#209 Steven Spielberg A Biography

Summary Notes


In the podcast episode, the host delves into the life and career of iconic filmmaker Steven Spielberg, drawing insights from Joseph McBride's biography "Steven Spielberg: A Biography" and an HBO Max documentary. Spielberg's unwavering commitment to filmmaking, which began at age twelve, is highlighted as a key to his enduring success. His early determination, monomaniacal dedication, and the ability to envision his future achievements set the stage for a remarkable career. Spielberg's close relationships and collaborations with contemporaries like George Lucas, coupled with his constant questioning of industry norms, propelled him to redefine the filmmaking landscape. His business acumen, underscored by lucrative deals such as receiving 2% of Universal Studios theme park ticket revenues, further cemented his status as a Hollywood powerhouse. Despite challenges and failures, such as the initial struggles with "Jaws" and the flop of "1941," Spielberg's resourcefulness and ability to adapt under pressure led to monumental successes like "E.T." and "Jurassic Park." The episode also touches on Spielberg's personal growth, learning to balance his professional ambition with the importance of family, and his philosophy of making life an adventure.

Summary Notes

Early Ambitions and Consistent Goals

  • Spielberg's filmmaking career was a serious pursuit from age 12, not merely a hobby.
  • He envisioned winning an Oscar at a young age, indicating his early confidence and clarity of purpose.
  • His longevity in the industry (62 years) is a testament to his dedication and focus.

"I've been really serious about filmmaking as a career since I was twelve years old, Spielberg said. I don't excuse those early years as a hobby."

This quote underlines Spielberg's early commitment to filmmaking, emphasizing that even his childhood years were not just for fun but part of a lifelong career trajectory.

Influence of George Lucas and Mutual Success

  • Spielberg and Lucas met in their early twenties and fostered a lifelong friendship and collaboration.
  • Lucas's biography inspired Speaker A, especially Lucas's questioning of the conventional filmmaking process.
  • Lucas's self-investment is paralleled in Spielberg's career.

"George Lucas unapologetically invested in what he believed in most: himself."

The quote reflects the mindset of both Lucas and Spielberg, highlighting their self-belief and willingness to invest in their own visions, which contributed to their success.

Preparation for the Biography Discussion

  • The biography of Steven Spielberg by Joseph McBride is comprehensive, with interviews from over 325 people.
  • The book details Spielberg's life up to the completion of Schindler's List and Jurassic Park.
  • Speaker A combined reading the biography with watching a documentary and taking extensive notes.

No verbatim quote provided for this section.

Spielberg's Lucrative Business Deals and Nonlinear Success

  • Spielberg's deal with Universal Studios resembles Coco Chanel's profitable contract for Chanel No. 5.
  • These deals highlight the financial acumen and foresight of successful individuals.
  • Spielberg's passion for movies unlocked unforeseen lucrative opportunities, demonstrating the nonlinear nature of success.

"Spielberg had this passion for movies that started when he was twelve years old. He had no idea what opportunities him pursuing that passion over multiple decades could unlock in the future."

This quote connects Spielberg's early passion for film to the unexpected opportunities it later created, such as his profitable deal with Universal Studios, illustrating the unpredictable trajectory of pursuing one's passion.

Spielberg's Early Life and Monomaniacal Dedication

  • Spielberg, known as Steve Spielberg in his youth, was single-mindedly focused on filmmaking to the exclusion of typical teenage activities.
  • His early dedication foreshadowed his later success and is a recurring theme in the biography and documentary.
  • Spielberg recognized his filmmaking pursuits as a future career, not just a hobby, from an early age.

"I was more or less a boy with a passion for a hobby that grew out of control and somewhat consumed me."

The quote highlights Spielberg's intense focus on filmmaking, which dominated his life from a young age and shaped his identity and career path.

Family Dynamics and Influence on Spielberg's Work

  • Spielberg's household operated like a studio, with his mother and siblings supporting his filmmaking.
  • His mother's permissive attitude allowed him to prioritize his passion over school.
  • Spielberg's films often reflect themes of family uncertainty and absentee fathers, influenced by his parents' divorce and his relationship with his father.

No verbatim quote provided for this section.

