Steven Spielberg: ‘It’s all about making kids feel like they can do anything’ | Tom Shone

From ET to Jaws, Steven Spielberg has brought us cinemas most enduring stories. He reveals why hes driven by fear, how he beat his bullies and the heartbreak behind his take on The BFG

When Steven Spielberg is enthused, his sentences pick up speed and momentum, the words coming in long, unpunctuated bursts that have you worried hes going to forget to breathe. Just over a month ago, he tells me, his eldest daughter Jessica had a baby girl, his fourth grandchild. Spielberg has seven children, aged between 19 and 39; now he is making up stories for his grandchildren the way he did for them. Theyre all stories of empowerment, and being magical or able to read your mom and dads mind, or your best friend being a Tyrannosaurus rex that only you know about and he lives in your backyard, he explains excitedly.

We are sitting in the conference room of his production offices at Amblin Partners in Los Angeles, a two-storey building that looks like a cross between Fred Flintstones cave and a resort chalet, situated in a quiet corner of the Universal lot surrounded by lawns, palm trees and fake-looking boulders. On one wall of the room hang three Norman Rockwell originals and the Rosebud sledge from Citizen Kane, mounted inside a protective glass case. Downstairs are an editing suite, a screening room, a daycare centre and a restaurant-sized kitchen.

Spielberg continues with his story about the imaginary T rex: Only one time, you got on his back and he took you to school, and he scared all the kids, but when you brought him in for show-and-tell, they realised that he was a nice T rex. They all sat around and listened to his stories. These are the tales Spielberg likes to tell. Its all about making kids feel like they can do anything. That nothings impossible.

Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill in The BFG, which Spielberg says is the loneliest story Ive ever told. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Spielberg arrived tailed by a small team of assistants and assorted PR personnel waiting on his every word, like President Bartlet surrounded by his staffers in The West Wing. He is dressed in a natty suede jacket, his grey hair combed neatly; he is one of those men who never quite escapes the impression that the finishing touches to any outfit were provided by his wife. He sits down opposite me and clasps his hands together, a smile on his face, thumbs towards the ceiling with an attitude that says, Whats next? There is the sense of a formidable, fast-processing, friendly intelligence; courteously shutting down the 20 other things he has on the go in order to turn his attention to you. Because Im so compartmentalised in my thinking, I can think ahead a lot, he tells me. I can think very deeply forward, and thats my problem. Its a blessing and its a curse.

When Spielberg was a child, his mother would tell him that his grandparents were coming to visit from Ohio, saying, Its something to look forward to, theyre coming in two weeks, and he would count down the days with her. Arguably, this countdown never stopped. Looking forward turned into the Spielberg occupation par excellence; from it derives his signature genre (sci-fi), his signature tone (optimistic), his signature narrative mode (Hitchcockian suspense), even his signature shot (an expectant face in closeup). Recently, while completing post-production on his new adaptation of Roald Dahls The BFG, and getting ready to shoot the virtual-reality sci-fi thriller Ready Player One, while also in talks with Tony Kushner on another script, he exchanged emails with the screenwriter David Koepp about ideas for a fifth Indiana Jones sequel. I said, I know youre mixing and prepping and doing interviews, Koepp recalls. Do you have the head space for this? You may be trying to do air traffic control in your head right now. He wrote back and said, Let me worry about the air traffic control, you circle and chatter. OK, here you go. I dumped all my ideas on him. Theres a remarkable amount of head space.

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