Steven Awalt talks about his book “Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career”

Here’s a trick question for you? Where did film director Steven Spielberg go when he wanted some information about…Steven Spielberg? The answer was an amazing web site known to fans all over the word as Created and maintained by Steven Awalt, the site lasted for seven years, only closing down because of Awalt’s various projects. One of those projects, the well reviewed book “Steven Spielberg and DUEL: The Making of a Film Career,” will be released on March 26.

With a Master’s degree in Cinema Studies from DePaul University, Awalt is more than qualified to discuss the most successful filmmaker of his generation. While awaiting the release of his book, Awalt took the time to speak with me about everything Spielberg.

Mike Smith: What is it about Steven Spielberg that made you follow his career so carefully that you created a web site dedicated to his work?
Steven Awalt: He and George Lucas were really the first two “filmmakers” I knew when I was growing up. Of course, when I was younger I was a big fan of the Disney films but when “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” came out it really knocked me on my young butt. The scope of it was just amazing for a little boy. And then as I got older and looked at his films, I think it was his sense of humanity that really appealed to me. I don’t think he gets enough credit for his work with characters. Going back to “Close Encounters,” people focus on the spaceships and the aliens but, at the center of that film, you have a very emotional story about a family falling apart. Even in “Jaws,” you had the Brody family and, of course, the dynamic between the three men. “Duel” is really a great portrait of a man losing his mind. It’s all about paranoia.

MS: Do you remember the first Spielberg film you ever saw in a theatre?
SA: It was “Close Encounters.” I had just turned five, so he caught me at a very young age. Between that and “Star Wars” from earlier in the summer, it was the perfect age to be.

MS: I was sixteen. Trust me, it was a great summer to be sixteen as well!
SA: (laughs) I wish to God I had been older. You got to experience “Jaws.” I first saw it when it aired on television (November 1979). The funny thing was that it didn’t at first stick with me…not like “Close Encounters” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” because it scared the hell out of me! Now it’s one of my favorite films but back when I was younger…I wish I had born in the same generation as yours because it must have been really great to be there.

MS: Of all the films that Steven Spielberg is known for, why did you choose to highlight “Duel?”
SA: Originally I had wanted to write about “Close Encounters” because it’s such an important film to me. I had been deeply researching it for years while I ran the old SpielbergFilms web site. At the time someone else had just come out with a very strong book about the film, independently written, and I was so upset because someone else had gone after it. I still plan to get to that “Close Encounters” book but when I thought about it, I realized that Steven’s work before “Jaws,” namely “Duel” and “Sugarland Express,” hadn’t really gotten their due. I thought it was fertile ground and I hope I’ve been able to start what I hope will be a series of books about his work. “Duel” and “Sugarland” are great films but they really kind of got buried by the success of “Jaws,” “Raiders,” E.T.” ….everything.

MS: Do you have a favorite Spielberg film?
SA: I definitely have a favorite. And, like most people, my favorite film is different then what I consider his best film. His best film is actually too hard a question, but my favorite film of his, from a personal perspective, is “E.T.” That film came along in my life…when I needed it most. It probably sounds funny to say that about a movie but I’m sure, at the same time, many fans can relate to that. I had a pretty rough childhood. My father was an alcoholic…he just wasn’t there for me. He died when I was a kid. So the film really spoke to me. A lonely young boy who misses his father…again, it’s the heart of the film that makes it so beautiful. Even to this day it’s a very important film in my life. And it comes from a very personal space in Steven because of the divorce of his parents. The scene in the garage where Elliot and Michael are looking for things for E.T. to build his communicator with…finding their dad’s old shirt and smelling the cologne on it…that’s the one thing I love about his work so much, that it’s so relatable.

