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Steven Spielberg & the Next Crusade

The director with Drew Barrymore on the set of 1982's
The director with Drew Barrymore on the set of 1982's "E.T." and with Whoopi Goldberg while filming 1985's "The Color Purple." Movies he's directed or produced have made $12.7 billion at the box office. (Above, Warner Bros.; Left, By Bruce Mcbroom -- Universal Studios / Amblin Entertainment)

A: When I read the book it frightened me, because I thought this is a book that Bob Benton should do, not me. But people kept hounding me. It took everybody, including Quincy Jones, who kept saying that I should develop it. I fell in love with it, with the characters, and suddenly it became something that wasn't so inconceivable.

At this point, Spielberg excuses himself for several minutes. His longtime collaborator, the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, has come by. His dog is dying and Spielberg explains later that he is not only immensely fond of Kaminski but also his dog Larry, who often visited the sets. Spielberg says that when his own old Labrador was put down, it was done at his home, while the dog lay on his lap. "After it was over we sat there for an hour telling stories about him," Spielberg says. "But I couldn't watch them take him away."

Q: When you released "The Terminal" with Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones in 2004, you said that one reason for choosing that project was your feeling that the audience, the country, needed a good laugh and a good cry. What does the country need now? What are we in the mood for?

A: I don't know. There was a referendum yesterday. It was really against the Iraq war. And the country spoke and everybody is listening. And the country has done a miraculous thing. It is rewriting itself. I don't know how to write to that. I wouldn't play to that. I'm part of that. To me that is separate to art, to storytelling. I don't plan to create a movie voicing this. I tend to compartmentalize.

Q: But politics clearly seeps into your work. I'm thinking of "Minority Report" and "A.I." and . . .

A: It did, certainly, when I made "War of the Worlds," a big commercial film, and a film that would not have been as dark had 9/11 not happened. I thought you can't make a disaster movie today in the shadow of 9/11 without acknowledgment of what people do in a crisis. In this case it was giant alien tripods walking amongst us. But I'm sure the film wouldn't have been so dark without 9/11.

Q: How so?

A: It is literally darker. It is twilight. People are carrying signs with photographs of the missing. And putting fliers on walls with phone numbers -- have you seen this person? -- images that were iconic, tortured images indelibly imprinted on all memories from 9/11. That was the most obvious carryover to a big commercial Hollywood movie about aliens attacking Earth.

Q: Your feelings about aliens have obviously changed over the years.

A: No, not really.

Q. In "Close Encounters," the humans want to go up in the spaceship. Richard Dreyfuss wants to walk toward the light. The aliens are like really smart, squishy children. In "War of the Worlds," the aliens want to make us into plant food.

A: One bad-alien movie doesn't make me Simon Legree. I still believe there's greater good in neighboring civilizations off our planet than there is at this moment on our planet. So I still believe E.T. does live somewhere out there among the stars. And I will always believe it, all my life.

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