Spielberg's Approach to Filmmaking and Use of Technology

  • Spielberg identified with his audience, creating films he wanted to see himself.
  • His investment in cutting-edge technology, such as CGI in Jurassic Park, was integral to his success.
  • Spielberg's use of technology reflects a broader principle of investing in better methods to achieve compounding benefits.

"Making movies grows on you. You can't shake it. I like directing movies above all."

This quote encapsulates Spielberg's love for the filmmaking process and his realization that there was no alternative career path for him, reinforcing his commitment to directing.

Spielberg's Early Career and Breaking into the Industry

  • Spielberg's singular focus and enthusiasm attracted mentors who helped him navigate Hollywood.
  • His first short film, "Amblin," served as a calling card, demonstrating the importance of having tangible work to showcase one's talent and passion.
  • Spielberg's early recognition as a prodigy set the stage for his groundbreaking career in the film industry.

No verbatim quote provided for this section.

Spielberg's Early Career and Influences

  • Spielberg directed a short film called "Amblin" in the summer of 1968 which caught the attention of Sid Schenberg, leading to a directing contract with Universal TV.
  • Chuck Silvers and Sid Sheenberg were pivotal figures in Spielberg's early career.
  • Spielberg was possibly the youngest filmmaker to be contracted by a major studio at the age of 21.

"Spielberg did manage to direct an independent short film called Amblin in the summer of 1968, several months after his 21st birthday." "So that's Chuck Silvers and Sid Sheenberg are the important characters."

These quotes highlight the early milestones in Spielberg's career, including the creation of "Amblin" and the influence of Chuck Silvers and Sid Sheenberg.

Spielberg's Personal Background

  • Spielberg had an unhappy childhood due to his parents' marriage issues and experiencing anti-Semitism.
  • His mother described him as not cuddly and scary, and his father's workaholic personality influenced him.
  • Spielberg's mother gave him freedom and did not impose adulthood upon him, inspiring his affinity for Peter Pan.

"Not only the dissolution of his parents marriage, they're fighting all the time, but also they kept moving around." "Stephen wasn't exactly cuddly. He was scary."

These quotes reflect Spielberg's challenging upbringing and the personality traits he developed as a result of his family dynamics.

Spielberg's Creative Philosophy

  • Spielberg believed in creating his own world if he didn't like the reality he was living in.
  • He embellished his life through storytelling and sometimes lied about his age to appear more impressive.
  • Spielberg's personal experiences influenced his films, as seen in "Catch Me If You Can."

"I never felt life was good enough, so I had to embellish it." "But just this whole theme of like, I don't like my life, I'm going to create it, even if I have to lie and bend the truth is definitely something that appears in the life story of Steven Spielberg."

The quotes capture Spielberg's approach to coping with dissatisfaction by creating his own reality, both in life and in his filmmaking.

Spielberg's Film Knowledge and Influence

  • Spielberg has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and applied classic techniques to his work.
  • He was influenced by filmmakers like David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock.
  • Spielberg's films often pay homage to the movies he watched as a child.

"He's like, oh, I like that idea. In fact, I will take that exact same shot." "The movies that impressed Stephen the most when he was a boy were two epics directed by David Lean, the bridge on the River Kwai and the Lawrence of Arabia."

These quotes illustrate Spielberg's deep understanding of film history and his practice of integrating classic cinematic techniques into his own movies.

Spielberg's Early Apprenticeship at Universal

  • Spielberg began his apprenticeship at Universal in 1964, mentored by Chuck Silvers.
  • He created his own curriculum, learning from various departments on the lot.
  • Spielberg's passion and ambition were evident to those he encountered.

"Steven was such a delight. He said that energy, not only that impressed me, but with Steven, nothing was impossible." "Spielberg began his apprenticeship at Hollywood, at Universal in the summer of 1964."

These quotes underscore Spielberg's early drive and the unconventional path he took to learn filmmaking through hands-on experience at Universal.

The "Movie Brats" and Hollywood Transformation

  • Spielberg was part of a group of young filmmakers known as the "movie brats" who were determined to make their mark in Hollywood.
  • This group included George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola.
  • They challenged the nepotistic studio system and brought a new passion to filmmaking.