MS: I’m paraphrasing this comment from the late director Sydney Pollack, who in 1984 told TIME magazine that he felt Spielberg would never win an Oscar until his films “grow up.” I actually met Pollack at a retro screening of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and asked him about his comments. He maintained to me that Spielberg needed to focus more on adult material. Do you think that he intentionally changed the kind of films he was doing because of that thinking? (NOTE: Spielberg’s next film after “E.T.” was the critically acclaimed, very grown up “The Color Purple.” The film received a total of eleven Academy Award nominations though, surprisingly, not one for Spielberg’s direction. This film, and 1977’s “The Turning Point,” share the record for most Academy Award nominations without a single win. Ironically, the winner of the Best Director Oscar that year was Sydney Pollack).
SA: Only Steven himself could answer that question accurately. But I think that, having started out making films in his early 20’s, Steven grew up with his films. I would imagine he was looking for different kinds of entertainment…not entertainment, per se’, but different kinds of stories about human beings. “The Color Purple” is an interesting film. I’m not a huge fan of it, but it’s definitely a turning point. To me the film that signals a new Spielberg on the screen isn’t “The Color Purple,” it’s “Empire of the Sun.” A certain weight comes with the film that I don’t think “The Color Purple” has. To me “Empire of the Sun” is a signpost for people who were so surprised by “Schindler’s List” and the films that followed. I really think you can start to see that in “Empire of the Sun,” which he made when he was in his late 30’s. So I imagine it was just a normal maturing. I guess the only person who can really answer that question is Steven.

MS: You’ve hinted that you’re working on a book going behind the scenes of “Sugarland Express.” Is it going to be in the same vein as this one?
SA: Absolutely. I like to think of it as a continuation of the “Duel” book. To me I’m writing one big book, but this one will have a different approach. It’s obviously a different story but it will show the expansion of Steven’s talent and his growth as a filmmaker.

MS: Are you hoping to maybe one day be able to document all of his films?
SA: I’m hoping to at least get through Steven’s films from the 1970s at least, because that’s my favorite period. I’d like to write about a lot of filmmakers from that era. I’m a big fan of George Romero. I’d love to write about Martin Scorsese. Brian DePalma would be fun to write on as well. But yes, I hope to at least cover the 1970s and his four masterpieces from that era.


Related Content

Book Review “Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Career” by Steven Awalt

Author: Steven Awalt
Hardcover/354 Pages
Publisher: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers
Publishing date: March 26, 2014

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

On November 22, 1963, while playing golf with a friend, author Richard Matheson learned of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Upset by the news, the duo quit playing and headed home. As they began driving through a narrow pass they heard the sound of a large truck coming up behind them at great speed. The truck continued to bear down on them as they accelerated. No matter how fast they went, the truck seemed to be coming faster. After several terrifying minutes the road finally widened and they pulled over as the truck hurtled down the road past them. Sounds like the makings of a great story, doesn’t it?

“Steven Spielberg and ‘Duel’: The Making of a Career” IS that great story. It’s an in-depth look into the workings of a young 24 year old director who went on to become, arguably, the most successful filmmaker of all time. The book details Spielberg’s early days, from his Super 8 home movies (at age 17 he created a two hour and twenty minute science fiction film entitled “Firelight” that he “premiered” at a local theatre) through his college days at CSU Long Beach and his initial work as a contract director for Universal, where he began hi s professional career directing such television programs as “Night Gallery” and “Columbo.” Impressed with his work the studio gives Spielberg a chance to direct a film to be featured as a “Movie of the Weekend,” based on a short story by Richard Matheson that recently appeared in “Playboy” magazine. The name of the story: “Duel.”

Author Steven Awalt is no stranger to the career of Steven Spielberg, having created and run the extremely popular web site . It is through this web site that Awalt shared his admiration for all things Spielberg. Here he takes that admiration and shares it with the reader. In an incredibly precise step by step process he guides the reader through the process of making a major motion picture (buoyed by its success and critical acclaim, Universal later released “Duel” in theatres both in the states and internationally). Thanks to recent, in depth interviews with many people involved in the production, including Matheson, Universal executive Sid Sheinberg, composer Billy Goldenberg and, most importantly, Spielberg himself, the book puts you on the set and involves you in almost every aspect of the production. It is because of this attention to detail that Awalt has created one of the best “making of” books in recent years.

