The ‘lost world’ of Steven Spielberg

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Photo courtesy of Steven Spielberg's PR agency. Image used with permission.

HIS GUNS AND HIS SECRET LIFE AS A SHOOTER

By Roni Toldanes

It’s impossible not to mention the fairy tale character Peter Pan when writ­ing about Steven Spielberg. After all, the lonely and precocious son of a broken home himself said in 1985, “I have always felt like Peter Pan. I still feel like Peter Pan.”

It was difficult for Spielberg to “grow up” — both as a man and as a filmmaker.

For 20 years, Spielberg had Hollywood’s most profound and profitable case of arrested development. Critics condescendingly regarded him as a child-man fixated on the toys of moviemaking and incapable of dealing maturely with the darker side of life. In many of his films, Spielberg indulged his boyish fondness for pulp adventure, infantile humor and special-effects fantasy extravaganzas.

But, in reality, Spielberg was misunder­stood. The fellow who makes movies every­one wants to see was simply not like every­one else. “People like Steven don’t come along every day,” says his friend and fre­quent collaborator George Lucas, “and when they do, it’s an amazing thing. It’s like talk­ing about Einstein or Babe Ruth or Tiger Woods. He’s not in a group of filmmakers his age; he’s far, far away.”

Still, one can ask how a half-century of living and nearly a quarter-century’s reign as the most successful moviemaker in his­tory affect the man who took out a patent on perennial childhood.

From the short feature film he made as a 13-year-old (Escape to Nowhere), through a string of blockbusters such as E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire of the Sun, Jaws and the con­tinuing adventures of Indiana Jones, Spiel­berg has explored primeval fears, expressed children’s loneliness and tested their inno­cence. Even his version of Peter Pan in the movie Hook was sprinkled with childlike fantasy.

In 1993, however, moviedom’s Peter Pan finally “grew up.” Spielberg silenced many of his detractors with Schindler’s List, his masterful drama about a gentile business­man who saved 1,100 Jews from the Plaszow death camp during World War II. The film was the culmination of a long personal strug­gle with Spielberg’s Jewish identity, a plea by a preeminent popular artist that to remem­ber is to speed up the healing.

“I was so ashamed of being a Jew, and now I’m filled with pride,” he said in inter­views at the time the movie was released. “This film has kind of come along with me on this journey from shame to honor.” For that film with a wrenching theme, Spielberg would receive two Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. The film also won five other Oscars.

With Schindler’s List, Spielberg became a proselytizer for a spiritual unification of Germans and Jews. “I feel it is time in Germany for this generation to teach its children,” he said. “Education is the way to stop another Holocaust from happening.”

Following the emotional pulse of Schindler’s List, Spielberg also directed Amistad, a film about a Spanish ship that brought 53 abducted Africans to the U.S. in 1839 and provoked a slave revolt and a trial in which the slaves’ case was argued by former President John Quincy Adams.

To an extent, most of Spielberg’s films were identical to certain cliff-hanging chapters of his life.

Steven Allan Spielberg’s ancestors were among the 2 million Jews who fled Russia and Eastern Europe for the United States between 1881 and 1914, settling in Cincinnati, where he was born on Dec. 18, 1946. Some of his relatives remained in Russia for generations to come, and some eventually went to Israel, but many of those who did not emigrate were murdered during the Nazi Holocaust.

Spielberg was raised in the suburbs of Haddonfield, New Jersey and Phoenix, Arizona, where the elder Spielbergs and their four kids — Steven and his three younger sisters — lived from 1957 to 1964. As a child growing up in Haddonfield, where archaeologists found the first virtually complete dinosaur skeleton, Spielberg became fascinated with dinosaurs.

In Phoenix, he was a one-man commando unit against neighbors who made anti-Semitic slurs, sneaking up and smearing their windows with peanut butter.

It was in Arizona where Spielberg started making amateur films while still in his teens, later studying at California State University, Long Beach. In 1969, Spielberg’s 22-minute short feature Amblin was shown at the Atlanta Film Festival. It made him the youngest director ever to be signed to a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio.

