The Big One

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

[Editor's note: Standing at the dais with a value-pack of gold-plated trophies, Steven Spielberg seems like a public artist, a known entity. But when the lights drop low in the theater, who is the dreamer of DreamWorks? To address that question, City Pages offers the following exclusive transcript of a private conversation between Spielberg and an unnamed interlocutor.]


Session w/S. Spielberg, 3/19/99

So you're saying that the raptor--

The velociraptor.

Yes, the velociraptor, you're saying that what's frightening about the animal is that its endowment is somehow not normal?

I would have to call it abnormal. There's no normality about this endowment. Every shot, the immensity keeps poking its way out of the frame. I don't know if you've seen the movie...

We're talking about Jurassic Park?

Yes, although for all intents and purposes, the endowment should be the same in The Lost World. See, the velociraptor is a fast dinosaur, and it moves swiftly across the screen. It's a blood dinosaur, a pack hunter. But with this...abnormal velociraptor, the brute keeps lingering in front of the camera when I'm trying to cut to the screaming scientists and the weeping kids.

So you're saying that children are afraid of the raptor's--

The velociraptor...

--that children are afraid of the velociraptor's endowment?

They're pissing themselves. Not just the kids in front of the camera but the kids in the theaters. They're spilling their sodas on their laps and pissing themselves.

They are spilling the soda first, and then they are pissing themselves?

I couldn't determine the order with absolute certainty, but to the best of my recollection, both things are happening pretty much at the same time. The theater owners and the bigger exhibitors--the Loews, the Manns--they're not happy about the fluids being left on the seats after this movie of mine. These are supersize Cokes we're talking about. A lot of the kids today drink the Mountain Dew, which has a lot of caffeine.

The kids in the theater watching your movie are dosing themselves with diuretics?

I've heard from the exhibitors that Mountain Dew is a diuretic, which becomes pretty obvious if you're looking down at the floor of the theater when the velociraptor first appears. The rain sequence from Singin' in the Rain--it's like that, volume-wise. And the thing is, when I call over to George at Industrial Light and Magic to complain, he tells me that this...this magnitude is the industry standard. Godzilla, George tells me, is a big boy when he gets worked up. And this is only lizards we're talking about, who, as species go, are not your heavy hitters. George tells me that Industrial Light and Magic had to farm out the Ape's piece for Mighty Joe Young. The job was too big for one shop to handle.

So when you talk to George on the phone, you discover that the dinosaur's endowment is, by the standard of your peers, quite typical.

It's small. Smaller than average.

George tells you that the velociraptor's endowment is subnormal?

He doesn't exactly come out and say that. But he tells me that in the new trilogy, Jabba is really uniquely large--I mean larger than what the American audience has been prepared to see before watching this movie. It might be different in Germany.

Does it disturb you to discover this?

Honestly, Doctor, I'm mostly alarmed at what my own velociraptor looks like in close-up. See, for the longest time, I'm cutting and picking and scanning, trying to keep the velociraptor's enormity out of the frame. But the first camera keeps going in there, getting closer.

You feel you've lost control of the camera?

Gradually, I become aware that we're going to see the velociraptor up close whether I want to or not. I'm not telling the camera to zoom, but I'm not telling the camera not to zoom, either.

Your use of the double negative is very interesting. Though the scale of the dinosaur's corporation is surprising to you, in another sense it fulfills certain expectations.

I hadn't thought of it that way before. I should say, though, that while what has happened up until this point has definitely been eye-opening, what happens next drops my jaw into my lap.

Are you saying this for the sake of hyperbole, or is this loss of oral self-control part of your concern?

The comment, as I meant it, was really just an exaggeration.

I think we should leave that line of inquiry open for a later time.

I totally agree, Doctor.

You were saying, In close-up... close up I start to notice that the velociraptor seems to be emitting a noise. Now despite being a pack hunter, the velociraptor, by all biological and archeological accounts, lacked a voice box to communicate. Most scientists have reached a consensus on this point. The sound starts as a creaking, and then deepens into a kind of croak. I should tell you that the sound system in this theater isn't THX quality by any means, so there's a high-end hiss that may or may not be coming from the velociraptor.  

You detect an aspirated quality that disappoints you?

I'm disappointed because the audience might be disappointed. I should tell you, too, that as I hear the hiss, I'm starting to suspect that, given the primitive reptile anatomy we're dealing with, the sound is originating from the same substantiality that I was talking about a minute ago.

We're talking about the endowment again.

Yes. And despite the fact that the theater's tweeters sound like they've been slashed with box cutters, the croaking starts to resemble a word.

Can you recall what that word is?

El--li--ot. El--li--ot.

The endowment has a speech impediment.

