Steven Spielberg: Control freak and collaborator

February 24, 2012

Appearing at a Hollywood alternative film school in 1974, a young director named Steven Spielberg made a revealing admission.

He told the audience that as an amateur filmmaker in Arizona, making 8mm films with his boyhood acquaintances, he had become accustomed to doing everything himself — from writing the scripts to making the sets and costumes to running the camera. But when he started working as a professional director in Hollywood, Spielberg found, to his initial dismay, that other people expected to do some of those jobs for him.

Soon enough, though, Spielberg learned those people could be a great help in realizing his directorial vision. When I was researching my book “Steven Spielberg: A Biography,” I tried to pinpoint the moment when he made that transformative discovery.

I found it when I interviewed art director Joseph Alves Jr. He recalled a location scouting expedition to Texas in late 1972 with Spielberg and unit production manager William S. Gilmore Jr. for “The Sugarland Express,” the director’s first Hollywood theatrical feature. They had found a number of locations near San Antonio that would give Spielberg considerable time-saving flexibility. Spielberg seemed a bit chagrined. He said, “Gosh, you guys are doing a lot of work for me.” They told him, “Well, that’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s what we’re hired for.”

Here was the turning point of Spielberg’s career. He replied, “Oh. Okay.” As Alves told me, “He realized that if people do these things, it could relieve the pressure he was under. . . . To rely on others gives you choices. That was something he discovered on ‘Sugarland.’ ”

From that time on, Spielberg became highly skilled at the fine arts of delegating and collaborating, qualities essential to good leadership in a profession that involves orchestrating the work of hundreds of helpers. And yet he also remains an unabashed “control freak.” How does he balance those paradoxical sides of his creative and business personality?

Spielberg’s obsessive-compulsive nature helps account for his intense concentration on his craft, his unrivaled technical skills and his insistence on perfection from his crews. But he has learned how to surround himself with a small comfort zone of longtime collaborators he trusts implicitly, including editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, producer Kathleen Kennedy and fellow DreamWorks executive Stacey Snider. Such people are his filmmaking family, a tightly knit bunch he carries from project to project, drawing creative sustenance from them while demanding a high degree of creative independence.

Spielberg has long been unusual among Hollywood directors for operating the camera himself for many scenes in his films. Although back problems have made that more difficult for him, he found on his recent animated film “The Adventures of Tintin” that the small handheld motion-capture camera allowed him to operate nearly the entire film while freely mingling (invisibly) with his actors in their virtual sets. He happily found that his experience reminded him of those early days as a jack-of-all-trades filmmaker in Arizona.

Spielberg’s ability to do it all himself, if need be, serves him well. But his films are so elaborate, filmed with state-of-the-art gizmos and lavishly created settings, that he usually must command huge armies of co-workers. The ability to focus his own tasks — taking the time to work carefully with actors and respond to locations instinctively, while also executing complex compositions and camera movements — is key to his conception of the director as leader. He works decisively and efficiently, trusting Kaminski and others in the crew to help execute his visions.

Spielberg prides himself on this ability to multitask. Some people would find it impossibly daunting to direct a film while also operating the camera and serving as one of the producers — not to mention juggling the demands of helping run a boutique studio operation. Spielberg has been involved with literally hundreds of films and television shows as a studio executive and sometimes as a hands-on producer. He and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, have seven children, and Spielberg is an actively involved family man.

And yet this seemingly overwhelming lifestyle not only stimulates his creative energies but also helps keep him focused. As he once said, “I’ve been doing this long enough to know how I work best. When I focus on one project to the exclusion of all else, I lose my objectivity. . . . I fall in love with every scene that I shoot. I think something is wonderful when it isn’t.”

Although his multitasking usually keeps him in creative equilibrium, sometimes, as with The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg’s hyperkineticism can spin out of control, resulting in a film that seems like a perpetual motion machine, afraid to pause for reflection and ultimately enervating.

But when his emotions are more engaged, as with his other recent film as a director, War Horse, and presumably on the forthcoming Lincoln, Spielberg seems more at ease, more balanced, more able to integrate movement and feelings and ideas. Leadership in a director is partly commanding people. But it is also commanding one’s self. That is a skill Spielberg has generally carried off with consummate grace.

McBride’s “Steven Spielberg: A Biography” was updated last year for a new edition. His newest book is “Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless.”

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