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By Michael Lee · April 14, 2019
What are some of the ways that Steven Spielberg found success in life and in Hollywood?
Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.
“When you have a dream, it often doesn’t come at you screaming in your face… sometimes a dream almost whispers.”
Spielberg goes on to explain that a secret to success is having the ability to listen to those whispers that tickle your heart. The answers and the directions that you should take aren’t always coming at your face. They often come from behind.
Intuition and who you are as a person is often found in those whispers. If you can master the art of finding and listening to those whispers, they can be the intuition that leads you to success.
“If I had to single out one area to which I have an utter devotion, it would be my preoccupation with the idea. And the fight to still believe in the idea, when so many others around you just don’t get it. And the challenge of staying interested in one single idea for so sometimes years, and the struggle not to contaminate that idea with months and years of obsessing over it.”
Spielberg is talking about process. He goes on to tell a story about writing a screenplay when he was a boy. He stayed up all night and experienced something that he hasn’t experienced since — as close to flying as he could ever have imagined. The screenplay he wrote was horrible, but it was his dedication to the process of creating something and then later shooting it that represents the process that he still enjoys to this day.
“You can’t rise to any great height without [jealousy], and ambition, and wanting to do better than those guys.”
He is referring to his peers Francis Ford Copolla, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Brian DePalma. Their success and innovation pushed him to be a better storyteller. And he arguably did the same thing for them. They collaborated and made each other better.
“I’m more interested in a storyteller that doesn’t know anything about where to put the camera, than someone who knows everything about the camera but nothing about the story process.”
When Spielberg is looking at a film, he’s not interested in the technique and where the camera is placed. He’s more interested in whether or not the filmmaker is a good storyteller.
“I look to history because the past is filled with the greatest stories that have ever been told. Heroes and villains are not literary constructs. But they’re at the heart of all history.”
History is significant to Spielberg. We see it in his films and television projects. And writers can certainly learn a great lesson by heeding his words and looking to history when conjuring concepts, characters, and stories — whether you tell those specific stories that you find in history or use them as launching pads for your own concepts, characters, and stories.
“What calls to me is not whether a film is going to make a gazillion dollars. What calls to me is is there a deep urge in the center of myself that only that film will release… that’s the only condition I’ll direct a movie.”
So many screenwriters are drawn to screenwriting by the six to seven figure deals they read about in the trades. The allure of being paid to write screenplays — and paid well.
If you don’t feel that urge to tell the story and are only chasing the possible big paychecks that it may garner, then you’re in it for the wrong things.
“There’s nothing wrong with learning [your craft] by being derivative. But at some point, you’re going to need to find your natural voice.”
Screenwriters are taught to look at the success of others and try to emulate that success in similar fashion. And yes, to learn the craft and to get your projects read, you have to be derivative of what you’ve seen succeed. But that only lasts so long.
The real challenge of being successful at screenwriting is to find your own originality and present that to the world through your writing.
“Listen to that voice that tells you what you could do. Nothing defines your character more than that. Because once I turned to my intuition, and I tuned into it, certain projects began to pull me into them and others I turned away from.”
Spielberg spoke the truth when he said that for the first twenty-five years of our lives, we’re forced to listen to other people’s advice and words of wisdom through parents and professors. And then employers and mentors begin to tell us how the world is. We repress our inner voice.
But then intuition creeps up on us. You have to listen to those voices.
“I like to make movies that leave you with an impression that doesn’t go away.”
There’s no secret to accomplishing this, but storytellers need to be creative and explore ways to give the audience a cathartic experience that they take home with them.
As the bonus feature in this video, Spielberg tells the story of his film 1941. Someone had told him that everyone was waiting for him to fail. He had two great successes in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They told them that if 1941 wasn’t flawless, the industry would tear him apart.
He admits that he felt untouchable. He was shooting all of the scenes himself, including what should have been done by the second unit. He would do twenty takes for an insert shot when it should have taken one.
When the film came out, it was a box office bomb and critical failure. He wasn’t Mr. Invincible anymore. And Spielberg says that it was probably the best thing that could have ever happened to him.
Watch the full video below to hear the words from the icon’s mouth and learn more from his elaboration on these points.
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