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EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT from ‘The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies’: David Thomson on Steven Spielberg

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT from 'The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies': David Thomson on Steven Spielberg

“The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies”: Excerpt: TO OWN THE SUMMER

Steven Spielberg has so much more mystery than shows in his still young eyes. I can never make up my mind about him. I watched him recently on television, in conversation with his composer over the years, John Williams. He seemed so young, so earnest, as if he were just beginning. It was hard to remember what a defining success he is, until one looked at the nearly crouched awe in Williams. Spielberg is a phenomenon; it’s easier to say that than to work out the components of artist, businessman, and entertainer. I’m sure he’d say they’re all the same.

I have enthused over some films of the early 1970s, American and otherwise. These were challenging pictures that were well received by many critics; they altered the way we thought about ourselves and introduced new attitudes to the cinema and what it might be. They were not always cheerful experiences, but they left one excited about film. You could call a film “mainstream” then and expect to have people hopeful about it. The Godfather was that kind of show.

Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) was attached to the American bicentennial, though without any conventional optimism: it beheld a panorama of liars, freaks, frauds, and crazies and settled for the vague feeling that, despite all the wreckage, perhaps as a country we must be doing something right. It cost $2.2 million and it grossed $9.9 million in that United States. Altman said it didn’t really make any money, which means that very little got back to him. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) was a psychotic pilgrim’s progress in which, thirty years earlier, the loner would have had his desperate fling and ended shot to pieces. Now he was free again, a strange, isolated figure, frightened and frightening, a disconcerting celebrity. That film cost $1.3 million and grossed $28.2 million. Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) had us watch an amiable, enlivening rebel whose bumpy mind is flatlined by a drab institution. It cost $4.4 million; it grossed $112 million domestically; and it won Best Picture.

I fear there would be little chance of getting such projects made today in the mainstream of American film. But we are still seeing remakes or duplications of another work from 1975, a milestone entertainment yet maybe a millstone, a brilliant exercise, a model of reassuring disaster: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, one of the most influential movies ever made in America.

Spielberg is a decisive achiever in American show business, unrivaled in his record, so close to genius as to be infuriating, and exactly the kind of fellow the business has always wanted to believe in. Not that Jaws is simply his film or vision. It was a commercial enterprise. As anyone on the picture will tell you, the shark was a technology and a nightmare (long before computer-generated imagery). Some say it was the hardest film ever made in movie history, and pictures in such jeopardy survive only if the gamblers stay steady and make their own luck. Just because it was business doesn’t mean it was businesslike.

Peter Benchley, the grandson of Algonquin Round Table humorist Robert Benchley, had had an idea for a novel about a white shark that terrorizes a resort community. Doubleday gave him a starter advance of $1,000 (it grew to $7,500), and after much rewriting, the novel became an object of excitement. It would not be published until 1974, but already in 1973, Bantam had bought the book for paperback for $575,000. Universal wanted the film rights. An executive at the studio, Jennings Lang, had alerted his boss, Lew Wasserman. They were thinking of Hitchcock to direct, with Paul Newman as the police chief. Then the studio’s humble story department read and reported and said they were not impressed.

In that clerical gap, the independent producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck (the son of Darryl Zanuck) stepped in and said they’d buy it independently, and let Universal produce. So the studio would have the film, but on reduced profit terms. It was Zanuck and Brown who assured Benchley they would look after the project personally and who made the deal with the novelist: $150,000 and 10 percent of the net profits, plus $25,000 to be part of the screenplay (plus money for any sequels—if they blew the shark up, they’d put it back together again; it was their shark).

Outside the story department at Universal, everyone who read the galleys was fired up, even the young director Steven Spielberg, who had lifted the galley from Zanuck’s desk. But Spielberg seems to have been the first person to read the book twice, and ask himself the awkward question, “How on earth, or on water, do you film this?” That’s why he was always torn about doing the picture.

That summer of1974, Spielberg was twenty-seven. Born in Cincinnati, he was raised in Phoenix, Arizona, and he had been making “amateur” films since childhood. There is a still of him shooting Firelight (1964, a two-hour effort, on 8mm) at the age of seventeen—staring past the tiny Bolex camera at his actress—that is the epitome of the narrow intensity of a film-mad kid with a one-track mind. Anyone who has taught film knows the look, and realizes that it is both awesome and alarming.

