Spielberg, Steven 1

A feel for what the public wants

From the June 10, 1982, Deseret News

NEW YORK – With "Poltergeist" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" opening across the country within a week of each other, one might think Steven Spielberg is worried about competing with himself. Not so.

"They'll each find their own audience," he said candidly. Indeed they will. "Poltergeist" is bound to be discovered by everyone over the age of 12 who likes a good scare, and "E.T." is destined to be seen and loved by everyone.

Both are superb films and both prove Spielberg is indeed the first-class movie artist his earlier films have indicated. One with an eye for what the public wants.

Three of his six theatrical films are already among the biggest moneymaking movies of all time ("Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Raiders of the Lost Ark"), and "E.T." is sure to join them, if not "Poltergeist" as well.

So it is surprising that Spielberg the man comes across in an interview as unassuming and relaxed. With a track record like that, shouldn't he be worrying that his next projects might not measure up?

Not Spielberg. He's too busy with life. He's on a roll, and a natural high.

"I've never smoked marijuana. I'm a prude. I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't take any drugs — I never have."

Dressed in a light jacket and knit shirt, with tinted glasses and a growth of beard that looked like a briar patch in need of pruning, Spielberg fielded questions from a small group of journalists in a hotel room in New York, talking about both films. But he also talked about himself.

"I used to sit around the dinner table thinking life could be better than this. I was creating little dramas at home to raise it up a little bit.

"One day I served my sister's favorite doll in a bed of lettuce. Scallions and tomatoes and ketchup, with the legs and arms and head all severed from the torso. And I took the canopy off, and there was this doll on the table that was my sister's, and she immediately did a great thing; she went into my bed room and broke every model airplane in there. My three sisters, I tortured them, but they fought back, they never took it."

Asked about the possible religious implications of some of his films, Spielberg suggested the substitution of the word "spiritual" for "religious."

"All the films have been very spiritual," he said. " ‘Jaws' would have been spiritual if the sky had opened up and a ray of light shined on Scheider and Dreyfuss as they swam away from the debris, but I reserved that for ‘Close Encounters.'

"To me light is spiritual, any kind of light that is not plugged in your lamp at home. And I kind of like mixing the two. I'm not a practicing zealot in any religion. I'm not a born-again this or a born-again that, or any more Jewish that I was when I was bar mitzvahed, really.

"I like making movies where human beings aren't the most important thing in the picture. Where there's something else to look up to. And something else to learn from."

Success had gone to Spielberg's head, he admitted, after "Close Encounters," but his next picture, the critically-debased box office disappointment "1941," brought him back to earth.

"In ‘1941' the boy in me broke all those toys. The studio gave me a brand-new Ferris wheel and brand-new tanks and a brand-new Hollywood Boulevard, circa 1941, and gave me all those toys and I think that's how I was reacting.

"It was not a crippling experience, but it was a humbling experience. And after two big hits like ‘Jaws' and ‘Close Encounters,' I kind of felt like, ‘Gee, I can do anything.' And the big surprise with me was that it's easier to fail than succeed."

After allowing the budget of "1941" to become bloated, Spielberg was determined that his next film would come in on time and within its budget limitations. And in fact, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" came in slightly under budget and two days early.

Though "Poltergeist" gives directing credit to Tobe (pronounced "Toby") Hooper — whose "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is a cult favorite, but whose "The Fun House" and the TV film version of Stephen King's "Salem's Lot" are fairly routine — it has Spielberg's stamp all over it.

Spielberg said he hired Hooper on the basis of "Chainsaw," and it seemed to be Hooper's desire that Spielberg be on the set and give advice.

"Poltergeist" is based on Spielberg's own story idea, and he practically wrote the entire script before bringing in two collaborators. He said he also drew up nearly all the storyboards that outlined the way the film would be shot and was at the daily shootings giving advice. "I visually designed the movie, in a sense, and Tobe was the director and I was the producer. You can read whatever you'd like into it, but I have a contract with the Director's Guild of America, and so does Tobe. And neither of us wants to get into a dispute over who did what."

He mentioned a similar problem George Lucas had two years ago over "The Empire Strikes Back," a dispute over which the Guild sued Lucas, causing him to resign from the Guild.

"I think it's nonsensical, and the Guild as we speak is investigating my involvement. I didn't direct ‘Poltergeist' because I was too busy with pre-production on ‘E.T.' My heart was with ‘E.T.' and the only reason I was on the set every day was because Tobe seemed to want me there the entire time."

He added that if the Guild pressures him or accuses him of taking over the picture from Hooper, "then I will quit the Guild."

Spielberg also fought the Motion Picture Association of America when its ratings board gave "Poltergeist" an R rating. The Los Angeles Times quoted Spielberg as saying that "Steven Spielberg does not make R-rated movies."

"Yes I said that. Because I'm this parochial prude. If I did an erotic love scene, it would have to be off-camera. Or if I did it on camera, it would have to be under the covers.

"But I have never been able to get involved in a movie that on the surface had gratuitous violence or gratuitous sexual encounters or gratuitous language. It just doesn't make sense.

"I was terrified in ‘Snow White.' I said, ‘Walt Disney has terrified children for 30 years. Please don't blame me for putting kids in jeopardy. Disney has done it better than I ever will.' And we won and got the PG for ‘Poltergeist.' "

Spielberg has had similar ratings battles for ‘Jaws' and ‘Raiders' as well.

On the other hand, he added some language to avoid a G rating for "E.T." "It (the G rating) seems to say to people that it's too young for adolescents."

He suggested that the ratings system is good because it's the only one we have and is better than state-by-state censorship but he would like to see an interim rating between R and PG.

"I think there should be something called R-13 or R-12, which essentially means that someone over 12 can see a picture unaccompanied by parent or guardian; under 12 they must adhere to the same rule that applies to the R rating, only instead of 17, it's age 12.

" ‘Poltergeist' would be an R-12.

"But PG really means that parents, responsible parents — and we assume that all parents who love their children are responsible — would see the movie first or at least rely on somebody who has, and turn to the 10- or 11-year-old and say, ‘I don't want you climbing in bed with me for a week. I don't want you to see ‘Poltergeist.' If you do, you're grounded for a week.'

"And I'd suggest that parents really check a movie out before they see it. You know that ‘Reds' is a film that kids shouldn't see, but you know that ‘Annie' is a film that kids will see. I think you know it by the subject matter, though both are rated PG."