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‘Spielberg’: Why Director Susan Lacy’s Documentary Was Therapy for the Legendary Auteur

According to Lacy, "If you choose to make a film about your parents' divorce, to fill the heart of a lonely child, you know you're drawing on your own experience."

Steven Spielberg

Courtesy of HBO

Steven Spielberg says he’s never seen a licensed therapist — but director Susan Lacy, who sat down 17 times with the legendary director to craft the documentary “Spielberg,” might have been the next best thing.

“I asked him if he’d ever done therapy, and he said ‘no, but I think I’m doing it with you,'” Lacy told IndieWire. “I almost put that in the film, but I didn’t want to make myself a part of it. But he did say that films were his therapy. He worked out his issues through his films.”

It’s the sort of revelation that speaks to the intense endeavor that Lacy’s film ended up being. A deep dive into the psyche of the auteur behind decades worth of pop culture, “Spielberg,” debuts at the New York Film Festival before its HBO premiere. Over two-and-a-half hours long, Spielberg as both as a man and a creator comes into focus in an entirely new way, because when you watch “Spielberg,” you’re not watching one interview session stretched out an afternoon. Lacy spent years getting to know him, his family, and his work.

To sit down with Spielberg, Lacy traveled to wherever he might be available for over a year’s stretch of time — his home in Los Angeles, East Hampton, his office in New York, and the sets of “The BFG” in Vancouver and “Bridge of Spies” in Berlin. This would be why his outfit changes frequently over the course of the film: “We couldn’t even try to make him [wear the same T-shirt] because, you know, he’s all over the place. So I just went with it,” Lacy said.

“He has a wonderful collection of scarves,” she added.

Steven Spielberg

But you learn a lot more than that about Spielberg from “Spielberg,” thanks to Lacy’s nuanced interviewing style. Lacy developed her skills after three decades as an executive producer on PBS’s “American Masters” series, and nearly two decades of directing episodes for the in-depth profile series focusing on the best of this country’s creative forces.

Lacy’s reputation, following “American Masters,” was what helped her finally land Spielberg as an interview subject. “He didn’t want it for a while,” she said. “And then he looked at one of my films — I can’t remember which one, and he really liked it… He saw a bunch of them, but I think the Leonard Bernstein film.”

How do you get someone like Spielberg to open up? According to Lacy, the first step to building trust is to ask great questions. “A tremendous amount of preparation went into that,” she said. “I really knew his work. I knew enough about his story, from whatever was out there about him, that guided it a bit. I think he was impressed with the depth of the questions, and that this wasn’t a ‘give me four sound-bytes’ king of thing. I think he knew that [going in], but it was very clear after the first two interviews.”

One key facet of those first two interviews? They hadn’t even gotten through his childhood at that point. “I think he kind of went, ‘oh I see where this is going, okay, I’ll go on this journey with you,'” she said. “I think it was fun for him. I don’t know why, but I think it was fun for him. He enjoyed each interview.”

Of course, there’s a lot to explore in Spielberg’s young life that impacts his eventual emergence as a filmmaker, which is part of why Lacy’s interviews with his parents and sisters prove enlightening. “I wanted to understand from their perspective who he was as a child. What the atmosphere was like in his home, what they observed about him when he first picked up a camera. That kind of stuff,” she said.

In addition, while Spielberg’s parents divorced when he was 18, there was no escaping the discussion of how his films often reflect, as mentioned before, his working out his issues — especially when it came to his father. “They were very straightforward about it, nobody was pretending that that wasn’t a big factor,” Lacy said. “I mean, he wasn’t a kid when they divorced, and that was always interesting to me that it had such an impact. He wasn’t a child when it happened — he was 18. But it was a rupture in his world that was much more traumatic than anybody could’ve imagined, even himself. I think it comes out in the work.”

Susan Lacy

The way Lacy approached this sensitive topic was, of course, another factor in establishing a connection with Spielberg. “I think that if I had come right out of the box asking tough questions, like, ‘let’s talk about your father,’ there might not have been interview number two. But I built trust with him. He felt comfortable talking to me, and he could say anything, because I think he knew that I wasn’t going to use it in some way that would embarrass him or make him look bad.”

Added Lacy, “You don’t stay in this business making films about people as famous as I make films about if you’re going to make them look bad. I think he knew that I was making a thoughtful film. He knew I didn’t want gossip, I could care less about gossip.”

But Lacy did explore some of the significant themes underlying Spielberg’s work, especially when it comes to how his relationship with depicting World War II-era Nazis changed from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Schindler’s List.”

Steven Spielberg on the set of "Schindler's List" (1993)

Steven Spielberg on the set of “Schindler’s List” (1993)

HBO

“This is a story I left out of the film for lack of time,” Lacy said, “But he said he couldn’t speak to the actors who were playing the German soldiers in ‘Schindler’s List.’ He couldn’t stand to hear German. He had such a visceral reaction and they felt it. So when they had a seder during the production, the German actors all put on yarmulkes and crashed the seder, and said, ‘we’re all brothers here.’

“He was crying, telling me this story, and after that nothing was the same,” she said. “There was a sense that there was some kind of peacemaking going on there, but he had just such a visceral stomach reaction to seeing those Nazi soldiers and the S.S. He just couldn’t stand it.”

That wasn’t the only story Lacy had to leave out — while the film is not short, it could have been much longer. “I actually had a four and a half hour cut at one point,” Lacy said. “But I knew that was too long. Even if there’s one great story after another, there is an art to filmmaking, you can get fatigue. You still have to tell a story that will grip a general audience. And two-and-a-half hours is already a long time.”

“Spielberg” debuts at the New York Film Festival Thursday, Oct. 5 before its HBO premiere on Saturday, Oct. 7. 

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