Jaws), 1980s (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial) and 1990s (Jurassic Park). He is also critically acclaimed as he has directed several Academy Award nominees for best picture, winning once in 1993 for Schindler’s List–a film for which he also won his first of two Oscars for best director (the other being Saving Private Ryan). He is known for being a part of the directorial generation that revived Hollywood and is also considered the father of the summer blockbuster thanks to Jaws. He was a recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, a special Academy Award, in 1987. He has had a long association with Universal Studios and Dreamworks.
Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a Jewish family. His mother, Leah Adler (née Posner, 1920– ), was a restaurateur and concert pianist, and his father, Arnold Spielberg (1917– ), was an electrical engineer involved in the development of computers. He spent his childhood in Haddon Township, New Jersey and Scottsdale, Arizona.
In 1958, he became a Boy Scout, and fulfilled a requirement for the photography merit badge by making a nine-minute 8 mm film entitled The Last Gunfight. Spielberg recalled years later to a magazine interviewer, “My dad’s still-camera was broken, so I asked the scoutmaster if I could tell a story with my father’s movie camera. He said yes, and I got an idea to do a Western. I made it and got my merit badge. That was how it all started.” In 1963, at age sixteen, Spielberg wrote and directed his first independent film, a 140-minute science fiction adventure called Firelight (which would later inspire Close Encounters of a Third Kind). The film, which had a budget of US$500, was shown in his local cinema and generated a profit of $1. He also made several WWII films inspired by his father’s war stories.
After his parents divorced, he moved to Saratoga, California with his father. His three sisters and mother remained in Arizona. Spielberg graduated from Saratoga High School in 1965. It was during this time Spielberg attained the rank of Eagle Scout. Spielberg attended Hebrew school from 1953 to 1957, in classes taught by Rabbi Albert L. Lewis, who would later be memorialized as the main character in Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith.
After moving to California, he applied to attend the film school at University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television two separate times, but was unsuccessful. He subsequently became a student at California State University, Long Beach. While attending Long Beach State in the 1960s, Spielberg became a brother of Theta Chi Fraternity. His actual career began when he returned to Universal Studios as an unpaid, seven-day-a-week intern and guest of the editing department (uncredited). After Spielberg became famous, USC awarded him an honorary degree in 1994, and in 1996 he became a trustee of the university. In 2002, thirty-five years after starting college, Spielberg finished his degree via independent projects at CSULB, and was awarded a B.A. in Film Production and Electronic Arts with an option in Film/Video Production.
As an intern and guest of Universal Studios, Spielberg made his first short film for theatrical release, the 26-minute Amblin’ (1968), the title of which inspired the name of his production company, Amblin Entertainment. After Sidney Sheinberg, then the vice-president of production for Universal’s TV arm, saw the film, Spielberg became the youngest director ever to be signed for a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio. He dropped out of Long Beach State in 1969 to take up the television director contract at Universal Studios and began his career as a professional director.
His first professional TV job came when he was hired to direct one of the segments for the 1969 pilot episode of Night Gallery. The segment, “Eyes,” starred Joan Crawford, they were reportedly close friends until her death. After this, and an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D., Spielberg got his first feature-length assignment: an episode of The Name of the Game called “L.A. 2017”. He did another segment on Night Gallery and did some work for shows such as Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law and The Psychiatrist before landing the first series episode of Columbo.
Based on the strength of his work, Universal signed Spielberg to do four TV films. The first was a Richard Matheson adaptation called Duel. The film is about a psychotic Peterbilt 281 tanker truck driver who chases a terrified driver (Dennis Weaver) of a small Plymouth Valiant and tries to run him off the road. Special praise of this film by the influential British critic Dilys Powell was highly significant to Spielberg’s career. Another TV film (Something Evil) was made and released to capitalize on the popularity of The Exorcist, then a major best-selling book which had not yet been released as a film. He fulfilled his contract by directing the TV film length pilot of a show called Savage, starring Martin Landau. Spielberg’s debut feature film was The Sugarland Express, about a married couple who are chased by police as the couple tries to regain custody of their baby. Spielberg’s cinematography for the police chase was praised by reviewers, and The Hollywood Reporter stated that “a major new director is on the horizon.” However, the film fared poorly at the box office and received a limited release.