Under an early contract with Universal, he had made a television movie, Duel, in 1971 (it was later released in theaters), that is a perfect diagrm (with terror) and a sign of what was to come. Dennis Weaver is an innocent motorist on a desert road pursued by a malignant truck. The irrational menace comes from horror films, but it is also part of being a kid in the atomic age, when demons may lurk in the desert. Duel earned him promotion, and in that summer of1973, Spielberg was doing The Sugarland Express (1974), another film about transportation, at Universal for Brown and Zanuck. It is the story of a young mother (Goldie Hawn), just out of jail, who frees her convict husband and then kidnaps a cop in order to rescue their baby from an adoption home. Involving an immense police pursuit, the film is a triumph of informational logistics, and a tragedy— the husband will be killed, the baby cannot be freed, the woman is devastated.

The Sugarland Express had excellent reviews. Pauline Kael called it “one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies,” but the film did poorly, and left Spielberg very disappointed. The look on his face in that still photograph was not ready for critical glory without a payoff. That’s why Spielberg is so instructive: he has always wanted to be a comprehensive American success, and never seemed to notice how that commodity might turn suspect. So he was not obvious casting for Jaws. Lew Wasserman was surprised when Brown and Zanuck proposed the kid. He thought that Sugarland had been a “downer,” and bosses mistrust that gloomy tendency in young talent. It can be a sign of doing a project for its own sake—the fatal kiss of privacy. So John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960; The Great Escape, 1963) was talked about as director, but he may have been put off by the producers saying they thought Jaws was just a small picture, doable for $1 million. Despite the producers’ backing, Spielberg was uncertain. He said he didn’t want to get known for just trucks and sharks. He had liked the Goldie Hawn character in Sugarland. He had a wide sentimental streak, but Wasserman told him that in casting Hawn, he had set the audiences up for the lovable kook from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a woman who’d end up happy. Spielberg had decided he didn’t much like the characters in Jaws (there was romantic and sexual betrayal in the book), and was ready to side with the shark. You can feel that in the opening sequence, when the shark goes at the skinny-dipping kid in a way that releases our energy.

When you know how Jaws the film turned out, it’s hard to grasp how nearly it foundered. A very young director, without a hit, was allowed to extend the schedule from 55 days to more than 150, and the budget from $3.5 million to close to $12.0 million. He thought he was going to be fired. He wanted to quit. The elaborate work to build and control a mechanical shark (named “Bruce”) produced insoluble problems. In the script (by Carl Gottlieb and Benchley, but with other hands enlisted), there was a climactic scene where the shark was meant to leap out of the water and crush the boat. The production controller, William Gilmore, recalled:

The shark was supposed to come out of the water with tremendous energy. Take one was no good. The shark came out of the water kind of like a dolphin walking along the water and fell on the boat. We assumed it was a rehearsal and that the second take was going to be better. It wasn’t. The shark sort of came up like a limp dick, skidded along the water, and fell onto the boat.

That scene never happens in the film, of course, and that’s part of why the schedule was tripled. At one point Spielberg resolved that a lot of the time we need not see the shark (because “Bruce” couldn’t act and couldn’t be engineered). He called that going “the Hitchcock way,” doing it by suggestion. To this day, the possibility remains that the crew came back from the shoot off Martha’s Vineyard with a mass of shaky material that was then made into a movie by the editing of Verna Fields (she was raised to be a vice president at Universal after Jaws), by the throbbing underwater menace delivered in the score by John Williams (the closest we get to the shark’s mind), by the perseverance of Brown and Zanuck (and Wasserman), and by Spielberg, of course, who may have felt lost on many occasions but who proved an indefatigable learner.

At the level of vivid comic book characters, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider gave astute performances, while Robert Shaw made an authentic cliché sea dog (in the school of Robert Newton’s Long John Silver) out of Quint. Quint is half man, half sea creature, and in his long speech on the sinking of the Indianapolis in 1945 (originally written by John Milius, but rewritten by Shaw himself), Jaws comes the closest it will get to human interest. Quint must die—but he knows it. Otherwise the film is about mechanical triumph, suspense payoff, and “mission accomplished,” a phrase that will grate one day, though it suggests how many presidents learned leadership at the movies. The jubilation of the survivors at the end of Jaws comes from the ethos of comradeship in Second World War films. George W. Bush was honorably discharged from the Air Force Reserve in 1973.

