Steven Spielberg: A Profile in Failure

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Steven Spielberg: A Profile in Failure
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Steven SpielbergThe greatest people in history have been failures. Certainly, we remember these individuals as successes–success stories–and we treat those stories as legends and those individuals as gods. But each of them failed epically and repeatedly, more so than the combined successes of all of humanity.Failure should not be overlooked in anyone, especially not those we admire. It is through failure that these individuals were able to learn, grow and ultimately succeed. We know this about ourselves but even as we learn to accept our own failures, sometimes we don’t recognize that the most successful people in the world have had an abundance of failure.Our heroes need to be held to the same standard as the ancient Greek gods: awesome but not infallible. Failure is a humbling exercise, both for the observer and the observed. But learning is a humbling process. Once we realize that our heroes are just like us, we can examine how failure drives success. So I’ve started collecting stories about the failures of successful people, as a reminder that if you’re making mistakes and learning from them, you’re actually on the path to success.Steven Spielberg is one of the lucky few who figured out his life’s calling from a very young age. At ten he filmed the adventures of himself and his friends and charged admission to the home viewings. At 12 he wrote and directed a nine-minute film to earn a Boy Scout photography badge, and at 16 he made his first full length film, Firelight, which had a budget of $500 and was shown at his local cinema.Spielberg’s name has since become synonymous with box office gold – he is the creator of the blockbuster, having beat record after record and produced films grossing over $8.5 billion in his four decade long career. His significant contributions to film are too many to list but include Jurassic Park, Lincoln, Munich, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler’s List. There is no doubt that Spielberg was born to make movies. Yet his transition from kid with an 8mm camera to Hollywood superstar was anything but smooth, and at several points in his early career his failures far outstripped his accomplishments.After working on short films and television, Spielberg’s first big break was to direct a small feature-length film called The Sugarland Express. The movie was well received by critics but was a box office flop and received only a limited release. The experience left Spielberg disappointed and more determined than ever to produce a hit. He expressed interest in a script about a killer shark, and was chosen to direct it. Everyone knows that Jaws was a monstrous hit, but the 27-year old Spielberg referred to it as “the worst experience of my life.”From day one, the film was plagued with problems, most notably because the main character, played by three 25-foot mechanical sharks, declined to cooperate. “Bruce,” as the shark was called, refused to work correctly most days, causing the production’s 55 planned shooting days to drag out to a grueling 159 days, and the $4.5 million budget to soar to $10 million. The plan was to intersperse footage of Bruce with real sharks filmed off the coast of Australia, but those sharks proved to be uncooperative as well. One of them even attacked the boat, scaring the stunt double so badly that he quit on the spot.With a lack of willing sharks and pressure from the studio to finish shooting, Spielberg had to improvise. He filmed barrels on the surface instead of the shark, and focused on above-water shots. Ironically, the images of the ocean surface paired with the haunting four-note melody that signified the shark’s presence made the movie more suspenseful than it would have been otherwise. It turned out that not seeing the shark was scarier than seeing the shark. When it was finally released, Jaws became the most successful movie of all time.Jaws was a huge success by any measure. Yet Spielberg was traumatized: “I thought my career as a filmmaker was over. I heard rumors from back in Hollywood that I would never work again because no one had ever taken a film a hundred days over schedule – yet alone a director whose first picture had failed at the box office.” And it wasn’t just the studios that kept him up at night. He did not enjoy good relationships with the overworked crew and later stated “I was really afraid of half the guys in the crew.” For months after finishing the film, Spielberg had full-blown panic attacks.Spielberg had made many mistakes that he knew were unacceptable, yet in the end, his film succeeded. As a result, the lessons learned—be collegial, respect deadlines, stay within budget—fell largely on deaf ears. He called the filming of Jaws “the worst experience of my life,” but without truly internalizing his failures, he moved on to his next movie, which he later described as “twice as bad and twice as expensive.” Close Encounters of the Third Kind was beset with its own litany of problems and it too went over time and over budget. It was a nightmare to direct and manage but like Jaws, it was a box office hit and earned Spielberg an Oscar nomination for best director. It proved that Spielberg was a preeminent director, with the ability to make a film that could please the masses as well as critics, and it gave him the clout to choose his next project and produce it on a free rein.But sometimes success is a successful person’s worst enemy. It turned out that the free rein given to Spielberg was just enough for him to hang himself by creating