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‘Spielberg’: The 9 Most Surprising Things You’ll Learn About the Filmmaker in HBO’s Documentary

A pet monkey, fear, and driving Liam Neeson nuts: It's all in Susan Lacy's "Spielberg."

Steven Spielberg, from the new HBO Documentary

Steven Spielberg, from the new HBO Documentary


Spielberg takes all the blame for “1941”

After the success of “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Spielberg said success went straight to his head. “If I did those two films, why can’t I do anything?” Spielberg recalled. “Why not do a comedy? I was feeling invulnerable.” Spielberg praised the script as “lean and mean,” and blamed himself for stretching the humor and the budget with the misconception that he could “just blow a bunch of shit up and make people laugh.” The failure and critical backlash gave Spielberg a sense of failure that he said led a wasted year. It wasn’t until George Lucas came to his rescue with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that he emerged from sticking his “head in holes.”

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford shooting “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”


Studios didn’t want Spielberg for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

When George Lucas took the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” script to studios, he was surprised to learn that Spielberg didn’t have a good reputation because he constantly went over budget and schedule. Spielberg was ready to learn how to be more efficient as a filmmaker, especially by embracing the B-movie style and spirit of “Indiana Jones,” and promised Lucas he could make the film for $20 million. Knowing it was a promise between friends, Lucas financed the film himself, but not without getting a handshake agreement that Spielberg would direct two more Indiana Jones sequels if the first was a success.

He was scared to make the Shug and Celie love story too explicit in “The Color Purple”

In Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review of “The Sugarland Express,” she insinuated that the 26-year-old Spielberg might lack depth. So as he neared fatherhood and 40, he decided to make his “first really mature film,” a PG-13 adaptation of “The Color Purple” that was ultimately shut out at the Oscars despite 11 nominations. He said, “I got into trouble with several critics who didn’t like that I shied away from the love story between Shug (Margaret Avery) and Celie (Whoopi Goldberg),” the respective mistress and wife of Danny Glover’s character. Specifically, Spielberg omitted the scene from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel where Shug hands Celie a mirror and guards the door while Celie examines her vagina and clitoris. “I might have done that, had I made the movie 10 years later,” Spielberg said. “I was just timid. I was just a little embarrassed. I just wasn’t the right guy to do that.”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1604565a) Schindler's List, Liam Neeson Film and Television

Liam Neeson in “Schindler’s List”


He drove Liam Neeson nuts

“Schindler’s List” earned seven Academy Awards in 1994, including Best Picture. Liam Neeson also received his first Oscar nomination as Oskar Schindler, but at one point during the shoot he was tempted to walk. “Steven’s not a smoker, but in the close-ups, he would start to tell me how to smoke,” said Neeson, who was a smoker at the time. Spielberg advised on Neeson’s finger placement, when to inhale, and how long to let the smoke curl. Frustrated, the actor remembers complaining Sir Ben Kingsley, “I’m a fucking puppet.” Guided by Kingsley, Neeson stopped bristling at Spielberg’s directions, even the idiosyncratic ones.

Spielberg runs on fear

Although he has directed nearly 30 films, Spielberg calls fear his essential motivator. “The more I’m feeling confident and secure about something, the less I’m going to put out. The more I’m feeling, ‘Uh-oh, there could be a major problem in getting this story told,’ I’m going to work overtime to meet the challenge and get the job done.” Neeson recalls Spielberg fretting for months — “like his skin had been torn off” — while they were shooting in Krakow. Spielberg continued, “The more I feel backed into a corner, the more rewarding it becomes when I find my way out of the corner,” like using yellow barrels to imply the presence of a malfunctioning “Jaws,” or discovering that a set for “Saving Private Ryan” was built on the wrong side of an island and finding a lighting workaround. As he told Lacy: “I’ve avoided therapy, because movies are my therapy.”

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