ShortList is supported by you, our amazing readers. When you click through the links on our site and make a purchase we may earn a commission. Learn more

The real Steven Spielberg, by the people closest to him

A tribute to the most influential man in cinema

The real Steven Spielberg, by the people closest to him

Steven Spielberg is the most influential man in cinema. Here, fellow filmmakers, actors and fanboys talk us through the great Hollywood director's standout movie moments

Martin Scorsese

Director: GoodFellas; Raging Bull; Gangs Of New York; Taxi Driver

The thing you have to remember about Steven is that the first film he ever saw in his life was Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth and, boy, did it rub off on him. The way he is immersed in narrative cinema, the way he can use every single element of filmmaking from the framing to the music to get an audience in the palm of his hand – he really represents the legacy of the Hollywood Golden Age of the Forties and Fifties.

People talk about a passion for cinema and they don’t really know what that means. It means being physically incapable of doing anything else, and it’s a way of looking at the world. When I first met Steven in 1971, that was the only way to describe him. Steven and I were part of this group with people like George Lucas, Brian De Palma, John Milius and Paul Schrader. We were very, very close, all of us, and we would discuss and argue and get excited about movies for hours and hours. We all went our own paths, with George doing Star Wars, Brian doing Carrie and me doing whatever I stumbled into doing, but none of it would have happened without us all rubbing against each other. Steven was one of the few who could talk a good movie, and then go and make a better one, and make it seem effortless.

We all stayed in touch, of course, and you could see Steven and George were the ones keeping up with technology. Steven was a huge fan of computer games in the Eighties; I remember he and Brian yelling a lot playing Leisure Suit Larry, but that was where I drew the line. They got so excited about the possibilities of computers, but I wasn’t so enthused – a decision which has meant it’s taken me years and years to catch up with them, and it’s because I didn’t like these goofy games. But it shows how Steven’s mind works: endlessly curious and unselfconsciously cutting edge.

Choosing a moment from Steven’s films is almost impossible, but I remember hearing things about Close Encounters while we were making Taxi Driver – we both had the same producers. Then, when I saw it, I couldn’t believe my eyes when the mothership came down at the end. It sums up Steven: spectacular storytelling that never loses focus on character, with a drive to push the technology of cinema forward and show you things you’ve never seen before. He just has a complete command of the medium.

Simon Pegg

Actor: The Adventures Of TinTin: The Secret Of The Unicorn

Spielberg is a master. I have memories of going to see Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 1981 and getting home on such a high that I verbal diarrhoea-ed the plot to my mum, who was baffled. I was just fizzing with excitement. ET had the same effect, and then all his films became events for me. He was a generation’s introduction to what a director is, and he’s the one everybody has heard of.

When I came to work with him decades later, I couldn’t believe my luck. Nick Frost and I would try to play it cool, but we’d sit at his feet like his grandchildren and get all these stories about the making of films we’d adored all our lives. Nick and I would work for hours on something for TinTin, then he would see it and make three suggestions off the top of his head that made it a thousand times better.

One thing he does so well is insert a moment of grace after an intense scene  – once the tension is done, he’ll give you something beautiful to let you breathe. For example, in Jaws, after we see Robert Shaw shoot the barrels into the shark, we see him silhouetted against the sky with his harpoon gun against his chest, just waiting for the shark to show up again. It’s just this little moment of gorgeousness that’s your reward for hanging on through all the excitement.

He gives you the shock, and then the awe.

Gareth Edwards

Director: Monsters; Godzilla; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Spielberg’s given every younger maker of a certain kind of film the vocabulary to work with. At film school I would do statistical analysis of the shots he used. There’s a scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark where Denholm Elliott as Marcus Brody comes round Indiana Jones’s house to give him the mission. You think it’s a pretty normal scene, but when you analyse it, it’s all one shot.

A standard director would break it up into different shots, close-ups, reverse shots and so on. It would be in at least six different pieces, but Spielberg finds a way to do it all in one shot, until at the end there’s a move to the gun. It’s so confident – a lesser director would try to get flashy to insert some tension, but then the camera move would lose its differentiation from the rest of the scene. It’s so subtle and elegant.

