Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Spielberg and Lucas required what Ford acidly refers to as “company loyalty oaths” of their employees, vows of silence concerning the production of The Last Crusade. While skittish crew members echo the sanitized official line, it is clear that they are genuinely devoted to Spielberg. His relentless creative drive and perfectionism make him a tough boss – although he is also an appreciative one. But he insists he’s taking a less combative approach these days. “You can’t give orders, you can’t manipulate,” says Spielberg, who one was fond of using war analogies to describe filmmaking. “You can’t move people around like pieces on a chessboard. A director should be almost like a spiritual guide, not an on-set Bear Bryant.” Nevertheless, Vic Armstrong hoots when told of Spielberg’s claim that he is “mellower” than in the old days. When the boss’s spirituality fails him, testifies Armstrong, he will yell at “everything that moves in front of him.”
When Indy fans queue up on May 24, the Three Musketeers — as the crew called Spielberg, Ford, and Lucas — will reap inestimable millions. They have all taken profit points in the three films instead of hefty fees up front. Lucas is not revealing anybody’s salary but says the above-the-line, or principals’ salaries, on this one “wasn’t any more than about 25 percent of the budget.”
To Spielberg, whose wealth became unfathomable long ago, the lure of huge profits is not a major factor in what projects he chooses. He swears, in fact, that his decision to release E.T. on video last year — which has earned Amblin approximately $75 million in North American sales to date — was not motivated by greed, although he had said that he would never allow the extra-terrestrial to land in people’s living rooms. “It got to be a burden of popular demand,” he says. “All over the world, it was the number one question people would ask me: ‘When is E.T. coming out on video?’ Everybody from my nieces and nephews to people on the street were badgering me.” He adds, “It was not studio pressure.”
As he buzzes an assistant for a second cup of Roastraoma herbal tea, Spielberg is pleased to discuss his next directing project, Always. Based on a 1943 Spencer Tracy-Irene Dunn melodrama called A Guy Named Joe, the film will begin shooting in April. Spielberg has already begun rehearsals with leads Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter. “This is the only remake I would really ever consider directing myself,” he says. “It’s a story that touched my soul when I was fourteen years old and saw it on television. It was the second movie that ever made me cry that didn’t have a deer in it. And it’s a reassuring story. It’s about life and saying it while you’re here and doing it while you can.”
In A Guy Named Joe, Tracy plays a World War II pilot who is killed — and returns to Earth as an invisible but influential presence. Spielberg’s version relocates the story to present-day Montana and Wyoming. “It’s about the men and women who fly the aircraft and helicopters against the raging forest fires in national parks. It’s that whole fire-fighter milieu.” Real-life devastation has already guaranteed Always a measure of verisimilitude and scope; during the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park, Spielberg spent two weeks there shooting footage of doubles against the flames.
Spielberg’s movies are always about love: the love of a child for an alien, sisterly love, filial love, and buddy love. But this is his first crack at real I’m-a-man-and-you’re-a-woman stuff. “Yeah, and I didn’t want it to be a real mushy, gushy, lip-lock love story,” he says, revealing a glimpse of the eleven-year-old Steven, who thought such movies were icky. “I think the best love stories are about the people we perceive to be just like us. And I’ve always looked at Richard Dreyfuss as Everyman, or today’s equivalent to Spencer Tracy. And Holly Hunter is Everygirl — feisty, smart, and extremely opinionated.” When a connection is suggested between the feminist model provided by Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler, a bright and vivacious woman, and his taste in heroines, he buys it. “I’ve always been attracted to forthright women who aren’t afraid to lay it on the line,” he says, “even if sometimes that line goes right across our chests.” Significantly, this will be Spielberg’s third film with alter ego Dreyfuss — who, we recall, was far more interested in the mother ship in Close Encounters than he was in his wife.
Spielberg is not giving away any specific plans beyond Always. A child of the electronic age, he has said that he missed out on a literary education. But he made a fierce appeal for greater literacy in film when he picked up his Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1987. He has regular brainstorming sessions with dramatic writers of every stripe; playright Tom Stoppard, who wrote Empire of the Sun, is a frequent dinner companion.
Although not unmindful of how history may ultimately judge his oeurve, he has never had a master plan. Yes, it appeals to him to make at least one film in each major genre during his career, including a thriller and a western. “But I certainly wouldn’t say, ‘For my next song I’m gonna do “Home on the Range,”’ and then try to find a story to fit the range. That’s the wrong approach to take.”
However, he admits he has long been particularly tantalized by the Hollywood musical — his favorite is Singin’ in the Rain. He was delighted to stage the Busby Berkeley-esque opening riff of Temple of Doom, as well as the jitterbug sequences in 1941. Though he has two musicals in development, Spielberg frets that “the thunder of the musical has been eclipsed by the rock video.” If he throws his had into the ring, it will be to make a huge spectacle. “God knows I’ve been accused of enough of those, I might as well add a musical to my crimes.”
