'The BFG' director takes us through the Hollywood backlot that shaped him — before he reshaped it.
Steven Spielberg is gonna need a boat.
Not a bigger boat. Same-sized boat, preferably.
Actually, the closer they can replicate the Orca fishing vessel from Jaws, the better.
We are sitting in a golf cart beside the lagoon at Universal Studios in Hollywood, where — ever since 1976, the year after Jaws debuted — a mechanical great white has breached these depths to menace tourists on the famed tram tour. (It works better than the prop shark on the movie ever did.)
This faux harbor, located just up the hill from Spielberg’s hacienda-style Amblin Entertainment offices, was once the mooring spot of the actual Orca fishing boat that was used in the movie.
Until, one day, it wasn’t.
“I used to come out for a couple of years after I made the movie to get over my PTSD,” Spielberg says, gesturing across the water. “I would work through my own trauma, because it was traumatic. I would just sit in that boat alone for hours, just working through, and I would shake. My hands would shake.”
A psychiatrist might call this “exposure therapy” — confronting the thing that scares you. In Spielberg’s case: an out-of-control, over-budget, possibly career-ending nightmare production that nearly ruined him as a 27-year-old director just as he was getting started.
The troubles on that movie drove him, fueled him, made him tougher as he went on to make Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, and countless others, including the new family fable The BFG. Forcing himself to sit on the Jaws boat in the middle of a fake lake on a dusty hillside in Los Angeles was how Spielberg reminded himself that whatever went wrong, he could handle it. He could fix it. He could make things work.
“Then I was fine,” he says. Time passed. “I hadn’t seen the boat in five years, and decided to just come back and revisit it. And it was gone.” He shakes his head and throws up his hands. “They said there was dry rot, there were termites. Of course there were termites and dry rot! It was an old boat!”
All that remains of the Orca now are the wheel, one propeller, and the flag. “I’m going to actually ask them to rebuild it and put it back here,” Spielberg says. “Because the tourists would love to see the Orca here.” So would he. The aches and pains of the Jaws shoot are exactly what Spielberg wants to face again, kind of like Robert Shaw’s Quint and Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper showing off their healed-over scars.
Spielberg has made movies at studios all over Hollywood, but Universal has always been his home base. Not only is it the location of Amblin, it’s also where a baby-faced, teenage Steve Spielberg sneaked through the gates over the course of one long summer in the early 1960s, hoping to learn everything he could about moviemaking.
The BFG is Spielberg’s first movie released under the Walt Disney Studios banner, but its story of a little orphan girl and her adventures with a big friendly giant (played by Bridge of Spies Oscar-winner Mark Rylance) seemed like a good opportunity to revisit Spielberg’s own original stomping grounds.
While we’re gazing across the water, a tram rolls by and the 69-year-old transforms from legendary director…to theme-park attraction.
Spielberg grins and waves as the tourists try to get over their surprise in time to snap a few pictures.
“Sometimes I’m the shark,” he jokes. “I just come here and jump out of the water.”
The BFG is Spielberg’s 29th feature film, but even now, he insists he still feels the same anxiety whenever he starts a new project. The film, out July 1, is based on a 1982 novel by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl, but in an abstract way, Spielberg says he and the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who also wrote E.T.) were subconsciously describing the work of making movies.
The giant and his tiny friend Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) venture to a magical place where they capture dreams and nightmares like fireflies, bottle them, and transport them back to our world to place inside the heads of sleeping humans. “It’s a literal image for what all of us do as storytellers, without ever thinking about it,” Spielberg says.
These days around the backlot, Spielberg looms large. But once upon a time, he was the scrawny little kid hiding in the shadows of other towering figures. “This has been my Giant Country for so many years,” he says as we drive deeper into the lot. “I have always found my roots here.”
It began in the summer of 1963, when he was a high school kid from Phoenix who came to Southern California to stay with cousins. He made contact with a Universal Studios librarian, Chuck Silvers, and showed him some homemade movies, which earned him a three-day pass to visit the lot.
After it expired, Spielberg just kept showing up. “I walked in with no pass the fourth day, and [the guard] waved me through,” Spielberg says. “It was that way for the next three months: ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation.’”
For the most part, he lingered on the periphery of TV shows because security was more stringent on film sets. “I learned a lot just watching coordination on a set,” he says. “Everybody knew what they needed to do. It was very much like a team sport.”
He talked his way into postproduction offices to watch editors at work, looking over their shoulders as they pieced together shows like Wagon Train. “I told the truth. I told all the editors I was unofficially here to learn how to be a director, and nobody blew a whistle on me.”