There were great doubts over the picture; there always are—making a picture can be a matter of ignoring or defying them. Spielberg would tell the press, “It’s a disaster movie only if it doesn’t make money. Then it’s a disaster.” Peter Benchley had seen or heard enough of the script and the filming to share misgivings with the Los Angeles Times: “Spielberg needs to work on character. He knows, flatly, zero. Consider. He is a twenty-six year-old who grew up with movies. He has no knowledge of reality but the movies. He is B-movie literate. When he must make decisions about the small ways people behave, he reaches for movie clichés of the forties and fifties.”

There was one of the first warnings about the generation of young directors who had been to film school, or only to the movies all their life—was it possible they knew too little to deal with human realities? If so, there was an available answer poised: delete the complexity of the realities. Spielberg had impressed Zanuck and Brown with his skill and zeal, but also because his inexperience in life kept him in synch with the young audience they anticipated. So be it, but the contrast with what Orson Welles knew and felt at twenty-six (his age when Kane opened) is hard to avoid.

Jaws was previewed in Dallas on March 26, 1975, and the reaction was so intense that the Medallion Theatre decided to put on a second screening later that night. The audience screamed when they were supposed to; they laughed at the right moments. The shark worked at last. Robert Shaw had guessed this: his salary was up to $300,000 by then with overages, and he offered to trade most of it back for just 1 percent of the profits. Brown and Zanuck were tempted, but their nerve held.

Two days later, there was a second preview in Long Beach. The reaction was the same. Co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb was there in the men’s bathroom at the theater when Lew Wasserman; Sid Sheinberg, the president of Universal; Henry Martin, in charge of sales and distribution; and Charles Powell, publicity and promotion, decided how they were going to handle Jaws. Instead of opening in just two cities and a few theaters, Wasserman called for massive television advertising ($700,000 worth) just before and during the opening weekend and going out into maybe eight hundred theaters. This was not entirely original, but it was the sort of plan that smelled of distributor anxiety and an attempt to forestall review damage. David O. Selznick had done it with Duel in the Sun in 1946.

Something tempered the first enthusiasm for outlets, so Jaws opened on June 20 in 409 theaters in the United States and grossed over $7 million in its first weekend. That was astonishing. But schools were just out, and the kids were going to the beach anyway. Spielberg had cut or adjusted some horrific moments to get a PG rating instead of an R. What was more startling was that the box office doubled in the second week. (That sort of surge never happens today.) By June 29 the figure stood at $21 million. A week later (after the July 4 holiday) it was nearly $37 million. The film was in profit already. By early September the number was $124 million, surpassing The Godfather as all-time champ. Its first run, domestically, would settle at $260 million, with a worldwide gross of $470 million. Just before the film’s release, Brown and Zanuck gave Spielberg 2.5 percent of the net profits—his original deal had had no points and a modest salary.

The reviews were in disagreement. In the New York Times, Frank Rich said, “Spielberg is blessed with a talent that is absurdly absent from most American filmmakers these days: this man actually knows how to tell a story on screen.” But Molly Haskell in The Village Voice complained, “You feel like a rat, being given shock treatment.” Decades later, in a rhapsodic monograph on the film, the English writer Antonia Quirke said, “Right before our eyes Spielberg is inventing the almost aggressive purposelessness of his Indiana Jones mode. Jaws is perhaps the most tonally comprehensive thriller ever made—sheer exhilaration at lacking an agenda or a subject in any classical dramatic sense. The film is sometimes nothing more than a dance to music. Spielberg never meant anything really. But neither did Fred Astaire.”

Spielberg would have winced at the suggestion that he “never meant anything really,” just as he was aggrieved to be left out of the Oscar nominations for Best Director (the film won only for editing and music). He claimed that as Jaws earned more money, the Academy lost interest in it— but that had never happened with The Godfather. If anything, the Academy may have learned to ignore “Steven” when they saw how much that irritated him. He didn’t get an Oscar for directing until Schindler’s List (1993), a film loaded with agenda and meaning, on which he took no salary.

