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.