2004 interview Steven Spielberg, talks Terminal, Tom Hanks and Kate Capshaw

TOTAL FILM: Steven Spielberg was five years old when he first visited the movies. He expected to see a real live circus; he instead got The Greatest Show On Earth, Cecil B DeMille’s blundering Big Top epic. Young Steven wasn’t impressed. Young Steven felt “cheated”.

Spielberg could do better, and he began making his own 8mm masterpieces at the age of 11. His first was entitled The Last Train Wreck.

It was three minutes long and did exactly what it said on the tin, toy trains colliding spectacularly. War pics, Westerns and even film noirs followed, though 1964’s Firelight and 1968’s Amblin’ are of note. The former focused on alien abductions, a dry run for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The latter is a slick, picaresque coming-of-age tale, a Hollywood calling card that also happens to be the name of Spielberg’s production company.

Television work followed, Spielberg blagging his way on to the Paramount lot (“I wore a suit and tie and sneaked past Scotty at the main gate!”) to set up office. His talent kept him there, directing episodes of Marcus Welby, MD, supernatural chiller Something Evil and, of course, rampant-truck flick Duel.

Assured chase caper The Sugarland Express was his fully-fledged debut, but it was Jaws that chomped its way into the history books: 300 percent over-budget and besieged by technical problems, it took $470 million to become Hollywood’s first summer event movie. Hit after hit followed, Spielberg’s commercial sensibilities separating him from fellow ’70s auteurs like Scorsese, Malick and Coppola. Not so much movie brat as studio hat.

Box-office bull’s-eyes were one thing, but the lack of critical respect really rankled. It started with Jaws, Spielberg being denied the Best Director nod – despite a Best Film nomination. The snub continued with ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, this time being shortlisted but missing out when many felt he was a shoo-in.

He responded by going “serious”, helming weighty epics The Color Purple (11 nods, no director nom) and Empire Of The Sun (six nods, no director nom). It wasn’t until 1993’s Schindler’s List, however, that he finally won over the cynics, his noble Holocaust drama winning seven Oscars – including that long-pined-for Best Director gong (a second directing Oscar followed for World War Two drama Saving Private Ryan).

Now renowned for mixing light crowd pleasers and dark dramas with considerable aplomb (AI, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can), Spielberg has compounded his power-player credentials with a string of producer credits. Not to mention starting a studio, DreamWorks SKG, in 1994. He is, quite simply, the biggest name in Hollywood… And he’s soaring once more with The Terminal.

Catch the full interview HERE

The Terminal makes an interesting companion piece to your last movie, Catch Me If You Can. It’s light and breezy but not without its serious moments…

I wanted to do another movie that could make us laugh and cry and feel good about the world. I wanted to do something else that could make us smile. This is a time when we need to smile more and Hollywood movies are supposed to do that for people in difficult times.

So is that why you decided to shuffle it to the top of your script pile?

I read the script and it made me forget the five screenplays I’d read before it. I thought it was an amazing idea and I had an immediate affinity for Viktor’s story. I believe all of us have felt a little bit like Viktor at some time in our lives – this displaced person in search of a life. And I don’t know anyone who hasn’t, at some point, spent longer sitting in an airport chair than on the airplane ride itself. Airports have become small microcosms of society: they’re places to eat, shop and meet people.

The tagline for The Terminal reads ‘Life Is Waiting’ – Viktor’s stuck in limbo. How did you ensure the movie kept its momentum?
Viktor’s stuck but everything happening around him is a blur. There’s a tremendous volume of travellers moving to and fro while Viktor, by contrast, stands still. There’s one shot where he’s just standing there and, as the camera pulls back, he becomes invisible. You lose him in this sea of people moving in every direction of the compass. So there is an energy to the story. Waiting can be exciting. Waiting can be entertaining.

Tom Hanks is becoming something of a regular collaborator. What did he bring to Viktor?
This was the most inventive I’ve ever seen Tom on set. He really brought things to the character that weren’t in the script, things that no one was expecting. I kept asking him, “When did you come up with that?” and he’d say, “About 10 minutes before you said, ‘Action!'” He was very physical with his body. He slips, he falls, he spins, he can’t get comfortable in a chair… But Viktor isn’t a buffoon. In fact, he’s very dignified.

Look beyond the surface fizz and The Terminal has a message, right?
It’s really an immigrant’s tale, although technically, Viktor is not an immigrant. It goes back to what makes America so great and so strong – immigrants coming to ‘The Land of Milk and Honey’ from around the globe, coming to a place where they’re allowed to dream of a better life for themselves. In some ways, we’ve lost sight of the immigrant’s plight because security is more intense – and justifiably so. The Terminal celebrates the great American melting pot.

Was it the serious undertow that appealed to Kate Capshaw? We’ve heard your wife won’t let you direct a comedy!
My wife says I’m not funny enough! I was preparing to direct Meet The Parents when she read the script. She said, “You’re not directing this movie – give it to a director who does comedy well.” She doesn’t mind when I have comic moments in my movies, like when Tom Cruise chases his eyeballs towards a drain in Minority Report, but I’m not allowed to do an outright comedy! Still, I produced Meet The Parents and we did very well with it.

So how do you balance your corporate head with your artistic one?
I don’t plan my career, you know. I don’t think I’ll go dark, dark, dark, then light, then dark. I react spontaneously to what falls into my arms, to what is right at the time. I’ve never made a conscious choice, except maybe for the Indiana Jones sequels and The Lost World. They’re the only times I’ve said, “Okay, I need to make these pictures for the public because they’re craving it.” Also, with Lost World, I hadn’t directed for three years so I wanted to do something I felt secure making. I didn’t want to make a serious picture like Schindler’s List.

You’ve noticeably gone for more “dark” than “light” projects in the last few years…
Well, how much more success do I want? I’ve had enough to last me three more lifetimes. I turned down Harry Potter and I turned down Spider-Man, two movies that I knew would be phenomenally successful, but they offered no challenge to me. It would have been shooting ducks in a barrel, a slam-dunk. I don’t need my ego reminded and I don’t need to race anybody to make the biggest hit movie anymore. I’m just trying to tell stories that I can keep interested in for the two years it takes to write, direct and edit them.

So why embrace Indy 4? Surely you could knock that out in your sleep?

It’s not for money or success. It’s for the good times. I’ve always said that I had the most fun in my life while making those three movies with George [Lucas] and Harrison [Ford].

It’s been a fair old wait…

It’s a very good story. It’s worth living that long to see!

Of course, your fans would also love to see a sequel to ET

ET was a very personal little picture. My motivation for making it was pure and non-profit based – I didn’t think it would be a hit because it was about kids and no films about kids under 18 were doing any business then. I wouldn’t make a sequel because it couldn’t be superior to the original and I don’t want to blemish a perfect picture.

It’s common knowledge that you disapproved of the Jaws sequels. Why didn’t you make any of them?

Because making the first movie was a nightmare! There were endless problems with the shark and it was an impossible shoot. I thought my career was over because no one had ever taken a movie 100 days over schedule. It was successful, but I never wanted to go near the water again.