He returned to L.A. several times over the next few years, including during his brief stint as a film student at Cal State Long Beach, and kept building on his Universal connections to develop what he has called an “unofficial internship” at the studio.
Big-name directors were harder to spot, and far less tolerant of interlopers. But the junior Spielberg did lay eyes on one massive hero in the fall of 1965. “Hitchcock!” Spielberg says. “But I got thrown off that set very quickly. I was on the Torn Curtain set for about 10 minutes before someone came and told me to leave.”
For just a moment, though, he got to watch one of his heroes directing Julie Andrews on a theater set full of 500 extras. “They were far away, and I had just come through an entrance,” he says. That’s when the assistant to the second assistant director spotted him. Spielberg knots his face, still irked at the indignity. “Got kicked off by a third AD…”
Our drive through the lot leads us to the outdoor set known as Courthouse Square. “I think To Kill a Mockingbird shot a little bit here,” he says. “There were a lot of television shows that shot here, but this is most known for Back to the Future now. At least, that’s what the tour guides tell everybody.” (Spielberg executive-produced that film and its sequels with longtime collaborators Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, who also produced The BFG.)
Above us looms the clock tower where Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) harnessed a lightning bolt to send Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his DeLorean hurtling back to 1985. “This is like my backyard,” Spielberg says. “I had more fun watching Bob Zemeckis directing than I had watching anything else about the production.” And no one was kicking him off sets anymore.
When Universal built Spielberg’s Amblin offices in 1984 in a clever bid to keep the most successful director in Hollywood tethered to the lot, they ended up displacing some other famous homes.
“Where my office is built used to be the Leave It to Beaver street and the Munsters house, so when I picked that area, they moved all the houses and didn’t tear anything down,” he says as we pass by the neighborhood known as “Colonial Street,” which later became the exterior sets for Desperate Housewives. “They relocated them here on the upper lot.”
Just around the corner, another iconic house: Norman Bates’ weathered Victorian from Psycho, perched just above the Bates Motel. Spielberg didn’t get to watch Hitchcock on set for long, but during that initial summer on the lot, he did venture up here to explore one of Hitch’s famous sets.
“How could I not?” Spielberg says, scanning the sunbaked motel set. “[The motel] terrified me, but the house didn’t scare me, because I thought the house was four times bigger than that.”
We motor up the hill and, weirdly, the house actually does appear to shrink the closer you get — a trick of forced perspective.
“Funny thing about movies: They make everything look bigger,” Spielberg says. “Actors look bigger. They make directors seem bigger. But we’re not. We’re really not.”
Just behind the Psycho house sits another quiet residential neighborhood — this one smashed to pieces by the crashed fuselage of a passenger jet. Destruction is everywhere. Burned-out cars. Pulverized swing sets. Shredded houses.
This is where Tom Cruise and his family took shelter in 2005’s War of the Worlds. The ruins are still haunting a decade later, although families of sparrows now nest in the crevices of the wrecked airplane. “We actually bought an old, disused 747 for, I think, $50,000, and cut it up in little pieces, brought it up here, and built this neighborhood for the crash site,” Spielberg says. He pauses, creeped out by the silence. “It’s just kind of scary to come up here.”
Behind the tail section of the jet, built into the scrubland hillside, are the hidden remains of another structure. “This was the Lost World set,” Spielberg says as we drive by the abandoned building from the 1997 Jurassic Park sequel. “This was the second visitors’ center, right around the corner. Well, that…that invokes some memories, actually.”
He’s quiet for a moment. “Just how bloody hard all these movies are to make,” he says.
A lot has changed since he was a kid sneaking around this studio. For one, his movies have literally reshaped the landscape of the entire backlot. The road we’ve been traveling? It’s easy to navigate. “I know how to get there because I go up Steven Spielberg Drive,” he says, pointing to a sign at the intersection of James Stewart Avenue.
But Spielberg says he’s still looking for unexplored territories. With The BFG complete, his next film will explore the pop-culture-filled virtual-reality world of Ready Player One, which starts shooting in July and will arrive in theaters on March 30, 2018.
After that, a number of projects are in flux, but he’ll eventually reunite with Harrison Ford on a fifth Indiana Jones movie, set for release in 2019. He can’t say what that story is yet (“Script’s being written as we speak”), but he wants something that will push him and make him feel as anxious as he did when he was first starting out.
“I like it that way, you know?” he says. “I like coming onto each movie with my experience not being [the thing that] is going to keep me out of trouble.”
That explains his preoccupation with the Jaws boat: If you’re lucky enough to become a giant in your field, there will always be some part of you that is drawn back to when you were small, vulnerable, and frightened. Especially if you made it through without getting stomped.
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