Still, Quirke has a point. There are so many matters about which Jaws is not interested: the sea, the people in the community, the shark, the idea of corruption in the town. Even the danger is spurious. (Spielberg may have gone mad making it work, but you know he doesn’t believe in this threat any more than he believed in triceratops in Jurassic Park.) All these elements are sketched in instantly and never developed any more than the characters. Quint is harsh and intimidating. Brody is afraid of the sea. Hooper is cheerful. The shark isn’t. (Yet what does the shark want?) These are figures in a dance where the thing Rich calls storytelling flattens everything into action. But what is story without character or moral consequence? “Agenda” can be an offputting word, but why should “meaning” be rejected? You cannot see Taxi Driver without asking who Travis is and what has made him. Roman Polanski had identified what we treasure in Chinatown by insisting on the defeat of Jake Gittes. But when you see Jaws you are gravity-free, and just as entertained as if watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. You lose Quint, but who cares? You’re asked to watch the screen and its plasticity, and not the quality of life that may exist within the screen. We are wowed, but are we engaged? The notion of “roller coaster” movies came into being around this time, and it’s provocative: on a roller coaster you are caught up moment by moment, physically and nervously, and afterward you are agog with incoherent talk about it. But part of the fun is that the commotion meant nothing. The sensation eclipsed sensibility.

There was no industrywide conference to confirm or enact the principles of Jaws. But there didn’t need to be. So much had been demonstrated: the potency in opening wide, and then wider (like three thousand screens? four thousand?); the opportunity of the summer season for kids at liberty, and the chance of their becoming repeat viewers; the whole economy of a blockbuster film that could suck its money in so fast; the combination of great danger or adventure without any lasting “downer”; the possibility that audiences were ready to see and revel in things that could not happen in life—and still take the illusion seriously. Plus the outline of franchising, of taking a situation and repeating it until there was no one left with patience. Give them something they know they like—make it like fast food.

The movies had always been on to that trick. The comics, silent and sound, did the same routines over and over, from Chaplin and Keaton through the Marx Brothers and Hope and Crosby to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. But with the comics we forgave that sameness because we enjoyed the personality of the comedians. The impetus within franchising is the reliable situation in so much television—the sitcoms, the Westerns, the police stories, the family shows. Always the situation endures, like the pitch in the advertising that held such shows in place. That is an endorsement of security in worrying times, just as it is an avoidance of drama or resolution. Because television had set up the precept that the show was so consistent, we didn’t need to watch every week or every minute. You could leave the room for a few minutes, come back, and know where you were. Our attentiveness had been compromised. It was a covert message—and the messengers didn’t need to be aware of it—but we were being told we didn’t really have to watch. Who cares if we’re there so long as it is “on”?

In the next decades, this tendency would receive exponential encouragement from movie systems that photographed things that never could happen: computer-generated imagery. A mechanical shark need never be such a trial again. Well, you may say, King Kong (1933) could not have happened, not on Skull Island or in New York. But if you put King Kong and Jaws in the same sentence you have to feel the naïve poetic impulse that inspires the earlier film, and the cold-blooded detachment in Jaws. People do care about the ape. King Kong trembles with shaky effects. Jaws is as smooth as its cutting, but smoothness can kill emotion. Kong is a tragic character. He has his inappropriate desire, while the shark is just a streamlined source of energy, a convenient killer, a current in the sea, a vector in the game.

As I write, Spielberg is nearing sixty-five and coming up on one more of his busy seasons: in the same month, he will release The Adventures of Tintin (his first animated film) and War Horse—it reminds one of the even stranger concurrence, when he was doing Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in the same year. This is more than talent, prowess, energy, opportunity, and the clout that meant all those films would hang upon his decision. It’s more that his imagination has taken on the versatility of the movie screen: it can play anything, and follow it with anything else. It’s as if Beethoven were doing the Eroica Symphony and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” at the same time. Not that Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park are in those same classes. Am I old-fashioned in being so shaken by the contrast or the clash?

This turns on the possibility of creative character. If you look at the body of Alfred Hitchcock’s work, there are missteps, follies, sidebars, to be sure, but what drew attention and admiration for Hitch was the inability to shake off some motifs: suspense, voyeurism, guilt, fear. I have tried to describe those things at work and suggest that Hitchcock himself became distressed by them. He did not float in air alongside his films. They were business entertainments, but his mind emerged from them.

