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A Look Back at Steven Spielberg at the Height of His Powers

Let’s take a look back at a kinder, gentler, weirder Steven Spielberg.

This is going to be a Steven Spielberg year. Throughout 2015, his presence will be felt, through films he directed, produced, or simply inspired. He is currently wrapping up his Cold War thriller, tentatively titled St. James Place. It has a script by the Coen brothers and stars Tom Hanks. Alan Alda is going to be in this movie. It’s the kind of film we expect Spielberg to make these days — respectable, interesting, solid. Maybe a little boring. Munich and Lincoln have proven that he’s still capable of making really exciting, interesting work, and this film certainly sounds better than Tintin and War Horse.

St. James Place is due out in October. This summer, the new sequel/reboot Jurassic World (which he is executive-producing) and a remake of Poltergeist (Spielberg has no direct involvement) will both hit theaters. Jurassic World stars Chris Pratt and has the same plot as Alien: Resurrection — so that breaks about even, if we’re guessing about its quality ahead of time.

The Poltergeist remake, according to star Sam Rockwell, is a 3-D kids’ movie, focusing on the son instead of the parents. This sounds dicier.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCmAaNk_iIQ

As you may have heard, 2015 will also see the release of J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens. This is the first Star Wars film to be directed by someone other than George Lucas since Return of the Jedi in 1983.

Before Lucas chose Richard Marquand to direct Return of the Jedi, he had intended for Spielberg to helm the final chapter of the trilogy. This period — 1981-83 — was an interesting time for Spielberg. Today, his name conjures up all these various elements of Hollywood filmmaking — CGI, respectful message pictures, Tom Cruise’s dad period, and Tom Hanks (guys named Tom in general?). We forget that before all of that he was a little more human — an auteur who liked to swing big. And this iteration of Spielberg was at the height of his powers for two years in the early ’80s. Let’s take a look back at a kinder, gentler, weirder Steven Spielberg.

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This period of Spielberg, storytelling-wise, is defined by ambiguity. He was very good at creating tension and suspense, very good at character and at complex visual staging. His signature shot was the face of a character the audience identifies with, looking on in awed silence.

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He was less successful at comedy — the best jokes from Spielberg are always either sight gags or found in performance. He had a hard time even implying romance, to say nothing of sex. He was more comfortable in the dynamics of childhood and parenthood. He was better at being scary than most horror directors. The movies from this period are mainstream and triumphant, but are full of odd time signatures and asides. Three-act structures didn’t apply to Spielberg — even when the movies felt like classic Hero’s Journey stories, they never fit the mold. He was the ultimate populist — his movies manipulated the audience without ever making them feel manhandled. You were in the hands of a master who cared about you, and he used this leverage to take the audience to odd places.

Spielberg entered 1981 needing a boost. After the commercial and critical failure of 1941, he was a little shaken. In 2008, in an interview for the Raiders of the Lost Ark DVD re-release, he said, “I was desperate when I made Raiders … because I was coming off a movie that went wildly over budget and schedule … So I was ready to turn over a new leaf, and Raiders was my chance to prove to myself that I could make a movie responsibly, economically.”

Spielberg and George Lucas conceived of Raiders during a 1977 vacation in Hawaii. The duo later brought on screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. Harrison Ford was cast after Lucas showed Spielberg an early cut of The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas wasn’t just working on producing Empire and Raiders at the time, he was building his own studio with multiple technical wings made from the enormous licensing fortune he’d made from the Star Wars franchise.

Perhaps no other relationship in modern Hollywood history had a bigger cultural impact than the one between Spielberg and Lucas. Together they shaped the imaginations of generations of young moviegoers, while offscreen they bucked against the traditional bodies that governed their professions — Lucas feuded with the Directors Guild and eventually quit, while Spielberg dueled with ratings boards.

