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Steven Spielberg was a fearful kid who found solace in storytelling

Steven Spielberg's new film "The Fabelmans" is a semi-autobiographical film based on his childhood and teenage years, and tells the story, in a fictionalized way, of how he fell in love with movies, and became a filmmaker.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. First of all, I'd like to thank the great Dave Davies for hosting the show while I've been dealing with a family medical emergency. And to all of Dave's fans, don't worry - you'll still be hearing him on the show.

My guest today is Steven Spielberg. It's a great time to interview him because his new movie, "The Fabelmans," is a personal one. He says all his movies are personal in the sense that they come from his experiences, observations and imagination, but this one is personal in a more direct way. "The Fabelmans" is a semi-autobiographical film, based on Spielberg's childhood and teenage years, and tells the story in a fictionalized way of how he fell in love with movies and became a filmmaker. The movie is also about tensions in his family during those years and why his parents divorced when he was 19.

Spielberg has directed over 30 movies, including "Jaws," "E.T.," "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind," the "Indiana Jones" films, "The Color Purple," "Jurassic Park," "Schindler's List," "Amistad," "Saving Private Ryan," "Lincoln," and the recent adaptation of "West Side Story." His movies have grossed more at the box office than any filmmaker. And as Michael Schulman wrote in The New Yorker, Spielberg has shaped nearly half a century of the American popular imagination.

Steven Spielberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm so glad we have this opportunity to talk. I wasn't sure I'd ever have that opportunity to talk with you. And congratulations on this film, which I really enjoyed.

Let's start with "The Greatest Show On Earth." It's a circus movie with some very disturbing things in it. And I'll preface this by saying the first movie I ever saw was "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," and I was probably around 6, the same age you were when you saw "The Greatest Show On Earth." And I walked - we walked in late, which people used to do at that time. And the first thing I saw was Kirk Douglas wrestling with an octopus under water. And I was terrified, and I begged my mother to just take me home. So tell us about what terrified you about "The Greatest Show On Earth," a circus movie directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

STEVEN SPIELBERG: Well, first of all, you know, I sympathize with you. I, too, saw "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," with James Mason and Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre. And that sequence with the giant squid attacking the novelist was terrifying, especially because they were cutting the tentacles off with axes. And that was pretty gruesome in those days. And I remember that. But I was older when I saw that movie, but I was only 6 years old when I saw - when my parents took me to "The Greatest Show On Earth," and they thought it was going to be a great picture having to do with circus clowns and three rings of entertainment and, you know, and it was - I actually thought they were saying to me, we're taking you to a circus, because I had never been to a movie before. We had television at home, but I had never been to a motion picture. And I thought what they meant to say was, you're going to actually see giraffes and elephants and lions and tigers.

And what happened was we waited in line for hours in the freezing winter, and then we walked into this big theater with all these seats facing forward. And there was not a big top. It wasn't a tent. It was just a structure. And I just remember as a kid looking around, and it was all these seats. I remember the color of the seats. They were red. And the curtain was red. And then suddenly this curtain opens, and this big grainy image in color comes up on the screen. And I felt very betrayed. My first reaction was, you said you were taking me to a circus.

And this movie started playing. And I don't know how long it took me to fall under the spell of the film. And I was enchanted. I remember just being enchanted by - didn't understand the story, didn't understand what they were saying, but the imagery was amazing. But then along came this horrible train crash, and the train wreck was terrifying. And I wanted to leave the theater like you did with - you know, with "20,000 Leagues." And I was knocking on my parents shoulders. I wanted to - I was sinking as low as I could get in the - in my seat so as not to see the screen. But it was a really terrifying, traumatic thing, and it never left me. My first movie was a movie that scared my pants off, and I'll never forget that.

GROSS: So in your semi-autobiographical film, after seeing that movie, Sammy, who's your alter ego in the film, starts to recreate what terrified him with Lionel toy trains and, you know, crashing into things, and then he starts filming scenes like that. Why did you want to recreate something that was most terrifying? Like, I wanted to just forget "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," which obviously I haven't done. But why did you want to keep creating it?