Studio producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown offered Spielberg the director’s chair for Jaws, a thriller-horror film based on the Peter Benchley novel about a killer shark. Spielberg has often referred to the grueling shoot as his professional crucible. Despite the film’s ultimate, enormous success, it was nearly shut down due to delays and budget over-runs. However Spielberg finished the film and it became a box office-smashing hit, winning three Academy Awards (for editing, original score and sound) and grossing more than $470 million worldwide at the box office. It also set the domestic record for box office gross, leading to what the press described as “Jawsmania.” Which set the stage for the modern summer blockbuster and made him a household name. It was nominated for Best Picture and featured Spielberg’s first of three collaborations with actor Richard Dreyfuss.
Spielberg and actor Richard Dreyfuss re-convened to work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Close Encounters was a critical and box office hit, giving Spielberg his first Best Director nomination from the Academy as well as earning six other Academy Awards nominations. This second blockbuster helped to secure Spielberg’s rise.
Next, Spielberg teamed with Star Wars creator and friend George Lucas on an action adventure film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first of the Indiana Jones films. The archaeologist and adventurer hero Indiana Jones was played by Harrison Ford. It became the biggest film at the box office in 1981, and the recipient of numerous Oscar nominations including Best Director (Spielberg’s second nomination) and Best Picture (the second Spielberg film to be nominated for Best Picture). Raiders is still considered a landmark example of the action-adventure genre.
A year later, Spielberg returned to the science fiction genre with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial went on to become the top-grossing film of all time. E.T. was also nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.
His next directorial feature was the Raiders prequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This film and the Spielberg-produced Gremlins led to the creation of the PG-13 rating due to the high level of violence in films targeted at younger audiences. In spite of this, Temple of Doom is rated PG by the MPAA. Nonetheless, the film was still a huge blockbuster hit in 1984. It was on this project that Spielberg also met his future wife, actress Kate Capshaw.
In 1985, Spielberg released The Color Purple, an adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, about a generation of empowered African-American women during depression-era America. Starring Whoopi Goldberg and future talk-show superstar Oprah Winfrey, the film was a box office smash and critics hailed Spielberg’s successful foray into the dramatic genre.
After two forays into more serious dramatic films, Spielberg then directed the third Indiana Jones film, 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The film earned generally positive reviews and was another box office success, becoming the highest grossing film worldwide that year.
In 1993, Spielberg returned to the adventure genre with the film version of Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park, about a theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs. With revolutionary special effects provided by friend George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, the film would eventually become the highest-grossing film of all-time with $914.7 million. This would be the third time and final time that one of Spielberg’s films became the highest-grossing film ever.
Spielberg’s next film, Schindler’s List, was based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a man who risked his life to save 1,100 Jews from the Holocaust. Schindler’s List earned Spielberg his first Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture. A huge success at the box office, Spielberg used the profits to set up the Shoah Foundation, a non-profit organization that archives filmed testimony of Holocaust survivors. It is listed as one of the best films in history.
In 1994, Spielberg took a hiatus from directing to spend more time with his family and build his new studio, DreamWorks, with partners Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. In 1997, he helmed the sequel to 1993’s Jurassic Park with The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which generated over $618 million worldwide despite mixed reviews, and was the second biggest hit of 1997 behind James Cameron’s Titanic which topped the original Jurassic Park to become the new record holder for box office receipts.
Spielberg released his next film Amistad under DreamWorks Pictures, which issued all of his films from Amistad until Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in May 2008.
His next theatrical release in that same year was the World War II film Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg won his second Academy Award for his direction. The film’s graphic, realistic depiction of combat violence influenced later war films such as Black Hawk Down and Enemy at the Gates. The film was also the first major hit for DreamWorks, which co-produced the film with Paramount Pictures. Later, Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced a TV mini-series based on Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers. The series won a number of awards at the Golden Globesand the Emmys.
In 2005, Empire magazine ranked Spielberg number one on a list of the greatest film directors of all time. Also in 2005, Spielberg directed a modern adaptation of War of the Worlds. The film was another huge box office smash, grossing over $591 million worldwide.
