Steven Spielberg



STEVEN Spielberg: In the mood to talk in Paris, the director extended the interview. RUBEN NEPALES

PARIS—Steven Spielberg was running late in his packed Sunday schedule of interviews for “The Adventures of Tintin” at the Four Seasons Hotel George V Paris.

A Paramount Studios publicist was signaling that our interview had to wrap up, but the master filmmaker said, “No, we’re not done. A few more questions.” Steven explained that he had to fly back to the United States to resume working on the biopic “Lincoln.” “I have a 7 a.m. call in Richmond, Virginia, tomorrow morning,” he said.

But he wanted to talk some more.

“I’m not 65 yet,” the director reminded us, with a chuckle, that his birthday is still a month away. His hair and beard all gray now, Steven is a benign, comforting presence—his voice mellow and soothing as he shared anecdotes as engrossing as his movies.

His latest, “The Adventures of Tintin,” has been hailed as a James Bond/Indiana Jones movie in performance capture/animation of the comic series by Belgian artist Georges Rémi, who wrote under the pen name Hergé. Steven read his first Tintin book, “The Seven Crystal Balls,” before moving on to the rest of the series. He shared his love of Hergé’s books with his kids.

Nonstop action

With Peter Jackson as producer, the director has crafted a 3D movie of nonstop action and thrills as young reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his loyal dog, Snowy (he almost steals the film) embark on a global adventure triggered by Tintin’s purchase of a vintage model ship. They encounter Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), an evil pirate (Daniel Craig) and a pair of bumbling detectives, Thompson & Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). It’s a movie for all ages, a treat that entire families can enjoy together.

Steven obviously enjoyed his collaboration with Peter (they will switch roles in the second “Tintin” movie with Steven as producer and Peter as director). “Peter is a very laid-back individual,” Steven said. “He’s like that college professor who doesn’t even look in the closet mirror when he dresses to go to class in the morning. And when he forgets an article of clothing, a student has to remind him because he would never even remember to put on his shoes. Peter is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in my entire life.”

Steven added that he discovered something about Peter “that I didn’t know he had because I didn’t meet him until recently. I gave him an Oscar for the third ‘Lord of the Rings.’ That’s how we met—in front of a billion people. We went on camera. What Peter has is an amazingly dry sense of humor. I made hay with that sense of humor. I used it as much as I possibly could.”

Great funny line

Peter, said Steven, also did some writing on “Tintin.” The screenplay is by Steven Moffat, Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright, but Steven revealed that “whenever Peter wrote a line or two, it was a really great funny line. So he did more than just be a producer on this. We never had a single argument, but we spent two years talking to each other on a two-way Polycom television hook-up (a satellite link-up) from LA to New Zealand (Peter’s home base and where Weta, his digital effects house, is located). Those were two full years of figuring out how to tell the story. That was the best part of the process before an animator drew a single frame of animation. We literally had 24 months of figuring out how to tell the story. That was the most creative period that we spent together.”

The two whiz filmmakers, with the help of Weta, virtually wrote “a handbook” in making “Tintin.” “Nobody made a movie like this before,” Steven said. “We didn’t know what this was until we got in the middle of making it. The learning curve was a collaboration between 60 amazing animators and another 300 illustrators and artists, Peter, three writers and me. What happened during those two years of preparation was trying to figure this thing out … Then it was three years of pure animation. But figuring it out was the learning curve. I looked forward to those broadcasts (via satellite) more than anything else.”

With the childlike enthusiasm that makes him a good storyteller, Steven described how he looked forward to the two-hour conversations he had with Peter and the rest of the team.

Most fun since ‘E.T.’

“When I saw my schedule and I’m meeting with Weta, Peter and Joe Lettieri (visual effects supervisor) at 3 to 5 p.m., I couldn’t wait for 3 p.m. to come along,” recalled Steven. “I’d be meeting with writers and looking at a cut of a movie but all I could think about were those coming two hours in the afternoon. Even though it was 28 years in my heart, two years of prep and three physical years making this film, this was the most fun I’ve had since ‘E.T.’ I can’t explain that.”

We asked Steven about Snowy, who is the exception—the dog is a completely digital creation but an absolute scene stealer. “I’ve worked with dogs before,” Steven said. “Dogs don’t always do what you tell them to do. Snowy did everything I told him to do. There wasn’t a single thing Snowy wouldn’t do.”

