tell a real story with a beginning, middle, and end and in any kind of depth, you simply cannot cover everything. There is another documentary to be made about the philanthropic side of Steven Spielberg, but that’s not the film I made.”
“We didn’t talk so much about contemporary filmmakers, though I know he’s a great fan of [Terrence] Malick; he’s a great fan of Marty Scorsese, of J.J. Abrams,” she says. “He has a lot of contemporaries [like Francis Ford] Coppola.”
Instead, they talked a lot about the directors from the ’40s.
“He actually said, ‘I really wanted to be one of those workhorse directors from the ’40s, who had a team of people that knew what they were doing; they knew what you wanted,’” she says. She adds that, back then, “You were not judged by changing genres. You could do a romance. You could do a Western. You could do a war movie. And he admired Howard Hawks, John Ford. He admired those guys.”
Lacy isn’t sure why Spielberg was so open with her, but she wonders if it has something to do with the fact that he recently turned 70, and he’s reflecting upon his life.
“I found that at American Masters, a lot of people who are very reluctant earlier in their careers at a certain point say, ‘Maybe it’s time for this,’” she says. “It’s a reflective time. I think he was in a reflective mode when he said yes to this, and he kind of stayed there.”
Spielberg premieres Saturday, October. 7, exclusively on HBO.