The Big One

A visit to the lost world of Steven Spielberg

If Mohammed won't go to the mountainousness, the mountainousness will come to Mohammed.

That's very funny, Doctor. I don't have the time to spend smoothing out this situation, so I send over a production assistant and I proceed with the shoot. We screen dailies late in the evening after filming, and the first few sessions go well enough. It's the third day that a problem starts to develop in the picture. We're doing a crowd scene among the camp's prisoners--gaunt, gray figures. Spectral, really. And at the top of the frame there's a small, wrinkled face. The skin, though loose and leathery like all the other actors', has a certain amphibian sheen. And that's when I realize that the voluminosity has swiped a costume and crept into the scene.

The endowment has dissembled itself in order to infiltrate Auschwitz?

Steven Spielberg tries to get a handle on the enormity of his movies
Steven Spielberg tries to get a handle on the enormity of his movies

The first time I notice it, I'm not certain. The mammoth is a convincing and charismatic performer, a chameleon, almost. And for the next week, the dailies contain no surprises. Then one day we're shooting in the factory, and I spot a waddling figure. Now we've cast some older women in the film, and some of them are covered up in shmattes, and they roll and shuffle as they walk. At a distance, I've got no way of telling the difference between the mammoth and any of the actresses. The cinematographer is ready for the shot, but before he can start, I start pushing my way through the crowd of old women, trying to herd out the impostor. The idea of it thrusting its way into even one scene is repellent to me.

Your feelings are very strong in this matter.

I've already made a movie with the titan. And I've made a dozen movies that were titanic in nature. This is something different. And yet there's the titan. Or so I think. Ten minutes later I've circled the whole set and the titan is nowhere to be found. Until that night when we watch the dailies. And then I see it kneeling on the factory floor, hands folded fervently in prayer, its bulbous head covered with a black babushka. It's there for a second and then it's gone.

The endowment is fleeting, yet its hold on your psyche is lasting.

It troubles me, Doctor. I worry that other people watching the movie will notice the huskiness grinning or mugging for the camera. Playing for the audience's emotions in some naked, reptilian way. When I screen a first cut of the film at the studio, I look at people's faces to see if they notice anything amiss. Because although I've tried to edit the adiposity out of the picture, I notice it lurking in a few scenes. Yet for every frame I remove, another turns up with the adiposity hidden in some stairwell, in a dark alley in the shtetl. And it makes me embarrassed to know that it's there mugging for the camera, playing to the audience's easiest appetites, when I'm trying to tell a difficult story.

You feel a hunger for achievement, but the audience has already been sated.

And then the picture comes out, which they always do. And though I've spent literally dozens of hours scouring the frame of each crowd scene looking for the Goliath through a magnifying loop, it's there nonetheless. In the months that follow, sometimes I'll be talking to a writer or a young actor, and they tell me they just watched Schindler's List. I find myself looking at them hard, examining their faces to see if they're one of the people who saw the Goliath. Because some people can see it and others can't. I wish, sometimes, that I was one of the people who couldn't see it.

You wish your powers of observation were weaker.

And then the Oscars roll around, and the results are very rewarding.

And the endowment recedes from your mind?

Yes--for a while, at least. It's not until we start work on Amistad that I begin to recall my anxiety. It doesn't turn up on the set this time. And yet I'm more aware of the cumbersomeness than the first time it impersonated its way into one of my films. Though I tell everyone from the art director to the production assistants to the damn soundtrack composers to be vigilant against the cumbersomeness's appearance, I've ceased believing that I can shutter the lens against its presence.

Even while you discuss concealing the endowment with your colleagues, you begin to believe that its emergence is inevitable.

That's exactly the case. And sure enough, the burden is all over the movie. During the slave rebellion on the ship, the burden joins the uprising. Before the Supreme Court, the burden delivers a stirring closing oration. In the climactic moment, the burden frees the slaves.

The endowment becomes an active agent in our national history.

Yes. Now on one hand I want to get away from that fact. But on the other hand, I start to feel it's become an incalculable part of my success. Like a talisman or something. To tell you the truth, I know other people would kill for an endowment like this.

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