With a grin, Steven quipped: “Snowy never once stormed off to his kennel because he didn’t like what I was telling him. Not once. I was so lucky. Talk about control of the medium—this particular medium gives a director ultimate control. I had more control over the art of the movie than I’ve had over live action movies. It is not going to take me away from live action. I love live action.

“But I really think this medium gives the filmmaker total control … If the actor doesn’t give you the moment that you’re looking for, the animators can. The animators who will translate what the actors gave you can also overwrite the performance and give you a little bit more. So it’s an amazing opportunity to put onscreen everything you’ve ever wanted to put onscreen in this particular story.”

“Tintin” marks a first for Steven—it’s his first crack at directing an animated film. “It took something I desperately loved to get me to do my first animated movie.” He said, “I love animation. I produced several ‘Fievel’/‘An American Tail’ movies and ‘The Land Before Time.’ I never wanted to physically direct one because I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think I knew how. I thought you needed to be a physical artist to be able to be a director of animation. All the directors at DreamWorks Animation are former artists.”

Laughing, he admitted: “You ought to see my storyboards. They’re embarrassing, but ‘Tintin’ gave me a chance to do a hybrid technology. To take everything I knew about how to make a movie, how to tell a story and combine it all with a new kind of digital animation, I was more in a comfort zone with this particular medium than I would have been in the old days with two-dimensional cell animation.”

Inspired by Hitchcock?

Told that a scene evokes Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “The Birds,” Steven denied the inspiration and instead offered a funny explanation. “That was not from ‘The Birds,’” he said. “That was basically from my dislike of opera. I find opera so boring … Thank goodness the great Renee Fleming did all the singing for us.”

As for the man behind the accomplished director, Steven offered us a glimpse into the Spielberg household. “The kids come first,” he stressed. “I get up at 6 every single morning. I get breakfast made for the kids, and my wife (actress Kate Capshaw) helps me. I do that breakfast every morning. I get the kids in the car and I take them to school. I do the car pool five days a week.”

He continued: “Then from school, I have to drive an hour to get to my office in the Universal lot. That’s a long trip … but I do it. That’s my whole thing … But I can still make movies even though they don’t come before my kids. My kids can preempt anything. When I get a call from my kids [while] on the set, everything stops. I take the call. It has always been that way. I don’t know how to live my life any other way than that.”

Deeply personal

He disclosed a very personal project that has been on his mind for years. “I’ve had a story for a long time about my mom and dad that I’m too chicken to make,” he said. “I’m going to make it someday. But it’s hard because I’m taking some deeply personal events of my mom, dad, three sisters and my life and putting it up there for the whole world to see. I’ve gotten gun shy about that. It’s such a personal look that my sister wrote the script. I have to go to Oz to ask the wizard for some courage before I make that movie.”

Looking into the future, Steven refused to divulge his favorite “Tintin” book, saying, “I can’t do that yet. That wouldn’t be fair because if we get to make three movies, I want to make that for the third movie.”

There’s no word yet if he or Peter will direct that third film. But the second one is already being developed. Steven said, “I was trying to get the studios to finance the three movies back to back, but they wouldn’t do it. We got Paramount and Sony to agree to cofinance one film with a caveat that they would give us the money to develop and ‘storyboard’ the second movie. That’s why we’re well in our way into the second movie already. If these movies are successful, we’ll make as many ‘Tintin’ movies audiences want to see.”

There’s no stopping this “almost-65” genius. “My body hasn’t been telling me to slow down yet,” he said with his boyish grin. “Every time I find something new, it’s always about a story. Whenever I find something new to do, I get excited again. I become a kid again. The fountain of youth for me is an idea or a story. I either come up with it myself or I read something that somebody else writes and I say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to tell that story. I’ve got to make that movie.’ That’s what keeps me going.”

The cofounder of DreamWorks Pictures admitted that he’s much more interested in finding that new story than sitting behind a desk running a studio, “which I also do, by the way …  I’m looking for stories that I think will make good movies with Stacy (DreamWorks CEO), my partner. I’m also looking for stories that I think will make good movies for me as a director.”

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