Oliver Robins talks “Poltergeist” and working with Steven Spielberg

Oliver Robins is known best for his work in the classic horror film “Poltergeist”.  He has also worked on films like “Airplane II: The Sequel”. Currently Oliver is focusing on writing and directing with his latest film, “29,000 Wishes, 1 Regret”.  Oliver took out some time to chat about his experience on “Poltergeist” and working with Steven Spielberg.

Mike Gencarelli: Were you aware of how physical the role in “Poltergeist” was going to be?
Oliver Robins: For the most part I did because in the script it really explained what was going to happen. In terms of how they were going to execute those scenes I had no idea. It was presented to me like I was going to camp. And that’s exactly how it was. I had a great time. Every time I went to the set I had a new adventure. Because when you’re a kid you pretty much accept everything. They’d say, “OK, Oliver, today you’re going to be bolted to this wall and hung up by wires. We’re going to turn the room around and you’re going to scream into the camera because at the angle you’re hanging at it’s going to look like you’re flying.” And as a kid you’re thinking, “OK, that sounds fun.” Then the next day they tell you you’re going to be back in the room and giant tree arms are going to come at you. They want you to jump on the tree arms while screaming at it. Then they throw sugar glass at your face but they do remind you to cover your face when they’re doing it. And as a kid you’re having a great time. It’s like “what’s next?” As an adult you might step back and think it’s kind of crazy. But I used to love climbing trees so it was a blast to me.

MG: So it was really more like fun then work?
OR: Oh yeah, I had a great time. And it was a great bunch of people. Steven Spielberg. Kathleen Kennedy. Frank Marshall…they were a great group of people to work with. I didn’t want to leave the set when we were done every day. I had to because of the labor laws. “Sorry Oliver, you have to go home.”

MG: There has always been a lot of speculation as to whether Spielberg or Tobe Hooper was the director in charge. Can you lend any insight into this?
OR: I’ve learned that people seem to like controversy in pretty much everything in life. And this is one that will never go away no matter what people say. You can say that Steven Spielberg did NOT direct the film, bottom line, but people don’t want to believe it. They want to be conspiracy theorists because the falsehood is more exciting in many ways then the truth. As for Spielberg, he wrote the script (NOTE: the Original story for “Poltergeist” came from Steven Spielberg, who shared screenplay credit with Michael Grais and Mark Victor)…he was the producer. And he had a vision that he shared with Tobe. But Tobe directed me. I mean, it was investigated by the DGA (Director’s Guild of America) at the time. But when it comes to the nitty gritty, Tobe told me where to stand. He told the camera operator where to put the camera. All of the rules that I learned in film school about what a director does Tobe did. As far as what happened behind the scenes, I’m sure Steven explained what he was going for. I mean, when you’re the writer and the producer, you do what any writer would want to do. Explain your vision and your intent. Hope that they are executed as a team. And I think they worked as a great team. So in terms of what I saw on set, Tobe was the director. At least that’s my perspective on it. (NOTE: When “Poltergeist” opened in June 1982 these rumors were already circulating. Tobe Hooper has maintained that these rumors cost him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Ironically, a week later “E.T.” opened. That film earned Spielberg a Best Director nod).

MG: How was the change going from scary “Poltergiest” to the zany “Airplane 2?”
OR: I had seen the original “Airplane,” so I knew the tone of the piece. I loved “Airplane” so I knew what kind of performance they were going for. It was a dream job for me when they gave it to me. Ken Finkleman, the director, was very patient. He told me what he wanted…the very broad and over the top reactions. I had a lot of fun doing it. And the adult actors were basically doing the exact same thing so I just followed their lead.

