Oscar Directors: Spielberg–Master Showman, PGA Honoree

When Steven Spielberg’s Jaws opened in the summer of 1975, it marked a huge change. It gave birth to the modern summer blockbuster, as we know it. But the impact of Spielberg, who is 65, this year’s Producers Guild of America’s David O. Selznick honoree for lifetime achievement was immediate, and “Jaws” was followed by another great films, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” in 1977 (released the same year as “Star Wars”).

Spielberg’s influence on movies and moviemakers and on TV series continues to be unabated and unparalleled in Hollywood’s history.

J.J. Abrams: Spielberg Protege

“That was my first Spielberg experience,” says J.J. Abrams, who recalls the “Jaws” effect on his boyhood. “That movie left an enormous impact. Not long ago, I was putting my son to bed, and I gave him this lacquered wooden plaque that I had made as a grade school project. I had made mine with the ‘Jaws’ poster. That’s how big that movie is for me.”

“Jaws” was not the first film to breach the $100 million milestone stateside (that would be “The Godfather”), but with a 1975 tally of $260 million — more than $1 billion today adjusted for inflation — it established a new benchmark, and earned more than twice of any film released that year.

The net effect on Abrams can be seen in the filmmaker’s “Super 8,” which is, as he terms it, an “unabashed” tribute to both Spielberg and specifically to “E.T.,” another Spielbergian Saturday-matinee movie whose importance has allowed it to also be perceived as a more serious, Saturday-night movie. It’s this ability to take the tropes of matinee entertainments and pitch them into high relief, with a cinematic brio and audacity to present images, effects and events on screen that have never before been done, that perhaps most distinguishes Spielberg’s work as a producer and director.

Without films like “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Jurassic Park,” it would be hard to imagine films like “Avatar,” “Transformers,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” It’s as if Spielberg established the template to allow filmmakers like James Cameron and Peter Jackson, with whom he collaborated on “The Adventures of Tintin,” to shoot for the moon.


Even if Oscar best pic winner “Schindler’s List” (1993) cast Spielberg in a more serious light, the gravity and weight of that Holocaust drama was counterbalanced by “Jurassic Park,” released the same year. “Jurassic” raised the bar on CGI and grossed $47 million its opening weekend, going on to earn an unheard of $900,000-plus worldwide. To date, Speilberg’s movies, whether he produced, exec produced or directed, have earned nearly $8.5 billion in North America alone.


Abrams himself finds the best, briefest term for Spielberg’s talent: “He’s a showman. That means whether he’s the director or he’s in a producing capacity like he was with me on ‘Super 8,’ he’s conscious of delivering a movie that combines emotions, interesting characters and ideas, but also more than anything entertains and is a crowd-pleaser. And he’s certainly the greatest influence on me for that reason.


“My favorite movies,” Abrams adds, “are B movies done A. So it may be easy to recall the shark attacks in ‘Jaws,’ but what makes that movie great are all the strong scenes between the characters, the sheriff (played by Roy Scheider), Robert Shaw’s fantastic scenes on the boat.”


Another movie that Spielberg executive-produced last summer, the Jon Favreau-directed “Cowboys & Aliens,” also happily flies in Spielberg’s space in its good-natured combo of the western and sci-fi genres — even though, surprising as it is, Spielberg has never himself made a western.


“He was my mentor,” says Favreau, “and the main reason I took on the project was that Steven was producing, allowing me an incredible opportunity to work side-by-side with him, and learn. We come from really different backgrounds — me from improv and comedy, him from cinema — and I wanted to just take in his ideas, and even the way he went about his work.”


However, Spielberg doesn’t view his role as producer through the lens of a mentor, but as a facilitator.


“I do believe my purpose when I’m producing is to give the full weight of my support to the director I’ve hired,” he says. “I can be effective at getting the director what he wants, once the director knows what he wants, and that sometimes doesn’t happen until the day of shooting.”


Since “making a movie is the most fluid art form in the world,” Spielberg says, “things work and things fail 10 times a day. I can help a director by hiring experienced personnel (production managers, assistant directors, location managers) who will work with me to organize a production with enough contingencies in case of foul weather or an illness or mechanical breakdowns, that the director never has to worry about plotting those solutions. A good producer knows how to put out fires long before the director ever smells the smoke. It’s also important for me to help get everybody out of (his) way, including myself.”


Favreau, like Abrams, says Spielberg the producer is ever-attentive and brimming with ideas and enthusiasm when he’s in the room with you. During the phases when both directors were making their movies, Spielberg was either preparing or directing both “War Horse” and “Tintin,” making it all the more remarkable that they echo each others’ view that Spielberg worked with them “as if he had nothing else to do but this,” says Favreau.


“As a gift, he gave me an iPad loaded up with classic Westerns,” the actor-director adds, “so it was like a film school working with him. He screened ‘The Searchers’ for us, since the main storyline in ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ borrows from the quest plot in that film, and he did a running commentary as we watched it.”


“Steven is very optimistic,” says Abrams. “He’s someone who’s able to see the best version of whatever project he’s working on. He’s got enormous ambition of things to be at their best, but what I found is that while he has a constant ability to imagine moments in scenes and maybe make them better, he also has the ability and sense to never mandate those suggestions. He’ll let you consider his ideas, and take them, alter them or not. It’s like when you were a kid and ordered the bottomless chocolate milk. He’s like this bottomless idea factory.”


Favreau and Abrams both observe that Spielberg the producer never cites Spielberg the director, but instead mentions previous Hollywood masters and models — his idols, just like Spielberg is their idol.


“He doesn’t bring up his movies when we talk,” Favreau notes, “but he’ll bring up John Ford all the time, or guys like Billy Wilder. I think he’s inherited Ford’s DNA.”


Abrams stresses that Spielberg would “try to emphasize that, even though I was making a movie that drew directly from his own movies, with scenes and characters that totally parallel those in ‘E.T.,’ that he didn’t come up with this stuff in the first place, but was drawing on others.”


While helmers who have worked with Spielberg can hardly stop talking about his collaborative tendencies, Spielberg himself says there are distinct limits to this: “There’s plenty of room for collaboration, but no room for more than one chef in the kitchen.”