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‘It’s still a thrill to tell a story,’ says Steven Spielberg

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Steven Spielberg (Illustration by Neil Portnoy)

Steven Spielberg (Illustration by Neil Portnoy)

The man who introduced audiences to space aliens, raptors, and sharks out for a human snack has a confession.

“I’m scared of the dark except in a motion picture theater,” Steven Spielberg says.

At age 72, however, he’s ready to face his fears. Take his new film “Ready Player One,” which received raves at a special screening at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. It’s based on Ernest Cline’s best-seller about teenagers who enter a virtual reality world called the Oasis in 2045. “My initial reaction was they’re going to need a younger director for this,” Spielberg said. To which Cline said: “I only wanted Spielberg.”

Age is just a feeling to the highest grossing film director of all time. He explains his job this way: “I don’t dream at night. I dream at day. I dream all day. I’m dreaming for a living.”

The dream merchant whose movies have grossed billions has this summer’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and is set to direct another “Indiana Jones” film.

Review-Journal: How do you like to spend Sundays?

Spielberg: Spending family time is always my priority. It has always been that way and Sunday is the perfect time to just be with the people you love. That’s how I relax. Kate and I like to stay home and enjoy having the kids around and the older ones who come over. It’s a great time to just sit and talk. I think being a good parent is being a good listener. So, we’ll just hang out, eat, and, yes, watch movies. I have tried to instill the feeling I have about movies in my kids on those Sundays. Basically, I think every time I watch a movie, it’s magic.

Horses are also a special part of your R&R.

I live on a property with 10 horses. My wife rides dressage and so does my daughter. I’ve lived with horses for 15 years. I wake up in the morning, open the front door and hear and smell them. I really like it. You look into the eye of a horse and know he’s feeling your heartbeat.

You’ve been to Vegas for CinemaCon over the years. Why is that important?

It’s a wonderful to talk about what’s happening in our industry and introduce our movies to the people who will show them to the audiences. It’s also a wonderful way to celebrate the artists and business people who make this industry special.

Do you still have the same feeling when you’re standing behind that camera that you did as a younger artist?

I have the same excitement when I make a movie today that I did as a boy making films with my 8 mm camera. That feeling has never gone away. It never gets old. It’s still a thrill to tell a story.

What was the appeal of “Ready Player One?”

I think anybody who read the book who is in the movie industry would have loved to turn this into a film. The only thing is this book has 11 movies in it. It was a matter of trying to figure out how to tell a story about both of these worlds and make it an express train and cautionary tale that asks the question: Where do we want to exist? In reality? Or in an escapist universe? Those themes were so profound for me.

The reason I wanted to tell this story was that it asked: What kind of world could we live in just a few decades from now. This version felt so dystopian. People are leaving the country. But then, all of a sudden, VR gives you another world you can exist in. You can do anything in that world because there are special suits that give you feedback that approximates touch, sensuality and even pain. The line between a real life and a virtual life can become virtually nonexistent.

How do you film a movie set in a virtual world?

The cast needed to understand what world they were in, so we all had VR goggles. Inside the goggles was a complete build of the current set. But when you took those goggles off, it was just 4,000 square feet of empty space on the set. Put the goggles back on and you were in the VR world. It was like having a daily out-of-body experience.

How are you embracing technology advancements? You could go back in now and digitize scenes from your past movies.

When “E.T.” was re- released, I digitized five shots. Digital enhancements is what it’s called. Marketing at Universal thought I should do a few touch-ups. The re-release happened and it erupted into a large negative voice asking me, “How dare you ruin our favorite childhood film?” I learned that it’s good to look to the future, but you don’t mess with past. What’s done is done. I will never go back, enhance or change one of my older films.

How do you choose projects?

I call it “that old familiar feeling.” It’s the only way I can test how emotionally involved I want to be. I have to know if it’s true love. Then I will read the script again just to make sure. And when I throw my hands up in the air and say, “I surrender, dear,” then I know I have to do it. Basically, I’m always looking for something that can move me … to tears, to take action, to remember my heart.

Do you get nervous before a film opens?

I sweat more making movies than I do on the treadmill.

You have seven children plus grandchildren now. What life advice do you give them?

I’ve always said to my kids that the hardest thing in life is to listen to your instincts. I remind them that instincts always whisper and never shout. So, every day of your life, you have to be willing to hear the whispers in your ears. You hear the whispers and then if it tickles your heart, you do it.

“Ready Player One” has so many Easter eggs that celebrate the ’80s. What is your relationship to nostalgia?

I have the most intimate relationship with nostalgia. … When I was hanging out with Coppola, Scorsese and De Palma as young guys, I filmed them. I have about 60 hours of footage of all of us growing up and making movies together. Probably 80 percent of that footage is stuff they won’t ever want released!

How are your home movies?

(Laughing) My most prized possessions are all the videotapes and films of my family growing up. I have an editor who cuts them together. Each year, I make sure I do a finished film — sound, music and all — that’s the past 12 months in the life of my wife, kids and grandchildren. We have the annual family movie night.

What’s the Rotten Tomatoes score?

It’s 100 percent positive with great snacks.


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