The surprise is that, in certain countries, Steven Spielberg gets mobbed whenever he’s spotted stepping out of a car or emerging from a hotel. Hair ruffled matily, congratulatory pats on back, autograph books thrust under nose. Not in Britain, obviously. Because we’re a dignified and reserved people. But in certain countries. Mobbed.
Now, as Spielberg is the most successful film-maker in history – name credit on eight of the 15 biggest blockbusters – mobbing might be precisely what you would expect. Crowds do tend to behave embarrassingly when a celebrity is in their midst. But what this fails to take into account is the strange truth that 51-year-old Steven Spielberg is almost completely anonymous to behold.
I spent an hour studying him at close quarters as we talked about anti-Semitism and his childhood neuroses. He struck me as likeable man, unassuming and thoughtful. But at the end of that time I came away with only vague impressions of what he actually looked like. An Open University lecturer in physics, circa 1981, is about the best comparison I can offer. I’m confident there was a greying, neatly clipped beard involved. Oval-shaped, metal-framed glasses almost certainly came into it. And – I’m really just guessing about this – jeans and trainers may have been worn. But beyond that? Thomas Keneally once described him as having a face like a map of Poland, with stuck-on lips. And Martin Amis once mistook him for a Coke-machine fixer.
As to height, I’d say not especially tall. But this may just be because I’ve read somewhere that he is 5ft 8in. His body language is a bit defensive maybe, hunched shoulders, hands clasped between knees. And voice? I’ve no recollection whatsoever of what he sounded like. Even playing back my interview tape doesn’t really help. Perhaps it’s just that other famous directors contrive somehow to stand out from the crowd – Alfred Hitchcock had his droopy face and signature tune, Orson Welles his chipmunk cheeks, cloak and fedora, Woody Allen his thick glasses and adopted step-daughter – but with Spielberg you just look right past him.
When I arrive on a drizzling February morning at the log-cabin-effect Hollywood building where Spielberg works, I am led along corridors lined with the milestones of his career – a Jurassic Park dinosaur here, Jaws and Indiana Jones memorabilia there – and am left to wait in a room around which I immediately begin to snoop. A wooden beam. The thick impasto of a landscape painting. A russet-coloured kilim. A Steven Spielberg. A black upright piano. A framed ET storyboard. . . See? Rewind. Fourth item. While my back has been turned, Spielberg has insinuated himself into the room and is standing in the corner as unobtrusively as it is possible for a person to stand, short of not actually being in the room at all. ‘Ah,’ I say. Closely followed by a more reflective ‘Oh.’
The conversation picks up a bit after this and it soon emerges that Spielberg extends his views on the importance of being ordinary and anonymous in appearance to the details of his domestic life. It’s 10am and he has been up since six. ‘I have two school drops,’ he says. ‘The first is at seven, then I make breakfast for everyone and take the other three kids at eight. Life is not worth living if you can’t do car pool.’
Steven Spielberg and his second wife, actress Kate Capshaw, have seven children, of various provenance, who scamper about their light and airy $12-million second home in Pacific Palisades, California. Max, Spielberg’s oldest ‘biological’ child – as they say on the West Coast – was born in 1985. Two more recent additions to the family are adopted African-Americans – Theo, nine, and Mikaela George, two – and their father has just arranged a special screening for them of his latest film, Amistad, which is about the slave trade. ‘I really wanted my children to know about this story,’ the director says. ‘I was with them when they saw the film and my nine-year-old, Theo, who is black, felt a lot of compassion for Cinqué [the leader of the African captives] and really wanted to see him get back to Africa, to his wife. It made him appreciate the impact that slavery had on this country and on Africa as well. But the other kids thought there wasn’t enough action in the film. Too much talk!’
The intention, he adds, is for the overall composition of the film to resemble a still-life tableau, so that nothing distracts from the power of the set speeches. There are, however, some shocking and dramatic scenes woven in as well – notably when we see the Africans being whipped, starved and chained together in the cargo hold of the slave ship. As with the more graphic scenes in the multi-Oscar-winning Schindler’s List, the modest idea behind this, according to the director, is to force vast audiences to confront the full horror of the crimes of history in order to avoid repeating them.
The film has been criticised for presenting the history of the abolitionist movement from a rather self-congratulatory white perspective. ‘I don’t see it that way,’ Spielberg says after a pause. ‘I felt everyone had to share in the pride of an American Supreme Court which, except for one dissenting vote, turned these Africans back to the freedom they were born with. I felt a wave of patriotism at that. Amistad is really about the beginning of the moral conscience of America.’
