No other American film auteur in the modern era has had a greater impact on the industry than Steven Spielberg. The man who created E.T. and Jurassic Park has personalized the art of filmic storytelling to a greater extent than any other director. In fact, it could be argued that Spielberg has so popularized the auteurist tradition that directors who have been inspired by the Indiana Jones movies and Poltergeist believe putting their personal stamp on a movie represents the height of the director’s art, the norm rather than the exception. Contributions from the great European directors of Francois Truffaut’s generation, for example, are expressionist and philosophical contemplations of post-war angst. Spielberg’s timeless stories also mirror the hopes and fears of their time, but are remarkable in that they honor the contributions of great directors from the past while breaking their own distinctive ground.
Spielberg has always insisted that storytelling is his aim, not the highly personalized production of a singular perspective. And yet his films are the result of an original and well-conceived notion of filmmaking that is distinctly his own. Such was the case with the 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan. “Though Spielberg likes to make statements on the order of ‘I am not an auteur; I’m a team player,’ he immediately set about Spielbergizing the production with his by-now perfected system of old-fashioned studio style efficiency” (Brode 266). Not only was the idea for Saving Private Ryan the product of Spielberg’s unique artistic vision, his
innovative approach to authenticity led to a “Spielbergized” production that included using actual amputees during the D-Day landing scene. This led one publication to designate it the most realistic staging of a battle ever conceived.
Spielberg’s brand of auteurist filmmaking is unique in that it is almost seamlessly integrated into the overall production of his films. Consequently, Saving Private Ryan, for example, which takes place in a common movie setting, stands out though it bears no overwhelming signs of a director’s influence. It succeeds because the story comes first. This may be the most notable achievement of all for such an original, distinguished and influential artist. There is no resemblance to the classic image of the film auteur. Orson Welles, whose films influenced Spielberg, was an incomparably unique talent in his own right, yet his artistic vision is so indelibly super-imposed on his movies that they are practically extensions of his personality. In watching Citizen Kane, it can be difficult to separate Welles from the story (the fact that he is the star is an obvious factor). Much the same may be said of John Huston who, like Welles, came from an acting background (Huston’s father was a famous actor) and whose conception of a film production flowed from the perspective of an actor. It took a director of Spielberg’s caliber to change the concept of the tempestuous, demanding artist behind the camera.
Spielberg’s impact on the film industry has been revolutionary, but in a non-intrusive manner because its influence is most keenly felt from within the system. As such, some have described Spielberg as an “internal auteur” (Buckland 15). “Like a handful of other contemporary Hollywood directors, Spielberg is an auteur, not because he is working against the Hollywood industry (as were the auteurs in classical Hollywood), for the industry is no longer
governed by mass production. Instead, Spielberg is an auteur because he occupies key positions in the industryhe is therefore attempting to vertically reintegrate the stages of filmmaking” (Buckland 15). Spielberg’s influence has been to institute a more organic method of filmmaking than was typically employed during the big studio era. In other words, he has changed the system from within.
Spielberg has also altered the way filmgoers view a movie. Many of his most memorable films are predicated on circumstances and facts that are obscure, a tactic which Spielberg uses to engage and captivate an audience. In developing the storyline for Jurassic Park, writers were busy conceiving of the dinosaurs, including what exactly they would look like based on science and the archaeological record. One of the most important animals portrayed in the movie are the raptors, which present a constant threat to the characters. However, it was not at that time known exactly how large raptors were, and the writers developed a creature based on assumptions from paleontologists that a raptor had been relatively short. Spielberg decided to project an image that was much larger, nearly six feet tall and which presents a much more frightening image. (During production, paleontologists discovered the remains of a raptor in the Western U.S. that actually confirmed Spielberg’s concept.) As such, Spielberg interjected an element of his own conception, yet one designed to make the story itself more effective.
For Spielberg, bringing the audience as close as possible to the characters in his stories is another way to make a movie more engaging. Close-ups and intimate, even ominous lighting are frequently used to provide a compelling sense of place and foreboding. Janusz Kaminski, a photographer who has worked with on several Spielberg projects, explained the production
crew’s approach on Minority Report: “Steven likes the actors to be as close to the camera as possible, so we’re most often shooting with a 17mm, 21mm, or 27mmWe staged a lot of scenes in wide shots that have a lot of things happening within the frame” (Buckland 202). Back lighting, another common feature of Spielberg films, is used in his films to convey the presence of danger and heighten the tension of a scene.
Minority Report also showed how willing Spielberg is to experiment and innovate in the interest of getting the feel he wants in a scene. By combining long shots and extensive camera movement within the scene, he broke somewhat from the usual hallmarks of his shooting and production techniques. Adaptation and experimentation may not always be typical of the auteur, at least in the traditional sense. However, as Brode points out, Spielberg is anything but a traditional auteur. “An auteur, as Spielberg should know, is always a team player and first among equals owing to his central conception; ‘one man, one movie’ refers not to the workload but a film’s overriding vision” (Brode 266).
