Steven Spielberg is sitting in a well appointed room of the Reliance Centre in south Mumbai’s Ballard Estate, one knee crossed over the other, the tip of his soft leather ankle boots faintly brushing the edge of the table that is between us. The silver hair and beard are neatly combed and clipped, and his head is leonine. But in person, the 66-year-old appears shorter and thinner than I’d imagined.
He says he wasn’t in the least disappointed that his epic biopic, Lincoln, once seen to be a shoo-in for a mega showing at the Oscars, has been bested by the competition.
“The movie was fulfilling at so many different levels. Every aspiration I had of bringing Lincoln back to life was exceeded by the response from critics, students, educators… The box office taking far exceeded anything I had dared to expect.”
So was Argo’s win fair? “That’s not for me to say. Argo is a very entertaining, witty film. And Ben Affleck has done a phenomenal job. I loved it.” Spielberg is dressed in bluish grey khakis, a light grey shirt, a dark grey skinny tie and a navy blue cardigan. He speaks softly, sunlight glinting off his full-moon spectacles, but that in no way takes away from his sense of presence, and the sheer love he exudes for the movies: making them, watching them, talking about them.
He had planned to come to India when industrialist Anil Ambani and he became co-owners of the studio, Reliance DreamWorks, in 2009. “But I have been too busy making movies.” (He has directed Tintin, War Horse and Lincoln in the past two years, one of the most prolific periods in his career.) “Now that I am between movies for the first time in a long time, I thought I’d come and meet some people.”
“India is a well of spiritual energy. I just plug in and feel renewed,” he says. It’s not an entirely unexpected remark from someone who came of age in the US during the swinging 1960s, but it is a surprise because he says that this is his first visit in 30-35 years.
Spielberg, who was born in Cincinnati in 1946, burst upon the world’s consciousness, almost like a killer shark breaking water, with Jaws (1975). That film, said to have pretty much invented the Hollywood blockbuster, turned him into a household name.
Thirty eight years on, he says that Jaws was the hardest of all his films to make. “I was on the ocean for nine months, and you can’t be on the ocean for that long without losing your mind and watching the cast lose theirs. At the time, I had wondered how, if making a movie was this difficult, I would make any more. Fortunately, the others were much easier.”
And which is the film that he enjoyed making the most? Spielberg doesn’t think twice. “ET. The relationship with the children in the cast was special. Making that film gave me a real desire to want to become a father.”
He has had, of course, a well documented, difficult relationship with his own father (now 96), a falling out, and a rapprochement. His father was a workaholic, and did not have enough time for young Steven. “I later became like him, working on weekends and late on weekdays.” Through Saving Private Ryan (1998), his film about a band of US soldiers, he paid homage to his father. “He was a World War II veteran, and he used to ask me when I’d make a film about his generation, which fought so hard to give the next one a better life.”
From thrillers to action-adventure movies, from the Holocaust to war to a biopic, Spielberg has never been shackled by a particular genre. “That is because my attraction is to a good idea and a good story.” His filmmaking is eclectic because his taste in films is eclectic. The list of directors with whom he feels kinship is “varied and endless”: Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock, Raj Kapoor, Ingmar Bergman, John Ford, Michelangelo Antonioni… How does he see his own legacy? “I have never had a conscious career plan. I don’t care about my body of work. What interests me is that those individual stories are told.”
With 27 films behind him, more awards than a large cabinet can accommodate, and his reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest ever directors secure, does it get easier or harder to make films? “Easier, I think, easier. The longer I go on, the better I know my craft. The more I know, the more chances I can take.”
Spielberg breaks into a grin that belies his age. “I love how excited I feel walking on to the sets. I love telling stories. I don’t want to quit.”