Spielberg does not conclude that there is a natural condition in man that inclines him toward the exploitation of others. ‘I’m a bit more optimistic than that,’ he says. ‘I always look on the bright side. I wasn’t being cynical when I made Amistad. I just feel man hasn’t evolved far enough. I mean, the Holocaust was only 54 years ago.’
Spielberg has a benign image. On the one hand, thanks to films like ET, he represents wholesome all-American family values. On the other, with films such as The Color Purple and Schindler’s List, he is seen as a liberal-minded humanitarian. When it became known that he was planning a film about the Holocaust the intelligentsia in America was appalled. They assumed that the archetypal Hollywood populist would be far too shallow to do justice to the subject. Taking a similar view, the World Jewish Congress objected to him filming on the site of Auschwitz – eventually he was allowed to film outside the gates.
He had, of course, set himself a seemingly impossible task and, in choosing to give an account of the Holocaust through a story which had a positive ending, he knew he was leaving himself open to charges of trivialisation. ‘I was aware of that,’ he now says. ‘And I was nervous about it. It did take me ten years to start work on Schindler’s List and part of that was due to my fear that I wasn’t going to be able to acquit myself in a manner that would bring anything less than shame to the memory of the Holocaust. I didn’t want to belittle or trivialise it. I worked hard not to soften it or make it easy to watch. The film doesn’t have a positive ending. You know the victims will be ravaged with nightmares for the rest of their lives.’
‘For many survivors the nightmare began with liberation,’ Spielberg explains. ‘Because that was when they had a chance to assess their losses. When they were in Auschwitz or Treblinka they didn’t know for sure whether the rest of their families were dead.’ Twenty members of Spielberg’s family were murdered in the concentration camps. Both his parents’ parents were European Jews; his father’s side of the family coming from an area of Austria which is now a part of Poland, and his mother’s side from Odessa in the Ukraine. Spielberg thinks of himself as Jewish-American, he says. But his Jewish identity was not really something that concerned him until he made Schindler’s List. Perhaps there was an element of denial in this. After all, as a child growing up in an affluent white neighbourhood of Cincinnati, he says, he encountered a lot of anti-Semitism. A gang of school-children once gathered outside his family home chanting, ‘The Spielbergs are dirty Jews.’ Classmates would cough the word Jew into their hands when they passed by him. One day he retaliated against his Jew-hating neighbours by smearing peanut butter on their windows.
His father, Arnold Spielberg, was a pioneering computer engineer and was always having to move house because of his work – from Ohio to New Jersey, then to Arizona and finally northern California. Wherever the family went they met racism, sometimes violent. At one point, the young Steven would have to be picked up from school by his parents every day, even though he was walking distance from home. At another, following regular anti-Semitic remarks about the size of his nose, he would attempt to stop it growing downward by tying it back with tape. ‘The nature of the anti-Semitism was always lack of education,’ he now reflects. ‘Not understanding what a Jew is. Anti-Semites invest a lot of ethnic, cultural stereotype and evil to something that scares them. Fear of my unknown. The effect it had on me was to turn me into a loner. It made me withdrawn and self-conscious and even turned me away from my family, who I was angry at for making me a Jew… I think I would have been a social reject anyway, even if I had been Protestant or Lutheran or Episcopalian. I would still have been introverted.’
For all his introversion, Steven Spielberg managed to be assertive at home. He has three younger sisters and, he admits, he would bully them, in part as a form of compensation for being bullied himself at school. After leaving school, he turned to films as a way of expressing himself and also as a form of escapism. Aged 21, he started loitering around the Universal Pictures lot and even squatted in an empty office until he got his amateur home movies seen by someone. They were deemed impressive enough for him to be offered a television contract – which meant him having to drop out of a degree in English at California State College. Folklore has it that he didn’t even stop to clean out his locker. He made Duel in 1971, and four years later made Jaws, the highest-grossing film of its time.
The chutzpah does not seem consistent with lack of self-esteem. Even so, to this day, Spielberg protests that he is basically very shy. ‘I work overtime to put up a faade to persuade people that I am not shy,’ he says. ‘I know how to break the ice better than I used to – but I still have a shaky stomach before I go to a party, even before I sit down for dinner with close friends. I’m always tongue-tied for the first ten minutes. Now, if I meet people for the first time who feel intimidated by me – and so don’t make eye contact – that makes me feel uncomfortable. Two people standing there who don’t know what to say to each other. That happens a lot.’