SPIELBERG: Well, you know, I don't know, because, remember, I'm a kid. And I think that when I saw that movie for the first time and I had a Lionel electric train set - and by actually crashing the train into things and watching the train derail and watching the passenger cars and a couple of boxcars and that caboose pile up, I was able to, I think, intuitively wrest back control of my fear. And I really think it helped assuage the fear. It helped me get in total control over it. So I was the one causing something that was going to maybe have a chance to scare other people but no longer myself. And the idea of taking my dad's little Kodak Brownie, 8-millimeter movie camera, and filming it was only because I kept wrecking the trains, crashing them into things, and my dad and mom threatened to take the train set away. So the idea of using a camera to film it - then I could watch the film over and over again, and it would essentially - you know, it would calm me down.

GROSS: What else were you afraid of as a child?

SPIELBERG: Everything.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SPIELBERG: There was nothing that didn't scare me. I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of this horrible New Jersey - this horrible, scary, naked tree out the window that looked like it had tentacles, you know, and it - these horrible branches, and it looked like arms and long fingers and long fingernails. And the tree terrified me. Later, as an adult, I - when I wrote "Poltergeist," I created a tree out the window that actually comes to life and grabs a kid and starts to suck him into one of its knot holes, its sappy knot holes. And that was a direct steal from that tree out my window that scared me.

I was afraid of the dark. I was - you know, I was afraid of small places, and I still am today. I'm very claustrophobic. But I was a fearful kid, and my parents didn't quite know what to do with that 'cause my mom was fearless and my dad was extremely stoic about things like this. And no amount of bedside chats could calm me down once the sun set and I went to bed and my parents turned the lights off. And the only solace I guess I had was they allowed the door to my bedroom to be cracked an inch or two. So I had that little comfort of a hall light coming in, and that was about it.

GROSS: Among the things you're famous for is, you know, movies and TV about World War II, including, of course, "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List." I mean, World War II was terrifying, and you depicted one of the most terrifying aspects of it, which was D-Day in "Saving Private Ryan." Do you see that as a continuation of what you did when you were a young boy, making little films about things that terrified you, like the - recreating the train crash scene from "The Greatest Show On Earth"?

SPIELBERG: Well, you know, there was a lot - I was very much in those days when I was, you know, 12, 13, 14 being influenced by television, and - you know, and there were a lot of movies on "The Late Show." You'd get "The Late Show." You'd get "The Late Late Show." You got things called Million Dollar Movie back in Phoenix. And I was very influenced by all the war movies they were showing - the John Wayne films like "The Fighting Seabees" and other - like "Bataan" or "Back To Bataan" or "Guadalcanal Diary" or the "Sands Of Iwo Jima." And coupled with the fact that my dad was from the Greatest Generation - he was a veteran of World War II. He fought in the China-Burma-India - the CBI campaign, and he was stationed in Karachi, sometimes in Burma. And he was in charge of all the planes that would often bomb Japanese bridges. And he had a couple of missions in the air. But he was so good with electronics they sort of grounded him and put him in charge of sort of ground-to-air 8 And my dad told me stories about World War II constantly.

So I made 8 mm war movies. "Escape To Nowhere," which I depict in "The Fabelmans," is an actual movie I made when I was about 16 years old - called "Escape To Nowhere." And because I was really obsessed with war, I made a World War II Air Force movie called "Fighter Squadron" in black and white when I was about 14 years old. And so that just came out of my sort of fascination with what I was watching on television or the stories my dad was telling me.

GROSS: So when your father told you stories and when his friends who were also veterans told you stories, were they stories about, like, heroism, about, you know, bonding with fellow soldiers? Or were they stories about the horrors of war?

SPIELBERG: Well, you know, sometimes, it was the things I was just sort of eavesdropping about. Sometimes, my dad would have reunions with other members of his fighter squadron and - the 490th Squadron. He - and they'd come over to the house sometimes once every couple of years, and there'd be seven or eight guys together. And I'd be wandering in and out of my room or going into the kitchen. But I'd hear some of their stories and talking.