the worst movie of his career. Declining offers for several would-be blockbusters, Spielberg instead started production on a movie called 1941, a satirical World War II movie that poked fun at American’s fear of the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was filled with bombs, riots, exploding aircrafts, and general destruction. It was a sensitive topic, addressed in the least sensitive way possible. The movie suffered from a lack of vision and purpose, and most notably, from an abundance of Spielberg’s newfound hubris after the commercial success of Jaws and Close Encounters.The trouble began before filming starting, when Spielberg went on the record boldly pledging “I will not make this movie if it costs a penny over $12 million.” As the production tab mounted, that quote became a running joke and even ended up on crew t-shirts. The final bill totaled $31.5 million. Spielberg later admitted the cost was his fault: “I wanted it—the bigness, the power, hundreds of people at my beck and call, millions of dollars at my disposal, and everybody saying, Yes, yes, yes…. 1941 was my Little General period.”The ballooning budget was the smallest problem with the movie. The script was bad and Spielberg’s directing was worse. He made the decision to reference Jaws by using the same swimming woman from the opening sequence of Jaws, having her again swim naked, this time encountering a Japanese submarine while the Jaws theme music played. Screenwriter Bob Gale later commented that “while mildly amusing, the scene went on for far too long, and it was a bit early for Spielberg to begin paying homage to his own movies.” Rather than learning and growing, Spielberg’s success had gone to his head, and he knew it by the time the film was in post-production, referring to it as “utter horror.” The irony was lost on no one, as the film was supposed to be a comedy.Things got even worse in editing when Spielberg cut out some important parts of the character development. Specifically, he cut out big parts of the main character. The character was macho and Spielberg couldn’t relate. Bob Gale explained that Spielberg “was always afraid of those kind of guys; they were the ones who used to pick on him.” So for the sake of his own ego he cut much of the character out, replacing it with more scenes of explosions and destruction. The result was a movie that at best lacked cohesion, and at worst, was completely unwatchable. 1941 was a dismal failure, only turning a small profit because viewers in other countries enjoyed laughing at the dithering American characters portrayed. Spielberg was so ashamed of the movie that he left the country when it was released in hopes of shielding himself from the backlash.Many people couldn’t have recovered, but Spielberg was different. Having finally made the kind of mistakes that lead to true failure, Spielberg acknowledged there were things he did not do well. It was clear that he never learned how to manage budgets or people well. His own vision was also blurred by his success. So Spielberg did what all great individuals do: he found himself a mentor and took a step back from calling all the shots. He signed up to work under George Lucas, who had just produced Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. George Lucas was an old friend, and they’d previously had a rivalry when Star Wars and Close Encounters were released at the same time. After Lucas visited Spielberg’s set, he nearly had a panic attack having seen the elaborate production. Lucas became worried that Close Encounters would trample Star Wars at the box office, and Spielberg responded with a friendly bet: each of them would trade 2.5% of the profits. That means Lucas would get 2.5% of Close Encounters and Spielberg would get 2.5% of Star Wars. As we know, Star Wars vastly outperformed all rivals including Close Encounters, and that loss earned Spielberg a whopping $40 million from his bet with Lucas. A very costly failure for Lucas, but he gained a loyal friend and colleague in return.To the outside world Spielberg was riding high, but he had failed repeatedly to deliver movies on time and under budget. Spielberg needed help and he turned to his friend. Spielberg and Lucas were competitive peers, but in a humbling shift, Spielberg became an employee again. It was quite an exercise in modesty for Spielberg to agree to take second seat behind his friend. Unlike Spielberg, Lucas was known in Hollywood for staying within budget and maintaining a disciplined schedule. Despite his passion and drive, Lucas was also well liked by actors and crew. It was exactly what Spielberg needed. He had someone to tell him “no” when necessary and to keep him on track. He also had someone to act as a guide and muse. Not only did Lucas and Spielberg complete the film under budget, but they did it in only 73 days when they had been allotted 85 days. That film, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, was the highest-grossing film of 1981. It also received half a dozen Oscar nominations and inspired three sequels.More importantly for Spielberg, it allowed him to learn from his mistakes and come out stronger on the other side. A mentor was exactly what Spielberg needed. As Spielberg puts it, “the delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” After Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg’s career again took off. But this time, it was far more balanced. Gone were the production issues, crew problems, and ego. He was able to balance the art and science of filmmaking and went on to become one of the greatest directors of all time.Jeff Stibel
Ceo. @DandB, Author
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