No, no. It's unmistakable. El--li--ot. El--li--ot. And then it quickens. Elli-ot. Elliot.

You seem agitated as you're recalling this.

I feel that this is some sort of breakthrough. The velociraptor's prodigiousness is speaking, and it's saying, "Elliot." I should tell you what it is I'm looking at while this is happening. The trunk of the prodigiousness is thick and low to the ground, and the neck and arms are slender and distended at the extremities. I should note, too, that this is first-rate work. The endowment is Oscar quality by anyone's standards. The epidermal layer is just amazingly well crafted--a speckled green covering with fine folds.

The velociraptor appears to you to be dappled and in a flaccid state.

Once it starts talking, saying "Elliot," and the camera really gets intimate, the amplitude has an animated quality to it. It's lifelike, Oscar-quality work. It says, "Elliot" a few more times, and then it says, "ball"; then "boy"; then "bird."

I am sensing that the velociraptor's endowment has invested itself in developing better communication skills.

It's a very fast learner. And the kids in the audience appreciate this.

And you take pleasure in their pleasure?

Definitely, Doctor. At this juncture, I seem to regain some mastery over the situation. I observe that the audience is becoming quite taken with this ponderosity. More so than they've been with the velociraptor. And it crosses my mind that if I could separate the ponderosity from the raptor--

You mean the velociraptor?

Touché, Doctor. If I could separate the ponderosity from the velociraptor, I might have a spinoff character.

The endowment, you come to believe, might be able to establish its own distinct identity.

And I think, next, that there's no reason DreamWorks wouldn't own the sole licensing rights to the pendulousness as a unique, freestanding franchise. Universal Pictures, you see, controls the right to merchandise the velociraptor. But this walking, talking pendulousness--this I could put into a Saturday morning cartoon. A straight-to-video release. I picture the pendulousness on the side of a plastic commemorative cup from Taco Bell. This pendulousness has a future.

You imagine the endowment providing material benefit to you personally and professionally.

I have a strong feeling that it will.

Would you describe that feeling as a rational conclusion or a hunch?

Definitely the latter. I'm working intuitively, and it feels good. At this time, I decide I should probably take a break from filming and try to figure out if we might be able to do a picture. The stateliness and I enjoy a frank and constructive exchange of ideas. I discover that it likes Buñuel. I like Truffaut quite a bit. I think we can meet on Ivan Reitman. Before long, we've moved past the niceties--I like its work; it professes to like mine--and we're trying to line up a concrete project.

You evaluate the situation, discover your interests, and act decisively.

I try to, Doctor. But I think the rotundity senses its industry stature swelling. And I sense an almost imperceptible change in the room temperature. The encounter becomes slightly guarded. And so, for the moment, we agree to agree in the future and we shake on it. Then, as happens so often in the business, we move on to other movies.

The endowment is long, but memory is short.

Your summary of the situation is characteristically profound, Doctor. I start work on Schindler's List the next month. I have some thoughts about casting the colossus during preproduction. But considering the source material--the Holocaust--I just don't think it's right for any of the parts. I've seen the colossus work, and I know that it's pretty much irresistibly cute in front of the camera--which rules out any of the camp guards or the SS officers. I mean, there's a certain Jimmy Stewart vibe to the colossus that I'd noticed when it was saying "Elliot," and "bird" and "ball" and whatnot--something in the quavering of the voice. And you don't cast Jimmy Stewart as a Nazi. But on the other hand, its stature is too great to play one of the Jews.  

You have trouble viewing the endowment as a victim of history.

The mountainousness sends me an audition tape, which shows tremendous promise. So I send a note to its agent--great working with you, you've got a great future, a limitless talent, et cetera--and then hunker down to the task at hand. But the mountainousness doesn't seem to want to take the hint, and it turns up uninvited on the set the first day of shooting.

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?

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.

I think you're looking at yourself honestly, which is always a fruitful personal strategy.

So when the time comes around to cast Saving Private Ryan, I'm only half surprised when the magnificence contacts me through an agent at William Morris. And she lets it be known that the magnificence, having worked quietly and uncredited in so many of my films, would like a leading role. It's not a demand, though the threat that the magnificence might refuse to appear fills me with a certain amount of worry. Now I've already committed to Tom, and I'm not going back out on that commitment. But there's another part in the script--a missing paratrooper with a winning smile and a grieving mother. And though I worry that critics might feel cheated to discover the magnificence at the heart of this film, I've got to be true to what the audience wants, even if they don't know they want it until they've got it.

I can see this is a dilemma.

It is and it isn't. The part is there. The endowment is there. Tell me, what can I do? It's show business. Brian casts his wife. Francis casts his daughter. I give the endowment the part.

I'm afraid our time is up for today, Steven.


Saving Private Ryan is playing at area theaters.

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