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Honoring Steven Spielberg

Talking about old-school filmmaking, the virtues of TV, and the scent of film

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Steven Spielberg, who will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at BU’s 136th Commencement, advises beginning filmmakers to do what they know before getting into unfamiliar subjects.

When Kristal Williams-Rowley heard that acclaimed filmmaker Steven Spielberg would receive an honorary degree from BU this year, the 2009 Redstone West Film Festival winner was surprised and excited.

“I think it shows that being on the East Coast doesn’t mean we are too far removed from Hollywood’s radar,” says Williams-Rowley (COM’09), who works for a Boston production company.

Rosita Lama Muvdi, who won the 2009 East Coast Redstone top honor, remembers watching Schindler’s List in her high school world history class in Barranquilla, Colombia, where she grew up.

“Early on, I could tell, and so could the rest of the world, that Steven Spielberg’s films were incredibly entertaining, versatile, and appealing to everyone,” says Muvdi (COM’08), who moved to Los Angeles after graduation to work as an assistant on the Universal Studios lot. “There doesn’t seem to be a single corner on Earth that doesn’t recognize his name.”

No doubt Spielberg has helped shape the pop cultural landscape, starting most notably with Jaws (1975), which rattled the beach-bound and led to the birth of the summer blockbuster. His classic narratives, sweeping scores, and use of special effects have earned him three Oscars — two for best director and one for best picture — along with multiple nominations. He created box-office smashes like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), and Jurassic Park (1993), as well as the critically acclaimed World War II pieces Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). He has tackled issues ranging from slavery (Amistad, 1997) to terrorism (Munich, 2005). In 1999, Time named him one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century and Life Magazine pronounced him the most influential person of his generation.

Spielberg is currently collaborating with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson on The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, a “motion capture animation” project due out in 2011. He’s also preparing Lincoln, based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, scheduled for release next year.

This weekend, Spielberg will add to his schedule BU’s 136th Commencement, where he will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. The 62-year-old director describes becoming Dr. Spielberg (for the second time; he received an honorary from Brown in 1999) as “a great honor.”

In advance of Commencement, BU Today talked with the iconic filmmaker about topics from hands-on editing to reality television to the way a movie smells. We started with a question we hoped (perhaps naively) would open a filmmaker’s door.

BU Today: So I’m curious — what’s in your Netflix queue?
Spielberg:
What’s in my Netflix queue?

Are you a Netflix subscriber?
No (laughs).

Whose work excites you these days?
There are so many interesting filmmakers coming on the scene right now. I’m very excited by Wes Anderson. Did you see (Paul Thomas Anderson’s) There Will Be Blood? The Coen brothers — the same way that I wait for a Woody Allen film, I wait for a Coen brothers movie. I like filmmakers that have a very marked signature in their style and approach to storytelling and to visually mounting a movie.

What’s the last film you saw?
The Soloist. I liked it.

Many movies are now edited on computers, but you still put your hands on the film during the editing process. Does that tactile experience inform your work or is it just what you’re used to?
I don’t think it informs my work. If it contributes anything to my work, it gives me some thinking time. When you’re working on the Avid and in the electronic medium, it’s an intuitive process because you’re working so quickly. And I use all my intuition when I’m directing. But when I’m editing, I like to spend time mulling things over. By the nature of the craft of splicing and taping soundtrack and picture, which takes a bit longer than clicking a mouse on a screen, it gives me time to be more thoughtful when I’m putting the picture together. I prefer how everything is really fast on the set during production, we’re all moving at light speed, and then all of a sudden it slows down. The postproduction process I just relish. Coming into work every day when I’m not running around the way I am on a film set gives me a chance to be more thoughtful.

I also like the smell. When you walk into an editing room that has celluloid all over the place — in boxes, hanging from racks — the scent of the experience hangs in the air. Whereas when you walk into a room — and 99 percent of the people in the world cut on electronic editing bays — when you walk into those rooms, it just smells like a typical office.

Can you describe that scent?
It’s the scent of photo chemistry. The actual film gives off an odor.

You started in television. Do you think TV is still a good training ground for filmmakers?
TV is a good training ground. I think the best writing today is being done for television, with some exceptions in the motion picture side of things.

