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November 04, 2004
Steven Spielberg decides where he belongs

Spielberg.jpg From a book by Andrew Yule about Steven Spielberg:

An early introduction to his goal of filmmaking in Hollywood came courtesy of Universal Studio's guided tour. Originated by the company's founder 'Uncte' Carl Laemmle in the 1920s, the tours had just been reinstated following two years of extensive updating; Spielberg bought his ticket during a summer vacation in Canoga Park spent with cousins.

Hiding behind soundstages after the tour bus had departed, the seventeen-year-old wandered the studio for several hours. This was his home, he decided, this was where he belonged. Some crazy kind of osmosis would take-care of the details. As luck would have it, director John Ford was in a rare expansive mood when he found himself confronted with the intruder. While showing off his collection of Western prints to the choked up, profusely sweating youngster who could scarcely believe his luck - the crusty veteran had two pearls of wisdom to impart. 'When you understand what makes a great Western painting, you'll be a great Western director' came first. Next: 'Never spend your own money to make a movie.' His final words: 'Now get the hell out of here.'

Before he did, Spielberg also met Chuck Silvers, a senior editor on the lot, who listened sympathetically to his tales of amateur moviemakmg. A pass was handed out for the next day so Spielberg could return without having to pay, and so he could bring along a few of his 8mm shorts. After viewing his work and offering a few words of encouragement. Silvers explained that he didn't have the authority to write any more passes. He wished him good luck, and told him to stick with his moviemaking. That was enough for Spielberg.

Next day, and for the rest of me Summer, wearing a suit and swinging a briefcase that contained a sandwich and a few candy bars, he breezily walked past the guards and gave a friendly wave. The hope was that he would pass master for 'some mogul's kid'. It worked. Disappointingly, it was the only thing that did. Despite virtually squatting in offices on the lot, no one among the writers, editors and dubbers to whom he spoke showed any interest in what he had to offer. Their indifference sent Spielberg back to Phoenix more determined than ever to produce something that would change their minds.

Borrowing $400 from his father, he produced and directed 140-minute science-fiction movie, Firelight, a tale of hostile UFOs. Employing mainly student actors from Arizona State University, it had aliens harassing the Earth's scientists, running circles round the National Guard, and stealing an entire city to reassemble it on their own planet. It was great fun to shoot at weekends, with Spielberg using all his powers of persuasion to have the local airport shut down a runway for one scene, a hospital to throw open its emergency room for another. Sister Nancy found herself enrolled in the venture, playing a kid reaching up in her backyard toward the mysterious light in me sky. 'Steve had me looking directly at the sun,' she, recalls. '"Quit squinting!" he'd yell. And don't blink!"'

Although it was shot silent, Spielberg had a sound strip applied to Firelight. There was a sense of considerable pride when his father hired the local cinema (Worid Premiere! March 24, 8 pm!) and the movie was shown for one heady night only in Scottsdale. It recovered its cost and came out, on a box-office gross of $500, with a clear $100 profit. Spielberg regards it as a tragedy of sorts that most of the film was promptly lost the day after the premiere in the family's move to Saratoga, a suburb of San Jose. So he should, for what remains contains lighting effects of space ships hovering and swooping that would not have looked out of place in many a Monogram or Ed Wood epid, even a Roger Corman programmer (scratch that; Spielberg's effects were too good, and in colour.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:51 PM
Category: Famous educations
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