Spielberg was also beginning to produce for other filmmakers. He made two early films with 1941 screenwriter Robert Zemeckis (with whom he would work frequently), as well as the Michael Apted–directed John Belushi vehicle Continental Divide. Spielberg was planning a sequel for Close Encounters of the Third Kind that he wanted to only produce, called Night Skies. The story was about a family living in a house being attacked by aliens. Spielberg went as far as to hire writers and designers. The seeds of this project eventually split into the ideas for both E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist. A marquee on a movie theater in the Spielberg-produced Gremlins advertises two films: Watch the Skies and A Boy’s Life, both abandoned titles for E.T.

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E.T. came out of Spielberg’s urge to make something closer to the “spirituality of Close Encounters” than Raiders and 1941. He succeeded. Despite its reputation as one of the great kids’ films, it has some grit to it, especially in the moments when the shadowy government guys show up. The NASA-look-alike suits coming through the window is still scary — horrifying in a child’s nightmare kind of way. There is a different, more terrestrial kind of darkness that E.T. finds, just like Close Encounters, focusing on Spielberg’s original wound: his parents’ divorce when he was 19.

Close Encounters is about aliens, but it’s an alien story told by a child of divorce. All the fights between Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr feel lived-in — in a way that very little relationship stuff in Spielberg is. The house that Dreyfuss and Garr live in feels like the disorganized, only-one-room-clean, going-through-a-divorce house so many of us are familiar with.

E.T. is a thematic sequel, with Dee Wallace replacing Teri Garr, following the kids as they leave Dreyfuss. The alien stuff, the government paranoia stuff, and the heartstring-pulling, good cry that the country clearly wanted — it’s all there. But watching it with the subject of divorce looming over nearly every film in Spielberg’s oeuvre, there’s a raw nerve buried under the schmaltz.

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Spielberg the writer is an interesting figure. He’s practically invisible next to Spielberg the director-producer. The films he has written make up a short list: early works Amblin’ and The Sugarland Express, his posthumous adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the personal statement of Close Encounters, and back-to-back 1982 releases E.T. and Poltergeist.

He has “story” credit on The Goonies and the obscure Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies. That’s really it. Outside of A.I., a tribute to a dead friend, Spielberg hasn’t written anything (that he’s taken credit for; he is rumored to have done punch-up on pretty much every movie he’s made) since 1985 — only a fraction of his 20-plus directorial credits.

Melissa Mathison has sole screenwriting credit on E.T., but the story was Spielberg’s. Poltergeist, on the other hand, has two separate writing credits for Spielberg, in addition to his producer credit. Spielberg, along with Michael Grais and Mark Victor, wrote Poltergeist thinking that — unsure of his own facility with horror — someone else would have to direct it. Spielberg chose Tobe Hooper.

Hooper directed the 1974 classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as the 1986 sequel. These are the films he’s most famous for. They are savage, mordant movies. The original Texas Chainsaw is lean and raw, full of moments that jab at the unconscious, in what Hooper described in Adam Simon’s documentary The American Nightmare as a “harmonic” way. It is a nightmare in a way few films are, but has a stillness none of the films that it inspired (or even Hooper’s other work) possessed.

Spielberg was a big fan, as were Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott.1 Spielberg might have selected Hooper for Poltergeist because of an affinity for the films he made after Chainsaw, though. Hooper’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, made for television, and his feature The Funhouse both feature young kids obsessed with horror — the Universal monsters kind — who are then exposed to horror in their own lives.


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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a big influence on both Taxi Driver and Alien.

Poltergeist, the story of a supernatural intrusion into a suburban home, tied directly into Spielberg’s childhood in Arizona. It is of a piece with both Spielberg’s subsumed criticism of America as a concept and Hooper’s ability to show the yawning violence underneath surface pleasantries (think about how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre starts off with a newscast about grave-robbing, followed by mentions of a gas shortage and political unrest).

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The story of Carol Anne being sucked into the ether and the need to bring her back is a container for two things: a special-effects showcase and a critique of American consumerism. A lot of writing about Poltergeist says the house is built on a Native American burial ground, an issue that is dismissed in the film. The graveyard is just a graveyard that’s been moved.

It raises all sorts of ideas through suggestion: The Freeling family is depicted as a young couple buying into an idea of a lifestyle built on death; Craig T. Nelson is reading a book on Ronald Reagan, in bed, as his wife smokes pot, hiding it from their kids; the line “Now reach back into our past, when you used to have an open mind”; “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing over a distorted TV image, cutting hard to static.