And the thing that was most disturbing for me was, all of a sudden, a grown man would fold over sobbing, and my dad and everybody else would surround and tap, tap the - pat the person on the back and try to get a glass of water. And there would be, you know, tears from - you know, it's unusual when you're a kid and you hear, in your own home, adults sobbing. And what they were - they were sobbing about - it was only years later that I found out that the PTSD that came out of that war was causing. And that's why it was so healthy for these veterans to get together about once every couple of years.

GROSS: So when you were growing up, there was still a draft. And you - when you were of draft age, there was still a draft. What did you think - I mean, you're of the Vietnam War generation. So when you were eligible for the draft and stood the chance of being sent to Vietnam, whether you wanted to go or not, what did you think about the possibility of actually fighting in a war?

SPIELBERG: I was - I would never have gone to Canada, but I tried everything I could not to be drafted even though I was subjected to two or three physicals. I kept taking physicals because I had a draft counselor, and the draft counselor had advised me how to delay. You know, I was 1-A. I was not doing good in college.

GROSS: 1-A meant that you were, like, next up on the list.

SPIELBERG: I had a student deferment, a 2-S deferment as a lot of us had, most of us had. But when my grades dropped below a certain level, my GPA dropped a certain level, I was - I lost my 2-S deferment, became 1-A, and was ordered up on my first physical - my second physical, actually.

My first physical, I was in high school, a senior in high school, just turned 18, up in Northern California, and I was standing in line in a rainstorm outside to watch Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove." And I was standing in the "Dr. Strangelove" line. And I hear a horn honking, and I recognize my dad's car. And he's parked on the curb right opposite the theater. This was in San Jose. And he's waving me over, and I run over to the car, and I jump in the car. And he hands me a letter from the Selective Service. And it was a letter that was ordering me to report to have my first physical.

And I'll tell you the power of movies, Terry, which is really interesting. I was terrified. I - that letter was like a death warrant. And my dad was going to drive me home, and I said, no, no, no, I got to see this movie. And I had the letter, and I put the letter in my back pocket and ran back in line. And I saw the movie. And 10 minutes into the movie, I forgot that my father had handed me what could have been my death warrant. That's what that Kubrick film did for me. It took my mind off of anything except that story of Armageddon. And that was another example of just the power of somebody telling me a story.

GROSS: Yeah, well, and the story that took your mind off having to fight in war was a story about possible nuclear war and all the things that could go wrong and lead to it. So it's funny that that was distracting you from the possibility of going to war yourself. So how did you finally get out of being drafted?

SPIELBERG: Well, because something called the lottery was enacted. I was in college at the time. And they were announcing the lottery, and we all ran to a friend's apartment - about 15, maybe 20 of us. And we turned on the TV, and we watched the numbers come out of the drum. And my birthday - my number was 275. So right away, I was off the hook. But suddenly, a number would come up for somebody else. It was number 19, and that person would start screaming and burst into tears. And then, another number would come over that was on the bubble like 110. And you didn't know whether that was going to be the number that sent you to Vietnam. But that was quite a day. I'll never forget that.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Steven Spielberg. And his new film, which he co-wrote and directed, is called "The Fabelmans." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "FINDING PRIVATE RYAN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Steven Spielberg. His new movie, "The Fabelmans," which he directed and co-wrote, is based on his early life when he was learning to make films - when he was a boy and a teenager, making home movies and casting movies with friends and classmates. So with all the fear that you had about war and fighting in war and your father's friends occasionally leaning over and sobbing, thinking about the war, why did you want to make war movies?

SPIELBERG: You know, I just think I was attracted to the sacrifice and to the gallantry. War kind of glorifies heroism, and Hollywood glorified war. You know, I knew based on the stories my dad and his friends were telling about World War II that there was no glory in war. And it was ugly, and it was cruel. And it was, you know, visually devastating. And so I thought, someday, if I ever do make a war movie for real, it's got to be something that tells the truth about what those experiences had been for those young 17-, 18-, 19-year-old boys storming Omaha Beach, let's say. So when I had the opportunity to make Robert Rodat's script into a movie, "Saving Private Ryan," it can't be a glorification of war. It's just going to have to be the low down, dirty truth of what it was like for these young boys.

