Close Encounters with Greatness: Steven Spielberg’s Lifetime of Achievements

By Kevin Nelson · April 25, 2022

“I don’t dream at night, I dream at day, I dream all day; I dream for a living.” — Steven Spielberg

Some people seem to know what they’re destined to become at an early age. All Steven Spielberg knew was that he loved films. They transported him away from his worries and into another world. 

Spielberg was constantly bullied for his heritage and never really felt like he fit in. That is, until he found refuge at the cinema. Every Saturday, he’d head down to the local theater and get lost in the world of film. 

He turned to his overactive imagination to survive the trauma of childhood and made his first movie at the age of 12 — a high-octane thriller involving a trainwreck with a toy Lionel train.

Spielberg told Richard Shickel of The Director’s Guild of America (DGA)

“I think it was just a realization that I could change the way I perceived life through another medium to make it come out better for me. I was making these little 8mm rinky-dink movies and I knew that made me feel really good about my life, and possibly I could bring some other people into this amazing medium, to enjoy what I was putting together.”

And that’s exactly what Spielberg’s work does. His films, whether he wrote, directed, or produced them, all capture a sense of wonder, sensitivity, and imagination that spans across generations, effectively transporting us to a place that feels entirely new but strangely familiar at the same time. 

So, let’s go on an epic adventure — let’s take a look at the scripts of some of his greatest films!

Scripts from this Article

Jaws (1975)

26-year-old Spielberg wanted a chance to be captain of the ship and convinced Universal’s Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown that he was the right skipper for the Jaws voyage.

The production was marred with issues from the start. Spielberg chose to shoot the action on location, which meant they were fighting against the forces of nature and the ocean. Not to mention the animatronic shark Bruce kept malfunctioning, causing Spielberg to adapt the script to feature fewer shots of the shark — which in turn created a more haunting monster lurking like a shadow in the deep. Shows that finding clever ways around a limitation can pay off profoundly.

The novelist Peter Benchley took a crack at the first draft but Spielberg felt the characters were unlikable, so he hired Howard Sackler to do a couple of uncredited rewrites. Still, he felt that the script lacked levity so he hired The Odd Couple (1968) screenwriter Carl Gottlieb. 

Gottlieb was supposed to come on board for a one-week polish but he quickly became the full-time production writer. He’d often stay up late with Spielberg after having dinner with the cast and crew, discussing what to film the next day. Everyone felt like it was sink or swim. Spielberg worried this film would sink his career. 

Thanks to the editing of Verna Fields and music by John Williams, a chaotic production was masterfully crafted into the first true summer blockbuster we cherish so much today. 

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

The first twinkling of alien visitors came to Spielberg’s imagination after seeing a meteor shower in New Jersey as a child. UFOs were all the craze in those days, with an endless production of sci-fi comics and movies. When he was 18 years old, Spielberg made a sci-fi feature named Firelight, which he would recreate on a larger scale nearly shot-for-shot with Close Encounters. He combined many of the ideas from Firelight and a short story he wrote in 1970 called Experiences.

Spielberg hired Paul Schrader to take over the script, originally titled Watch the Skies, but they were unable to reach the right place.

While finishing up The Sugarland Express, Spielberg made a deal with Columbia Pictures for a science-fiction film. With the success of Jaws, Spielberg was able to leverage more creative control on his UFO project (including an infamous wager with George Lucas worth $40 million today). Although this is one of the rare films in which Spielberg holds both writing and directing credits, many writers were brought on for drafts and rewrites, including Paul Shrader, John Hill, David Giler, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, and Jerry Belson. Sometimes it takes the town.

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Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Shortly after finishing American Graffiti (1973), George Lucas saw a poster from an old movie that showed a heroic character jumping from a horse to a truck. He was reminded of the old serials he watched growing up like Zorro. He wanted to make a B movie-style Western Adventure called The Adventures of Indiana Smith

He put the project on the back burner to develop a little space opera that would come to be known as Star Wars (1977). Lucas discussed the idea with friend and filmmaker Philip Kaufman, and the two worked on the story outline for two weeks. Lucas originally wanted Kaufman to direct, but Kaufman was committed to the western The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). While on vacation with Steven Spielberg in Hawaii in an effort to avoid potential negative press for Star Wars, the two filmmakers began talking about the future. Lucas mentioned Indiana Smith

After reading the script for Continental Divide (1981) by Lawrence Kasdan, Spielberg hired him to write the script. The three filmmakers met in January of 1978 for nine hours a day over the course of five days at Lucas’s assistant’s house. Kasdan and Lucas worked together to trim and refine the script before production.

