The Biography of a Blockbuster Storyteller

20 Sep

Steven Spielberg

Today, no man in his right mind would dare to doubt the cinematic genius of director Steven Spielberg.  Yet as “An Empire of Dreams,” the Biography profile of Spielberg, showed, the climb to the top was a difficult one for the film legend.  As a child Spielberg struggled with his Jewish identity and parents’ divorce, and as a young filmmaker he struggled from a young age to get a break in Hollywood.

Childhood Days

Steven Spielberg was born on December 18, 1946 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The family moved a few times when Spielberg was young, which made it difficult for him to make friends and fit in at school.  Spielberg also struggled with his Jewish heritage and was ashamed to be a Jew even though he grew up around many Holocaust survivors (later inspiring Schindler’s List).

Family home videos and pictures made up much of the segment about Spielberg’s early life in this Biography profile, as well as interviews with Spielberg’s parent and one of his sisters, but there are no first hand accounts from Spielberg himself.  While it was interesting to hear from his father how young Steven grabbed the family camera during a camping trip and from then on filmed constantly, the viewer did not get to hear about this life-changing event from Steven himself.

Spielberg’s first movie, “Fighter Squad,” had much lower budget than the blockbusters he would later direct.  This short movie mixed documentary footage and Spielberg’s own footage at Phoenix Airport.  Spielberg won his first award for the film “Escape to Nowhere” at just 13 years old and at 16 made $600 screening his film “Firelight” at a local theater.  Although Spielberg was devastated when his parents divorced in 1965, this seemed to only make him more determined to become a successful director.

Breakthrough at Universal Studios

Spielberg enrolled at Long Beach State after high school, but his higher education in filmmaking came from hanging around Universal Studios.  After visiting Universal Studios during a school trip, Spielberg met head of the editorial department Chuck Silvers, who got Spielberg a job as an unpaid clerical assistant.  After seeing Spielberg’s film “Amblin,’” Chuck Silvers was so moved that he showed the film to Sid Sheinberg, president of Universal’s parent company, MCA.  Although Sheinberg said he thought Spielberg looked like a geek, he was impressed by the young filmmaker’s work and signed Spielberg to a seven year contract with Universal.

Unfortunately for Spielberg, his first gig for Universal was to direct Joan Crawford in the pilot episode for the television series Night Gallery.  For anyone who has ever seen Mommie Dearest, directing Joan Crawford might seem like a nightmare, but Spielberg won her over with gifts and knowledge of her films.

Box Office Busts and Blockbusters

In 1972, Spielberg finally got a break into directing film with The Sugarland Express.  Although the film received high praises from critics, it failed at the box office.  Spielberg vowed that he would never allow one of his films to flop like that again—and then came Jaws.

Taking a gamble on the young filmmaker, studio executives asked Spielberg to direct Jaws, based on the novel by Peter Benchley.  Spielberg rejected the novel’s heavy subplot structure for a riveting thriller with a cast of unknowns to seem more realistic.  The film that would become one of the greatest cinematic phenomena of all time was a filmmaking nightmare and a feared financial disaster.  During production, the budget doubled and production time tripled, but somehow Spielberg pulled it off.  Jaws made box office records, had audiences mesmerized, and scared generations of children into never swimming in the ocean.  Though it made Spielberg a millionaire, more importantly (according to narrator Peter Graves) it made Spielberg a respected filmmaker.  

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