Steven Spielberg may just be the most iconic filmmaker of all time. In his nearly 60 year long career as a film director, he has gifted us with over thirty feature films: Jaws, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, E.T., Saving Private Ryan, The Post, Bridge of Spies, and Schindler’s List, just to name a few. While making lots of films highlighting the story of the underdog rising up, his life existed as a parallel in that he fought through his deep insecurities to become the successful filmmaker he is today.
Spielberg was born in December of 1946, in Cincinnatti, Ohio. His father was a computer genius, one of a group of team members who worked to build the first commercial data processing machine at RCA. Because of the importance of his dad’s work, Steven, his parents, and his three younger sisters moved around a lot, although their primary home was Phoenix, Arizona. While his father was often absent due to his deep concentration on work, his mother Leah was always nearby. In fact, he recalls that she was more like a friend than a mom, always playing with her kids and getting into trouble with them. On one occasion she brought home a monkey from the pet store.
Although he had a generally happy family life, a lot of Spielberg’s childhood and adolescence was spent in a panic, with a brain plagued by self-doubt, loneliness, and anxiety. He was a straight C student and was not the athletic type, so he found himself a target for bullies, and not so much for friends. It was this lack of social interaction that led Spielberg to spend most of his time listening to movie soundtracks, watching TV, daydreaming, and eventually falling in love with the visual image through the form of a Super 8 camera.
At first, Spielberg was making movies in his neighborhood for no other reason than he had nothing better to do with his time. He was bored and all alone, so it gave him something to do. However, film soon began to play a much more important role in his life. He found that he had a natural instinct on where he should put the camera. Also, lots of people wanted to be in his movies so it allowed him to get out of his comfort zone and meet new people. As a whole, Spielberg found personal expression and an escape through his filmmaking. It gave him control over his life and it helped him find his voice. There was no better feeling for him than when he was making a movie because it kept his mind busy. In his own words, “it wasn’t fun to be me in between coming up with ideas and working on projects."
He was living in a crazy dichotomy that lasted through most of his teen years and even into adulthood. On one hand he was making incredibly interesting shorts, and getting better everyday. He would shoot his friends climbing into cockpits of airplanes at the local airbase, and then cut them together with John Ford footage of actual flying planes, making his production value look top tier. He also had incredibly interesting techniques for creating masterful special effects. For example, he would put a pile of dirt on a see-saw oriented plank of wood, so someone ran and stepped on it, the dirt would fly in the air and look like an explosion. On the flip slide, the second the camera was off, Steven felt like a scared little boy again. His mind was beating him up, he was scared of everything from other kids his age to the big tree outside his window that would make noise while he tried to sleep. But, he didn’t let it stop him from living to fight another day. Filmmaking was obviously one coping mechanism that he found helpful. Another was blindfolding his little sisters, putting them in a closet with scary fake skulls, locking them in, and listening to them scream... I think one coping mechanism was more impactful towards his future than the other.
By the age of 18 Steven knew that film directing was what he wanted to do with his life. Out of high school he applied to University of Southern California’s film school, but due to his poor grades, he was rejected. However, he didn’t let that stop him. Since he couldn’t get into the world of cinema the”official way," he decided he would take a less conventional (and potentially less legal) route to filmmaking. He would go to the Universal Studios lot and get on the tour bus. About halfway through the bus would stop for a bathroom break. Young Steven would go into the bathroom and wait until the bus had left to emerge. Then, he used the studio lot as a playground and a film school. Sneaking onto the sets of Alfred Hitchcock movies, sneaking into empty office buildings, interviewing cinematographers, gaffers, editors, and any other crew members who would talk to him, besides when he would be caught, he had found the best means of learning the craft.
Eventually, the people at Universal probably got tired of throwing him off the lot, and instead they decided to give this young kid a shot. So, at the age of 22, Universal financed Spielberg’s first short film, Amblin, shot on 35 mm. The president of Universal Television at the time, Sid Sheinberg, saw Amblin, and offered him a seven year contract to be a TV director, stating “I will support you as strongly in failure as I will in success.” So, Spielberg became the youngest director to ever sign with Universal, and shortly after he found himself, in his early twenties, directing the likes of Joan Crawford in Night Gallery.
While he was a wunderkind, and his talent was clear to some, there were a lot of people who refused to acknowledge or hire Spielberg claiming that he was a hack. Three years after Amblin, Spielberg went on to direct another feature called Duel. A story analogous to his days of torment on the playground, the film follows a man in a small car being chased off the road by a much bigger and stronger truck. Little did he know, this film would be the breakthrough to finding his community.
George Lucas recounts, similar to the majority of executives at Universal, that he, and lots of the other young filmmakers, found Steven’s work too “Hollywood," too “professional-looking," and too “flashy." They had seen Amblin, and compared to their work, in which they were all trying to attain a rough and original look, they were not impressed. That being said, Lucas decided he would give Duel a chance. He left Francis Ford Coppola’s house, saw Duel, and immediately raced back to Coppola saying, “This guy is amazing! You have to see this film!” And from there, Steven was welcomed into the clan of Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, and De Palma, which ended up being one of the most important components of his progress in the industry, and something he had longed for since he was a child... friends.
Four years after Duel, Jaws was released. It was an instant hit. Sold out in theaters, lines around the corner, although it cost triple the original budget and double the initial schedule, it made the most money of any film that had ever been made at that point in time. This changed Spielberg’s life and he became his hall pass to complete creative freedom in his work. At only 25, Spielberg had defied the odds and become a cinema legend. But, the most valuable lesson to take away from this success story isn’t necessarily the end result. Rather, the value is in the journey of the underdog.
If you are feeling like Spielberg did, beat up by internal demons, put down by those around you, told you aren’t good enough, or made to believe you don’t belong, take that pain and turn into art. Use writing, directing, whatever your passion may be, to release the sadness and despair that you’re holding inside. Persist through the pain and use your own personal struggles to make something beautiful. And most importantly, don’t give up on yourself. Don’t succumb to your troubles. Take note from Spielberg and be the underdog rising. Behind every underdog is incredible talent and strength, a story to be told. So keep pushing, and share your stories with the world.
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Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.