GROSS: Oh, and it's so - it's - especially for its time, it's so graphic in a way that, like, the World War II movies that you grew up with were not. You'd see people kind of, you know, step on grenades in those movies, and their bodies would be thrown into the air. But you didn't see like a severed limb. You didn't see another soldier carrying off a limb. You didn't see people throwing up on the boat - you know, on those little boats heading to the actual beach on D-Day. You didn't see, you know, bloody bodies in the water. You didn't see the true chaos of war. So I guess part of what you wanted to do was really show the complete horror of being in a scene like that and the disorientation.

SPIELBERG: Yes, I was willing to sacrifice the funding that my own company was provided with by financial backers who believed in myself and David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg when we first formed DreamWorks. It was DreamWorks money, and I was kind of convinced that it was going to lose its shirt, that every single dollar we poured into "Ryan" - the movie cost - which now is a bargain, but the movie then cost $59 million to make, in - shot in '97, came out in '98. I just wanted to tell the truth, and I didn't think anyone would see that film. And I was absolutely surprised that so many people around the world did go to see it.

GROSS: Did you fear they wouldn't see it because it was too disturbing?

SPIELBERG: I was afraid that the first people who saw it would just say, it's too bloody. Don't put yourself through it.

GROSS: I know that you didn't storyboard the D-Day scene, or at least that's what I've read. And so a lot of it was kind of figured out on the spot. And I don't know how you do that - how you could do that, because there's so much chaos. But it needs to be, you know, like, controlled chaos in a way. You need to know what you're shooting. So how did you - how do you improvise a massive scene like that, with explosions and dead bodies and bodies floating in the water and things blowing up? I mean, there's safety precautions you have to take. You have to need - you need to know where the camera is. And the crew and the actors need to know what they're doing.

SPIELBERG: Well, the first thing was I didn't shoot it all in a couple of days. I mean, obviously, it took 25 days. It's a 25-minute sequence, and it took 25 days to shoot 25 minutes. So I was only shooting a minute a day. And because I hadn't storyboarded anything, but I knew what the mission was - they had to get up the Vierville draw to get to the top of Omaha Beach. So I decided to shoot the entire sequence in continuity.

So I began with the Higgins boats, and then we got them out of the Higgins boats when they came under intense fire, and we got them behind the Belgian Gates, those tank traps, those big crosses in the sand. And we just - I - in real time, taking one little segment at a time, we progressed up the beach until on day 25, we got to the top. And so, you know, I love improvising scenes. I mean, I love improvising shots. It's what I've done my whole life. It's what I did - I didn't do storyboards when I was a kid making 8 mm movies or in college making 16 mm movies. I just improvised everything. And I love that. And in this sense, it allowed the chaos to be chaotic because there was no room for slick Hollywood setups. There was only room with a handheld camera.

I kept imagining - you know, there's these great shots that Bob Capa, the wartime correspondent and brilliant photojournalist, had made. He was on Omaha Beach when those - that first wave landed, but unfortunately, maybe 200 or more still photographs he took got ruined in a lab when the negative was sent to England to get developed, and somebody was so anxious to develop it, they ruined every single shot except nine. And those nine shots really gave me a visual style. I said, if I can get those nine Capa shots with the blurry, shaky, messed-up imagery, if I can make the whole Omaha Beach sequence look like the Bob Capa salvaged photos, it might give us a little glimpse into what it was like to actually fight a war like that.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Steven Spielberg. His new movie, "The Fabelmans," is a semi-autobiographical film about how he became a filmmaker and what his life was like when he was growing up. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "HYMN TO THE FALLEN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Steven Spielberg. His new film, "The Fabelmans," is based on his early years as a boy and a teenager, when he first saw movies and started making them.

Part of your new movie is about, you know, growing up Jewish and, when you moved to a largely gentile suburb of California, facing antisemitism at school. I know you lost over 15 relatives in the Holocaust who were, you know, relatives who were still in Europe. And your grandmother taught English to Holocaust survivors in America. And you knew Holocaust survivors who had numbers tattooed on their arms from their days in concentration camps and death camps. And you've said that's how you learned to count. That's how you learned math. How did that work?

