Steven Spielberg: A legend behind the camera

In new HBO documentary about his life, Steven Spielberg discusses his Jewish upbringing, his illustrious career and the movie that changed his life forever

Steven Spielberg on the set of "Schindler's List." (photo credit: HBO)
Steven Spielberg on the set of "Schindler's List."
(photo credit: HBO)
You can’t discuss film directing without mentioning his name.
Over his illustrious 50-year-career, Steven Spielberg has created some of the most iconic, beloved and critically acclaimed films ever made.
And now he has taken a turn on the other side of the camera lens, sitting for hours of interviews as part of the new HBO biography and documentary Spielberg.
Documentarian Susan Lacy has pieced together interviews with the director himself, his siblings, parents and colleagues over the years, interspersed with film footage and behind the scenes videos to create a comprehensive look at Spielberg’s life. The result is a two-and a- half hour glimpse into the director’s Hollywood career, from his first professional job at age 21 to his numerous box office hits and critical successes. It is telling of the breadth of his career that 150 minutes doesn’t serve as enough time to touch on dozens of his films.
The 70-year-old is a congenial interview subject, discussing the highs and lows of his career as well as his childhood and personal life with ease.
A who’s who of Hollywood – after all, who hasn’t worked with Spielberg – weighs in as well, including his close friends and compatriots Martin Scorsese, JJ Abrams, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Actors Richard Dreyfus, Tom Hanks, Leonardo Dicaprio, Drew Barrymore, Liam Neeson, Dustin Hoffman and Daniel Day Lewis all show up to discuss their time on set with the legendary director.
The lengthy but jam-packed documentary weaves its way through Spielberg’s illustrious career, from his first big hit with Jaws, to the iconic E.T. and Jurassic Park and the critically-acclaimed The Color Purple and Saving Private Ryan. While Spielberg has been one of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood, he didn’t shy away from creating feel-good box-office friendly franchises, like Men in Black (which he produced but didn’t direct) and Indiana Jones.
While for many years Spielberg shied away from his Jewish identity, he has long since embraced it as part of his life and his work.
“I don’t search for films consciously that have a spiritual core,” he said of his 1977 science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “There’s a spiritual part of myself that happens to bleed over into the work,” he added, saying he often “will find things that inherently have something of a belief system that’s beyond our understanding.”
In the interview with Lacy, Spielberg said he believes in God, and reflected on the role faith had in his upbringing.
“I was raised Orthodox, and tradition has been a huge part of my family – religious studies and Hebrew school and bar mitzvas and bat mitzvas,” he said. “But we always lived in neighborhoods where there were no Jews and there was a real cultural divide in those days.”
The director said while growing up he “certainly experienced being excluded and picked on and discriminated against.” Those experiences, he said, led in part to him beginning to “deny his Jewishness... deny everything that I had accepted as a child.”
But when he married his second and current wife, Kate Capshaw, who converted to Judaism before the wedding, he underwent a return to the faith of his childhood.
Certainly career-wise, however, there was no film that connected Spielberg to the Jewish people more than the iconic 1993 Schindler’s List.
“It was, emotionally, the hardest movie I’ve ever made,” the director recounted.
“Nothing could prepare me for my first visit to Auschwitz... I knew this couldn’t be just another movie, and it couldn’t be like anything I’d ever directed before.”
The film left more than just an indelible legacy – and Spielberg’s first Academy Award – it spurred the director to set up the Shoah Foundation.
That organization, founded with the profits of Schindler’s List (“I couldn’t take any proceeds from the film”), created an archive of filmed testimony by Holocaust survivors.
But the impact it had on Spielberg’s own life was also immeasurable.
“The experience of making Schindler’s List made me reconcile with all of the reasons... I hid from my Jewishness,” he said. “And it made me so proud to be a Jew.”
More than a decade later, the director tackled another – more controversial – film with 2005’s Munich.
That movie told the story of the Mossad’s secret plot to avenge the deaths of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre.
After 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the games by PLO terrorists, Israel embarks on a mission to kill the 11 PLO operatives involved in the murders.
“I knew it would be controversial from the very get-go,” Spielberg said. He noted that the film explored the ideas of revenge and its justification, leaving viewers with murky feelings on the morality of retribution.
“Munich is a prayer for peace,” he said. “But peace the hard way, peace by discovering within yourself your moral high ground.”
Spielberg airs in the United States on Saturday October 7. It will be available on YesVOD and HOT VOD starting October 8 and air on October 13 at 10 p.m. on YesDocu and October 14 at 10 p.m. on HOT HBO.