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E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

As a way of coping with his parents’ divorce in 1960, Spielberg invented an imaginary alien friend to serve as a brother and father figure. While feeling isolated in Tunisia shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark, those memories of childhood alienation flooded back to him. He began to develop a darker version of the story called Night Skies, where evil aliens attack a family. 

He told screenwriter Melissa Mathison about his idea for Night Skies. She was inspired by the subplot of the only friendly alien’s friendship with an autistic child of the family, as well as the final scene of the original script where the friendly alien becomes stranded on Earth. She saw this as a great starting point. She wrote a first draft titled E.T. and Me in eight weeks. Spielberg thought it was perfect and the script went through two more drafts with contributions made by screenwriter Matthew Robbins.

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The Color Purple (1985)

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker,  The Color Purple was written by Menno Meyjes. Walker was cautious to sell the rights to her novels and had every right to be. When met with an offer by producers Jon Peters and Peter Gruber, Walker convened with a group of fellow black women artists who she could trust. They convinced her that the only way to change the portrayal of the Black community on film was to work within the system. 

According to Publishers Weekly:

“The friends concluded the only way to improve the exploitation of minorities was to work within the prevailing system, and Walker agreed to the deal.” 

Walker made sure the deal worked in her favor. She wrote the original draft and Menno Meyjes was hired to rewrite her work under the stipulation that she act as a consultant and was left with the ultimate say. Her contract also made sure that fifty percent of the crew had to be Black, female, or people of the Third World. She also chose Whoopi Goldberg to play the leading role of Celie after seeing the comedian perform in a small cabaret.

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Jurassic Park (1993)

Author and filmmaker Michael Crichton originally had the idea about a student who recreates a dinosaur and thought it would work as a screenplay. He turned that idea into the novel Jurassic Park. In 1989, Steven Spielberg heard about the novel before it was published and was instantly attracted to the idea. Crichton told Spielberg about the dino DNA while developing a series that would later become ER (1994-2009). Spielberg loved the practical and simplistic approach to such an imaginative world. It tapped into his inner child.

Universal Studios ultimately won the rights and the project landed in Spielberg’s lap, under one condition — that he make it before his passion project, Schindler’s List, once he finished up post-production on Hook (1991).

Michael Crichton delivered the first draft of the script for $500,000 on top of the rights. Malia Scotch Marmo rewrote the script and Spielberg hired David Koepp to punch up the script and tone down the horror to find the perfect balance between monster horror and family feature — a true four-quadrant film for the ages. 

The very kind of movie Spielberg would have loved to see during a Saturday matinee.

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Schindler’s List (1993)

Holocaust survivor Poldek Pfefferberg made it his mission to honor the Nazi who saved his life by telling his story to everyone who would listen. Oskar Schindler saved over a thousand Jewish people from certain death. After a chance meeting with writer Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s story was developed into the historical novel Schindler’s Ark. Sid Sheinberg, now at MCA, sent Spielberg a New York Times review of the book. 

Spielberg was instantly drawn to the paradoxical nature of the character but was unsure he was ready to confront the past of his people just yet. He lost several relatives in the Holocaust, so it was personal. Spielberg tried to pass the project on to other prominent directors, but they turned it down. Ultimately, he felt he had a duty to do a film for his family and their children about the Holocaust. 

Keneally was hired to adapt his own book and delivered a 220-page first draft. Spielberg brought on Kurt Luedtke, who gave up after four years of trying. During this time, Scorsese introduced Spielberg to Steven Zaillian to write a draft. Zaillian delivered a 115-page draft and Spielberg felt it was too short. He wanted to focus more on the Jewish people at the heart of the script. 

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Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Schindler’s List is a quintessential film about what it was like being Jewish during the Holocaust, and Saving Private Ryan is a quintessential film about the sacrifices made in order to defeat the fascists responsible.

