"ALL BROTHERS torment their sisters," Sue Spielberg reflected, "but my brother did it creatively." So creatively, in fact, that this particular brother eventually transformed his fondness for teasing three youngesister into an artistic vocation. Already celebrated as the director of "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Sue Spielberg's big brother Steven has made a double impact on the current moviegoing season: director and coproducer of the preeminent summer hit, "E. T."; and cowriter, coproducer and evidently ghost-director of the horror thriller "Poltergeist." Representing a combined production cost of $21.3 million, these Spielberg bonanzas have already accumulated combined gross receipts of more than $100 million. "E. T." and "Poltergeist" have a special significance for Sue Spielberg, who fondly recalls the unique family movie-making history that prepared the way for her brother's phenomenal career. Manager of a Georgetown University publications office, she lives in the Washington area with her husband Jerry, a lawyer.
Steven, now 34, is the oldest of four children born to Arnold and Leah Spielberg. The three girls--Ann, Sue and Nancy--are 32, 28 and 26, respectively. Steven began making home movies with an 8 mm camera when he was about 12 and the family was residing in suburban Scottsdale, Ariz. He drafted his sisters as performers, collaborators and guinea pigs in these amateur film-making efforts.
Spielberg found his sisters an ideal test audience. "Steven used to try to scare Nancy and me with horror stories or stunts that were very similar to the kinds of things you see in 'Poltergeist,' " his sister recollected. "The scene where the man hallucinates his face decomposing is one I'll never forget. He tried that out on us when we were kids. He took a batch of dampened, colored toilet paper and plastered it on his face. Then he crept into our bedroom and began peeling the stuff off in layers. Yuck!
"There was also a monster in the closet. He got a skull and covered it in red wax and put a football helmet on it--I don't know why that touch didn't backfire, but it was still a scary creation. He'd usher us into the darkened closet and then turn the lights on and off, on and off, as fast as he could.
"Please don't get the wrong idea about any of this. Steven's sort of teasing never seemed cruel. He was just an amazing character to have in your family because he had such imagination. He terrified us, but it was fun to be terrified the way he did it. Anyway, he seemed to know that there were certain limits--he was a little leery of subjecting Nancy to every trick he'd try on me or Annie. He also knew that I'd run and tell Mom if he went too far. I think it became part of the game for him to discover how far he could go at provoking us, while we were discovering how much nerve we had. One night he drew a hideous skull on our blackboard and said, 'See if you can sleep with this and not tell Mom.' I don't think we could sleep a wink, but we didn't tell Mom.
"It's easier to remember us making movies than going to the movies," she added. "They were our summer projects. We stayed home and made movies with Steven. I remember that my sister Annie died in one, and I was a monster in another. I don't have too many snapshots from that period, but I found one where Steven and some of his friends were dressed up in Nazi uniforms. I think that was something called 'Escape to Nowhere,' some kind of war story. That was one of the bigger productions, and I remember everybody dunking costumes in buckets of dye to get the uniforms the right color and the collection of helmets. It's amazing to think that Steven could have gotten ahold of all that stuff--in Arizona!
"He started by creating little scenes and filming them. As he got more practice, the films got more ambitious and sophisticated, but there was always something extremely imaginative about him. For instance, he'd start out by borrowing our dolls and arranging them in macabre ways--Barbie and Ken as victims of a car crash, say. He had a huge collection of movie soundtrack albums, and I remember one time he took my Barbie and marched her to the scaffold in time to a piece of film music--I think a 'Death March' from 'Spartacus.' Those were waist-high shots, so that he could walk her along while the camera was turning. Then he didn't just film her hanging; he got her shadow as Barbie swung from the gallows.
"He began doing a lot of trick effects. For one of the films he built a model high-rise out of cardboard and then filmed it burning. It was amazing on film--it appeared to be a real building on fire. He also built himself a dolly. At that time I didn't have the slightest idea what a 'dolly shot' was, but it was very important to Steven, so he mounted a platform on a wagon or something and the movies got even more movement.
"There was a lot of science-fiction. My father was a great sci-fi fan and had an enormous collection of stories and novels. I even remember Steven doing stick figures in the corners of some of those books--you know, you'd flip the corners and the figures would seem to move. His most ambitious project was a science-fiction story called 'Firelight,' which got a special showing at a theater in Phoenix. Ann did the makeup for that one, and I got to be the 'moosher.' There was a special effect for the firelight, which came from outer space and ate the humans attracted to it. There were two kinds of firelight, as a matter of fact--blue and red. We got the effect by spreading vaseline between layers of colored cellophane and then sort of 'mooshing' it around. Then Steve would place the mooshy cell over the camera lens to get 'firelight.'
"Tornados were a big thing with us, too. All those enormous storm clouds you see rolling across the sky in 'Close Encounters' and 'Poltergeist' came straight out of our childhood in Arizona. We used to sit at the window and watch these tremendous storm clouds coming toward us. We were children of the weather. 'Look at that tornado,' Steven would whisper to us. 'It's coming right to Sue and Nancy's house.' We never could watch the first part of 'The Wizard of Oz' without getting hysterical.
"What else? Oh, the dead canary in 'Poltergeist.' That was Nancy's pet lizard in real life. Mom didn't try to get rid of it, though. What happened was that the poor lizard began to deteriorate, and Nancy decided that the kindest thing would be to restore him to a desert habitat. We had an old Army jeep which Mom got around in. That played a role in 'Escape to Nowhere,' as a matter of fact. Anyway, we drove out into the desert, and Nancy shooed this half-dead lizard back to nature. Or tried too--he wasn't moving much by that time. We watched him for a while in the proper mournful mood, and then all of a sudden Nancy brightened up: 'Can we go get ice cream now?' she asked."
The Spielbergs separated and then divorced shortly after Steven graduated from high school. His father took a job in Los Angeles, and Steven entered college at the California State campus in Long Beach. His mother returned to the Phoenix area with the three girls and eventually remarried. From that point on, Steven usually spent vacations with his mother and sisters, but it was no longer appropriate or necessary to enlist their services in film-making projects. The little sisters were too grown-up, and the brother was on the verge of a professional film-making career. Sue Spielberg found herself frequently going to the movies with her brother and then enjoying advance looks at the scripts for television shows and feature films that he was actually in a position to direct.
"I'm glad he found an outlet," she concluded. "All that teasing and mooshing and experimenting certainly paid off. It's just strange to think of how personal it all is--all these things that have such a public impact because they're in his movies. Nobody could say no to this kid--not just the family. It seemed natural that everyone become caught up in his activities. During 'Firelight' he had access to a hospital and an airport. I don't know how he did it, but it's wonderful that he did. I hope my kids have as weird an upbringing as I did, with the fairy tales and the craziness and the constant teasing. It really hit me when I was watching 'E. T.' That's my brother, and I feel . . . I feel so proud of him."