It would be going too far to say that Spielberg has none of that. He has his motifs: success, children, stylistic impersonality, and being exemplary. Long before the fascinating and often heartfelt adventure of DreamWorks, a new studio, made in partnership with Jeffrey Katzenberg, an executive from Disney, and David Geffen, an entrepreneur in music and recording, Spielberg had been a sustaining executive producer or godfather for so many people and ventures. That list is larger than the roll of films he directed, and it includes Back to the Future (1985) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988; both by Robert Zemeckis); TV series such as The Pacific and Band of Brothers; the two Clint Eastwood pictures Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006); and the recent True Grit (2010, by the Coen brothers) and J. J. Abrams’s Super 8 (2011), which is a gesture of tribute to Spielberg’s own beginnings in moviemaking.

With or without DreamWorks SKG, Spielberg has been a studio or a house. Can anyone conceive of American pictures since 1970 without him? You can describe that in terms of a net worth of $3 billion or in a list of all his awards. It could be offered as an example of wanting to be a huge entertainer and a prophet of our nature and our history— that’s the shift from Jurassic Park to Schindler’s List, or from E.T. to Poltergeist, credited to Tobe Hooper but guided by Spielberg and one of the most alarming visions of kids disappearing into a television set. He can do action at a level that seems matchless—the main story of Schindler’s List and the battles in Saving Private Ryan—but then he can spoil those pictures with the underlining that gives us the girl in the red dress in Kraków and that asks Ryan to earn the sacrifice made for him.

Is it youthfulness that cannot quite trust his own work or our response? Is it his fear of our stupidity? Is it even something like the lack of experience Peter Benchley noted as he looked at Jaws? The motif of childhood never goes away, and it is the core of his best film, Empire of the Sun (1987), in which the boy Christian Bale is the young J. G. Ballard captured in Shanghai as the war begins and struggling to endure in a Japanese prison camp. That is a film in which the balance of history and one boy’s life is eloquent and unforced. (Tom Stoppard did the script with uncredited work from Menno Meyjes.) In any measure, it is a film about life, loss, and the capacity to equate the two. There is nothing childish in the regard for the boy; it’s a film for grown-ups.

There is a similar gravity in other films— Munich (2005), A.I. (2001), and even The Terminal (2004), a fine, neglected comedy. And yet I cannot forget or see past the determined youthfulness in Spielberg himself, the urge to live up to the oldest models of movie entertainment and to play dazzling games in which nothing is more real or holding than it was in Jaws. Call it the drive to make great shows that are about nothing except letting the light play on the screen for a couple of hours and keeping the faces of the audience as open and exalted as the faces in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) whenever they face the light. W hen he made that film, Spielberg was asked if he believed in UFOs and he said no, but he believed in people who believed in them. So Close Encounters can be read as a film about the movies themselves and the wonder that light casts on a watching face. If ever you doubt the movies, look at the faces watching the screen.

Spielberg is what Cecilia, the narrator of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, calls “a marker in industry.” (Talking in 1940, she names Edison, Lumière, Griffith, and Chaplin, as well as Monroe Stahr, as the select group.) It is touching how old-fashioned Spielberg’s attitudes are in a medium of accelerating technological renewal (most of which he has embraced). But does his celebration of a few children and the childlike compensate for the way he represents a culture that has resolved to be childish? No matter the patronage he has offered to other filmmakers, I wonder what he thinks about the erosion of the mainstream entertainment movie. No one has done more to defend the standard of the “movie” as it was being made when he was born (in 1946). Is he Indiana Jones or Schindler? Well, he has tried to be both. Anyone aiming at the audience wants everyone. But his country and his culture have made the other choice, of going with the unattached, floating myth and adventurous élan of Indy. And surely the maker of Schindler’s List, who claimed that film was a turning point in his own education and his Jewishness, must know that some decisions lead to catastrophe.

In December 2012, if all goes according to schedule, Spielberg will release Lincoln. In making that film he has used the book Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin ,and a screenplay written first by John Logan and Paul Webb, and then by Tony Kushner. I am reminded of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, which opened in June 1939, on the eve of cataclysm, and I daresay at Christmas 2012 there will be uncommon need for a “Lincolnesque” film, fit to play at the White House and to chain gangs in remote parts of the country. I cannot believe that Spielberg will do anything but an accomplished and inspiring job. Still, if he is to dig into the heart of people and their society, I suspect the venture may depend more on Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. For somehow the great and saintly man has to speak to the harsh and insufferable competitiveness in Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).

Excerpted from The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies by David Thomson, published in October 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by David Thomson. All rights reserved.

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