More incongruous still is the reputation shy Steven Spielberg has acquired for being ruthless with people who cross him – a producer who tried to take more credit that she deserved was summarily dropped, for instance. There were occasions, too, when in a fit of pique, the introverted director would storm off a film set. Perhaps it is more a matter of his overcompensating for what he perceives as being his social shortcomings. Then again, before he made Schindler’s List, Spielberg was often dismissed as an arch-manipulator of audience emotion, one who merely wallowed in maudlin sentimentality. He used never to read reviews of his work but claims now not to care unduly about what critics say of him. And while he believes part of his new found interest in history comes from an increasing awareness of his own mortality, paradoxically he says he is not concerned about his place in the history books. This doesn’t quite square with the liberal image-consciousness that inclines him to keep very quiet about the fact he has amassed a fine gun collection of old and new weapons. Nor does it explain the rumour that he has been buying up all the homes he lived in as a child with a view to turning them into Spielberg shrines, in the manner of Shakespeare’s birthplace.
‘I’m not that concerned about being remembered about my place in history,’ he says. ‘I don’t write my own epitaph every day. I was really satisfied with ET. It’s the most personal movie I ever made. The story of my childhood. I knew that even if I just carried on making sequels to Indiana Jones I would always have ET.’ ET, he points out, is less about a cute extraterrestrial coming to Earth, more about the nature of divorce in America. In the film, the boy’s parents are divorced and his father is always away from home. ET is his way of filling the void. For his part, Spielberg found his parents’ constant rowing and eventual divorce traumatic. He would stuff towels under the door to keep out the noise of their bickering. The house, he says, was pervaded with a sense of unhappiness.
His parents are still alive: his mother, Leah, remarried and now, aged 78, runs a kosher restaurant; his father married again last year, at the age of 80. Wearily Spielberg says that he didn’t really learn from his parents’ marital mistakes. His first marriage, to actress Amy Irving, ended in divorce, with Irving walking off with a $100-million settlement. ‘My divorce?’ he says. ‘Yeah, I don’t really want to talk about that. It’s personal. But I think that, even though it sometimes strengthens the character, children from a divorced home are always damaged.’ According to Spielberg’s biographer Andrew Yule, the damage in the director’s case may have taken the form of a whole basket of neuroses – from nail-biting to phobias about insects, flying, the ocean, the dark, lifts, even of furniture with feet. ‘I’m no longer afraid of the dark,’ Spielberg now says. ‘Because that is where I screen my movies. But I’m still afraid of lifts. It’s a runaround sometimes.’ He emits a short laugh. ‘I have to go through so much hassle to take the stairs. I have to get people to unlock stairwells. Especially in Paris, where the lifts are so small. I walk ten floors to avoid them. Don’t know why it is. I’m not in analysis. Not an analysis kind of guy. I just have a fear of small spaces.’ He doesn’t think it’s to do with a fear of losing control, though, because he says he doesn’t mind driving in traffic where the actions of on-coming cars are unpredictable.
In terms of his career, though, whether it is because he is adept at controlling events or not, Spielberg has barely put a foot wrong. Will Amistad mark a departure from this phenomenal record? Spielberg claims to be concerned only that its message is put across, not that it makes a lot of money. But he doesn’t deny that much is riding on the film in terms of reputation: not least because it is the first Spielberg-directed production for Dreamworks, the Hollywood studio that he set up two years ago in partnership with music potentate David Geffen and former Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. Some $2.7 billion has been invested in the company and it has been hailed as the first major studio to be founded in Hollywood since Charlie Chaplin helped set up United Artists in 1919. Its first feature – The Peacemaker – didn’t exactly break box-office records when it was released last autumn.
Richard Dreyfuss, star of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, once described Spielberg as a kid of 12 who decided to make movies – and is still 12. Spielberg is prescient enough to agree that he didn’t really mature as a film-maker until he made Schindler’s List. Whether he has retained any vestiges of childish self-aggrandising, shallowness and manipulation, though, is a matter for future historians to debate. After all, Spielberg is only 51.
This appeared in February 1998. Stephen Spielberg and Dreamworks went on to make the multi-Oscar-award-winning Saving Private Ryan, American Beauty and Gladiator. Spielberg was awarded a knighthood in 2000 and ran into trouble from LA planners after trying to built a five-storey stable for his wife’s horses.