SPIELBERG: Well, it's not how I learned math, it's how I learned my numbers. It's a very kind of perverse version of "Sesame Street" where I'd be sitting at these tables - I was just a kid. I was like 3 years old. It was back in Cincinnati. We didn't move to New Jersey until I was, probably, 3, 4 years old. And I just remember sitting around the table and a lot of very, very old people - and these people probably weren't very old. They were probably in their 30s or early 40s. But when you're a little kid, anybody who looks 30 or 40 looks like they're on the - on death's doorstep, you know?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

SPIELBERG: And they were old. And they were speaking - they were mainly speaking either Yiddish. Or they were speaking German. Or they were speaking Hungarian, mainly Hungarian. And I didn't know it then what the languages were. Later, my mom and dad told me what the languages were. It was mainly Hungarian. And my grandmother would teach them English. She was teaching them how to - they resettled in this country. And they were learning English. My grandmother was their English teacher. And there was - she was teaching a class in the Cincinnati house, maybe, you know, a large dining room table filled with survivors.

And one man in particular, I kept looking at his numbers, his number tattooed on his forearm. And he started, you know, when - during the dinner break, when everybody was eating and not learning, he would point to the numbers. And he would say, that is a two. And that is a four. And then he'd say, and this is a eight. And that's a one. And I'll never forget this. And he said, and that's a nine. And then he crooked his arm and inverted his arm and said, and see, it becomes a six. It's magic. And now it's a nine. And now it's a six. And now it's a nine and now it's a six. And that's really how I learned my numbers for the first time. And the irony of all that, and the gift of that lesson, never really dawned on me until I was much older.

GROSS: Did you understand at the time that those numbers were basically the ID numbers tattooed on arms because, you know, the Jews were not humans to the Nazis, and they were just going to be worked to death or just, you know, put in ovens? And so this was just, like, the math to keep count of them and identify them. Did you understand the horror of that when you were learning math on their arms?

SPIELBERG: No, I didn't know anything about that. I didn't know who they were. And I'm sure - you don't sit a 3-year-old kid down and explain the Holocaust to them. I - there was no way I'd be able to comprehend anything. It was only years later that I had these recollections and my mom and my grandparents would fill me in with what those days were like.

GROSS: You said, when you were growing up, you were afraid of everything. Once you learned about the Holocaust and realized that you'd been, you know, in contact with so many Holocaust survivors, did the whole idea of the Holocaust, like, terrify you and haunt you? And did you worry about something like that ever happening again?

SPIELBERG: You know, the first time I really became - my parents talked a lot about the Holocaust, but it was never called the Holocaust. They never referred to it as the Shoah. They always called it the great murders. They referred to the Holocaust as the great murders. And as a kid, that's a very dramatic thing to hear, great murders, plural. And I - what the stories - there's only so much a story can do to scare a child. But imagery is a powerful, powerful, kind of bracing way of shocking you into realization of some kind.

And they actually wheeled a 16-millimeter projector, I believe, into our sixth- or seventh-grade classrooms in Phoenix, Ariz. And they showed us a 45-minute or so - maybe an hour long - black-and-white documentary called "The Twisted Cross." And it was the first time I ever saw imagery of death. I had never seen a dead body until that documentary was shown to my class, and stacked up like cordwood, you know? And I'll just never forget. I was repulsed. And I was terrified. And I really, when I came home that day, told my parents what they had shown us. And that was the first time - after all the dinner table discussions about the great murders and who we lost, that was the first time - it was a film that got me really to realize that something had happened that would change - you know, it would change me forever.

GROSS: How did it change you?

SPIELBERG: I became obsessed with learning more about it. And "Schindler's List" was the culmination of all of the interest that - from the seventh grade, I had just been obsessed with it. Nothing was being taught. Nothing was being shown. There were no movies made of it. I remember my parents went to see "The Pawnbroker." And they didn't take me. And I really wanted to see it. And they said it was too intense for me and didn't want me to see it.

