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How ‘E.T.’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ Reveal Steven Spielberg’s Story

Susan Lacy had a much better interview with Steven Spielberg than I did, so I’m understandably jealous.

She spent about 30 hours with the director, and was able to elicit nuggets about his life and work that form the basis of Lacy’s appropriately titled documentary, “Spielberg,” which debuts on HBO Oct. 7.

Like many, I’ve been a Spielberg fan almost from the beginning. I remember sitting in a dark theater over 40 years ago watching his second theatrical release, “Jaws.” One scene in particular sticks with me: shot from the point of view of the shark as it swims to the surface, towards an overturned rowboat, towards Roy Scheider’s movie children and a would-be rescuer floundering in the water. As the shark gets closer and John Williams’ score gets louder and faster and the shark is about to grab a victim, I grab the arm rests and lift my feet off the floor to avoid being bitten.

It took a second for me to realize what I’d done and another to quickly look around to see if anyone noticed. And a few more to laugh at myself and how I’d allowed this talented young filmmaker to manipulate me.

I told that story to Spielberg almost two decades later, when I interviewed him. His assistant had told me that Spielberg doesn’t like to be fawned over, so I tried to keep my cool. We were going to talk about his new film, “Schindler’s List.” I’d had an advance peek at it and as the son of survivors it changed my perspective about him: from great admiration to unbridled worship.

Over the course of next 30 minutes or so, we talked about his early years, his childhood homes movies like “Gunsmog,” a takeoff on the popular TV Western, and “Schindler.”

Since that time, Spielberg (now 71) has revealed more and more of himself in interviews, often contradicting things he’d told me.

During his interviews with Lacy, who created and served for thirty years as executive producer of the “American Masters” series on PBS, Spielberg reveals how his films reflect episodes from his life. So, we see how “E.T.,” for example, is not only escapist entertainment but also a plaintive cry from a director whose parents divorced, leaving him adrift much like the alien.

Children alone appear frequently in Spielberg’s films from Peter Pan in “Hook” to young Jim separated from his parents in war torn Shanghai and interned in a Japanese POW camp in “Empire of the Sun.”

Spielberg tells Lacy that he was a skinny, unathletic kid who got bullied a lot and suffered from “low self-esteem. I just was a lonely guy.”

Spielberg also reveals that he was raised Orthodox and had to contend with rampant anti-Semitism.

“I began to deny my Judaism,” he says. “I began to deny everything I had accepted as a child and was not willing to accept [Judaism] if it was going to make me a pariah.”

He found escape behind the lens of an 8 mm camera. “I felt good about myself when I was making a film,” he says.

Spielberg started work in television – his first job was directing Joan Crawford in an episode of “Night Gallery.” Films followed: a TV movie “Duel,” which was followed by “Sugarland Express” and “Jaws.”

Spielberg’s “films deal with specific elements of his life,” director Martin Scorsese correctly tells Lacy, and a couple of those elements are worth mentioning. His second marriage to Kate Capshaw, who converted to Judaism — “she really wanted to marry me as a Jew” — rekindled his interest in his faith and made him more careful about what he filmed.

“I turned down films that weren’t the kind of legacy I wanted to leave behind for my kids,” he says.

A second event was his rapprochement with his estranged father, a WWII veteran whom he had blamed for his parents’ divorce. He dedicated “Saving Private Ryan” to his father. And in “War of the Worlds, the Tom Cruise character ultimately reunites with his children.

As the actress Sally Field says of Spielberg in the documentary, “He wants to see something good in the darkest of the dark.”

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