Any particular shows you’d point to?
Anything David Kelley (LAW’83) touches. Aaron Sorkin’s years on The West Wing. This was Paddy Chayefsky–level writing. I love watching cable movies. I love watching network series that are well written. I always watch Mad Men. I watch the new show Southland that John Wells does, which I think is genius. The other thing is I watch a lot of reality television. It’s a guilty pleasure. My favorite show on the air right now is Deadliest Catch.

Do you ever see anything on those shows you’d incorporate into your own approach or thought process?
The only thought process I have when I’m watching Deadliest Catch is I hope I’m never caught at sea in a storm.

What’s your advice for an aspiring artist or filmmaker?
I usually just say — it’s a cliché but it’s true — do what you know. It’s much easier to be articulate about something you’re intimately familiar with than something that you’re just learning about. I really like when filmmakers first trade on their strengths. Once they gain experience writing and directing things that are familiar to them, then it’s OK to branch out and step into the great unknown. I say to a lot of young filmmakers, take a lot of chances, take a lot of emotional risks, take a lot of risks with subject matter, but just make sure there is a center of gravity that feels familiar to you and makes you feel like you’re just working out of your own backyard. Later you can get into subjects that are unfamiliar.

Have you spent much time in Boston?
I’ve been to Boston many times for a day or two, but I haven’t spent a lot of time there. It’s a great honor to receive this honorary degree, and I’m really looking forward to the day.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

11 Comments

11 Comments on Honoring Steven Spielberg

  • Anonymous on 05.13.2009 at 9:20 am

    spelling

    Queue, not cue. Netflix queue.

  • alyce on 05.13.2009 at 10:18 am

    netflix lingo

    it’s a queue, not a cue!

  • Anonymous on 05.13.2009 at 10:20 am

    misspelling

    Um, you meant “queue” not “cue” in the first question. It’s still funny, though, that he doesn’t seem to even know what Netflix is–he sees the movies before they are even released, no doubt.

  • Anonymous on 05.13.2009 at 10:44 am

    Sweeping scores?

    I’m 100% sure Spielberg had a lot of help in that (music) department – his name is John Williams. Nice try and better luck next time.

  • Anonymous on 05.13.2009 at 11:10 am

    Great Questions

    Great questions. Love the scent of film detail.

  • Anonymous on 05.13.2009 at 11:38 am

    Nice interview. Just one picky thing: An ordered lineup, such as the list of movies selected on Netflix, is a “queue,” not a “cue.”

  • amlaskow on 05.13.2009 at 12:21 pm

    Editor's Note

    BU Today readers, you were right that the list of Netflix movies should be spelled “queue” and not “cue.” We made the correction in the article, and thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  • Anonymous on 05.13.2009 at 7:48 pm

    I love the way so much of what I read, watch or hear relates back to Boston and Boston University. That one of Spielberg’s favorite television writer/director/producers is David Kelly. And I become home sick!

  • cdanilof on 05.15.2009 at 9:18 am

    Nice interview - thanks

    Hi, Caleb,

    Nice interview – thanks.

    About nine years ago, I was having lunch at The Milky Way in LA. It’s a Kosher restaurant owned by Steven Spielberg’s mother Leah. My friend is a frequent diner there, and she introduced us. Leah commented that her former husband was from Quincy. I don’t know his relationship to Steven and didn’t ask. She was very kind and genuine, wearing bib overalls.

    Later in the meal, I looked to the other end of the restaurant and saw Steven. I had to laugh. My friend had been facing him the entire time and had no idea who he was. She really did go there for the excellent food!

  • joel eisenstadt on 06.01.2009 at 9:34 pm

    Would love to meet a special person like Him...

    I think Mr.Spielberg is a leader in this world creating films that brings inspiration and exciting imagination to the world. From Jaws to Munich. I always wanted to b Indiana Jones! He is a Jew that bring together different nationalities through his multicultural worldy films. unfortunately my Rabbis and parents forbade me to go to Hollywood. How i would love to meet a unique human like Steven!

  • Anonymous on 06.02.2009 at 10:53 pm

    I always liked Spielberg’s films, but not sure prestigious Universities should be giving honorary degrees to members of the entertainment industry. The degrees should be a way to honor deep intellectuals, not a shallow means of making the school look cool because it can get some big names to come to graduation.

    Frankly, I lose a lot of respect for BU when they’re giving honorary degrees to a guy who made JAWS and ET. Great entertainment? Sure. Products of a deep intellectual? Absolutely not.

    BU is selling out.

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