And so there were a couple of things done about the Holocaust, not many. But "The Pawnbroker," that I had later saw, that was - I wish I had seen it when my parents saw it. That would have been a profound experience for me. And it was just - and not a lot was being written about the Holocaust either. And we didn't have access to the books that were - that had been written, you know? And so it was not until I was really in my, I would say, 30s that there was more and more written about the Holocaust. And I started reading everything I could.

GROSS: Part of what your film is about is, you know, growing up Jewish. You grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. What did that mean? Did your family keep kosher, go to synagogue on days that were not the high holy days, observe the Sabbath? What did it mean in practical terms?

SPIELBERG: Yeah, Terry, I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family only when my grandparents were visiting our home.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SPIELBERG: The second they went back to Cincinnati, Ohio, the lobster and the clams came back in. The milchig and the fleishig - the meat and the milk - was being mixed. Everything changed. So I kind of grew up in a kind of hypocrisy of really being conservative to reformed Jews but orthodox when it was convenient and when it was not going to get my mom and dad in trouble.

GROSS: You use the word hypocrisy. I mean, you are still very Jewish. And I don't know if that means mostly culturally Jewish or, you know, observant Jewish because, you know, a lot of Jewish people are more cultural than observant in their identification with Judaism.

SPIELBERG: Well, you know, I - you know, for a long time I was in denial that I was Jewish when I was, especially in elementary school and part of high school, because it was alienating to identify and to declare yourself as being Jewish. I never really denied I was Jewish, but I try to make myself as tiny as possible when that conversation came up in the schoolyard. Certainly I identified inside being, you know, in a family, in a large family growing up in Arizona. I identified culturally because we observed all the high holy days, and we observed all the, you know, the smaller Jewish holidays. And when my grandparents were there, there was a lot of Russian and Yiddish spoken in our home because my grandparents were from Ukraine. And I'm second-generation Ukrainian. And so there was a devout kind of educational aspect of my life when they would be in town. And they were in town a lot. And so we were orthodox a lot and kosher a lot. And then, as I said, when they went away, we weren't kosher anymore.

GROSS: Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Steven Spielberg. And his new film, which he co-wrote and directed, is called "The Fabelmans." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "THE BRITISH GRENADIERS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Steven Spielberg. His new movie, "The Fabelmans," which he directed and co-wrote, is based on his early life when he was learning to make films when he was a boy and a teenager, making home movies and casting movies with friends and classmates.

In the movie, you learn - and I won't say how you learn this, but you learn that your mother has been having an affair and is in love with your father's best friend, who's also on his team at work. And you think of him as your uncle. And it's very disturbing when you find out that he is in love with your mother and your mother is in love with him. And then your mother, you know, leaves your father to be with this other man. And it was similar in your life. How did you learn, if I may ask, that your mother was, you know, romantically involved with the person you thought of as an uncle?

SPIELBERG: Well, you know, I learned it at a very young age when I was 16. And I learned it not because of anything I observed with my naked eyes. It was something that I could only see on film. And I don't want to go into too much detail about it because it's sort of the turning point of the story. But just to say that, you know, I had always looked at my mom and my dad as my parents and my mom as my mom, but after this, I had a secret, and I had a secret between myself and my mother. And, you know, no kid should ever be allowed to hold that kind of information secret. But I did because my mom wanted me to. And at the same time, I went from looking at my mother as a parent, and I started seeing her as a person for the first time, almost in a way as a peer because, you know, we both had secrets. And it was a powerful load of responsibility just to not say to anyone, especially my father, what I had discovered. That was a very painful part of my life.

GROSS: I can imagine. When your parents divorced, though, you blamed your father for the divorce. And I guess I don't understand why you blamed your father, knowing that your mother was in love with someone else.