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The TV as an entranceway for evil. It’s not a huge leap to see that the evil isn’t ghosts, but the life the family has bought into. Even after the house has been exorcised and is “clean,” the Freelings still have to leave, because there is no clean way to buy into America. There’s no offset purchase.

While waiting to begin E.T., Spielberg was on the set of Poltergeist nearly every day of the shoot, and shot many of the second-unit effects himself. A lot of press for the film at the time implied his outright takeover of the set. Hooper believes that it comes from a journalist visiting the set on a day when Spielberg was shooting second unit. There has even been an implication that Spielberg and his producing partner Frank Marshall had planted the idea because Spielberg’s name was a far bigger draw than Hooper’s.

Spielberg was inarguably hands-on. As producer and writer, he was clearly the one in charge. That does interesting things to casts and crews, who are unsure of whose word to follow, especially in conflict. The mixed messages of the most successful director in Hollywood and the man he hired to do the same job might have been enough to plant the idea. The DGA then investigated, and Spielberg wrote an open apology to Hooper concerning the press. True or not, the rumor had a negative impact on Hooper’s career.

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E.T. and Poltergeist were released within a week of one another in the summer of 1982. They dominated the box office and the zeitgeist. Other movies, including downer masterworks Blade Runner and The Thing, were unable to compete. Spielberg likes to double up on releases, and would do so for the rest of his career.2


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Last Crusade and Always in ’89, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in ’93, Lost World and Amistad in ’97, Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can in ’02, War of the Worlds and Munich in ’05, and Tintin and War Horse in ’11.

Poltergeist and E.T. are the two poles of Spielberg as an artistic voice — lightness and darkness.  Each successive pairing seemed to show a bifurcation of that voice instead of different variations of it. Serious and entertaining, blockbuster and message, popular and respectable. It felt like neither state could coexist in the same picture, and it has only been to his detriment.

Poltergeist was originally given a R rating, which was changed to PG after Spielberg and Hooper challenged the MPAA. Future Spielberg productions like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins would be given the newly minted PG-13 rating. They were violent enough to get an R, but Spielberg’s unimpeachable box office heft forced the association’s hand.

Around the same time as E.T. and Poltergeist were in production, George Lucas asked Spielberg to direct the third Star Wars film, then called Revenge of the Jedi. Due to Lucas’s decision to drop out of the DGA (he clashed with it over not running credits at the beginning of Empire), as well as Spielberg’s clash with the guild over Poltergeist, Spielberg was barred from working on the film.

Lucas pursued David Cronenberg, who says he barely finished his phone call with Lucasfilm before being nixed, as well as David Lynch. Lucas ended up selecting Eye of the Needle director Richard Marquand. Lucas, like on Raiders, had shot much of the second unit on (the renamed) Return of the Jedi uncredited, and reportedly micromanaged much of Marquand’s work. Marquand compared it to directing Hamlet with Shakespeare in the wings.

In retrospect, the film is mostly discussed as Lucas’s film, with the director seen as a hired hand. Spielberg and Lucas would work together again, on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It was Spielberg’s last foray into action for action’s sake. He paired his strongest directing skill with a script that never carried the heft of the original film in the series.

After Temple of Doom, Spielberg would change how he made films. He would make The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun — movies about serious subjects, approached seriously. These films are good, and even at his least engaging he’s still immensely talented (even The Terminal will get you if you leave it on).

What they are is self-conscious. They reek of “maturity” — they feel like Oscar films. He would make good and bad films after Empire of the Sun, but his peak, fueled by a kind of audacious self-assuredness, had passed. Spielberg was now a respectable chronicler of history, and a crowd-pleasing entertainer, producer, and mogul.

We can look back at this period, 1981-83, as the time when Spielberg could have chosen a different path and become a more singular filmmaker. Instead, he became “Steven Spielberg.” I can’t imagine he minds much.

Sean Witzke (@switzke) is a writer and cohost of the Travis Bickle on the Riviera movie podcast. You can listen to his special episode on Spielberg here.