Let’s say you’re a crew worker in Hollywood and Steven Spielberg comes up to you on set and asks to borrow your script for a moment because he locked his in his car.
A.) Say “sure thing” and loan him your copy.
B.) Snatch the script out of his hands and say, “Get your own.”
If you chose B.) today you could reasonably expect those ghosts from the lost Ark of the Covenant to show up and shoot lightning through your chest until your face melts. But back before Spielberg was Spielberg, this was precisely the scenario that played out on his first paid gig — an installment of the anthology show Night Gallery in 1969, starring Joan Crawford. (The program was a sort of updated version of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.)
In the current issue of EW, Spielberg tells stories from throughout his entire filmography, but in this online-only excerpt he dives deep into his early years, when he was just a “pre-teen”-looking kid from Arizona, hustling around Hollywood with a projector in a suitcase and an armload of short films.
Once he got that first job on the NBC TV show, things got really tough.
We start with Amblin’, his 1968 short film – largely a silent movie with folk-guitar music – about a girl and a guy hitchhiking their way through the desert to Pacific Ocean.
Was Amblin’ just a calling card, or was there somewhere it would be shown? There was no Sundance in those days.
As I would often do with my 8mm films, I would bundle the pictures in a briefcase and literally carry my projector over to somebody’s office. It was like I was a very young Willy Loman; boxing up my wares and going from studio office to studio office. Not a lot, but maybe 10 percent of the producers that I tried to get to see my films did see my films.
Was Amblin’ your first try at something that wasn’t just a home movie or student film?
No, Amblin’ was my second 35mm film. My first 35mm short film about a bicycle race starring Tony Bill… I couldn’t raise the rest of the money and it was only half finished when I ran out of money. It remains half finished. I never could raise the funds.
Maybe someday you could get a little money together and go back!
What did it cost to make a short film in those days?
This guy who ran an optical effects house called CineFX, Dennis [Hoffman], was the one that believed in the script I had written and believed in me, and gave me $10,000 to go off and shoot. It was big money in 1968.
How did this lead to you getting your break?
Dennis, who wanted to be a producer, took the film as his own calling card around town to get it shown. It was shown unbeknownst to me to Sid Sheinberg [a Universal television executive, and later head of the studio].
He gave you your first paid job – an installment in Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. [A segment called ‘Eyes’ starring Crawford as a rich blind woman who buys the eyes of poor man, played by Happy Days actor Tom Bosley.]
It was my first professional job. I had never been paid in my life to make a movie or a television show, and that was my first professional job.
NEXT: Spielberg sees trouble…