Last Monday and Tuesday were memorable for the Hindi film industry. Globally acclaimed filmmaker Steven Spielberg paid a short, but meaningful, visit to Mumbai, turning Bollywood’s finest filmmakers and actors into fanboys and fangirls, collectively and unapologetically (read director R Balki’s piece on Steven Spielberg on this page). After all, how often do you get to have a full-length conversation with a filmmaker whose body of work is so eclectic and inspiring? And how often do you bump into him at a Mumbai party, even at industrialist Anil Ambani’s home, to make small talk over food and wine?
The last time Spielberg visited India was 30 years ago when he shot Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. “India’s a great plug-in place for me,” he said about that visit. “Spiritual and real. And I am going back with great memories again.”
I met Steven Spielberg at the Reliance Tower, Ballard Estate, on Monday morning. Impressively unassuming, he spoke with great candour about his life, his body of work and his 40-year-old career.
Do you plan to translate your visit here into something more concrete than just a location recce for your next joint venture with Anil Ambani?
Oh, certainly! One major part of the purpose of our association with Anil Ambani’s group is to bridge the wide cinematic gap. As of now it may just be a one-way process, but it’s a beginning. We will try and find ways to give American people access to Indian films. I will try and help these movies get theatrical and television releases so that there’s more awareness.
But first I need to be properly exposed to current Indian cinema. I’ll try and search for more eclectic genres, with different ensibilities, skills and tastes than just the Bollywood style of filmmaking. I need to watch a lot of movies.
With so many accolades, honours and labels bestowed on you, is the real Steven Spielberg getting lost?
No. I spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week with him. Let me tell you, I am very much real. My movies are not. The real Steven Spielberg is the man my children call their father, my wife calls her husband and the kid my mom and dad call their son.
You have attempted almost all genres of movies, but never a pure love story. Why?
No, I have not made what you would call an unqualified or an undeniable love story yet. But I have been living an undeniable love story in my personal life with my wife Kate (Capshaw, she acted in his Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and I haven’t thought of making a movie on my wife and my family. Maybe I will not make a love story.
Hollywood celebrates age by making movies with senior actors and actresses in pivotal roles. Even ageing directors are taken very seriously. That’s not the case in Bollywood.
I don’t know the film industry here to that degree to make a comment. But I can say that American films have always celebrated age and rewarded it. There are amazing talents that grow even more after a certain age, and America and Great Britain have tremendous respect for that. There are always good jobs for actors when they get older. The same applies for directors too. Look at the list of senior actors and actresses. They are so amazing in their craft. And they seem to be getting better by the day. If I read out the names of all the amazing senior talents we celebrate, the list will be endless.
‘I go to the sets each day with a nervous stomach’
Given your age and experience, is there anything that unsettles your confidence?
This is a great question! No, I have to honestly say that there is nothing that shakes my confidence because I believe in going to the sets each day with a nervous stomach. If you are too confident, you won’t struggle hard enough to find creative solutions, to directing actors, interpreting screenplays, and finding out what length to put and position the camera at.
My confidence in the long view has always been solid, but my daily confidence when I come to the sets in the morning can’t be very high. If it is very high, I won’t try anything new. As someone said, confidence and courage are two different things. Lack of confidence makes me more courageous, because I am already trying to hold something that may collapse or fall and bury me. And I need to feel that way when I direct. My least-inspired movies were those — I am not going to name them — that I had a kind of faux confidence in.
You had a strained relationship with your father for almost 15 years, and most of your films are a reflection of this edgy association. Will you tell us about it?
I missed my dad (Arnold Spielberg, a computer specialist) a lot while growing up, even though we were together as a family. My dad was really a workaholic. He was never there for me when I was a kid. He was very successful at his job, but he worked late into the nights and the weekends and in the process I developed a strong resentment against him. I would see that my friends’ fathers had more time for them. They weren’t working till 10 pm or on weekends like my dad.
But later when I started working myself, especially as a movie director, I became what my father was to me — working late nights and even on weekends. Then I realised that it was not that my dad didn’t want to be with me, he just couldn’t be with me.