SPIELBERG: I think I blamed my dad because my dad went to great lengths to make it safe for my mom to move back to Arizona and start a new life by basically falling on the sword and telling all of us that it was his decision to separate and it was his decision to divorce. And he basically gave up the truth to protect my mom, who was very fragile, even though she was an adventurer, had a huge adventurous personality. And always - we always saw her as Peter Pan, you know, the kid that never wanted to grow up. And she sort of saw herself that way. And I think my mom lived a lot of childhoods in her 97 years, but my dad knew that about her and wanted to protect her and let her have that childhood in - in her adult, you know, time. And I think that was the greatest sacrifice. And that showed how much my dad so deeply loved her.

GROSS: So he made this, like, self-sacrificing act by taking the blame for the divorce. And you believe that and you were estranged from him for years, right?

SPIELBERG: Well, yeah, I - when I say - estranged is a strong word. I always talked to my dad. We talked, you know, but we talked on, like, my birthday or we talked when I was having a movie premiere, and he would come to the premiere. But we were not close to any longer. We didn't spend time with each other. We didn't visit each other at home and have long talks. That was suspended for, I would say, about 15 years.

GROSS: That's heartbreaking. I mean, that could have been avoided. Like, you both knew about your mother's other relationship, and you were both keeping it secret from each other. You - like, you both knew and you wouldn't share it with each other. I don't know. It's...

SPIELBERG: You know, making this movie - $40 million of therapy...

(LAUGHTER)

SPIELBERG: ...And turning my story into a motion picture is never going to help me assuage my guilt about how I separated emotionally from my dad for all those years. But my dad and I made up for it. And my dad lived to 103 1/2 years old. Thank God because it gave us so many more years together in a kind of communion, of closeness and humor and involving each other in our interests. And we really, really made up for those gap years.

GROSS: And your mother never stepped in and said, it was really me who left.

SPIELBERG: Oh, no, she did later. She confessed that to - I mean, later, of course, she did. When I was grown up and she had the restaurant, we talked - we would talk about it all the time. But, you know, I had a lot of things about my dad - never feeling that my dad was strong enough.

You know, there's - in a way, there's a scene in a movie I love called "Rebel Without A Cause," the Nicholas - you know, the movie with James Dean and Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo and - like that. And there's a scene with Jim Backus, who plays James Dean's father. And, you know, James Dean's mom is stronger than the dad. The dad does all this housework, and he's actually - it was pretty much on the nose. I don't think anybody would have made that choice today. But he's wearing a very feminine apron when he's in the kitchen cleaning stuff up that he dropped. He was bringing a plate of food up to his wife, and he dropped it. And he was so afraid of being caught having spilled her dinner. And James Dean gets really mad at him and picks him up and says, you know, let her clean it up. Call her down here. Let her clean it up.

I had an interesting dynamic with my dad that I always felt that my dad wasn't strong enough when he was supposed to be the paterfamilia of the family. It was my mom that kind of called the shots. She was a very strong woman and human person. And the image in the '60s - in the '50s and '60s was about the men being sort of the dominant decision-makers in the house. It was depicted in Life magazine and Look magazine and in movies and on television. And it's certainly not the way it ever was. I know that now. But when I was a kid growing up with them, I wanted my dad to assert himself more. So there was more than just my dad falling on his sword to protect my mom that caused my distancing myself from my father.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Steven Spielberg. And his new film, which he co-wrote and directed, is called "The Fabelmans." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "CHRISSIE'S DEATH")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Steven Spielberg. His new movie, "The Fabelmans," which he directed and co-wrote, is based on his early life when he was learning to make films - when he was a boy and a teenager, making home movies and casting movies with friends and classmates.

You know, in "The Fabelmans," the teenage version of your alter ego makes a film of the annual school beach party in 1964 and shows it at the prom. And, you know, at the beach party, there's, like - there's races. There's volleyball. People are swimming. People are flirting with each other, playing pranks on each other. Some seagulls, you know, do their thing on people's faces. And then, you - so then, you show it at the prom. And one of the kids in the film who's actually depicted in a very glorified way is so angry with the young filmmaker 'cause he doesn't like how he's depicted. He thinks, I'm not really that person. Was there a moment in your life when you realized that being behind the camera gave you the power to portray somebody as, you know, an almost, like, mythical, godlike figure or to kind of take them down a few notches?