Spielberg becomes impassioned as he vows to be more audacious in choosing his projects in the new decade. He admires his friends Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese for what he sees as their leaps of courage. “Brian’s career has taken the most dramatic turn — because he has started to tap into the great playwrights, to blend his own brilliant visual style into terrific literature,” he says. De Palma recently showed him his new Vietnam picture, Casualties of War. It knocked him out; Spielberg calls it “a great movie, possibly the most powerful statement yet on Vietnam. And Marty’s taken great risks.” Then, a stunning self-critique: “Everybody’s taken risks but me.”
The most common criticism of Spielberg’s work is that he grafts his redemptive, melodramatic vision onto everything he touches. He took the most heat when he gave The Color Purple the Spielberg treatment. Now he says he is burning to make films that will not be instantly identifiable as his. As he matures, he feels less need to make everything into a chapter of his autobiography. “E.T., The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, and Close Encounters,” he ticks off, “I made those movies without having to think. It was like playing the piano with your eyes closed.”
He wants to see what will happen if he suppresses his natural instinct to manipulate. “Rather than conform the material to who I consciously — and, more dangerous, subconsciously — am, I would like to make some movies where I just become the material. And see how I do as a character director, in full makeup,” he says, laughing.
An insatiable student of film history, Spielberg says, “I admire directors like Michael Curtiz and Victor Fleming, who are the unsung heroes and the workhorses of the ‘30s and ‘40s. They were upstaged by great filmmakers like Hitchcock and Capra and Sturges, who had their own personal signatures. These directors didn’t have signatures, they were chameleons. They cold adapt to any story, in any period, with any premise.” He adds, “You look at the body of work of someone like Victor Fleming — not only did he direct A Guy Named Joe but also Captains Courageous, Gone With the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz. And yet there is no such thing as a quintessential Victor Fleming movie.”
He pauses, as if wondering if he wants to be held accountable for any statements of intent. “Of course, I have the right to change my mind five years from now,” he says, “but that fearlessness toward material interests me. Would I be able to throw myself into something that is not easily recognizable as a Spielberg film? Could I have made Raging Bull the way Marty made Raging Bull? Probably not. But would I attempt to make Raging Bull? Two years ago, I would have said no. Today I would say, ‘Yes, I would.’ That’s the difference.”
Spielberg will henceforth function as an aloof executive producer at Amblin, retaining his right to green-light — or squash — any project. The studio is cranked up to shoot several movies in 1989. Robert Zemeckis began rolling in March with his two-headed oddity, Back to the Future II and III, to be filmed in succession. Screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) is prowling the halls too, poised to make his directing debut with Joe Versus the Volcano, starring Tom Hanks. Also in production is Dad, a low-budgeter with Jack Lemmon, Olympia Dukakis, and Ted Danson. “It’s a real risk because it’s a story about how this country perceives the elderly,” says Spielberg. “We think it could open some eyes.”
As for what he thinks of the competition these days — well, Spielberg is playing it diplomatic. His take on the movies of 1988 contrasts sharply with the general consensus. “In my opinion it has been the worst calendar year for movies in a decade,” he says. “But I’m not going to sit here and tell you which ones I didn’t like, because a lot of them were made by my friends.” He was acutely frustrated by having to pass on both Big and Rainman in order to meet Lucas’s schedule for The Last Crusade. “I was very upset not to have been able to do Rainman, mainly because I’ve wanted to work with Dustin Hoffman ever since I saw The Graduate,” he says. “But I couldn’t go to my best friend and say, ‘I know I’m a whore, but I found something I like better — hire George Miller.’” Spielberg had worked for five months on the Rainman screenplay, and says that although he respects Barry Levinson’s movie, “I find it to be emotionally very distancing. I think I certainly would have pulled tears out of a rather dry movie.”
A Cry in the Dark, “an underrated movie with a new form of storytelling,” wins his vote for best film of 1988. But he emphasizes that “what put everything into perspective was the rerelease in early ‘89 of Lawrence of Arabia.”
Along with Scorsese, Spielberg shepherded the restoration of the Columbia Pictures classic. Shortly after Dawn Steel inherited the top job at the studio from David Puttnam, Spielberg says, he marched into her office and said, “You have to do this or I’ll never make a picture for Columbia again.” When he viewed Lawrence in all its original glory, it “made me feel like going back to film school. One of the most intimidating things for anybody who takes himself seriously as a filmmaker is to sit in that theater and realize that so many of us have so far to go before we’re able to recreate even seven moments in a masterwork like that.”
The blockbuster hits of the ‘80s — most of them children or stepchildren of Spielberg and Lucas — have contributed to an alarming preoccupation in Hollywood with movies as product. “Everybody’s interested in breaking records now,” says Spielberg, “and turning a gentle sonnet into a cottage industry. That was never my intention. This is why I won’t make a sequel to E.T. But the studio heads are very, very interested in running the motion picture industry like a business. And if there is a formula, and they can discover it – as Disney has — they will use it until the carbonation and the fizz have gone out of it. Then they’ll look for something else.”
Spielberg deplores the chilling effect this has on innovative filmmaking. “It’s very, very hard for the independent filmmaker, for the artist with a singular vision, for the Europeans who come here to sell their films. It also makes it very hard for the new filmmakers, who often have to compromise their artistic and puristic instincts to conform to a system that will only accept them if they make The ‘Burbs 2.
