Susan Lacy is an Emmy Award-winning documentarian best known for creating American Masters, a long-running PBS series that explores American icons like Joni Mitchell, Clint Eastwood, and Marvin Gaye. When she left PBS in 2013, Lacy took up residence at HBO. Last weekend, she released her first project with HBO: Spielberg, an in-depth look at the life and creative process of one of the most beloved filmmakers of all time.
I spoke with Lacy the day before the film’s release. She described the behind-the-scenes history of Spielberg, the evolution of the director’s style, and how she chose the other powerhouse filmmakers she interviewed for the project.
Motion Picture Club: When did you decide you wanted to make a documentary on Steven Spielberg?
Susan Lacy: Well, I’ve always wanted to make a documentary on Steven, ever since I started American Masters in 1986. But he wasn’t ready for it then. He generally doesn’t like to do interviews—he’s never even done a director’s commentary before. But we did manage to interview him for a couple of documentaries we did on other artists. We got him for a film on war photographer Robert Capa, because the opening of Saving Private Ryan was influenced by Capa’s photograph of D-day. And then we interviewed him for a film on Norman Rockwell, because Steven is a big collector of Rockwell paintings. But I didn’t personally interview him until I did a film on David Geffen.
MPC: When was that?
SL: That was four or five years ago. After we were done, he said, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had doing an interview!” So I asked him, “Would you consider letting me make a film about you?” And he said yes. It didn’t happen immediately, because I didn’t complete the Geffen documentary until two years after my interview with Steven. But when it came together, it was actually kind of a perfect storm in terms of timing. I was leaving PBS after 35 years to go over to HBO. At PBS, we had to raise the money for every American Masters film. The beauty of doing the documentary at HBO was I didn’t have to spend five years raising funds.
MPC: There’s a scene in Spielberg where JJ Abrams is talking about the movies Spielberg made when he was a kid. He says, “There was something in the DNA of it that was the voice of the same filmmaker.” When you were going through footage, did you personally notice any themes or techniques that Spielberg carried with him later on?
SL: Yes, in Firelight. Firelight was a low-budget sci-fi movie he directed at 17, and it was a precursor to Close Encounters. I actually juxtapose Firelight with Close Encounters in the documentary so you can see he’d been holding Close Encounters in his head since he was 17. Now, the aliens in Firelight weren’t nice. They scooped people up and took them to some zoo in the sky, like in The Twilight Zone. But Steven was playing with special effects in Firelight, just like he would in Close Encounters. What you saw in Firelight, and in a lot of his early films, was his ability to turn stories into pictures. Even at that age, he had an incredible visual sense. And he was doing very interesting shots, even though he was completely self-taught.
MPC: He was self-taught?
SL: Yes! That was probably the most surprising thing I learned about him. He was completely self-taught! He grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. They didn’t have an arthouse movie theater there. He just watched a lot of television, a lot of Twilight Zone, and he watched, as I did, all those movies from the 1940s. He was very influenced by 1940s movies. If you look at Bridge of Spies, you can see that. He really wanted to model himself after 1940s “workhorse directors”, like Howard Hawks, John Ford, and William Wyler. Those were the directors who really influenced him. That’s why I started the movie with David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Everyone else in Spielberg’s generation wanted to be John Cassavetes, but he wanted to be David Lean. He wanted to be a big studio filmmaker.
MPC: Steven has worked with so many industry veterans over the years that I imagine narrowing them down must’ve been pretty difficult for you. How did you choose who to interview?
SL: It was a pretty heavy-duty list. There were some folks I knew I needed to get. I knew I had to get his family and a lot of the actors he worked with. But I really wanted all those directors. Obviously, I had to have George Lucas in there because of their friendship, and I really wanted Martin Scorsese, partly because I love Marty, but also because he’s so knowledgeable about film. I got Francis Ford Coppola, because he is Coppola, and he was sort of the elder statesman of that whole group. I got Robert Zemeckis, because Steven produced Zemeckis. I got Lawrence Kasdan, because I think Kasdan’s very smart, and he wrote most of the Indiana Jones films. But all of those guys were chosen because they had a professional relationship with Steven. Even he and Marty worked together. You may not know this, but Steven gave Schindler’s List to Marty at one point. He said, “You’ve got to do this movie. I can’t do it.” Marty held onto it for a while, did a little thinking, then came back to Steven and said, “This is your tribe. You do this movie.” So they traded Cape Fear for Schindler’s List.
MPC: If you could echo one message Spielberg says about filmmaking, what would it be?
SL: Don’t think about the box office. Just make the movies you want to make. Success might follow, it might not follow, but don’t do something for the sake of success. When he did Jaws, he didn’t know it was going to be one of the most successful movies in history. He thought he was going to get fired every day! Actually, when you look at all his films, there’s nothing he did that was a “safe” movie. I mean, Close Encounters really took sci-fi to another direction altogether. E.T., who knew that was going to be such a phenomenon? I don’t think any of those directors in Steven’s circle knew the films they made were going to be so successful. When George Lucas says, “We never thought we were going to make any money out of it,” I’m always waiting for the laugh, but it never comes. Because that’s really what they thought. I think the reason Steven’s movies became successful is that they come from his heart. He always picked very personal projects to make, even when he became powerful in the industry. So I think he would say, “Don’t think about success. Think about what it is that you want to say, and find a way to say it.” I believe that, too. Because that’s how he did it.
Spielberg is available now on HBO, HBO Now, and HBO Go.