Alfred Molina


Actor: Raiders Of The Lost Ark

The moment that stands out for me is the one towards the end of Schindler’s List, where Liam Neeson’s character is saying goodbye, and he has this moment with Ben Kingsley when he says, “I could have got more.” There’s something in the simplicity of the shooting and the intensity of the moment in the way he just lets it happen. He didn’t do any clever camera moves, there was no zooming in or showing off. It was just a beautiful, simple moment, and that hit me like a sledgehammer. His films speak to people so directly – I still get people coming up to me saying, “Throw me the idol,” and I don’t think it’s down to my delivery. It’s all in how thrilling a movie he was able to make.

Antoine Fuqua

Director: Training Day; Olympus Has Fallen

The moment in the house near the end of Saving Private Ryan, when Adam Goldberg and the German soldier are fighting with the knife, blows me away. Jeremy Davies is on the stairs outside, but he can’t bring himself to go in and save his buddy. Spielberg cuts between this savage fight and the terrified soldier on the stairs hearing these horrifying screams and grunts, and it’s like Hitchcock in its suspense – if you see it with an audience, you can feel them needing Davies to save his friend.

He doesn’t save him, of course, and when the death comes, it’s as hard as it gets. Spielberg has this reputation for being sentimental, but he doesn’t shy away. We stay on Goldberg as the knife goes in his chest as he begs for his life, while the other guy is only feet away. We feel every inch of that knife. That’s powerful filmmaking.

Paul Freeman

Actor: Raiders Of The Lost Ark

In the original script of Raiders..., there was a short scene where I’m plotting with my Nazi cohorts. I can’t remember what we were plotting, but we were up to no good. In the script, it’s just us talking, so I thought it would be the three of us in a tent. When we came to shoot it, Spielberg shot it against a background of 200 or so extras on this archaeological dig, and the whole scene became epic.

So many filmmakers would just do it in a tent to make it straightforward – that’s what sets him apart. It was a moderately interesting scene, but he made it something visual and exciting and fun.

Christopher McQuarrie

Writer: The Usual Suspects

Director: Jack Reacher; Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

The opening of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is so engrossing in its scope and scale – it really sets the terms as being global. We see François Truffaut finding the lost plane from 1945 in the Mexican desert, then we see some air traffic controllers in Indiana who have an incident, then we see the little boy have his encounter, and only then do we meet Richard Dreyfuss as the protagonist. All of this is presented without context, and we ease each scene into these bizarre series of events that create so many questions in the minds of the audience.

The gradual introduction into all of this mystery and wonder is masterful – it’s so methodical and carefully realistic, so you find the science-fiction elements plausible as they enter into the world. For all his technical skill, Spielberg always puts the story first. He’s superb at spectacle, but he’s so rare in that he combines a flair for storytelling as well.

Christopher Walken

Actor: Catch Me If You Can

The diversity of Steven’s work is incredible, and he always puts in these little details I look forward to seeing. At the beginning of ET, we see the aliens walking around in the forest before the people come and scare them away. You know that there’s something strange as you see them gathering plants and so on, but then there’s a shot of a little bunny rabbit eating grass. The aliens are right next to the rabbit and the rabbit is just perfectly comfortable – the rabbit is not afraid, and I think that it puts in the mind of the audience: “If the bunny isn’t afraid, why should we be?” It’s a very clever, subtle touch that a lot of directors wouldn’t think of. It’s pure visual storytelling – he tells you all about these alien characters with just a rabbit.

Djimon Hounsou

Actor: Amistad

I was so nervous before shooting my big courtroom scene in Amistad, the one where I shout “Give us free” over and over, that I showed up early to the set. I wanted to get comfortable. Then, when Steven arrived, I asked him to give me a hint of how to do the scene, but he just said, “I’m not sure, I’ve never done a courtroom scene before. I’ll do everything else and come to you.”

I thought that was interesting, but I was still unsettled – it was my first big role in a film. So I sat watching him film all day, and finally he came to me after all this time, and I was just dropped into it. He ended up using the first take. I’m pretty sure he wanted all the frustration and nerves of the long wait to add into my performance.

