Director Focus: Steven Spielberg

Born in 1946 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Steven Spielberg first made waves with his 1971 TV feature, Duel. Talk about hitting the ground running.


Spielberg hasn't stopped since. His career as a film director is littered with classic movies from Jaws to E.T. The Extraterrestrial, from Schindler's List to Saving Private Ryan from Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park from A.I. Artificial Intelligence to Ready Player One.


Meanwhile, Spielberg has an equally impressive resume when it comes to producing films. For example, he produced (or executive produced) movies such as Super 8, Reel Steel, Twister, Cape Fear, Gremlins, Back To The Future, The Goonies and, of course, Poltergeist.


Looking at his career in film, you also get an idea of the director's incredibly impressive work ethic. Barely a year goes by without the release of a Spielberg film - and in some years we get a treat with the release of two.


My Top 10 Steven Spielberg Films

10. The Post - 2017

Katharine Graham (another superb performance from Meryl Streep), the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, has a tough decision to make when her newspaper, The Washington Post, accesses the infamous Pentagon Papers - documents that expose a massive cover-up of US government secrets, spanning three decades and four Presidents.


Driven by two powerful central performances (Tom Hanks is brilliant as Ben Bradlee) and featuring a wonderful ensemble cast, The Post tells a gripping and inspiring true story. Steven Spielberg’s film is both a celebration of female empowerment and also a rallying cry - reminding us of the vital importance of a free press.


As a result, while based on events that took place in 1971, The Post could not feel more relevant today.


9. Duel - 1971

Spielberg often takes an ordinary man and places him in an extraordinary situation. Duel is the film where this trend started. Dennis Weaver plays businessman David Mann who, while driving cross-country, finds himself the unwitting target of a driver and his monstrous oil truck.


Spielberg had no interest in television when he first started directing. However, he soon realised the value of TV - particularly as a training ground for cinematic movies. 


After directing a number of television shows (including one for Columbo), he was offered the director's chair for Duel - a TV movie based on a story by writer, Richard Matheson. Spielberg describes this film as "a cat and mouse game of classic suspense".


It was Matheson's idea to keep the oil truck driver hidden (bar a hand or a boot) and this concept appealed to Spielberg. The fear of the unseen was, of course, to play a key part in many future Spielberg classics.  


8. A.I. - Artificial Intelligence - 2001

Exploring the fine line between robots and humans, AI stars Haley Joel Osmet as David, a young robotic boy who has been programmed to feel human emotions, including love.


He is given to a couple who have had their own son cryogenically frozen until a cure is found for his terminal illness. However, David is viewed as an experiment and his experience of life is often heartbreaking as a result.  


AI is a brilliant and thought-provoking sci-fi movie. It was, of course, due to be directed by Stanley Kubrick. After his death, some Kubrick fans were nervous to see Spielberg take the reigns. 


However, the director was loyal to Kubrick's vision for the story and made a thought-provoking film with great heart.  


7. Saving Private Ryan - 1998

Saving Private Ryan is a stunning, shocking and heartbreaking film - often cited as

one of the most historically accurate depictions of World War 2.


In 1998, legendary film critic, Roger Ebert, interviewed Spielberg about his war movie. Ebert describes the director as "the most successful filmmaker of his generation, and perhaps of any generation. No one has made movies seen by more people, and yet at his best Spielberg is more than just popular; he has the spark of the artist."


On Saving Private Ryan, Ebert explains that the director "takes genre material and rotates it until it reveals its truthful, difficult side. Beneath the action and the wartime dialogue is an unblinking acceptance of the nature of war."


In the interview, Spielberg talks about Saving Private Ryan's famous beach landing scene: "It was a mentally demoralizing experience for us because we shot in continuity, from beginning to end. We were all reliving the story together... it's the accumulation of the sequence on Omaha Beach that's supposed to help the audience understand the physical experience of combat.


"I didn't want to do something I've done with many of my other movies - allowing the audience to be spectators. Here I wanted to bring the audience onto the stage with me and demand them to be participants with those kids who had never seen combat before in real life, and get to the top of Omaha Beach together."


6. Jurassic Park - 1993

Steven Spielberg, a huge fan of visual effects creator Ray Harryhausen, had long wanted to make a dinosaur movie. However, he couldn't work out a realistic and plausible way to bring dinosaurs back onto the big screen.


The answer came via Michael Crichton's bestselling book - showing Spielberg, via credible science, a way to make dinosaurs allowable in a modern film. The rest, as they say, is history.  

Jurassic Park stunned audiences with its groundbreaking combination of live action and digital effects. This film is a much beloved classic - as impressive to watch now as the day it was released.


5. Schindler's List - 1993

Winner of seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, Schindler's List is the incredible true story of the enigmatic Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) who saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust. 


This is a stunning film - both visually and emotionally. Filming certainly took its toll on Spielberg, who has talked about his relief at having his family with him in Poland for support. 


