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Steven Spielberg was a fearful kid who found solace in storytelling

"I was a fearful kid, and my parents didn't quite know what to do with that," Steven Spielberg says. He's pictured above in New York City in March 2017.
Mike Coppola
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Getty Images
"I was a fearful kid, and my parents didn't quite know what to do with that," Steven Spielberg says. He's pictured above in New York City in March 2017.

Oscar Award-winning filmmaker Steven Spielberg still remembers the first time he went to the movies. His parents took him to see The Greatest Show on Earth Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 drama set in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but there was a misunderstanding.

"I had never been to a motion picture," Spielberg recalls. "And ... I actually thought they were saying to me, 'We're taking you to a circus.' "

Settling into his seat in the theater, Spielberg felt betrayed. Where was the big tent? Where were the circus animals he had been expecting? But then the red curtain opened and the film began and it didn't take him long to fall under become enchanted.

"I didn't understand the story, didn't understand what they were saying, but the imagery was amazing," he says.

Afterward, he was haunted by a terrifying train derailment he had seen in the film. At home, he began re-enacting the scene, using his Lionel Electric train set and a his father's 8mm movie camera.

"I really think it helped assuage the fear ... the idea of using a camera to film it," he says. "That's how my obsession with creating imagery ... led to storytelling."

Spielberg would go on to direct more than 30 movies, including Jaws, ET, the Indiana Jones films, Saving Private Ryan and the recent adaptation of West Side Story. He says that all his movies are personal, but his most recent film — which he jokingly refers to as "$40 million of therapy" — is especially so.

The Fabelmans is a semi-autobiographical film based on Spielberg's childhood and teenage years. The movie is about tensions in his family during those years, and why his parents divorced when he was 19. It also tells the story — in a fictionalized way — of how he fell in love with movies, and became a filmmaker.


Interview Highlights

On being a fearful kid

There was nothing that didn't scare me. I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of this ... scary, naked tree out the window that looked like it had tentacles, with these horrible branches and it looked like arms and long fingers and long fingernails. And the tree terrified me. Later, as an adult, when I wrote Poltergeist, I created a tree out the window that actually comes to life and grabs a kid and starts to suck them into one of its sappy knotholes. And that was a direct steal from that tree out my window that scared me.

I was afraid of the dark. I was afraid of small places — and I still am today. I'm very claustrophobic. But I was a fearful kid, and my parents didn't quite know what to do with that, because my mom was fearless and my dad was extremely stoic about things like this. And no amount of bedside chats could calm me down once the sun set and I went to bed and my parents turned the lights off. The only solace, I guess, I had was they allowed the door to my bedroom to be cracked an inch or two. So I had that little comfort of a hall light coming in, and that was about it.

Gabriel LaBelle plays the young filmmaker Sammy in <em>The Fabelmans</em>.
Merie Weismiller Wallace / Universal Pictures
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Universal Pictures
Gabriel LaBelle plays the young filmmaker Sammy in The Fabelmans.

On learning his numbers as a kid from Holocaust survivors' tattoos

It's how I learned my numbers. It's a very kind of perverse version of Sesame Street, where I'd be sitting at these tables. I was just a kid. I was like 3 years old. It was back in Cincinnati. ... I just remember sitting around the table and a lot of very, very old people, and these people probably weren't very old. They were probably in their 30s or early 40s, but when you're a little kid, anybody who looks 30 or 40 looks like they're on death's doorstep. ... They were mainly speaking either Yiddish or they were speaking German or they were speaking Hungarian. ... My grandmother was their English teacher and she was teaching a class in the Cincinnati house, a large dining room table filled with survivors. And one man in particular, I kept looking at his number tattooed on his forearm. During the dinner break, when everybody was eating and not learning, he would point to the numbers and he would say, "That is a 2 and that is a 4." And then he'd say, "And this is an 8 and that's a 1." And then I'll never forget this, and he said, "And that's a 9." And then he cooked his arm and inverted his arm and said, "And see, it becomes a 6. It's magic." That's really how I learned my numbers for the first time. And the irony of all that and the gift of that lesson never really dawned on me until I was much older.

On his early fascination with World War II because of his father's stories

My dad told me stories about World War II constantly. So I made 8mm war movies. Escape to Nowhere, which I depict in The Fablemans, is an actual movie I made when I was about 16 years old. ... And because I was really obsessed with war, I made a World War II Air Force movie called Fighter Squadron in black and white when I was about 14 years old. And so that just came out of my sort of fascination with what I was watching on television or the stories my dad was telling me.

Steven Spielberg is pictured in a photo from 1978.
Graham Morris/Evening Standard / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Steven Spielberg is pictured in a photo from 1978.

Sometimes my dad would have reunions with other members of his fighter squadron and the Ford 90th Squadron, and they'd come over to the house sometimes, once every couple of years, and there'd be seven or eight guys together, and I'd be wandering in and out of my room or going into the kitchen, but I'd hear some of their stories and talking. And the thing that was most disturbing for me was all of a sudden a grown man would fold over sobbing, and my dad and everybody else would sit around and ... pat the person on the back and try to get a glass of water. And there would be tears. It's unusual when you're a kid and you hear in your own home adults sobbing. ... It was only years later that I found out that the PTSD that came out of that war was causing [it]. And that's why it was so healthy for these veterans to get together once every couple of years.

On wanting to make a war film that didn't glorify war

I knew, based on the stories my dad and his friends were telling about World War II, that there was no glory in war. It was ugly and it was cruel. It was visually devastating. And so I thought someday if I ever do make a war movie for real, it's got to be something that tells the truth about what those experiences had been for those young 17-, 18-, 19-year-old boys storming Omaha Beach, let's say.

That's when I realized, that if I'm going to tell the story, it can't be a glorification of war. It's just going to have to be the low down, dirty truth of what it was like for these young boys.

So when I had the opportunity to make Robert Rodat's script into a movie, Saving Private Ryan, I had read Stephen Ambrose's book Citizen Soldiers, and I got to know Steve really well. He became a consultant with me because he had spent the time to interview veterans that hit that beach at 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944. And he had interviewed dozens of those guys in the first wave. And he actually sent me to interview a couple of them myself to ask my own questions. And that's when I realized, that if I'm going to tell the story, it can't be a glorification of war. It's just going to have to be the low down, dirty truth of what it was like for these young boys.

Steven Spielberg speaks onstage in 2017 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Governors Awards in Hollywood, Calif.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Steven Spielberg speaks onstage in 2017 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Governors Awards in Hollywood, Calif.

On his fear that audiences wouldn't see Saving Private Ryan because of the violence

It was DreamWorks money, and I was kind of convinced that it was going to lose its shirt, that every single dollar we poured into Ryan and the movie cost, (which now is a bargain) but the movie then cost $59 million — shot in '97, came out in '98. I just wanted to tell the truth and I didn't think anyone would see that film. And I was absolutely surprised that so many people around the world did go to see it. I was afraid that the first people who saw it would just say, "It's too bloody, don't put yourself through it."

On being a self-taught filmmaker

I didn't go to film school. And I was self-taught, but I had great teachers. You know, all my influencers were the directors and the writers of the movies I was watching in theaters and on television. And my film school was really the cultural heritage of Hollywood and international filmmaking, because there's no better teacher than Lubitsch or Hitchcock or Kurosawa or Kubrick or Ford or William Wyler or Billy Wilder or Clarence Brown. I mean, Val Lewton. I mean, those are my teachers.

Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.