Four years later, he directed the suspense-filled telefilm Duel. He made his feature film directorial debut on The Sugarland Express, from a screenplay he co-wrote. His additional film credits include the Back to the Future trilogy, Always and The Color Purple. His film Saving Private Ryan, a World War II saga starring Tom Hanks, also landed on the blockbuster records.

Through the years, Steven Spielberg has directed, produced or executive produced eight of the top grossing films of all time. He had back-to-back block-buster hits with The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which he directed, and Men in Black, which he executive produced.

Steven Spielberg is, indeed, the most successful moviemaker in history. In 1996, Forbes Magazine estimated his net worth at $1 billion. Not bad for a kid who “felt like an alien” in America, and who turned to making movies as a way of finding social acceptance.

Observers say that Spielberg’s emotional isolation during his childhood may have helped delay his own maturation process. His parents, Leah and Arnold, divorced when he was 19. Steven remained close to his mother and her new husband Bernie Adler, who passed away several years ago.

Adler’s death shocked Steven into seeing the fragility of people’s lives. It also brought him closer to his father and to his growing family.

Spielberg shoots Sporting Clays in Europe with Harrison Ford.

Spielberg shoots Sporting Clays in Europe with Harrison Ford. Image used with photographer's permission.

Like almost every American boy growing up in the 1950s, Spielberg received guidance about matters such as gun safety from his father, Arnold Spielberg. And he pictured himself doing the same thing, besides other fatherly duties, even before his first child (with his first wife Amy Irving), Max, was born. “The child was going to change my life … I want to be like most parents.”

When Max Samuel Spielberg was born on June 13, 1985 at the Santa Monica Hospital, the exultant father described his son as “my best production yet.”

Today, Spielberg spends more time with his burgeoning family. With Kate Capshaw, whom he married in 1991, Spielberg has a brood of seven: Max (whose custody he shares with Irving); Jessica, (from Capshaw’s first marriage); Theo, Sasha, Sawyer, Mikaela and Destry.

It was Spielberg’s father, an electrical engineer and amateur film buff, who spurred his interest in movie-making. It was also his dad, a World War II Air Force sharpshooter, who taught Steven his gun-handling skills.

As someone who never enjoyed much of the regular sports during his childhood, Steven Spielberg introduced his son Max, in 1995, to the sport he knows best — Sporting Clays.

Screenwriter and director John Milius (Apocalypse Now and Clear and Present Danger) describes Steven Spielberg as a sharpshooter. Spielberg, he said, regularly shoots an Italian over/under Fabri shotgun, an engraved model of which costs in the neighborhood of $85,000.

Milius said he began shooting sporting clays with Spielberg in the late 1960s at the Oak Tree Gun Club in southern California. During their younger days, Milius said, they used to play at least once a week. “We call it red-neck golf,” Milius said, “just like golf, you either like it or you don’t.”

Explaining Spielberg’s passion for collecting top-of-the-line shotguns, Milius told this writer, “They are just beautiful things. How many beautiful works of art can you take out and use?”

Milius would often shoot Sporting Clays with Spielberg. He admits having lost “a few times” to Spielberg, who actually received some shooting lessons from him in the past. “I’m the teacher and he’s the student, but on a good day he’s really good.”

Art Bright, manager of the Pachmayr Range in southern California, remembers giving Spielberg and young Max a few shooting tips. “Steven Spielberg is a pretty good shot,” Bright says. “He’s probably a solid B-class shooter.”

Rifle maker Butch Searcy confirmed having built two big-bore rifles that were used as props in the movie Jurassic Park. The .600 Nitro rifles, bearing the serial numbers Lost World 1 and Lost World 2, are valued at $40,000 each, Searcy said, adding that Spielberg’s aides had told him that one of the rifles became a part of the director’s collection.

Once upon a shooting star, there was a lonely young boy who aimed for success and social acceptance. That boy, Steven Spielberg, is now an adult. But is he completely grown up? “Sometimes he’ll howl with glee after breaking some of his clay targets,” a Sporting Clays champion, who requested anonymity, said. “Sometimes when he gets excited, he just can’t control himself. At times, he’s just like a little kid.”

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