Schindler's List is an important film and leaves a lasting legacy. After the film was made, Spielberg started the Shoah Foundation to raise awareness about the Holocost through the testimonies of the people that were interviewed as research for his film.


Spielberg's foundation has collated over 52,000 survivor testimonies, transcribed in 65 languages. As a result of this work, the director has called Schindler's List the most important film that he has ever made.    


4. E.T. The Extraterrestrial - 1982

Inspired by his parent's divorce and the imaginary friends of his childhood, the concept of E.T. came into focus while Spielberg was making Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. What if one of those aliens stayed behind as an ambassador? 


As a result of this timing, Spielberg offered his movie idea to Columbia Studios (where he had made Close Encounters). However, the director was turned down (the studio didn't like his idea) and Columbia's loss became Universal's gain.


Then, while working with Harrison Ford on Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Spielberg asked Ford's wife, the late Melissa Mathison, if she would write the script for E.T. She also turned him down - until Ford persuaded her otherwise.


I have mixed feelings about E.T. I absolutely adore this film - it feels like a part of my childhood. However, it also turns me into a complete emotional wreck. I blame John Williams... 


3. Raiders Of The Lost Ark - 1981

Raiders Of The Lost Ark is a wonderful movie - action packed, full of brilliant stunts, ever quotable lines (it's not the years honey, it's the mileage), classic music and truly iconic scenes. It still amazes me just how many wonderful cinematic moments take place within this one film.


Spielberg had always wanted to make a Saturday matinee movie - a cliff hanger film much like those he had watched in his youth. He was, therefore, delighted to bring George Lucas's story to life with Harrison Ford in the lead.


The stars certainly aligned for this film - it is a timeless classic. 


2. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind - 1977

Cable worker, Roy Neary (a brilliant Richard Drefuss) witnesses, along with several other bystanders, UFOs soaring across the sky. Afterwards, a strange vision of a mountain-like formation starts to haunt and obsess him - much to the dismay of his family.


Meanwhile, international government agents (including François Truffaut's Claude Lacombe) are investigating a series of bizarre events across the world. Are these signs of some form of extraterrestrial contact? 


One of the best science fiction movies of all time, Close Encounters feels as fresh now as it did back in 1977.  


Spielberg started working on this film before he made Jaws - influenced by the Watergate scandal and the idea of a potential UFO conspiracy. At the time, he was convinced that the world had been visited. As a result, he didn't see Close Encounters as being science-fiction, but science speculation.


When trying to get his film made, many people questioned the movie's title. What is a close encounter of the third kind? Spielberg explained that a close encounter of the first kind is a UFO sighting, a close encounter of the second kind is the discovery of physical evidence. A close encounter of the third kind, the most interesting kind of all, is contact.


Close Encounters is well known for its iconic music - involving five notes in particular. Spielberg  thought that a combination of mathematics and music was the most likely form of communication between alien and human. Legendary composer, John Williams, then set to work to find the perfect arrangement of five notes.


Director and composer worked through around 100 five-note combinations - ultimately choosing the one that we are so familiar with today.  


Spielberg wasn't happy with the final cut of Close Encounters - he felt pressured into releasing the film before it was ready. As a result, a few years later, he remade the film. We now have three versions of Close Encounters with the addition of the brilliant director's cut.


1. Jaws - 1975

"You yell barracuda and everybody says, huh, what? You yell shark and you've got a panic on your hands." - Mayor Larry Vaughn. 


Not only is Jaws my favourite Steven Spielberg movie, it is my favourite movie - of all time.


I love the horror and the suspense. I love the humour and the sense of adventure. For me this is a perfect movie. Perfect director, perfect cast, perfect script, perfect score. Most of all, I love the interaction between Brody (Roy Scheider), Hooper (Richard Drefuss) and Quint (Robert Shaw). This human story is the heart of Jaws. 


Based on the novel by Peter Benchley, making Jaws proved to be a real nightmare. Spielberg, only 26 years old at the time, had to contend with the sea-sickness of his cast and crew, high winds and a mechanical shark called Bruce (after Spielberg's lawyer) who just wouldn't play ball.


That last headache was the making of Jaws, of course. The fact that we don't actually see much of the shark makes this movie all the more effective - what you can't see is always far more frightening.


Meanwhile, John Williams worked his magic once again by coming up with a couple of superb, iconic notes. Indeed, Spielberg has said that, without Williams' score, his film would only have been half as successful.


What Is Your Favourite Steven Spielberg Film?

Having rewatched all of Steven Spielberg's movies, I find myself, again, struck by the director's remarkable career. He is responsible for so many timeless, important and iconic films. 


Excitingly, the future also looks bright - there are many more Spielberg movies in the pipeline - including, of course, the fifth chapter in the Indiana Jones story.


I cannot wait.


What do you think of this list? Do you agree or would you have different movies in a different order? Whatever you think, let me know. You can leave me a comment in the box below or let's chat Spielberg over on Twitter (you can find me @500DaysOfFilm)!

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones



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