Director: Susan Lacy
Cinematographer: Ed Marritz and Samuel Painter
Producer: Susan Lacy, Jessica Levin, and Emma Pildes
by Jon Cvack
NOTE: This was written about eighteen months ago before I got onto a pretty good gig directing full time. Before starting this blog, I wrote on movies for about a year and a half both out of embarrassment to put up anything. It created a backlog that's about eighteen months old from when I watched the film.
It’s been a slow January, which is what I expected after a freak professional accident offset plans I had for continuing work on what began as a YouTube series, evolved toward a documentary, and then crashed and burned through a simple and stupid mistake. I can’t go into the details, other than to say it was an interesting, and at times, uneasy month and change. Although I’ve gone through it before, there’s something about freelance that prevents me from ever being comfortable; where no matter how much money was made or great of a project, and all the other projects before which led to that, I become convinced I’ll never work again. I once ran into a guy I went to school with on a train from Chicago in the middle of the night who was a political consultant, bouncing from campaign to campaign, and expressing the same discomfort.
One of the grim realities I discovered with Road to the Well (2016) was that none of the people on the festival circuit have made many gains from their success. One friend of mine is approaching 40, living with his parents, trying to pay off the debts of his third feature film. All of us had faith in the idea of becoming the next 20-something indie filmmakers from the middle of nowhere who made a low budget feature that opened up the gates. What most of us somehow failed to grasp are the literally thousands of others whose films didn’t get into Sundance, or any top film festival, or couldn’t make it through post production because they didn’t have the money. The Onion articles are almost too easy to see - Filmmaker Living in Parents’ Basement, Hopeful his Fourth Micro Budget Neo-Noir Thriller Will be Festival Hit.
The common criticism is that we should have just made something better, or at least have had a face in our projects; the former being ambiguous enough to be meaningless, and the latter being a matter of money and patience. Or my personal favorite being that, “It was always tough,” as though everything is the exact same in a world where no one buys DVDs, goes to the movies, and video games, new media, and television are at an all time popularity.
A little over ten years ago, Sundance received about three to four thousand submissions. The year we submitted they said they received over 13,000 submissions. It’s objectively harder to get noticed, with a bar of quality being raised higher than most middle to lower close filmmakers are capable of achieving when scraping together a hundred thousand dollars or so. Even Sean Baker, while shooting Tangerine (2015) on iPhones, still had a $100,000 budget and he had made four features beforehand. He came up through that golden 90s period, and while I’m sure he’d say it was hard, again I know of at least two films that I believe should be far more successful than mine. My one friend’s Dependence Day (2016) is a raunchy mumblecore comedy, which at the very least, matches the quality of Swanberg, West, and others, and yet has had an underwhelming release, which isn’t to say it won 't one day blow up, so much as I’m surprised that even he, who made the most commercially competitive film, didn’t find the success I was anticipating.
I had heard about Spielberg from a couple close friends, both who mentioned a scene specifically, in which Spielberg, George Lucas, Brian de Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola would all hang out, critiquing each other’s work, creating a magical competitive spirit which would go onto produce some of America’s finest films. It’s a beautiful moment that makes me wonder if we’re all too late; that if it was simply a different time; that we all missed it by just a hair, and we’re all chasing something that’s becoming increasingly difficult, if not next to impossible.
Watching Ken Burns Baseball (1994) the subjects often mention the magical feeling of going to the field, seeing a person just like you making a living playing such a seemingly simple game. They were able to watch their heroes stand in the field, waiting for their moment to perform, failing most of the time, and succeeding when it mattered. Ever since I’ve begun seeing filmmakers in the same way; that people like Scorsese, Coppola, de Palma, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tarantino, etc. all have the ability to make up stories and then go off to create them is one of the most magical ideas I can fathom. Making a film was the greatest professional/creative/personal experience I’ve ever had. For the first time in my life it felt as though I was doing exactly what I was made to do and what I had spent most of my adult life planning for. To accept that the vast majority of first time filmmakers will never go on to make another film is a difficult pill to swallow.
Spielberg opens by discussing Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and the way in which the film completely transported him as he witnessed craftsmanship of the highest order creating a perfect piece of art. I haven’t returned to Lawrence of Arabia since I first worked through the AFI’s Top 100 and so while I don’t share his enthusiasm, if I could point to any one film that changed my life and perception of cinema as a profession rather than interest it’d be Jaws (1975). Like most great filmmakers (and as portrayed in the film), it’s Spielberg’s passion for cinema that indicates why he’s such a fantastic filmmaker.
