In her new HBO documentary about director Steven Spielberg, simply called Spielberg, filmmaker Susan Lacy shows us a previously unknown perspective on the legendary creator of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan among many more.
One of Lacy’s film’s more illuminating segments concerns the camaraderie which Spielberg had with other young directors in the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom became notables in their field, including George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, Paul Schrader, and Brian De Palma. “George Lucas says it pretty well,” Lacy recalled. “‘None of us expected this.’ They were obsessed with films and went on to dominate the film business for many decades. I always look at it like Paris in the 1930s—there was something in the water at certain moments in the Zeitgeist.”
Nonetheless, Lacy points to Spielberg being distinguished from his colleagues at the time, in at least one respect. “Steven’s aspirations were different,” she revealed. “I think from the time he was beginning in the business, he really wanted to be part of the studio system. He identified and wanted to be one of those workhorse directors in the 1940s. That allowed him to work in a variety of genres and to make one film after another. The other guys were much more independent and didn’t want to make studio films. Steven wanted to be a studio filmmaker.”
Unquestionably, Lacy had unprecedented access to Spielberg’s own archives, not only of photographs, but home movie footage. “He trusted me,” Lacy explained, “when he gave me the footage of him in the 1970s with those filmmakers. He shot all of that—it was very carefully protected and guarded. He is a very cautious man and doesn’t open up that easily. That was gold to be able to get that.”
Additionally, Spielberg is notably hesitant to reveal those portions of his life outside of his work, but Lacy had an unparalleled entreé to his parents, sisters, and other personal entities. “He protects his private life. He understood that if I was going to be able to illustrate that family have affected who he is and his movies, he had to give me access. I hope I honored it.”
Despite Spielberg’s stance as a mainstream moviemaker whose films cross boundaries of virtually all demographics, in her documentary, Lacy set out to counter the notion that Spielberg is not a personal filmmaker. “I think he is a deeply personal filmmaker,” she revealed. “You have to explore the man and see how that persona and his values enter into his pictures. He had never looked at his work quite that way. The films operate out of a certain degree of mystery and magic. You can’t take yourself out of that equation.”
In point, many of Spielberg’s films confront the issue of a broken home and an absentee father concept in some form. That reality exists in his early triumphs such as Jaws, Close Encounters, and E.T., but in his later non-genre work as well. Viewers who are familiar with Spielberg’s own family situation will be enlightened by revelations in Lacy’s film regarding the causes of the rift — and are cautioned in reading further here. “Catch Me if You Can is really an autobiographical film in a lot of ways,” she said. “Christopher Walken’s wife married his best friend. Steven’s mother fell in love with HIS best friend—she left. They went along with this illusion [that Spielberg’s father left the family]. His father didn’t tell him for a long time. It’s a bit of a mystery.”
Moreover, Lacy noted that Spielberg’s mother and father eventually reconciled and that, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Spielberg makes Indiana Jones and his father, played by Sean Connery, reconcile.
Lastly, Lacy confessed that her preferred section in making this feature-length documentary concerned Spielberg’s involvement in Schindler’s List. “It went to a whole other level for me,” Lacy said of the Oscar-winning story of the righteous gentile who proactively rescued Jews in Poland during The Holocaust. “It was a risk—not guaranteed to have an audience. His heart and soul was in that movie; it brought another level and depth of filmmaking to Steven. He went with his gut completely, threw out all of his tools.”
Spielberg is airing all through October on HBO.