Berlinale Dispatches: Inside the Steven Spielberg press conference
One major get this year for the Berlin Film Festival is the arrival of Steven Spielberg in the German capital.
The director is being honoured for lifetime achievement with an Honorary Golden Bear and an entire Homage screening his latest film, The Fabelmans, as well as some of his classics including Jaws, ET, Raiders of the Lost Arc and Munich.
Euronews Culture was on the ground for the big press conference. Here’s the lowdown.
15:09 : Never in my 10 years of covering this festival have I been this early for a press conference. I just rushed from my previous screening to get a good spot. It kicks off in an hour and you can usually Cinderella in 15 minutes before kick off and secure a pretty decent seat. Nothing like that for Spielberg. The security detail is off the charts and the room is already chockablock, but I manage to get grab a seat near the front.
15:11 : “Is this seat taken?” “Free or occupied?” And so it begins – eager journos desperately trying to get as close to the stage as possible for a good photo and the opportunity to potentially ask a question to the greatest living director of all time.
15:15 : “Motherf*****!” Tempers are flaring as some “late-comers” aren’t happy with their spot. Still, keep the mothers out of this. There’s no need. Simply no need.
15:20 : I’m nervously anticipating this one – not just because Spielberg is a huge get for the Berlinale this year, but because press conferences are where film critics’ lose all common sense. You would not believe the amount of hilariously awful questions get asked at these things. It’s a chance to share a space with A-list actors and directors, and journalists cream themselves and invariably make a poor impression when they fumble their cringy questions, ask something wildly inappropriate or use it as a platform to make themselves look good. Spoiler: they never do. At the Brandon Cronenberg junket for Infinity Pool, the director was asked what kind of substance was used for the semen in the film... Also at the same one, Alexander Skarsgård was bafflingly asked if he had pets. This is the level. Unlike roundtables, where critics turn into sharks, speak over each other or muscle in like it is a one-on-one, press conferences are usually a calmer affair, but significantly more lunatic. They remind you of the worst the profession has to offer and makes you question whether you should try reading more books instead of watching four to five films a day to keep on top of the programme.
15:21 : There’s always one Canadian journalist who makes a point of hogging the mic, prefacing her question with a fawning 2-minute-long diatribe either about how wonderful the interviewee is, her critique of the film, or by sharing a protracted personal anecdote before actually getting to the matter at hand. These events are filmed, so any chance to get on YouTube... Thankfully, she seems to be absent. Fingers crossed.
15:24 : I’m hardly above making a fool of myself. Realistically, I’m going to have to fight the urge to shout an Indiana Jones quote (I’ll be biting my lip so I don’t shriek: “We’re not sinking – We’re crashiiiiiiiiiing” from Raiders of the Lost Arc) or convince myself that asking Spielberg about his always impeccable facial hair is not the way to go. Thankfully, I have time to do some searching introspection before the main man arrives.
15:30 : Ready Player One could be his best film. I hear this hot take from a fellow critic sitting behind me aimed at his neighbour. I can’t believe I gave up going for a Brammibal's doughnut for this. I swear on ET’s freaky glowing fingers, if he elaborates any further, I’ll seriously start reconsidering my longstanding stance on pacifism.
15:31 : I haven’t watched Duel in a while. I should get on that.
15:40 : It’s official – the doors have closed and no one else is being let in. If I don’t make it out, please play the Jaws theme at my wake.
15:45: The head honcho of the press conference has asked that we limit our photo-taking during event so that we don’t get in the way of the cameras. Sure thing, but Euronews Culture socials need some snaps. I pretend I don’t understand. The benefits of being half-French.
14:55 : The photocall outside starts. Spielberg is wearing a lovely big scarf. God, I love me some chunky knitwear. He also looks a little bit like a particularly affable NFL coach. But maybe that’s just me.
16:00 : Nearly there. The photographers are crowding the stage and some eager beavers are storming the corridors to get an entrance pic. I’ve never envied this job, as they have two minutes to take their pictures and get out of dodge before the questions begin.
16:05 : There he is. Steven Spielberg himself has entered the room to great applause and a semi-standing ovation.