Spielberg’s film Munich, about the events following the 1972 Munich Massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games, Munich received five Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Spielberg. It was Spielberg’s sixth Best Director nomination and fifth Best Picture nomination.
In 2007, Spielberg was diagnosed with dyslexia, which he disclosed five years later in an interview.
Spielberg directed Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which was released on May 22, 2008. This was his first film not to be released by DreamWorks since 1997. The film received generally positive reviews from critics and grossed $317 million domestically, and over $786 million worldwide.
In early 2009, Spielberg shot the first film in a planned trilogy of motion capture films based on The Adventures of Tintin, written by Belgian artist Hergé, with Peter Jackson. The Adventures of Tintin, was not released until October 2011, due to the complexity of the computer animation involved. It received generally positive reviews from critics and grossed over $373 million worldwide. Spielberg followed that with War Horse, shot in England in the summer of 2010. It was released just four days after The Adventures of Tintin, on December 25, 2011. The film was released and distributed by Disney, with whom DreamWorks has made a 30-picture deal. War Horse received generally positive reviews from critics, and was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Spielberg next directed the historical drama film Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis as United States President Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. It was released in November 2012 by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures label in the United States. Upon release, Lincoln received widespread critical acclaim and was nominated for twelve Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Spielberg.
Selected Directorial Filmography
- Amblin’ (1968)
- Jaws (1975) **‡
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)‡
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)**‡
- E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)**‡
- Poltergeist (1982)
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
- Jurassic Park (1993)
- Schindler’s List (1993)*†
- The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
- Saving Private Ryan (1998) **†
- War of the Worlds (2005)
- Munich (2005)**‡
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
- Lincoln (2012) **‡
† Best Director Winner
‡ Nominated for Best Director
*Best Picture Winner
**Best Picture Nominee
Steven Spielberg’s most financially successful film started out as a novel. The novel and–to a point–the film’s writer, Michael Crichton, penned the story in the late 1980s as a science-fiction thriller/horror about man’s folly in controlling nature. Being a good friend of Crichton’s dating back to a studio tour Spielberg had given Crichton in the early 1970s, Spielberg and Crichton had collaborated many times in the successive years and Steven usually would receive an insider’s look at what was on the writer’s plate. It was during a collaboration on the future television show, ER, that Michael first told Steven about the manuscript that would become the Jurassic Park novel.
Steven read the novel and eventually pleaded with his friend to direct the adaptation. Even before the book was published, studios lined up to have the rights to the novel–with Spielberg being backed by Universal. Universal eventually won the bidding rights and paid Crichton an additional sum to port Jurassic Park from novel to film script form. Steven was required by Universal to complete his work on Jurassic Park prior to his work on his best picture and best director film Schindler’s List, which he initially wanted to do first. Spielberg later reflected that this “was for the best” as he later found out he wouldn’t have been in the state of mind to complete production on the blockbuster after Schindler’s List.
During pre-production Spielberg planned to have all the dinosaurs made full size, which included the massive 80 foot Brachiosaurus. He quickly realized the impracticality of such a feat and assembled the best team of FX artists he could. Including the ILM VFX house, Stan Winston’s practical machines house and Phil Tippett’s go-motion studio. Tippett was initially put in charge of animating the larger creatures and the action set-pieces that couldn’t be done by the practical animatronics of Stan Winston Studios.
Steven spent the preparation for the production location scouting in the Hawaiian Island Chain and holding meetings on film sequences with Stan Winston, Michael Lantieri and Dennis Muren; among others. One particular meeting discussed a sequence in the final film that detailed the famous morse code claw tap by the Velociraptors in the film in the kitchen set piece.
While in pre-production, Dennis Muren showcased a simulation of a Tyrannosaurus rex in harsh sunlight and chasing a herd of computer generated Gallimimus. It was with this test footage that Spielberg opted to forgo the usage of Phil Tippett’s landmark go-motion for ILM’s CGI technology. Tippett would remain on production as Dinosaur Supervisor–he would oversee ILM’s animation efforts to ensure life-like imitations of animal movements and locomotion. His reply to the technology that would replace him was used as dialogue by Spielberg in the film, “don’t you mean extinct?”.
