‘The most important star is the story you are telling. It’s not who you put in the movie’https://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/the-most-important-star-is-the-story-you-are-telling-its-not-who-you-put-in-the-movie/

‘The most important star is the story you are telling. It’s not who you put in the movie’

In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24x7 with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta,Hollywood director Steven Spielberg speaks about his trip to India 30 years ago,his meeting with Amitabh Bachchan and his future projects

In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24×7 with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta,Hollywood director Steven Spielberg speaks about his trip to India 30 years ago,his meeting with Amitabh Bachchan and his future projects

There are only two words that describe my guest this week—a living legend. Not just a living legend,but somebody who is getting younger,more creative and more entertaining by the year,redefining himself and also rediscovering himself. Steven Spielberg,welcome to Walk the Talk.

That was a good introduction,I appreciate that. Thank you very much.

What else can you do? I can eat up the rest of this time talking about a frightening shark,a dinosaur lost in time,a loveable extra-terrestrial,concentration camps,a most wonderful horse,and now this brilliant political drama on Lincoln.


Which one of those do you want to talk about?

Steven Spielberg in India is a special occasion. We don’t see you in India that often.

No,this is my first trip in 30 years. I am ashamed to say it,which essentially means that I’ve been very busy for the last 30 years. But I love India. I made a part of my third movie—Close Encounters of the Third Kind—here in India.

I think you recorded some of it during the Emergency in India,which is a remarkable feat because we had so much xenophobia then.

Exactly. We shot a little bit of the second Indiana Jones here. I found this country to be so spiritually free in contrast to my own country where everybody is a little uptight. I used to come here in the early 1980s just because I found a place that made me feel unnoticed,at one with everyone and a beautiful spiritual home.

That will not happen now because we have changed India completely in those 30 years. Mostly for the better I think,but in various areas for the worse. So there will be no anonymity for you.

No,I’ve already discovered that. That’s gone. But it’s nice to finally be back after all this time.

Every kid beyond the age of eight will know Steven Spielberg.

Okay,I guess that’s good. You know,when I make a movie,I make it from two perspectives. One perspective is the kid that I always am and always will be. The other perspective is the adult who is very strict with that kid and testing that child by saying: ‘Are you sure you want to tell that story? Are you sure you want to go there?’ So,in a way,there is a whole kind of a contradiction when I make a movie because now as an older person,66 years old,I still sometimes feel like a kid when I am being a movie director.

You will be a very young politician in India at 66.

Good,but you have nothing to fear. I am not getting into politics—here or anywhere else.

I’ll tell you about a conversation I had with David Cameron a couple of weeks back. I realised that the Prime Minister of Britain is 10 years younger than me. I said: ‘You must find it challenging to talk to our politicians,who are twice your age.’ He is a smart politician and said: ‘You must always respect your elders.’ I was about to tell him ‘You must have some practice talking to the Queen’,but I figured that it may not be politically correct. So age is an issue and I ask you because you seem to love children. You use a lot of children as characters in your films.

I have seven children at home. On screen,and behind the scenes,I’ve got a lot of kids in my life.

I bet they boss you around at home.

Of course,the kids boss me around. I direct the kids professionally and my own children direct me personally.

Do they review your work and say: ‘This didn’t work’?

Oh,if my kids see a movie they don’t like,they tell me immediately. And worse,they ignore it. They don’t ever talk about it again. There is nothing worse than making a movie and being excited that your kids see it and then they say: ‘It’s okay,dad,or there are parts in it that I liked.’ And then they just don’t talk about it. It happens.

‘I’m busy doing something else and I’m busy watching something else.’ The new generation will not say this movie doesn’t work. If they don’t like it,I think they will say: ‘This movie sucks.’ That’s the language they use.

I don’t think my kids use that language. They’ll be very honest with me. They just say that they didn’t find it very interesting. With kids today,the attention span has been reduced to a very small measure of time and space,with the social networking phenomenon. Kids now want their information immediately and if they don’t find it interesting,they basically forget it and move on to the next piece of business. I think that was not what my own generation was raised to accept in my own children. But that’s just the way the world is.