16:06 : “STEVEN!” “STEVEN!” “CAN WE GET A WAVE OVER HERE??!!” Like the seasoned pro he is, Steven obliges. I’m calling him Steven now. We’ve been in the same room for less than a minute, so he might as well be the de facto godfather to my hypothetical firstborn.
16:08 : The moderator takes the reins. “Please calm down and sit down.” He gets the ball rolling with two back-to-back questions about his influences and The Fabelmans being his most personal film to date. Solid lines of inquiry, even if the thought of hearing more about The Fabelmans fills me with minor dread. As my review can attest, I wasn’t a huge fan and hope that the film won’t be the main topic of conversation. Interestingly, Steven mentions that it was the movie he'd always feared to make and not found the time to get in the can, and that the pandemic lockdown gave him the necessary push (and minutes) to “tell this story of my family, of this amazing struggle between art and family.” Still hope it crashes and burns at the Oscars. He’ll doubtlessly get Best Director though.
16:10 : So far so good, but now the microphone is being passed into the pit, and I’m already dreading what’s about to come... I needn’t have worried, as the first question is a short anecdote about how this journalist, as a 6-year-old child, covertly followed his parents to the cinema to see ET. He then asks about Steven’s influence on other filmmakers. The director gracefully states that he learns just as much from new directors as old ones, even namedropping the Daniels and their amazing work with Everything Everywhere All At Once. Game recognizes game. Twitter will be up in arms about this, so I get tweeting. A few minutes later, Daniel Kwan (one half of the Oscar-nominated directing duo) replies: “Thank you dearest papa.” Big love.
Thank you dearest papa ❤️ https://t.co/jMrsAfobwC
— Daniel Kwan (@dunkwun) February 21, 2023
16:13 – 16:55 : As I’m sure this minute-by-minute schtick is getting old and you’re already grown tired of my rambles already, here are the key takeaways from the conversation:
Steven speaks about his influences and how François Truffaut convinced him to “werk wiv keeeeeds” following the French director’s experience on the film Small Change. Steven says that this directly convinced him to do ET. Merci, François.
“My mum celebrated life every day of her life. She was a very reactive person.” Lovely. Still doesn’t make me like Michelle Williams’ acting in The Fabelmans any more than I already don’t.
“Are you working on anything now?” Ah, the age-old question. “I wish,” Steven answers, before later on announcing MAJOR SCOOP that he’s working on a Napoleon 7-part series for HBO, from Stanley Kubrick’s original script. Cue: explosion of applause in the room, some Tex Avery wolf whistling and a probably suicide watch alert for Ridley Scott and his upcoming Napoleon biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix. Get this into our eyeballs now, Steven.
Steven shares that he doesn’t have a favourite film of his – “My films are like my children – I don’t have a favourite” – but does reveal that the hardest film for him to make on a physical level was Jaws and on an emotional level, it’s now a tie between Schindler’s List and The Fabelmans. You can guess which one gets my vote.
One brave journalist asks about the young Spielberg’s encounter with director John Ford, which makes it into The Fabelmans in the final 10 minutes – which are easily the best of the entire film. “What would you tell me?” Cringy question, but answered with brio: “I’m not gonna say “Get the f**k out of my office!” (like Ford did). Laughter ensues.
Steven stresses that the most important thing for any film or filmmaker to keep both eyes on the script. “My advice is: write, or meet someone who can tell a story. It’s the story, not the shot.”
Steven Spielberg’s name is Austrian and translates as “Play Mountain”. “This has given me a sense of humour. (...) If the play doesn’t match the level of the work, I’m not going to have any fun.”
Another protracted and cringy question comes from a journalist who asks Steven about how he makes primary and secondary characters interact, or something along those lines... It sounds like a post-grad question that has already made the right half of my brain tell the left side: “You can sleep now – I’ll wake you up when it’s done.” Thankfully, Steven being Steven, he steers the course by ending on some further advice for filmmakers out there (and an excellent life lesson): “Don’t sweat the big stuff. That’ll take care of itself. Sweat the small stuff.”
On that wise note, the press conference comes to close.
Not as many dipsh*t stupid questions as I’d feared, which I’m sure was a once-in-a-full-moon one-off, but it’s heartening to see such a master of his craft remain so friendly, humble and insightful.
And maybe I’ll attend more press conferences in the future without catching secondary embarrassment. Maybe.