"Spielberg vividly remembers how he and such other self starters... had to chisel and dynamite their way into a profession that never really looked to young people except as actors." "It took Coppola to start breaking down the doors of Hollywood for other film school graduates."

These quotes depict the collective ambition and impact of the "movie brats" as they revolutionized the film industry with their fresh perspectives and tenacity.

Spielberg's Early Career and Peer Inspiration

  • Spielberg felt intense professional jealousy and admiration when he saw George Lucas's short film.
  • Spielberg was inspired by Lucas's work, seeing him as a role model and collaborator.
  • Spielberg and Lucas maintained a healthy competitive relationship, supporting each other's successes.

"Spielberg was jealous to the very marrow of my bones. I was 20 years old and had directed 15 short films by that time. And this little movie was better than all of my little movies combined."

The quote illustrates Spielberg's initial reaction to Lucas's work, which was a mix of envy and respect, acknowledging the superior quality of Lucas's film despite Spielberg's own extensive experience.

The Role of Mentors and Supporters

  • Steven Spielberg's father wanted him to focus on college, but Spielberg was more interested in filmmaking.
  • Chuck Silvers, Steven's mentor at Universal, supported Spielberg's decision to prioritize filmmaking over formal education.
  • Silvers emphasized the importance of seizing opportunities in the film industry, regardless of educational background.

"For Stephen to realize his ambitions, he's going to need a hell of a big break. Somebody's going to have to put a lot of faith and a lot of money up so the rest of us can see if Steven is who he appears to be."

Silvers is explaining to Spielberg's father that the film industry values talent and opportunity over formal education, highlighting the necessity of taking risks for success.

The Disconnect Between Formal Education and Real-World Success

  • Spielberg, like other successful individuals such as Phil Knight and Fred Smith, experienced a disconnect between their academic performance and their real-world accomplishments.
  • Spielberg's academic experience was frustrating, as illustrated by his average grade in a TV production course despite his passion for filmmaking.

"Nothing sums up the frustrations of Spielberg's academic experience at Long Beach State better than his record in the TV productions course. He received a C."

This quote demonstrates the disparity between Spielberg's talents and the academic system's recognition of his abilities, suggesting that traditional education did not cater to his specific skills.

Proactive Engagement and Networking

  • Spielberg actively sought mentorship and advice from established figures in the industry.
  • He invited industry stars to lunch, similar to how Steve Jobs reached out to influential figures for guidance.
  • Spielberg's approach emphasizes the importance of taking initiative and networking for career advancement.

"He often would walk up to stars and directors and producers on the studio streets and invited them to lunch."

The quote exemplifies Spielberg's proactive efforts to engage with industry professionals, highlighting his determination and willingness to learn from others.

Developing a Personal Curriculum and Self-Directed Learning

  • Spielberg asked questions and learned from editors at Universal, creating his own curriculum.
  • Chuck Silvers recognized Spielberg's innate talent and believed that certain individuals cannot be taught but rather must be exposed to opportunities.

"He worked out his own curriculum. It was the real world."

This statement reflects Spielberg's self-directed approach to learning, where he sought practical knowledge and skills relevant to filmmaking outside of the formal education system.

The Importance of Long-Term Relationships and Teamwork

  • Spielberg values long-term professional relationships and teamwork, which he believes are essential for efficiency and success in filmmaking.
  • His consistent collaboration with familiar teams allows for a compounded understanding and faster workflow.

"All the knowledge we have working with each other, it compounds."

Spielberg discusses the benefits of working with a stable team over time, emphasizing how shared experience and knowledge contribute to a more effective creative process.

Paying It Forward and Mentorship

  • Spielberg was encouraged to pay forward the support he received by helping future generations.
  • This concept of passing on knowledge and opportunities is a common theme among successful entrepreneurs and leaders.

"When you make it big, you can be nice to young people. I learned from people I had no way of thinking. You can pass that on."

Silvers advised Spielberg to assist upcoming talents once he achieved success, reinforcing the ethos of mentorship and the cycle of giving back to the community.