SPIELBERG: Well, you know, the camera isn't just a tool to - you know, through which to tell a story or by which to tell a story. A camera is - could be a defensive weapon. And I think I was so sort of ostracized in that last year of high school that the camera became my defensive weapon. And just as the camera had made some pretty scary discoveries for me as I was growing up with it, it also - I used it to my advantage to just try to get the bane of my existence in high school, this bully, simply to say, you know, good job, or, hey, I liked what you shot, you know?

And what really took place, I couldn't and, to this day, can't figure out why that happened 'cause I never got to know him that well and didn't understand what his family life or the complexities of his upbringing were that caused such a surprising reaction to my glorifying him whereas he didn't think I was glorifying him. And so I'll never know, really. We - in our movie, we make some - we basically try to explain it. But in real life, it was never explained to me. He had that reaction, and then, he - that was it. So, you know, it just shows that sometimes it's more interesting not to show something, to try to explain it deeply and try to, you know, make all ends meet and make everything, you know, come out logical for an audience at the end. Sometimes, you know, there is no logic to the choices and the emotional reactions people have to things. You just have to - I just felt I had to tell it the way it happened to me.

GROSS: You mentioned the scary discoveries that you made through shooting movies. Can you mention one?

SPIELBERG: Oh, there's many different discoveries. But one of the discoveries that happens all the time is that - and this is about acting - is that what looks subtle to the eye when I'm standing next to the camera and watching actors engaging in scene study as the cameras are turning, and what you see as the - with your eye, and you think it's subtle, and you think it's perfect, when you see it back on film, everything is louder and bigger than life on the screen. And I learned from a very early age directing television - first TV show I directed was when I was 22 years old, and I made a lot of mistakes by just trusting my evaluation of performance on a set and then realizing that, oh my goodness, I let my actors all go too far. How come it's louder on the screen when it seemed perfectly natural on the day? And that is - it took me years to figure out how to modulate performances so the actors would be at a level that I was seeking.

GROSS: I've saved this question for the end because it's a very, very important question - very profound, if I might brag. So are you aware, and I assume you may be, that a lot of porn films satirize the titles of real films or satirize the films themselves. And when John Waters was on our show - this was an interview years ago - he said his favorite was "Shaving Ryan's Privates." And there's actually not only a porn film named that, there's a documentary about porn films that satirize real films, and that film, that documentary is titled "Shaving Ryan's Privates." Did you know about that?

SPIELBERG: No (laughter). Not until this very moment. Wow.

GROSS: I told you it was profound.

SPIELBERG: Well, you know, a lot of my films have had, you know, funny and sometimes a little bit of antisemitic uses of the title. So I just never heard that one before.

GROSS: Well, speaking of antisemitism, I mean, we're living in a period now - there's, like, a horrible resurgence in the U.S. Did you ever think you would see this in the U.S.?

SPIELBERG: Not at this level, no. I mean, antisemitism has always been with us. It's always been there. It's - sometimes it ebbs and flows in terms of - there was a lot of Holocaust denial, which has helped lead me to decide to make Thomas Keneally's book "Schindler's Ark" into a movie, "Schindler's List." But I've never seen antisemitism so much on the surface. It used to be subcutaneous. It used to be hinted at through innuendo and smart-aleck remarks. But I've never seen it so blatantly a part of an entire ideology, which is appalling to me.

GROSS: And have you been the target of it as a famous filmmaker?

SPIELBERG: I'm sure I have, but I don't read that stuff. But I'm sure I have.

GROSS: Yeah. Steven Spielberg, thank you so much. And continue to make movies that give us so much kind of pleasure and also pain.

SPIELBERG: Thanks, Terry. This was a pleasure for me.

GROSS: Steven Spielberg directed and co-wrote his new film, "The Fabelmans."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be New York Times science writer David Wallace-Wells. He'll explain why, as a result of international action on climate change and declining prices for renewable energy, it now appears global warming has slowed significantly. The bad news is that the warming we can expect will create havoc in much of the world. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "I COULD HAVE DONE MORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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