He told American Cinematographer:

“I think that World War II is the most significant event of the last 100 years; the fate of the Baby Boomers and even Generation X was linked to the outcome. Beyond that, I’ve just always been interested in World War II. My earliest films, which I made when I was about 14 years old, were combat pictures that were set both on the ground and in the air. For years now, I’ve been looking for the right World War II story to shoot, and when Robert Rodat wrote Saving Private Ryan, I found it.”

Screenwriter and producer Robert Rodat was given the bestselling book by Stephen Ambrose titled D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. He was taking a morning stroll when he came across a World War II monument. He was stricken by the shared surnames of relatives that died in the war. Multiple brothers and sons from the same family. He also found inspiration in the Niland family from Ambrose’s book. Spielberg caught wind of the pitch through his agent while setting up DreamWorks Pictures, the distribution arm behind Amblin.

Rodat does a great job of establishing the relationship between Private Mellish (played by Adam Goldberg) and the detestable Corporal Upham (played by Jeremy Davies). Mellish is the only one who shows Upham sympathy and the only one who defends the coward. He even offers tough love when needed. But when Mellish finds himself on the losing end of hand-to-hand combat with a Nazi soldier, Upham can’t bring himself to return the favor and watches as the Nazi stabs his friend in the heart. It’s a gut-wrenching and soul-crushing scene. There’s little redemption for his inaction, yet the setup and delivery of this scene are outstanding — as is everything about the script and film.

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Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Frank Abagnale, Jr. sold the film rights to his wild life story in 1980 along with the publication of his autobiography published with co-writer Stan Redding. But like the detectives’ endless pursuit of catching the conman, the rights just kept slipping out of producers’ hands until it landed at DreamWorks Entertainment seventeen years later thanks to screenwriter Jeff Nathanson. 

Nathanson approached DreamWorks after seeing a tape of Abagnale talking about his exploits and discovering that the infamous conman wrote the book. Interested, DreamWork optioned the rights to the book and hired Nathanson to write the script.

Nathanson spoke to Screenwriters Utopia about what it’s like to work with Spielberg:

“Steven is involved in every aspect of the movie. He is obsessed with movie making. He loves moviemaking. There is no detail, no minutiae that he did not want to know about. So, of course, performance is something that he is right on top of. He is a guy who loves his job and it’s just so much fun to see. People wonder why he’s so successful. It’s because he loves what he does so much. It becomes contagious to be around a guy that’s literally giddy about getting to the set every day and getting to play with his toys. It’s very fun to look at.”

Used to writing fun action films like Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) and Rush Hour 2 (2001), Nathan utilized a different kind of action for Catch Me if You Can, specific to the genre. The chase scenes in Catch Me if You Can are more centered around the characters and how they use their cunningness to evade capture. The challenge was to keep the tension and momentum high without the normal tropes and pitfalls of violent action films. It’s a really fun movie and script.

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West Side Story (2021)

Spielberg was ten years old when he first became obsessed with Stephen Sondheim’s original Broadway musical. So much so that he used to sing the musical numbers at the dinner table, much to his parents’ dismay. He always dreamed of bringing the classic Shakespearean adaptation back to life onscreen. In perhaps his finest technical feats yet, Spielberg’s West Side Story fires on all cylinders like a clock crafted meticulously by expert hands. 

Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, playwright, and screenwriter Tony Kushner came on board to adapt the classic tale — drawing inspiration from Sondheim’s original play more than the 1961 adaptation. Kushner had previously worked with Spielberg on Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012).

Kushner stayed true to Sondheim’s lyrics and only changed small things in the narrative to relate more to modern audiences. West Side Story might not be your favorite Spielberg film, but it might just be the pinnacle of his career. Decades of practice and execution and studying of the craft are a dazzling display of discipline and mastery.

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Steven Spielberg is one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. A hall of fame writer, director, and producer who shows no signs of stepping out of his prime. His next film, The Fabelmans, is also written by Tony Kushner and is a semi-autobiographical look at Spielberg’s own childhood in Arizona at the age of eighteen. Perhaps this will be Spielberg’s Ode to Cinema.

His influence extends not just to other filmmakers — but to the lives of every generation lucky enough to witness his vision.

Thank you, Steven, for making everyone’s childhood a little less lonely.

Scripts from this Article