It has been a long journey to meet Steven Spielberg. I was first flown from Los Angeles to Paris. The following morning, I was put on a train to Brussels where I was introduced to the fictional hero of his new movie, the eponymous Tintin, and by the evening I was back in Paris to attend the premiere of the movie, where I watched a rapturous French audience rise to their feet and applaud the iconic director for almost 10 minutes. He had just flown by helicopter from Brussels, where he attended an earlier screening of the movie.
It’s my third day in Paris and I am ready to meet the world’s most famous film director, who took a weekend break from the shooting of another movie “Lincoln”, in order to promote The Adventures of Tintin.
In addition to shooting Lincoln, the prolific filmmaker is in the midst of making the second instalment of Tintin and is releasing War Horse next month. He also runs the DreamWorks movie studio, which has produced this year box office hits such as The Help, Real Steel, Trasformers and Super 8.
Remarkably though, when Spielberg walks into the room, shaking hands and patting shoulders, one gets the impression that he has no worries on his mind. He is so modest and unassuming, you almost miss the fact that you are in the company of the most successful living director, whose films have broken box office records several times and won countless awards including several Oscars. To date, Spielberg films have grossed over $8.5 billion.
Though he feels very lucky, the master of cinema is overwhelmed by his own success. “If you told me 40 years back that I was about to have 7 children and a career, I would have said ‘of course you’re joking,’” he laughs. “If I knew what was ahead of me back then, I wouldn’t have gotten out of bed. It would have been too oppressive. It’s just too much work because I’m able to take one thing at a time and I’ve always been able to live my life doing one thing at a time even though you may think I am doing 3 things at the same time. It would have been terribly frightening and disconcerting if I knew what was to come.”
In spite of his fanatical dedication to film, Spielberg insists that his kids come first and movies come second.
“I get up at 6 o’clock every morning and I get breakfast made for the kids, and my wife helps me, and I get the kids in the car and I take them to school. Then from the school, which was in Culver City, I have to drive an hour to get to my office on the Universal lot,” he smiles.
“My kids can pre-empt anything. When I get a call from my kids on the set, everything stops. I take the call. It’s always been that way and I don’t know how to live my life any other way than that.”
His kids were also instrumental in keeping his interest in Tintin alive. Spielberg first heard of Tintin in 1981, when a French critic compared Raiders of the Lost Ark to Belgian artist Hergé’s comic books about an intrepid journalist.
“I had no kids in 1981 when I read the 7 Crystal Balls. That was the first Tintin I ever read. Then I got all the Tintin books, then I started having kids in 1985 and then they started reading the books so it kept it alive and active in my life. That’s why I stuck with it.”
The wide-eyed, boyish reporter and his larger-than-life adventures have captured the imagination of millions around the world, but he is virtually unknown in America. Spielberg’s movie, The Adventures of Tintin, which is based on the seventh book, The Secret of the Unicorn, will most likely change that.
In this first screen-adapted adventure, Tintin (Jamie Bell), with his dog Snowy, embarks on a perilous mission to unravel the mystery of a model ship that he purchases in a market. His journey takes him to sea and beyond, where he meets Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who helps to beat his nemesis villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig) and find a vast fortune hidden in a shipwreck called the Unicorn.
In 1983, Hergé contacted Spielberg after he had seen Raiders of The Lost Ark and asked him to adapt his Tintin books. Flattered by the offer, Spielberg, who was shooting Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in England, agreed to travel to Brussels to meet with Hergé, but sadly the latter passed away before Spielberg’s arrival.
“I related to Tintin and the story, because, like him, I spend my entire life digging around for a good story. So in that sense I think we’re both after the same passion. I’ve got a camera and he’s got a pencil,” he laughs.
Hence Hergé’s passing didn’t diminish Spielberg’s passion to endow Tintin with a new life on the big screen.
“I was trying to get the studios to finance 3 movies back to back but they wouldn’t do it.” Eventually however, the pioneer of the modern Hollywood blockbuster managed to brew a deal with Paramount and Sony pictures.
Soon new challenges arose. Spielberg was faced by the impossibility of casting actors who looked like the iconic characters that Hergé drew. Hence he had to resort to CGI animation.
