Over the course of 100 plus years of cinema, thousands of filmmakers like Kubrick, Scott, and Spielberg have created a massive body of work. Some of that work either stands the test of time, falls off quickly, or wasn’t all that great, to begin with. But with so many filmmakers, we have a virtual role-playing game universe of characters who each have strengths and weaknesses. So, in an on-going series, we take a look at directors as if they were characters in this non-existent role-playing game about making movies.
Who better to begin with than director of the upcoming Ready Player One …
As a thief, Spielberg is a jack-of-all-genres, tackling everything from deep-sea horror with Jaws to historical dramas like Schindler’s List. There is no genre that Spielberg won’t tackle, or, more importantly, succeed at doing. Even Spielberg’s worst movies (1941 or Indiana Jones 4), are still immensely watchable.
Start a Spielberg at any point, and it doesn’t take more than a second to know it’s one of his movies. And I don’t just mean because half of his films are pop culture classics. Every director has a signature, something they do that provides a particular polish. Some directors have a faint finish while others are undeniable. Spielberg movies are unmistakably Spielberg.
There are a lot of things you say that Spielberg does well. But here we’ll give him that his greatest strength is balance. Some directors do action well and drama not-so-much or vice versa. Spielberg seems always to ride the line between thought-provoking character drama and a film that has a distinct rhythm. In Jurassic Park, he peppers in Dr. Alan Grant’s issues with family while keeping the pace moving with dino attacks. In Schindler’s List, while dealing with weighty themes, he keeps the scenes visually rich, making the film glide along like a perfectly paced poem.
Spielberg’s cinema smarts are all over every movie he makes. The director understands the language of film with the same depth of power as Ian Malcolm’s understanding of chaos theory. Jaws, a simple film about nature gone wild unleashes rich, textured moments between characters. Spielberg doesn’t write most of his movies, but he understands great writing and knows how to draw out that greatness from the actors he works with. In other movies, a line like “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” Would play as a cheesy throwaway joke but in Jaws, it represents the magnitude of the problem for characters. It’s still funny but also thrusts the story forward at the same time.
Perhaps Spielberg’s highest rating. Jaws is a horror film. Close Encounters is a science fiction conspiracy film, 1941, a World War 2 film, Raiders of the Lost Ark a period action adventure, E.T., a science fiction film about family. That was a seven-year stretch for the director that is unmatched by anyone in film history. Each film different, a unique look at some familiar themes while new ideas are explored. Spielberg can slip and slide into any genre, at any time, and succeed. In 2018, he’ll tackle big science fiction spectacle to rival those of modern blockbusters with Ready Player One. No matter how big a box office it is, it’ll be a joy to watch because Spielberg knows how to infuse any film with energy.
Spielberg is as charming as they come in interviews. He’s just the right mix of down to earth and pretentious. Simultaneously, Spielberg is one of the living legend directors and also a humble dude. Of course, no one here has met Spielberg, so maybe behind the scenes, he’s an arse-hole. But regardless, he gets people to finance his movies and knows how to talk about them and sell people on the magic of filmmaking. A recent HBO doc, Spielberg, exemplifies this about the director.
There will forever be a battle between how much of a creative endeavor is taught and how much is simply understood through instinct along with trial and error. Many filmmakers never stepped a minute into a film class. However, Spielberg was part of the early crop of Hollywood hit-makers who did go to film school. Spielberg attended class at California State University (Long Beach) after being turned down by University of South California’s film school. From there, and after mythological stories of his presence on the Universal film lot, he earned a seven-movie contract, and the rest is history.
There is no doubt that Spielberg, especially after 40+ years of making movies, has both technical knowledge and a natural instinct and passion for telling stories. Even at a ripe young age of 70, he is wise beyond his years. The director is also wise to work with the likes of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams too!
Spielberg has helmed 35 feature films in a professional career which began in 1971 with the TV movie Duel. After another TV movie, Spielberg made his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express. After that, it was Jaws, and over the next 42 years, Spielberg made 31 features (and counting). That’s nearly a film every year and a half which is incredible, making Spielberg’s Constitution off the charts.
The uncanny ability to simply never make an uninteresting movie. It’s rare to start a Spielberg film and then five minutes later roll your eyes from boredom. Spielberg understands not only the language of film but the pace of a film. Like a heartbeat, it starts and keeps going, accelerating when necessary, but never slowing below the original rate. Catch Me If You Can is visual eye-candy and a film that bounces ahead. Amistad is the opposite, beating hard with tension and the weight of history as the muscles and mind absorb each frame.
Finding a weak spot in Spielberg’s skillset as a filmmaker is a tough one. Spielberg is brilliant in so many aspects of filmmaking that saying he has a flaw only means it existed in one movie here or there. Director’s like Zack Snyder have signatures such as the constant use of slow-motion which appear from film to film. Spielberg has no real repetitive downside. However, he has clung to the bookend story-telling a lot, such films as Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan include scenes that play out almost like the first five minutes of a TV show just before the opening credits. In Jurassic Park, the moment has a mild effect on the rest of the film but is otherwise kind of unnecessary. In Saving Private Ryan, the moment ties in much more poetically with the rest of the film. It’s hit or miss. Also, maybe straight comedy like 1941 isn’t his strong suit either.