You don’t have to overtax the Google machine to find negative comments about being on set with Steven Spielberg. Type in “working with Steven Spielberg” and in 0.57 seconds 20,900,000 results appear, including an article where Shia LaBeouf rants, “He’s less a director than he is a f—ing company.”
LaBeouf’s resume is dotted with Spielberg-produced or -directed films like Disturbia, Transformers, Eagle Eye and, most famously, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but if Spielberg ever does the same search it’s unlikely they’ll ever pair up again. “You get there, and you realize you’re not meeting the Spielberg you dream of,” LaBeouf told Variety. “You’re meeting a different Spielberg, who is in a different stage in his career.”
But that’s pretty much it for the negativity. There’s a story about Crispin Glover suing Spielberg for using his likeness in Back to the Future Part II and the critical drone that his films are overly sentimental, but primarily it’s LaBeouf against Spielberg and the world. Most of his other co-workers have nothing but praise for the filmmaker Empire magazine ranked as the greatest film director of all time.
This weekend he returns to theatres with Ready Player One, a sci-fi film that brings a virtual reality world called the OASIS to vivid life. Star Tye Sheridan calls the director a great and passionate collaborator who makes everyone feel equal on set. Co-star Ralph Ineson calls Spielberg “one of the most iconic figures of the last 100 years,” adding that it was difficult to takes notes from him on set. “When he is speaking to you your mind vaguely goes blank the first few times because your internal monologue just goes, ‘My god, Steven Spielberg is giving me a note.’ And then you realize you haven’t actually heard the note.”
All directors give suggestions on set, but it seems it’s the way Spielberg speaks to his actors that sets him apart.
Ed Burns remembers making a mess of several takes on the set of Saving Private Ryan to the point where Tom Hanks said to him, “I’ve seen you act before, and this isn’t acting.” Afraid he would be replaced, he got nervous and continued to blow take after take but Spielberg didn’t offer guidance. Two weeks passed. The cast started laying bets on who would be fired first.
Turns out, no one was fired and Burns learned a lesson he would later take into his own directorial efforts like Sidewalks of New York. The actor reports that Spielberg said, “I like to give my actors three takes to figure it out. If I step in after the first take and give you a note, especially with young actors, you’ll hear me rather than your own voice.”
Burns calls the experience “a life changer” adding it taught him that being a director is “about knowing when to give direction.”
The superstar director says the listening lesson was learned early in life. “From a very young age my parents taught me probably the most valuable lesson of my life: Sometimes it’s better not to talk, but to listen.”
There’s someone else Spielberg keeps in mind when making a film. “I always like to think of the audience when I am directing. Because I am the audience.”
Seen as a pair “Lincoln” and “War Horse” appear to usher in a new phase in Steven Spielberg’s career. No longer the Young Turk who made “Jaws,” or the blockbuster king of “Indiana Jones” or the family friendly maker of “ET,” he now is entering his golden age, or at least his homage to the golden age of Hollywood and the movies of his old-school heroes.
Despite a running time of two-and-a-half hours, “Lincoln” focuses on a short period of time in the president’s career. Spielberg and “Angel’s in America” writer Tony Kushner have zeroed in on the months surrounding the backroom politics that allowed passage of the 13th Amendment—“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”—through the House of Representatives. Several stories run parallel, but the thrust of the narrative focuses on the passage of this historic document.
The first glimpse of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, feels like watching a Yankee five-dollar bill come to life. Day-Lewis takes a familiar character, seen on money, enshrined in marble at the National Mall in Washington, portrayed on stage and screen*, and brings him to vivid life.
It’s a remarkable performance that blends familiar historical details with personality to create real flesh and blood character, complete with all the iconic traits history has endowed on him, and quirkier qualities—his habit of telling long anecdotes, his occasional prickliness. It falls in line with history’s attempts to bestow sainthood on Honest Abe, but doesn’t ignore the president’s human side.
Day-Lewis’s work brings the myth of the man to life in a film filled with remarkable acting. Despite the worst wig in cinema history Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican who wanted to give voting rights to freed slaves, makes the speeches in legislature sparkle with life and righteous indignation.
Sally Field sheds light on the misunderstood Mary Todd Lincoln–“All anyone will remember of me is that i was crazy and ruined your happiness,” she says—and James Spader provides a much-needed light touch as a proto lobbyist.
The glimpse of backroom politics, 19th century style, is fascinating, although restless viewers may find some of the colourful dialogue daunting. Many of the speeches sounds like Conrad Black on a bafflegab bender, so bring a dictionary if words like pulchritude throw you for a loop.
The final vote is somewhat drawn out for dramatic effect, but considering it is one of the most important ballots in American history–make that human history–it deserves the space to breathe dramatically.
Spielberg’s treatment of the story is respectful, but nuanced. He doesn’t shy away from showing Abe and Mary arguing, for instance, but the well-crafted film feels old-fashioned, like a throwback to another era when epic filmmaking didn’t necessarily mean showing planets exploding but showcasing epic ideas.
*Most famously by Canadian-born Raymond Massey, who played him multiple times on stage and on film. In fact, he was so attached to the character a colleague joked that Massey wouldn’t be satisfied with his Lincoln impression until someone assassinated him
The two-time Oscar winner has been on sets her entire adult life, from her iconic work on television shows like Gidget and The Flying Nun when she was a teen to recent roles in hits like The Amazing Spider-Man but even with that wealth of experience she says the set of Lincoln was “the most breathtaking place to exist.”
“I have never had an experience like that and I never will again,” she says. “It was a safe, respected space. I didn’t have to hide my process; hide it in the corner because someone’ s going to think I’m weird. It is the way it should always be because it frees the actors to be what they have prepared themselves to be, what they have learned to be and Steven and Daniel created this. I will never have it again. I am so grateful to have had that time.”
The Steven and Daniel she mentions are, of course, Spielberg and Day-Lewis, her a-list director and co-star. She credits them with creating the unique set environment that helped her stay in the character as the 16th President of the United States’s wife, Mary Todd.
“When Mr. Lincoln and Mary shot their scenes in the White House I never saw the crew,” she says. “I felt them around, sort of, but not really. I hardly saw anything, except the room, and Mr. Lincoln. Every once and a while I would have a sense that someone was popping into my ear and whisper something and it would be Steven. I didn’t know where he came from and I wasn’t sure where he went. Nothing was ever invasive or startling.”
She describes Lincoln’s wife, “as one of the most complicated, under examined, misunderstood, incredibly important female characters in American history.”
“Who wouldn’t want to play Mary Todd?” she adds.
Working with such a high caliber of talent allowed her to “simply do [my] work and let the pieces fall where they may.” She gushes when talking about Tony Kushner’s “extraordinary” script, the “guidance and stewardship” of Spielberg but saves her highest praise for co-star Daniel Day-Lewis.
“He’s so unbelievably brilliant and a towering example of unmitigated excellence,” she says. “Uncompromising excellence. But that is how actors work. Daniel does what we all do, he does it better, that’s all.”