It cannot be denied that Spielberg has done as much as anyone to redefine what it means to be a film auteur. In truly democratic fashion, he utilizes and coordinates all aspects of filmmaking, from conception to story development and production. As such, he is centrally involved in each step along the way, rather than concentrating most heavily on those parts of a movie that defines it as the director’s own. In other words, Spielberg does not seek to insert himself in each film, as Alfred Hitchcock did with his brief cameo appearances, which his fans always look for, or dominate actors, as David Lean sometimes did when he became frustrated with a scene.
Spielberg also likes to temporarily disorient the audience as a means of fixing the viewer’s attention on the story. Such is the case in Jurassic Park, which features arguably the most jarring opening in any Spielberg movie:
“The film opens in typical Spielberg fashion: menacing sounds played over a black screen. Especially for an audience sitting in a dark theater, the loud sounds with no visual reference can create a tense, unsettling feeling. The first shot to appear on-screen, several seconds after we hear the sounds, illustrates those sounds – trees and foliage being disrupted by an off-screen presence, illuminated with Spielberg’s signature backlit and diffused lighting style, which, in this instance, is signifying a threatening presence” (Buckland 176).
The opening of Jurassic Park marks a gradual evolution of Spielberg’s storytelling style and the success with which he establishes the audience’s expectations for what is to follow. He accomplishes this with minimal dialogue; the only verbal information the viewer receives is a series of cryptic orders barked at workers by a foreman. This scene culminates in a horrifically violent conclusion with the apparent death of an unfortunate crewman. Ultimately, we realize that the worker was devoured by a raptor, but confirmation of this only arrives later in a subsequent scene in which an attorney mentions a lawsuit filed by the worker’s family. Until then, thanks to the blending of light, shadow and motion, all the audience really knows is that some tragic event has occurred, and that more of the same can be expected. Here again, there is evidence of Spielberg’s fondness for close-up camera angles and rapid, violent motion.
Jurassic Park was just one of many Spielberg movies that have been identified as “blockbusters,” sweeping, big-budget films that often have as much of an effect on the film industry as on the viewing public. Spielberg is often credited with having created the blockbuster, at least in the modern sense. That he has done so is attributable to his personal take on the concept of film auteurism. During the 1950s, Andre Bazin spelled out his definition of a film auteur, which he explained as a unique artistic combination of the popular and the industrial (Buckland 13). This explains Steven Spielberg’s modern reinvention of auteurism. Spielberg opened his own film studio specifically so he could have complete control over his movies, which he wanted to produce using techniques and processes that had been lost in the formulaic Hollywood studio system. It also gave him the freedom to explore themes that mean the most to him personally.
“Spielberg’s brand image is closely linked to his internal auteur status, particularly the themes conveyed in his films” (Buckland 23). One of the most prominent is his exploration of the family, its strengths and its vulnerabilities in the face of crisis. In Poltergeist, the Freeling family is confronted with a supernatural danger that defies explanation. In order to overcome the danger, each family member is forced to grow as an individual, to expand their beliefs and consciousness, in order for the family to survive as a unit. Although Spielberg is officially credited as writer and producer on Poltergeist, his trademark back lighting and close-up camera angles serve to heighten tension, much as they do in his other films. There is a thematic incongruity at work in Poltergeist, which is a horror movie set in a very average-looking suburban environment.
The Freelings live a complacent upper-middle-class life, in which nothing out of the ordinary seems to happen. The film portrays a family that has never known danger and conflict in a crisis that is almost inconceivable in such an innocuous modern landscape. Legendary horror director Tobe Hooper has directorial credit on Poltergeist, but it is clear from the collaborative creative process that developed between the two of them that Spielberg was the guiding vision behind the subject matter, and the engaging ambiguity of the story’s setting. Spielberg has explained that the story came out of his typewriter, but it is also true that key decisions as to look and visual effects, decisions that were often made “on the fly,” were a result of the Hooper-Spielberg collaboration (Buckland 157).
Steven Spielberg has redefined the concept of film auteur, as Truffaut defined it. The ability of the director to impress his personality and artistic vision on his movies has come to mean something more than it once did. Spielberg’s films are the result of a form of auteurism that is process oriented. His interest is not in imposing a signature look or story line, but in organizing all elements of the movie-making process in order to tell a story that engages the audience in uniquely engaging ways. As an internal auteur, he combines core themes with the industrial artist’s ability to delight, frighten and amaze the viewer through a discriminating combination of lighting, camera angles, special effects and computer-generated imagery. For Steven Spielberg, the story comes first. This is his creative modus operandi and the legacy of his film canon.
Brode, Douglas. The Films of Steven Spielberg. Seattle, WA: Citadel, 2000.
Buckland, Warren. Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood
Blockbuster. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.
Wasser, Frederick. Steven Spielberg’s America. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010.