You remind me of something Larry King wrote in his autobiography,Anything Goes,where he says: ‘All of us had a wonderful time with the TV,until we discovered a TV with a remote control.’ After that,now comes the blinking red light and the BlackBerry. So,it’s even more challenging to catch attention.

When I grew up,we watched television. Today,television watches us and talks to us and it gets us to interact with it. It’s a phenomenon that I don’t think any of us saw coming. When you see a large group of young people at the airport,waiting for a flight,they’re all looking down at their phones or tablets. We’re losing eye contact. That’s the thing I miss the most,that loss of eye contact. They used to sit back at airports and train stations and watch people. But now they’re just watching their device.

When you drive into India and out,do you watch your device or do you look out of the window?

Out of the window.

So is there anything that caught your eye while looking around?

A lot. There is more traffic. But people are essentially the same. I mean,they’re going about their business. I find people endlessly compelling. I am a people watcher. I think my movies have shown that.

So let’s get into that. What do you find endlessly compelling when you look at a bunch of people walking anywhere in India?

I come from a place where there is a lot of self-awareness. It seems here in India people are less self aware and more aware that they are breathing oxygen and they’re walking to get some place and they are passing other people. It may or may not matter to them,but they are aware that they are passing other people. That hasn’t changed in 30 years.

So when do we see you doing something in India? I know while making Indiana Jones,we drove you out.

No,you didn’t drive me out. I have not found a subject that can take place in India yet. I haven’t found the right story.

Now we are providing the setting for Af-Pak movies in India. Two of the major ones have been shot here. That’s the other issue. Now we see your collaboration with Reliance,Anil and Amitabh. This is a wonderful joint venture. We see UTV investing in some foreign films. Indian investment is going to Hollywood. Will this Indian partnership remain like a venture capital partnership? Do you see it becoming more creative? Will it become an intellectual exchange as well?

It already is. It was an intellectual exchange the day I met Amitabh in New York City. I saw that he wasn’t just interested in making a material investment. He wanted to make a creative investment. He wanted to help us get back on our feet as filmmakers and producers,and form a vibrant company with an international outreach.

Will you describe that meeting?

Well,he is very funny. I didn’t know him before. He told me three or four jokes that were very funny. It loosened me up,made me relaxed in his company and I made him relax in mine. We hit it off immediately. We liked each other.

Let me put forward a proposition. You and Amitabh Bachchan are both stars,each one in his own universe. Is it relaxing when one megastar meets another,who doesn’t exactly have to be in awe of the other,because you two were in your own bubbles,two very big bubbles?

I couldn’t relate to his bubble,but I had tremendous respect for him. I knew about his contribution to the country. He was interested in movies,not just to make a lot of money but he was interested in a cultural exchange,which interested me. When we met for the first time,I didn’t see myself as very important. When he was meeting me for the first time,I don’t think he was seeing himself as very important.

That’s the point I was trying to make. That when you meet somebody who is also a megastar,you are not rivals because you are in different bubbles,you come from different universes. Then,respect replaces awe.

The respect comes from what we have in common in the room. And when we find commonality in a social moment—our meeting wasn’t just business,it was social—you feel instantly comfortable. You can talk to the person,you can confide in the person,you could be honest with the person.

The other thing about stardom. In India now,the benchmark is what we call a Rs 100-crore film,which is roughly $18.5 million. You cannot make a film like that without a megastar. It has to be a Bachchan or a Khan. You’ve made big blockbusters both with and without stars. Do you see India being able to challenge the star system? Can you make a big hit in India without any of the top five or six?

In my experience,I have found that the most important star is the story you are telling. It’s not who you put in the movie. There are some notable exceptions. I had a great story about Abraham Lincoln,but that film would never have been made without the great performance of Daniel Day Lewis. But a really great story should be enough,with great actors in support of that story to get an audience.

Anil told me two things. One is you choose your actors once you’ve read the script.

That’s right. I don’t design a movie for an actor or a megastar. But I basically select who among everyone,stars and non-stars,would be the right person for the character.

Nobody talks more honestly about this than Amitabh Bachchan himself. He spoke about his experience with Manmohan Desai,the great filmmaker of his time. Desai once said: ‘You can’t beat up just 20 bad guys in this film. You did that last time. This time,you have to beat up 40.’ The other thing that Anil told me is that you will not make a film until you are fully convinced about the script.

