isIt’s a winter afternoon and you’re about to start a video call with Steven Spielberg. The perfect opportunity, therefore, to make a quick brew in your Gremlins mug (Spielberg produced this diabolical horror comedy from 1984) then to brandish it in front of the webcam for the benefit of the director. “Oh, I love it, thank you,” he said, laughing softly. Then he waves a warning finger, “Don’t drink it after midnight! “
The most famous and beloved filmmaker in history has sparkling eyes and today’s crazy charm. He’s about to turn 75, but first there’s the release of his beefy new version of West Side Story, which marks his third collaboration with playwright Tony Kushner, who also scripted Munich and Lincoln. Spielberg goes to great lengths to stress that this is not a remake of the Oscar-laden film, but a reimagining of the original musical. “I would never have dared to approach it if it had been just a movie,” he says. “But, because it’s constantly played across the world, I didn’t feel like I was jumping on my friend Robert Wise’s film in 1961.”
Spielberg and West Side Story go back further than that. He was 10 years old when he became obsessed with the Broadway casting album, which his father brought home in 1957. He even got in trouble for performing the Gee comedy number, Officer Krupke. “With my dad right in front of me and my mom next to me, I sang, ‘My dad is a bastard / My mom is an SOB…” Oh my God they got so angry. “You can’t say ‘bastard’ at the table! Where did you learn that? I said, ‘It’s in your file!’ “
It was Jerome Robbins who had the idea to transpose Romeo and Juliet to the Upper West Side of New York. Leonard Bernstein provided the score, Arthur Laurents the screenplay and a young neophyte named Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Tony and Maria, played in Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler’s version of Spielberg, were the doomed lovers, while two warring gangs, the Jets and Sharks, replaced the Montagues and Capulets. What gang did the young filmmaker run with during his teenage years in Arizona and California? “Me in a gang?” He stammers. ” Yes indeed! No, I was in the Boy Scouts of America. And a film club. My friends and I made 8mm movies when we were 12 or 13, so I was part of this nerdy, geeky little club.
He did, however, become known in the 1970s as one of the Movie Brats, so called because they were the first generation of American filmmakers to absorb much of their education from the screen and electrify and transform. Hollywood. Of this quintet – Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were the others – Spielberg was the only one who had not made a leap into musicals. “Francis did it with Finian’s Rainbow, Brian with Phantom of the Paradise, Marty with New York, New York. I think you have to think of American Graffiti as George’s musical. Which means all of the Movie Brats have done it now, and I was the last one. I am proud to be the van.
He had healthy anxiety before. “I work better this way,” he explains. “Fear is my fuel and confidence is my enemy. If I’m on my heels, I have better ideas than, say, coming and doing the sequel to Jurassic Park. It’s much better for me not to make the sequel to Jurassic Park.
Musical numbers, like the dance competition in Spielberg’s 1941 war comedy or the dazzling tribute to Busby Berkeley at the start of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, have popped up in his films without him ever putting more than ‘one toe in the water – or rather, on the dance floor. His 1991 fantasy Hook, starring Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan, even began life as a musical.
“I chickened out after the first week of filming and released all the songs,” he recalls. “It was the biggest paradigm shift I have ever had in making a movie. It didn’t seem right for some strange reason. Maybe I didn’t feel ready to do a musical. I was okay with doing those little numbers in 1941 or Temple of Doom, and later there was a Bee Gees kind of weightless dance in Ready Player One. I also had a few false starts with scripts that I started to develop into original musicals. At one point, I decided that I had to have the courage of my convictions.
It meant going back to the musical that got him a scolding at the table. “It never left my life,” he says. “I played the casting album to my kids. They memorized the songs as they grew up. I have videos where I run around playing Officer Krupke and all the Jets. These videos prove how West Side Story has permeated my entire life and the lives of my children and grandchildren. It’s crazy! Is he more of a dancer? “I’m a good diver,” he smiles. “I have several left feet. I’ve stumbled over cables on my own sets since I was a 22-year-old TV director. It’s more difficult now at almost 75 years old. You don’t want to do this that much.
His feelings for West Side Story are unmistakable, but love alone is not reason enough to create a new version of the existing material. This was proven by the negative reaction to Always, his 1989 update of Victor Fleming’s 1943 romantic fantasy A Guy Named Joe. “It was a great love story that really touched me and I had never done a love story before,” he says. “I used to show the 1943 movie to girlfriends when I was dating, and if they didn’t like it, I wouldn’t date them. The two that were litmus tests of whether there would be another date were A Guy Named Joe and Two for the Road by Stanley Donen. If they didn’t like these movies, that was it!
Thankfully, her West Side Story has urgency as well as affection behind it, introducing a racial and socio-economic specificity that earlier versions were ill-positioned to provide. “What isn’t in the play or in the 1961 movie is San Juan Hill razed by the wrecking ball,” he says, referring to the redevelopment that demolished entire blocks in Manhattan, mainly displacing low-income families of color.
As Zegler would tell me later, “Tony’s script brings out the realities of what it was like for these communities. Lieutenant Schrank says it in the first scene: “You are on the way. Several dance numbers now take place among torn metal and piles of rubble, or on broken pillars. “The Jets climb to the top of a garbage heap,” says Spielberg. ” It’s like, ‘It is why are they fighting? “
There’s also a new weight and dignity given to the Latinx characters of West Side Story, whose culture – and the racism they face – is more clearly drawn. When I talk to Ariana DeBose, who plays Maria’s friend Anita, she confesses mixed feelings about the 1961 film. “It’s a product of her time,” she says. “Do you realize, ‘Oh, they’re in brown face. ‘ That is to say not my favorite thing in the movie. But I still think it’s a classic.
When auditioning for Spielberg and Kushner, she made it clear that her ethnicity should be taken into account if she was hired. “I told them, ‘If you’re not interested in exploring the fact that I’m Afro-Latina, that I’m a black woman, then I don’t think you should consider me.’ And they really weren’t afraid of that. My presence in this film is not a casting. This allowed us to start a conversation about colorism and its impact on Latinx culture. “
Young audiences who may have never heard of West Side Story, let alone the flaws of any previous release, would expect nothing less. It is for them that the new image exists above all. “The majority of young people don’t know what West Side Story is,” says Spielberg. “This will be their introduction. He also made it for – and dedicated it to – his father, who died last year at the age of 103. “I didn’t finish it in time for him to see it. But while I was on set in New York, my assistant was running FaceTime on the iPad, and my dad was sitting at home in LA watching us shoot a lot of the movie, so he felt part of us. business.
Another missing figure, Sondheim, who died last month at the age of 91. On set, he was nicknamed “SS1” while Spielberg was “SS2”, a rating stipulated by the filmmaker. They had known each other since the mid-1980s. In addition to being present for part of the filming, which ended before the pandemic, the composer attended each recording session. “Then, during Covid, I discovered that he was as much a filmmaker as Scorsese or myself, and that he had seen the most obscure films. So we started this great email exchange for almost 18 months and he has become a very good friend. We would recommend movies to each other, then watch them and talk on the phone or email about them.
Did Sondheim pass the Guy Named Joe / Two for the road test? “No, he didn’t,” he laughs. “He didn’t like any of those movies at all. Unfortunately, no second date. Just a beautiful friendship.