Spielberg made several key thematic and plot changes over the course of filming, one during pre-production. Steven Spielberg decided to honor a prior commitment and signed Joseph Mazzello to play Tim Murphy, in a divergence from the novel, Spielberg had to switch the ages of the two children, making Tim the younger sibling in the movie. Further changes included the famed “cup of water/thunder footfalls” scene in the main road set piece. Spielberg came up with the gag while listening to band Earth, Wind and Fire in his car. As a result, Michael Lantieri was tasked with finding out a way to cause the vibrating water seamlessly. He used a thrumming guitar string lined underneath the cup to accomplish the effect. Another change was to make the frilled Dilophosaurus, a medium-sized carnivore into a juvenile Spielberg downgraded its size to create a distinguishing factor between it and the Velociraptors and to play up its surprise menace in the film. Quite possibly the biggest change in the movie and the biggest divergence in the book occurred during the shoot. Spielberg decided that the Tyrannosaurus needed to make one last grand appearance in the film and altered the ending to reflect that. The T. rex wound up killing the antagonist Raptors thus allowing the heroes to escape rather than the original ending which featured John Hammond as the hero. He completed shooting two weeks ahead of schedule.
Steven’s impact on post-production was largely negated by the fact that he had to leave a few weeks in to prepare for Schindler’s List. His friend George Lucas handled duties for him after Spielberg approved a rough cut made by Michael Kahn. It should be noted that most of the post-production work was still reviewed him, he was just not actively present during the work. He also enlisted the help of his friend John Williams to score the movie.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Steven chose to take a hiatus from filming after completing his holocaust epic Schindler’s List. Approximately two years later he decided to make a Jurassic Park sequel his first project off break. The first thing he did however was convince Crichton to pen a sequel novel to his smash-hit. This provided Spielberg with the power to justify a sequel movie and start his work. He met with key members of the Lost World production in a diner he owned in May of ’95.
Many of the meetings discussed similar things to the pre-production meetings of JP. Many of the sequences that they wanted to include were ironed out here, including a few from the recently released Jurassic Park novel sequel. He also chose a different principal filming location for the sequel, choosing to use more classic upper northwest American forest instead of pacific tropical. He also wanted to make the movie a darker film, using tone and time to set the mood.
David Koepp was enlisted to write the screenplay for the film. Spielberg wanted to do the hunter-gatherer scenario involving the “Great White Hunter”. He also had a strong feeling of obligation to return to the films and create this sequel because he enjoyed making the first movie and he felt a need to fulfill the fan’s wishes for a second. However, as the production progressed his feelings changed in that he felt a lack of meaning behind the movie and that it was a hollow chase picture.
He cast Jeff Goldblum, Sir Richard Attenborough, Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards in returning roles, with the latter three serving solely in a cameo capacity. He also cast the role of Nick Van Owen purely on a chance encounter with Vince Vaughn’s castmate, Jon Favreau, who contacted Spielberg in order to use the theme from Jaws in the movie Swingers–the film Favreau was working on with Vaughn. Spielberg was impressed by Vaughn’s performance and cast him shortly after.
Like the previous installment, Spielberg had intended a different ending from that seen in the film. The original ending in the script called for an extended Worker’s Village climax set piece that culminated in the heroes and Roland Tembo, the Great White Hunter, escaping the island with an escort from Pteranodons. Spielberg–again–changed the climax, cutting down the length and scope of the Worker’s Village portion of the plot and extending the cut time into a King Kong-esque Tyrannosaurus rex rampage through suburban San Diego. Spielberg chose the ending in order to honor the original The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–the story was the inspiration behind the title–and King Kong, with a subtle nod to Godzilla. The ending resulted in the dinosaurs being known to the public and Spielberg concluding his involvement in the series from a directorial standpoint.
Unlike with Jurassic Park, Steven had oversaw the post-production process personally. In a noted difference from Hollywood convention, John Williams composed an almost entirely new score for the movie from its predecessor for Steven.