“David Lean said it very well when he spoke at the Lawrence of Arabia premiere in Los Angeles. He said, ‘For all you fat cats, you must start taking chances again. You must stop being who you are and start being Selznick, Cohn, Mayer, Thalberg, and Spiegel. And find subjects that aren’t a guarantee for microwave success. Somebody has to be a pioneer.’” Spielberg says that Amblin is doing its bit by developing a number of worthy. Low-budget films: Dad is one of those. “I don’t know if they’re going to have a shot at making any money,” he says, adding that Amblin also combs the community and film schools for young talent.
Spielberg has never hidden the fact that he would like to win an Oscar one of these days. Gandhi beat out E.T. in 1982, and although The Color Purple was nominated for Best Picture in 1985, he was passed over for even a nomination in the Best Director category that year. George Lucas’s assessment of the Academy’s cold shoulder is, “I think they’re jealous. Not as a group, but a lot of individuals don’t think of Steven as being serious. They think of him as being successful and making too much money and being very facile in the medium.”
Spielberg executive produced Roger Rabbit, the biggest box office draw of 1988 and a co-venture of Amblin and Disney’s Touchstone Pictures. Although the film didn’t get any Oscar nominations in major categories, he does not see this as the latest slight in a protracted Academy shutout. “No, I rather think it’s no respect for Toons,” he says.
Exasperated Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg says, “I’ve given up trying to figure out the Academy.” But he adds that when nomination time rolled around, the Roger Rabbit team “had a running joke that our chances suffered from the three S’s: success, special effects, and Spielberg.” Spielberg cites his main disappointment: “Listen, I was hoping more than anything else that Bob Zemeckis and Bob Hoskins would be nominated. I didn’t care about Best Picture.”
The absence of gleaming statuettes on his mantel notwithstanding, Spielberg is well-liked by his Hollywood peers. He is active in the right industry guilds and causes; as a spokesman for the Directors Guild, he has lobbied strenuously against colorization. He is friendly with such colleagues as Sydney Pollack and Richard Donner, and is said to be generous about helping out others’ projects with behind-the-scenes favors. When Spielberg gave up Rainman last year, he met with Barry Levinson in a Westwood restaurant and turned over his copious notes on the script.
Two polar assessments of Spielberg’s work are voiced by directors Sidney Lumet and Henry Jaglom. In the rave column, Lumet says, “I just feel he is the most brilliant purely cinematic talent that I’ve seen. He is a thrilling, thrilling moviemaker.” He scoffs at Spielberg’s detractors’ judgment that he can’t cut it with grownup material. “I’m sorry. That’s bullshit,” says Lumet. “Spielberg’s talent is so rich, it’s going to take him a lifetime to explore; he could go in so many directions.”
Art-film maverick Jaglom, whose best-known film, ironically, is titled Always, weighs in for the “It ain’t art” contingent. A voting member of the Academy, he maintains that none of Spielberg’s films deserved an Oscar. “Most of us think that Gandhi and 25 other films were better than E.T.,” says Jaglom. “There is a place for mass entertainment, but it shouldn’t be confused with art or quality, award-winning filmmaking. Spielberg cannot be compared with people like [Mike] Nichols or Levinson.”
To Spielberg, Jaglom is a bit like a gnat biting his ankles; he has been a pest since he censured Spielberg for The Color Purple, which Jaglom called “disastrous.” Glad for the opportunity to sling it back, Spielberg grabs a notebook and scribbles down his rebuttal: “People who go out of their way to throw stones, especially when they have so little to show for themselves, make me sad and embarrassed.” He drops the pencil with a flourish. “Ooooh, boy, I’d love to get that in print!”
It is nearly time for Spielberg to leave the scoring studio to pick up his son for dinner at Grandma’s house. Packing up his video camera, he notices that several pink happy-face stickers are sprinkled on his black leather jacket. “Max keeps sticking these on me when I’m not looking,” he says fondly.
Like any other proud papa, he doesn’t take prodding to recount the marvels of his progeny. Max loves to watch E.T. but closes his eyes during the scary parts. “He’s exactly like I was when I was a child. I would watch these movies, attracted to what scared me — always with the safety of a hand across my face. And I could peek when I wanted to.” He adds, “Max wants to see Jaws, but I won’t show it to him. I won’t show him anything real violent or scary. When he gets older.”
Dusk is falling outside, and all except John Williams and the technicians have drifted out of the scoring studio. Spielberg is lingering to savor every last note of the music. After the final crescendo, when the last galloping rider has disappeared from the screen, he says softly, “I’m going to miss looking into Harrison’s eyes through the shadow of his fedora.” There is no regret in his voice. A sunset can be a new horizon, and like Indiana Jones, he is not traveling alone. Williams wants to know if he can close things down: “If you can’t think of anything else, I can’t,” he says. Spielberg answers, “I can, but don’t ask me.,” and heads for the blue Porsche parked outside — the one with the baby seat in it.