Overcoming Challenges and Persistence

  • Spielberg faced significant challenges early in his career, including the pressure of his first TV directing job and a period of despondency.
  • His experiences illustrate that success is not a linear path and involves overcoming obstacles and continuing to pursue one's passion.

"I was in a despondent, comatose state, and I told Sid I wanted a leave of absence, and I got it."

This quote reveals a low point in Spielberg's career, showing that even successful individuals like him face moments of doubt and the need for a break.

Visual Thinking and Finding the Right Medium

  • Spielberg is known for his visual thinking, which aligns perfectly with the medium of film.
  • Understanding one's strengths and finding the appropriate medium to express them is crucial for success.

"He seemed to be able to see more than other people saw."

The quote suggests that Spielberg's ability to think visually set him apart from others and was a key factor in his success as a filmmaker.

Early Career Struggles and Positive Forward Motion

  • Spielberg and his peers were ambitious but struggled to find the work they desired.
  • Spielberg knew he wanted to work on feature films and remained positive despite setbacks.
  • His first directing opportunity, "Sugarland," was a flop, putting his career at risk.

When Stephen was very discouraged trying to sell a script and break in, he always had a positive forward motion, whatever he may have been suffering inside.

This quote highlights Spielberg's resilience and positive mindset even when facing professional challenges, which is crucial for success in a competitive industry like filmmaking.

The Turning Point with Jaws

  • Spielberg's major success came with "Jaws," which followed his earlier flop.
  • The financial success of "Jaws" granted Spielberg creative freedom in his career.
  • The film's production was fraught with difficulties, including script rewrites and mechanical issues with the shark.

His biggest win, Jaws, is by far the most important thing to ever happen to the career of Spielberg.

The quote emphasizes that Spielberg's greatest success came unexpectedly after a significant failure, illustrating the unpredictability of the film industry and the importance of perseverance.

Questioning Conventional Wisdom

  • Sid Meyer and Spielberg both profited from questioning industry norms.
  • Before "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters," there was little interest in science fiction at studios.
  • Questioning the status quo can lead to groundbreaking and profitable work.

The main idea in that book was so important is the fact that you discover that questioning conventional wisdom can be very profitable.

This quote underlines the value of challenging prevailing beliefs, which both Sid Meyer and Spielberg did to great success, changing the landscape of their respective industries.

Production Challenges and Resourcefulness

  • Spielberg demonstrated resourcefulness in the face of production issues on "Jaws."
  • Constant script revisions and mechanical failures forced Spielberg to adapt and innovate.
  • Spielberg's fear of career failure was a significant mental challenge during production.

Imagine having to shoot a shark movie without the shark.

This quote captures the essence of the production challenges Spielberg faced, illustrating his ability to adapt to unforeseen problems creatively.

Financial Savvy and Professional Growth

  • Spielberg learned financial discipline from George Lucas after the failure of "1941."
  • Lucas's influence helped Spielberg become more cost-conscious, leading to more profitable projects.
  • Spielberg's financial acumen grew, allowing him to command better deals and retain ownership of his films.

Some of the bravest and most reckless acts that we did were not aesthetic, but financial.

The quote reflects the bold financial decisions that Spielberg and Lucas made, which were instrumental in redefining Hollywood's financial practices and their personal success.

Family and Personal Life

  • Spielberg's personal life and family are deeply important to him.
  • He has learned from his own experiences and others' regrets about prioritizing work over family.
  • Spielberg incorporates life lessons into his films, as seen in "Hook."

Your children love you. They want to play with you. How long do you think that lasts?

This quote from the movie "Hook" resonates with Spielberg's personal emphasis on the importance of family and the fleeting nature of childhood, which is a recurrent theme in his work and life.

Legacy and Inner Balance

  • Spielberg has managed to maintain a sense of balance despite the pressures of success.
  • He has not been overwhelmed by the expectations to continually top his previous work.
  • Spielberg's passion for filmmaking is evident, and he finds joy in his work.

But throughout his 28 years as a professional filmmaker, he has maintained a sense of inner balance that so far has enabled him to avoid losing his nerve.

The quote speaks to Spielberg's ability to stay grounded and balanced throughout his successful career, which is an important trait for longevity in any field.

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