The legendary director is making a movie inspired by his upbringing in 1950s suburbia, but this is hardly the first time he has drawn inspiration from his early years
Steven Spielberg is making a new film inspired by his childhood. It will be set in Phoenix, Arizona in the late 1950s and early 60s, and Michelle Williams is in talks to play a character loosely based on his mother, Leah. Filming is due to begin this summer, with a release scheduled for next year.
It’s a surprising move for a man who loves discussing films but has a strong aversion to talking about himself. He has never written an autobiography, and in interviews has become adept at deflecting personal questions. But his formative years had a huge influence on his work, especially on early films such as ET, Close Encounters and even the Indiana Jones movies.
As part of the first generation of film-makers to have grown up glued to a television screen, he brought some of the inventiveness and silliness of classic 1950s TV shows to his movies. His abiding obsession with lonely kids and broken marriages stemmed from early experiences much closer to home.
Spielberg’s thematic breadth, and ability to move seamlessly between light and heavy subject matter, has made him an object of suspicion for straight-laced critics: if he’s a jack of all trades, how can he possibly be a master of one? But purely and simply, Spielberg loves making films: like Alfred Hitchcock and very few others, he is fully conversant in the language of cinema, and loves nothing better than a long scene so visually fluid that words become superfluous. All of this, too, stems from his distant childhood, and it will be interesting to see how he dramatises it.
Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati on December 16, 1946, the first child of Arnold and Leah Spielberg. His dad was an electrical and computer engineer, his mother a restaurateur, gallery owner and gifted pianist. Steven spent his early years in Haddon, New Jersey, and attended a Hebrew school. But in 1957 his landscape changed dramatically when his family moved to Arizona.
There, Steven’s fertile imagination would be inspired by the desert vistas outside of Phoenix, but he was also exposed to anti-semitism in ways he never had been before. Years later, Spielberg would record how he was regularly taunted at school and at home, where local kids would race by the house shouting “the Spielbergs are dirty Jews!”
Spielberg may not come across as the fighting type, but before her death in 2017 his mother described how her teenage son had sought revenge. “One night, Steven climbed out of his bedroom window and smeared peanut butter on their windows, which I thought was marvellous,” she said.
Film-making would become his refuge from all of this unpleasantness. He had been fooling around with his father’s Super 8 since he was 12, and in ‘Escape to Nowhere’ he cast one of his tormentors as a fighter pilot dodging flour-bag explosions. The bully never bothered him again.
“Most of my friends were made through the camera,” he has said. “Rather than make friends, then go off down to the soda fountain to go where the kids would hang out, I would just go home and write my scripts and cut my films. I was pretty much isolated, but I had a hobby that I was obsessed by. I would go to my bedroom and I would sit with my little editing machine.” His deep understanding of cinematic language did not happen by accident.
In Phoenix, Steven went to the cinema every Saturday, enjoying 1950s monster movies but also Disney animations and David Lean’s sprawling epics.
When he was still in his teens, Spielberg’s parents separated, an event that profoundly affected him. He moved to Los Angeles to stay with his father, and was well-placed to capitalise on the fashion for hiring young directors that took hold in the early 1970s among studio bosses desperate to halt what they thought was cinema’s inevitable decline. Spielberg, his friend George Lucas and others were given every opportunity to develop films they wouldd never have been allowed to make a mere decade earlier.
His significant early films, Duel and Jaws, were inspired by the monster movies he had enjoyed so much as a kid: a hurtling truck and a lurking shark were given almost demonic agency by Spielberg’s slick editing and use of sound. He used the narrative fluidity of television dramas to hurry his stories along, but his knowledge of cinema came in handy too. On Jaws, a malfunctioning mechanical shark forced him to rethink his entire scenario: he hid the shark for much of the film and used Hitchcockian suspense mechanisms and John Williams’ unforgettable soundtrack to mount audience tension.
Spielberg’s canny trick of making films that were both critically acclaimed and financially successful continued with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). It starred Richard Dreyfuss as an Indiana electrical lineman whose life is transformed by a brief sighting of a UFO. The project was rooted in an early childhood memory, when he and his dad had witnessed a meteor shower over New Jersey: Spielberg’s almost childlike imagination, his anti-cynicism, made Close Encounters an irresistible fantasy.
While making it, he met his hero Francois Truffaut, who was playing a small role in the film. Truffaut, observing how skilled and empathic Spielberg was at directing children, suggested he ought to make a movie about kids. The end result was ET, the most purely Spielbergian of all his films.
The biggest-grossing film of all time to that point, ET was simultaneously broad-brush and intimate, and arguably Spielberg’s most personal film of all. It was inspired by his childhood, and his parents’ divorce: Eliot, the ten-year-old protagonist, is being raised by a single mother, and finds meaning and confidence from his relationship with a stranded and thoroughly winning alien. Some critics saw messianic overtones in Spielberg’s depiction of ET, but the little alien with the glowing digit might just as easily have represented Spielberg’s fecund imagination, that singular gift that had both set him apart, and insulated him.
ET also explored the fragile joys of the American suburb, a sprawling byproduct of the mass prosperity America enjoyed in the 1950s and 60s. The idea of cosy suburbs abutting ancient lands and treacherous wilderness would recur in Spielberg’s work and especially in the Indiana Jones films, where were inspired by his and George Lucas’s childhood love of Saturday morning adventure serials.
Another recurring theme in Steven’s formative years had been the Holocaust. Both his parents were descended from Ukrainian immigrants, and the family had lost many relatives in the war. The Holocaust was constantly discussed when he was growing up, and Spielberg would eventually recreate the horror of Auschwtiz onscreen.
Schindler’s List was a monumental achievement, in many ways the film the Holocaust’s victims deserved: it won seven Oscars, achieved unexpected box office success, but still the critics carped. What kind of man could make this, and Jurassic Park, in the same year? Wisely, Spielberg had shot Jurassic Park, which he called “a sequel to Jaws, on land”, first: he knew that after Schindler’s List, such whimsy would be out of the question. Afterwards, he took a four-year sabbatical from directing.
One of Spielberg’s favourite films is Les 400 Coups, Francois Truffaut’s brilliant autobiographical 1959 film about a rebellious boy who plays truant and runs wild on the Montmartre streets. It was A Portrait of the Artist in film, a lyrical vision of precocious creative development. Is Steven Spielberg about to attempt something similar?