Michael Jolls took his love for Steven Spielberg and wrote the brand new book, The Films of Steven Spielberg. The book examines in great detail the filmography of one of the most prolific filmmakers that has ever lived. I spoke to Michael Jolls about the inspiration behind his new book, the challenges that came with crafting it and much more.
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Can you give us a little background on what you do for a living?
Oh boy…okay! So I’m an “indie filmmaker,” which means I spend my weekends shooting videos on my iPhone, and my weekdays getting coffee for people who get larger paychecks than me. Will that answer suffice?
All joking aside, a combination of producing and graphic design pay the bills. That said, when you do filmmaking endeavors with as much regularity as I do, you’ll find yourself in a fun assortment of neat or interesting jobs.
Here’s an appropriate example: originally I was aiming to have the Spielberg book out by Thanksgiving weekend, but for a number of reasons I decided to wait for The Post to release (late December) so I could include it into the book. This meant that I had a little extra time on my hands in the fall. So I decided to apply for, and ended up getting hired part-time in a managerial position at a Spirit Halloween store for the month of October! How perfect, right? AND, by the time that the Halloween season ended, I had enough time away from the manuscript to review it with a fresh set of eyes.
What made you decide to write your book, The Films of Steven Spielberg?
That’s a three-part answer…first, I’m a research junkie. If I get really interested in a topic, I can never read just one biography or watch just one documentary. I queue the inter-library-loan system with one “request” after another. So when it comes to any of these film academic projects, my behavior goes into overdrive—for months! Now, I love this research process, but I was averse to doing a major Hollywood filmmaker with decades of experience because this process would take up a significant amount of time. Well, one night I got to thinking if I could pull off the task without indulging this pseudo-O.C.D. behavior. Specifically, letting the actual writing process direct me towards what I should study. So I took a blank sheet of paper and “free-styled” on a prominent director just to see what would happen. Within 20 minutes I filled three separate sheets, long-hand, on three separate directors. It kinda hit me in that moment that I could pull off a book without having to spend several months finding every single interview, reading every single book on the subject, or listening to every single audio-commentary.
A couple days later, still flirting with the idea of doing another book, I asked Natalia Samoylova for her opinion. Now, the title “business partner” with regards to Natalia is a gross understatement, but to put it into perspective, I won’t accept big projects without her input. Additionally, Natalia has stepped in as a pseudo-publicist for me, so I wasn’t about to do this without her feedback. Anyway, I spoke for approximately 30 seconds? Maybe 45? When I said “Steven Spielberg,” Natalia stopped me and said, “that would be a good one.” That was the moment The Films of Steven Spielberg began, mainly because I trust Natalia’s judgment more than my own. Natalia supported this book start to finish and really encouraged me throughout the entire process. If I tried to do the book solo, it would have taken much longer. Natalia was fundamental to its existence.
Now the “fuel,” the moxie, or perhaps we could say the intriguing angel for the book was getting to address Spielberg’s growth as an artist, and his films of the last two decades. Make no mistake, the research process, the discussion on his involvement with the film school generation, the theme of fatherhood and space aliens are fun…but those topics had been previously addressed in other books. I wanted to hone in on material that hadn’t been addressed yet.
What was the most challenging aspect of researching and/or writing about Spielberg’s life and career?
The biography portion. Spielberg puts so much of himself into his films that the biography had to at least be recapped in some detail. The relationship between Steven and his father, Arnold, was concerning for me because there’s all this tabloid stuff, and I didn’t want to accidentally…well, that’s private, you know? Anyway, luckily there was enough material to avoid writing anything inaccurate. I’m a stickler for accuracy, and these are real people and I didn’t want to say something inappropriate. On the flip side of the coin, the story of DreamWorks vs. Miramax in the late 1990s is an incredible story, and it was hard to omit that from the book, most especially when the Harvey Weinstein scandal exploded. I was tempted to go in and add a whole new chapter, but decided not to.
When do you remember first becoming a true fan of Steven Spielberg and his work? Was it after you watched a certain film? When you were a kid? Do you remember the time or moment?
Yes and no…I can’t pin it to a single moment. The other thing is that the noun “Steven Spielberg” is a household name. All my memories from childhood have “Steven Spielberg” as a contextual link in hindsight. It wasn’t as if I was thinking of him at the time. The assortment includes a VHS copy of E.T. in my tape box as a young child. I remember seeing the commercials for McDonald’s Happy Meal Hook toys. I had an assortment of Jurassic Park dinosaurs, and a really sick The Lost World t-shirt and kid sandals. But, I was too little to see those movies. My parent’s aren’t movie-driven like I am, but I do remember watching Jaws with them when I was in 3rd grade, you know, because that’s what all the other students were into that month. I distinctly remember them getting Jaws from Blockbuster. That was the first time learning about what “letterbox” picture was. My parents also showed me Raider of the Lost Ark, which I actually was more frightened by. The shot where a snake slithers through a skull!? That messed me up good. My father is a huge Stanley Kubrick fan, so A.I. got talked about a lot, but I didn’t see it until years later. We watched Jurassic Park together. We watched Minority Report together, which my Mom hated, but the funny part was that she understood it and had to explain it to my Dad and I.
But all those stories just have “Steven Spielberg” in common by name only. Now, as a director and paying attention to authorship and becoming a fan, that was 2005. I distinctly remember watching Saving Private Ryan earlier in that year in full, (you know, because school cheated us by just showing the opening scene) which also was with my parents. That summer was the first time I saw Spielberg on the big screen with War of the Worlds, which totally blew me away. That same month…my mother loves Schindler’s List and her and I watched it together, which had a giant impact on me. I actually re-watched it two days afterward and spent that week in a mental lull, with scenes replaying over and over in my head. The next month, on a school summer trip, I got to visit the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. As you can imagine, particularly at high school age, those compounded experiences are going to stick with you. That said, the most peculiar of 2005’s stories comes at the end of the year, which by that point, I was probably the only high-schooler in America who was pumped for the release of Munich. A few days before it came out, I heard radio-talk show host and movie critic, Michael Medved, chatting about Munich, the controversy surrounding the film, and his denunciation of the picture. So of course…here comes a teenager with no frame of reference on the Israeli/Palestinian tensions…who hadn’t yet seen the movie…just calling in the show…getting on the air with Medved…and questioning why he, a Jew, was so against the film? Yeah, that happened. I would love to find that broadcast if it’s out there. Anyway, I can say with 100% accuracy that by the end of 2005 I was a devoted Spielberg fan.
Is there anything else you wanted to mention or talk about?
Yes, how cool and important your website is! Let’s go back to the topic of research—when academics take on projects like this there are dozens of places to look. A lot of the superfluous and meticulous questions we can generally find an answers for on websites like yours. When I worked with Dr. Laurence Knapp on David Fincher: Interviews, the blog FincherFinatic had some really helpful material! Even fun stuff like if I wanted to know which store’s Blu-ray of Ready Player One will have the most bonus features on it, etc.
Also, interviews with the other filmmakers aside from director are incredibly insightful. I can’t express how much information and awesome insight someone can get out of hearing what the cinematographer, editor, actors, production designers, etc. have to say! I’m currently reading Terrence Malick: Rehearsing the Unexpected right now, which is comprised of interviews with people who make the films with him (as you know, Malick is famously reclusive). The book is incredibly insightful, and so too with my assembly of The Films of Steven Spielberg. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and the other creators deserve to be highlighted, which you all on Amblin Roaddo a great job of, so hats off to you!