Although he had produced animated movies before, the director of Jaws and Jurassic Park had never directed one. “ I didn’t think I knew how. I thought I needed to be a physical artist to be able to be a director of animation. I am not an artist. You ought to see my storyboards. They are embarrassing,” he laughs.
Stunned by the motion-capture work in the 2004 Oscar-winning movie The Lord of the Rings, Spielberg sought the help of its director Peter Jackson, who was quick to oblige and agreed to produce the movie.
In 2009, Spielberg and his actors began working on the same soundstage, known as a performance capture “volume,” that James Cameron employed in Avatar.
Unlike in 2D animation, where the animators use the actors’ performance as a guide to create the characters, in Performance Capture, the computer scans the most subtle movement, such as a twitch or a blink, that the actor does and later projects it on the character.
“I was more in a comfort zone with this particular medium that I would have been in the old days with two-dimensional cell animation. It gave me a chance to take everything I knew about how to make a movie and combine it with a new kind of digital animation.”
Not only did this technology enable the 3-time Oscar-winning director to continue working with actors as if he was making a live action movie, it also empowered him to digitally overwrite and enhance actors performance in post-production.
“What I’ve always done with an actor is I make them my collaborator, I make them my partner. I don’t tell them what to do. I ask them questions: How do you feel about this? Where do you want to go with this? What did you prepare last night? What have you been thinking?”
“Directing means I direct you to turn right but that’s not what directing is. Directing is a director-actor agreement and collaboration where you sit with the actor and together you figure out how to form a feeling or an idea. You don’t do it by telling somebody what to do,” he stresses.
It took Spielberg 3 years of preparation with an army of 60 animators, 300 illustrators and artists and 2 writers, followed by 3 years of shooting to bring Tintin to life. “ Nonetheless, this was the most fun I’ve had since E.T. and I can’t explain that,” he smiles.
Like most of Spielberg’s movies, Tintin is imbued with spectacular visuals and suspenseful action scenes, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats for the whole length of the movie. The master of suspense concedes that sometimes audiences figure in his mind while envisioning and making a movie.
“When I make a historical drama, I am not thinking about the audience because I don’t even expect an audience to show up, “ he laughs. “It’s quite liberating in that sense that I can just sort of purely tell the story with accuracy and I don’t have to worry about doing something overly dramatic, because I’m going to get the audience to jump out of their seats. But when I make a movie like Tintin, I am the audience and I’m making the movie for myself sitting with the audience.”
Indeed, Spielberg cares so much about pleasing his audience that he seems to be feeling betrayed when I tell him that his name was blacked-out from the TinTin posters in Lebanon by a cinema employee, who was enacting the Arab League boycott of the filmmaker’s movies, which was issued in 2007 following a $1 million donation made by Spielberg’s charity, The Righteous Persons Foundation, for relief efforts in Israel during its war with Hizbullah in 2006.
“It’s political,” he protests. “It sends a message to Israel, not to me. It’s the world we live in today and we have to exist within it anyway we possibly can. I’ll keep making movies and I’ll keep hoping that someday in Lebanon they include my name on one of my pictures.”
He was later relieved to hear that following an outcry from his Lebanese fans, the aforementioned Cinema has replaced the posters with new ones, fired the overzealous employee and issued an apology.
This is not the first time the Jewish director has been splattered by the mud of Mideast politics. In 2005, the Israeli Government and conservative Jewish organizations called for boycotting his movie Munich, a political thriller about Israel’s retaliation against the Black September members who killed the Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic games, accusing him of humanizing the Palestinians and questioning the morality of Israel’s reaction.
During our conversation, Spielberg reveals that he has a 7 am call in Richmond, Virginia the following morning, yet in spite of his pressing business and the relentless cries of his publicist to move on, he insists on continuing to talk. Remarkably, the 65-year-old still exudes the same child-like enthusiasm that often characterises his movies.
“I’ve heard people write about the fact that I’ve got the child in me and it’s still alive. I think that’s probably true, but I can only be whoever I was when I made Sugarland Express (his first feature). I think I’m a wiser version of that same person now and a little more tarnished too, a little more scraped up,” he smiles.