Jeff Nichols

Director: Take Shelter; Midnight Special; Mud

Spielberg’s earlier films were so good at showing ordinary suburban life. Growing up in Arkansas in the Eighties, it was so relatable for me. There’s an amazing scene in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind in which you first meet Richard Dreyfuss’ character, Roy, and he’s working on his train set, and there’s a play pen set up for a baby but the baby’s not in it, and the whole house is in chaos.

It’s all very believable. And I think that people focus on the extraordinary parts
of Spielberg’s filmmaking, which they should, but he does the mundane very accurately and very well. It makes the extraordinary things that happen feel
all the more real. People forget that Steven Spielberg was very much a Seventies filmmaker. He was being very observant of the world around him, and that’s a hallmark of a great filmmaker – including these things that you don’t notice. He just gets everything right.

Haley Joel Osment

Actor: AI Artificial Intelligence

Munich is an underappreciated film – it has a lot in common with Bridge Of Spies. Steven is such an expert at pacing and suspense, and taking you through a really complex storyline. That scene where they’re trying to bomb the terrorist’s apartment, and Ciaran Hinds is trying to stop it when they realise the little girl is still home, is fantastic. It’s a sequence Hitchcock would be proud of: the editing, the way it builds and then the payoff. He totally understands his craft, and has such a joy in the form. This scene is all about the difference between suspense and surprise. 

Francis Ford Coppola

Director: The Godfather Trilogy; Apocalypse Now; The Conversation

I’ve chosen Steven Spielberg’s beautiful 1987 film Empire Of The Sun – in particular the sequences that move seamlessly end-to-end in the first third of the film. As I remember, this early section, beginning with the young boy’s parents getting ready to go to a costume party, is a grouping of amazingly cinematic moments.

First, the Packard car is revealed, which is a character in itself, and then the boy runs out in his Arabian garb, and the parents in costume, too, as they proceed towards the party. Extraordinary scenes follow: the emblem of the Packard moving through the thousands of Shanghai Chinese as the boy watches. Sound and image combine in the sequence of shots of the Packard gliding through all sorts of imagery: blood from butchered chickens hits and stains a window, all under the watchful eye of Japanese soldiers and armament. We see other partygoers, children, clowns, all peering from their luxury cars in contrast to the teeming millions of Chinese.

Out of this opulent costume party, the young Christian Bale wanders alone with
his model aeroplane, running to make it fly. He comes upon a wrecked plane, pretends he is switching it on, and pretends to fly in battle. This elegantly imagined battle proceeds until the model is lost over a hill. He gets out of the wreckage and proceeds over the hill, and comes across hundreds of Japanese solders waiting with their supplies and weapons.

Every image is telling the story, almost wordlessly, but with John Williams’ subtle and intriguing score. By now all of the principal elements have been introduced: the Packard, the English, the Chinese, the Japanese, the blood, and it’s all done with delicacy and finesse. We are thus led to a night sequence, with the boy in bed, using his flashlight to make shadows of the model on the ceiling. He sees a gunboat in the river, sending signals by light. The boy responds with his light, and his house is rocked with a direct hit of fire from the boat. This seamlessly leads to yet another brilliantly executed sequence in which the foreigners move en masse in panic to leave the international settlements where they live in the illusion of safety. It’s a terrifying sequence, involving expert use of large crowds.

They exit to flee, holding hands. But one-by-one their link is broken; the father is separated from the mother and child, and then, in order to pick up his toy aeroplane, the son lets go of his mother’s hand and is swallowed up by the crowd as hundreds of Japanese planes fly overhead.

Finally, the boy is left alone, stranded in the enormous crowd of terrified people, shouting for his mother as a troop of Japanese soldiers march into town. Then tanks roll in, and the crowd is killed right around Bale. Then a fantastic dissolve takes the image from the bodies of the snipers being dragged off, to the dark clouds revealing the city the next morning.

This group of sequences demonstrates that Steven is not only endowed with a sharp intelligence, but also a God-given talent, like William Wyler before him, with the instincts uniquely suited for a director of story, image, sound and acting.

Steven Spielberg Season runs at BFI Southbank until 31 July;

(Images: BFI/PA/Rex/Kobal/AllStar/Getty)