The script is the most important thing for me. The script is the raison d’etre,the whole reason for the existence of the project. I often say: ‘If it’s not on the page,it’s not on the stage.’ Now,I could amend that a little bit by saying that improvisation goes a long way. You could improve the script on the stage but the essentials need to be on paper before you can realise it on the movie screen.

My old professor in the US,Steve Cohen,used to tell us a joke: A budding novelist—you can call him a filmmaker—went to ask people what’s the most popular subject to write a novel on. He was told three subjects—Abraham Lincoln,doctors and dogs. So he wrote a novel about Abraham Lincoln’s doctor’s dog. That’s how sometimes films are made,to see what works these days,particularly in India.

The experiment that I’d like to conduct someday is to take an American movie and remake that film in India. Take that same story which we feel is an international story,that which could be enjoyed by every country. And remake that same story with an Indian director,an Indian screenwriter to do the necessary adaptation and an entire Indian cast.

We’ve begun to see the rise of young Indian directors.

Most of them are half my age,by the way.

Walking down Champs-Elysees,I was very happy to see a hoarding for an Indian film which described the director as India’s Tarantino.

That’s great!

The director we’re speaking about is Anurag Kashyap. Coming back to Lincoln,I’m a political journalist and I note with dismay the great anti-politician wave sweeping the world. In the film,you make the point that politicians play a great role.

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Yes,they do. Politicians saved American democracy. Abraham Lincoln and many of his rivals basically saved the great democratic experiment.

Many Americans say they are not continuing to do so these days.

But there is common ground to be found. Barack Obama is a great leader. He is fighting tooth and nail to find that common ground right now.

For me,the most memorable sequence is when Lincoln’s wife tells him that he can’t have so much popular support and do nothing with it. To me,it translates into: ‘You can’t have public office and not treat it as public trust.’

He was great with political theatre,he was a great artiste as a politician. The thing that Lincoln never did in his entire political career is that he never squandered an opportunity. He never didn’t take advantage of being able to tell a story,to make people laugh in a room,to relax them,and then to tell them what he needs them to do.

We are a family of animal lovers,so I cannot let you go without talking about War Horse. From where did that horse come into your thought process?

My youngest daughter has just turned 16,she is an equestrian. She is a hunter jumper. She’s been riding competitively since she was four years old. We live with 10 horses. When the play opened on the West End in London,I flew there to see the play with my wife. We both fell in love with the play because we live with these 10 wonderful horses. I can relate to the subject matter.

Because everybody loved the horse,it tugged at everybody’s heartstrings.

It tugged at my heartstrings too. Living with horses is one thing,but directing a horse is a whole different kettle of fish. Walking over to the horse and actually trying to get the horse to hit the mark,stay on the mark and get off the mark when you need it to leave the mark.

You can take a horse to water,but you can’t make it drink.

That’s right. You can take a horse to a set,but you can’t make him stay on the set. I found that horses are among the smartest animals. It wasn’t something that I expected to be able to say someday.

It’s also about a horse in the hands of Steven Spielberg.

They mostly listen to me but not always.

Tell us something about your next project. I know that something is brewing in your head and it is very contemporary.

Well,I have a lot of things brewing in my head but so far they’re mixing metaphors. Someday,I’m interested in telling a story of Martin Luther King,who you know was very inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. I’m also interested in telling a story of the future of computers,how they may someday take over the world. I have a project called Robopocalypse which is in development right now.

Did I hear WikiLeaks somewhere?

That’s not my movie. DreamWorks is co-producing a movie about the founding of WikiLeaks. That’s not something I’m directing.

I would like to express a wish to you. In our country,we do a very bad job of our history. We have a wonderful history,but it gets politicised and becomes contentious. We don’t examine our historical figures as you have done in Lincoln. So why don’t you come to India and do an epic on anybody—Buddha,Ashoka,Chandragupta,Akbar,Gandhi,Nehru—we have many themes and stories for you. But it needs a Spielberg to come and do justice to it.


I think it needs an Indian director to tell those stories and maybe I could help in the background.

I’m sure it would be inspired by Spielberg.

Thank you. Great to meet you.

Transcribed by Pranay Parab