Yes, I conveyed my angst about the absentee father in most of my movies. That’s why I am ensuring that my children get enough of me.
Now that you’ve reconciled with your father, do you talk about the past?
We don’t. But my father and I love each other a lot. I want to give him all the love now that I didn’t give him then. He is 96 years old but his mind is like a time machine. Unlike me, he forgets nothing. He’s an exquisite man, a wonderful man.
So your mother, Leah Spielberg, had a deeper influence on you?
Fortunately I had both my parents when I was growing up. They got divorced when I was in high school. My mom was more involved in our lives than dad. That’s because she had the gift of being unemployed. She was a homemaker who raised us. My mom didn’t parent us as much as she sort of big-sistered us.
Having said this, when my father was not working, he would be very focused on my needs and attentive to my belief in making movies. I think I was about 13 years old when he financed my first short film. He’d given me $5 for the raw print so I could shoot the film, $3 so I could develop the roll in a lab in California, and $7 so I could finally take the movie out from the lab. So essentially, he produced my first film.
You’ve been consumed by the magic of movies since you were a kid. Did the thought of a career come to your mind at that point?
Oh, I was too young to think of a career choice or recognise its potential. But I thought that images in motion captured on my movie camera were so magical. The thrill I derived from seeing the video after I captured my two toy trains crashing into each other was something so mystifying to me. That’s probably when I discovered the magic of movies. But frankly, I never had a career plan in my life. I never had a big picture for myself or my future and what I needed to do to create a body of work. I guess I just marched ahead, and stories that consumed me got made into movies alongside.
How do you explain that?
I always thought that ‘body of work’ meant something you’d worked on for other people and it was figured out after you were dead and gone. I didn’t know that a developing body of work created such interest among the living. I don’t care about my body of work, nor do I pay any attention to it. Because it doesn’t interest me. What interests me is individual stories getting told, and how I come to those stories is not by design. I may just wake up one morning and find myself completely interested in the book I read the night before and thinking that it can be a pretty good movie.
Most of your films have done phenomenal business at the box-office. Have you, over the years, become business driven?
What calls to me is not whether the film is going to make a zillion dollars, but a deep urge in the centre of myself that only a particular film can release and exorcise me of. I mean, a kind of a catharsis has to happen. The emotional factor of the story has always been the deciding factor for me. But if it’s a sequel, then I consider certain market dictates, because there’s a tremendous amount of expectation, which is nerve-wracking.
Has anything changed in a major way in the 40 years that you have been in the movie business?
Everything has dramatically changed. The theatres and screens have grown smaller, but the theatres have multiplied. The sound and picture quality, the 3D technique and cable are booming. Today there are many more opportunities for young people to express who they are through the medium of cinema. When I started, we got the opportunities to be who we were only as long as someone gave us a camera.
How do you decide that you want to direct a certain film that is being produced by your company?
I have an obligation to my company, but what makes me decide to direct a film is pretty much a mystery to me. I don’t know why something like an Amistad (1997) —a non-commercial movie, would keep me grabbed so passionately for so many years. Or why an American Beauty (1999), which I produced, couldn’t compel me to direct, so it was finally directed by Sam Mendes, who did a brilliant job.
I guess some movies are destined to be yours and some aren’t. That’s the only logical conclusion I can come to. I remember my wife, Kate, telling me one night, after reading the script of American Beauty, that this was the greatest script she had ever come across and that it would be my next big film, and I must direct it. It’s a good movie, but honestly, I couldn’t feel it speaking to me, at least not to that part of me that makes the critical decision to take over the whole project. That’s how I approached the completely unknown director Sam Mendes, who was a television director then.
Five movies Spielberg connects with
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial: A search for the father in myself, as well as a catharsis film for me after my parents’ divorce.
Saving Private Ryan: A homage to my dad.
3 Idiots: I’ve seen it three times, loved the emotional undertones.
Jaws: The hardest movie I ever made in my career. I wanted to give up movie making after that.
The Godfather: Nobody could have directed this movie better than Francis Ford Coppola.