MG: What is it like for you now to watch films you made back when you were a kid?
OR: I just recently looked at “Poltergeist” again. Obviously I’m a bit prejudiced but I think it’s a fantastic movie. As good as the films being made today without any of the great technology that exists now. I think that with the advent of all of the new CGI technology we’re almost losing some of our filmmaking capabilities and techniques. It’s as if CGI is now almost a crutch. I mean in “Alien” you hardly see the “Alien” whereas now they show everything when maybe you don’t need to show everything. Not to mention that with a lot of CGI effects today it’s almost hard to suspend disbelief. Getting back to “Poltergeist,” that film is so scary because of the stuff you never even saw. It’s in your head because you really don’t know what you’re looking at. It’s all in your mind. And I think that’s brilliant filmmaking. And it’s not just a horror film. A professor told me that compassion will always win over camera. Which means you make a film with story and character and relationships and the special effects are secondary. And that’s true about “Poltergeist.” Sure it’s scary but it’s the family and their relationships that you care about during the movie.

MG: Now you’re focusing on writing and directing. Talk about taking that path in your career.
OR: It was on “Poltergeist” that I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. Steven Spielberg loaned me a Super 8 camera and at 10 years old I started making films. And it became a passion that I fell in love with. I fell in love with telling stories. I made a 15 minute film called “The Crystal” that won first prize at a French Film Festival. I realized I wanted to do this as a career. So on the advice of Mr. Spielberg I went to the USC Film School (NOTE: Besides Steven Spielberg, note USC Film School Alumni include George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard), graduated and I’ve been pursuing filmmaking pretty much ever since. I love all genre’s of film. From comedies to romantic comedies to dramas and family dramas. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell many stories.

MG: You wear pretty much every hat possible on your new film “29,000 Wishes, 1 Regret.” What was the inspiration behind the film?
OR: My inspiration was that I wanted to do a film about our times right now. And I learned it was going to be difficult to raise funding for a film about a young couple who loses everything because of the recession and realize they’re never going to live the life they hoped for. So they decide to charge what’s left on their credit cards and then kill themselves. That story line proved next to impossible to raise money through the traditional means. And I didn’t want to wait ten years to make this movie. I thought it was timely and that it had to be done right now. We had the technology to do it. We had the cameras. So we went out and did it. I’ve been to film school and I said to myself, “Let’s go out and let me see if I can fill every behind the scene role on the movie.” I brought in a couple of friends to assist, one to be DP and one to run sound. But sometimes they weren’t available so I’d have to do everything myself. But what I loved about it is that it allowed me to work very close with the actors and allowed me to really just focus on their performances. I didn’t have to worry about funding or paying back money. It was really just our time that we were spending. And we could really just tell the story that we wanted to tell. Of course the downside is that we didn’t have an infrastructure. We were kind of scattered trying to assemble everything while shooting this film basically by the seat of our pants. So there was an upside and also a darker side to this level of filmmaking. But I think it really tested my ability. To be able to make a film with pretty much nothing…just me and my camera. For all intensive purposes the only thing I really had going was my knowledge of cinema from film school. It’s the same equipment. Now a high school kid can get the equipment as a holiday gift and go out and do the same thing without a lot of money.

MG: Where can people see the film?
OR: They can buy it right now on Amazon, ( or they can download it as well on Amazon. Just type “29000 Wishes, 1 Regret” on Amazon and they can watch it at a moment’s notice. The film has a distributor and it should be available on network television later this year.

MG: Tell us why you started your own clothing line, Cursed Clothes?
OR: I had been going to different horror conventions and thought that it would be great to give fans a little bit more of the movie I was in. So I got with a designer to create “Poltergeist” – inspired T-shirts to hand out. And we had so much fun creating these T-shirts that I thought it would be fantastic to do with other films…all of my favorite films from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Even movies from now. So we created an entire line of horror inspired clothing. And that’s how we came up with Cursed Clothes, ( We’re creating designs for all of the films that I love. “