He had grown up Arizona, with his dad moving out after his mom had an affair, causing Stephen to increasingly turn to cinema to get his mind off the situation. He mentions how it was never the finished product that offered satisfaction but rather the process of filmmaking - solving problems, and trying your hardest to work a little to create as much as possible. In terms of my own experience on an ultra low budget picture and my current directing gig on Solve, I can 14 hour days never fly by faster than on set, as we were battling the clock and elements. What you discover is that the fun is as much in the problem solving as witnessing the film in your head come to life, as the latter rarely arrives.
There isn’t a serious filmmaker in the world who doesn’t know the story of Spielberg taking the Universal Backlot tour, sneaking off the tram and finding an office where he pretended to work for weeks until one of the execs noticed and brought him in as one of the youngest television directors on the lot. He was only 20 years old. After a string of successful television episodes, proving that he had what it took, he was offered to direct his first feature at age 24 or 25 - the ABC television movie Duel (1971). Its success then led him to direct Jaws at only 29 or 30 years old. Being 31, I’m increasingly blown away that a first studio movie made for $50 million (adjusted for inflation), going 100 days over its 55 day schedule, merging high craftsmanship with popular storytelling, still regarded as one of the finest creature features ever made (let alone greatest films), was made by someone years younger than me.
It’s here that I don’t resent what he achieved, as to this day I don’t think there’s been another filmmaker like him, who’s able to combine incredible craft and insight with accessibility, enough to please both cinephiles and mainstream audiences. Off the top of my head only Hitchcock or Billy Wilder could take such a position. Spielberg is in an anomaly; a person who was able to work his way through the complex Hollywood labyrinth at an early enough age to develop his craft that would lead to such a meteoric ride.
The documentary goes on to explore some of his films, and while I’d like to say his most noteworthy, it leaves some out or offers only tangential thoughts (Hook (1991), Saving Private Ryan (1998)) while digging deeper into those most could care less about (Minority Report (2002), The War of the Worlds (2005)). The film could have easily been a four part series, going through each film one by one, offering us all of the trivia and anecdotes that filled each production (the development of Indiana Jones with George Lucas; the production of Saving Private Ryan; working with Robin Williams and how they developed the character; and so on). Nevertheless, it was fascinating to watch his evolution as a filmmaker, moving on from his more popular subject matter before finally showing up critics by turning to more serious content.
I watched The Post (2017) while working on this essay, which was absolutely incredible; and while I’m waiting for my hype to die down, it could be one of his finest dramas. It’s a return to his ability to show rather than tell, following and blocking characters with high energy. Unfortunately, his biggest weakness is having too strong a dependence on VFX in his latter career, in which films like Minority Report, AI (2001), The War of the Worlds, and The Crystal Skull (2008) all lose that Spielberg touch in teasing audiences with information, and instead showing them outright. Having returned to the original Indiana Jones trilogy, you need look no further than The Last Crusade (1989) or The Temple of Doom (1984) to understand this point. It’s tangible and exciting, and exactly what cinema is about.
That a person like Spielberg could exist - who in his own words “dreams for a living” - in which amidst the ugliness of big money can go on to create some of the finest works of art of the past fifty years is one of the most beautiful ideas I can think of when it comes to modern art. What bums me out is wondering about all those kids on the downside of privilege who will never have the opportunity. I often wonder how many have been arrested or kicked out for trying to replicate his story of sneaking off the tram. Now most colleges of film or media production programs, with equipment so cheap that anyone can make a movie, with studios risk adverse, relying on the independent companies to filter out talent, who rely on film festivals to scout out talent, who require the filmmakers themselves to make their own art, and compete with tens of thousands of others on a playing field that is anything but equal. The top film programs have their own networks, and in a industry where money often buys solutions, it’s the middle and lower classes that can’t compete with the wealthy. Watching Spielberg you realize how miraculous it is for a person like him to exist and how precious his art truly is; when someone who loved it most who make it to the top.
BELOW: I had probably seen this movie over a dozen times before I realized this is a single take. It's the epitome of immersion
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