Laurent Bouzereau has vivid memories of his first close encounter with Steven Spielberg. "It was 30 years ago," the author and documentary filmmaker tells Yahoo Entertainment. "I had been hired to make a documentary about 1941, and it was so interesting that my introduction to him was through one of his least popular films. I remember him saying, 'Please make sure that you include all the bad reviews in the documentary!' There was something humbling about him acknowledging that maybe it wasn't the film he'd originally envisioned."
That first meeting launched Bouzereau on his three-decades-and-counting career as Spielberg's resident documentarian, putting together making-of accounts of such movies as Jaws, Jurassic Park and, most recently, The Fabelmans. Now, he's putting all that firsthand knowledge into the Insight Editions tome Spielberg: The First 10 Years, a lavishly illustrated deep dive into the director's formative beginnings, from 1972's Duel to 1982's E.T. (Click here to read an exclusive excerpt from the book that covers the 1977 favorite Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)
For the record, Bouzereau is also a character in the book, after a fashion. Each chapter alternates his own analysis of a Spielberg film with an extended Q&A with the filmmaker himself. "For me, the idea was embracing a decade that formed my falling in love with movies, falling in love with America and recognizing the talent of a director I wanted to meet," says the France-born Bouzereau. "That's the reason why I limited it to that decade."
And the author insists he's not thinking sequel. "I haven't thought about Spielberg's next 10 years at all," he says with a laugh, referring to the decade-long period that included Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Empire of the Sun and Hook. "As in my documentary work, I'm most interested in the origins of things. The first 10 years of anyone's career are very formative very much what set the tone for what's to come."
1. Your Close Encounters chapter reveals two fascinating details. First, Spielberg originally wanted to cast Steve McQueen — not Richard Dreyfus — as Roy Neary. And you also write that if he were making the film today, he wouldn't have Roy abandon his family at the end. Do you think the film would have worked as well if either of those things were different?
It's really hard to answer that, because I like to take the films for what they are and have them very much be part of the artist's sensibility at the time. Steve McQueen was an incredible actor, so it would be crazy for me to say that it would have been a bad movie with him.
But Richard Dreyfus is an extraordinary actor, and I cannot imagine anyone else in that role. There's something extremely relatable about him, and I don't know that Steve McQueen has the same side to him. Also, the fact that he couldn't cry onscreen! He explained that to Steven, and that probably tells you he would have been wrong for the part. It makes it a different movie for sure.
In terms of Roy's choice, I think that was who Steven was at that time telling that story, and it's wonderful that it's not the choice he would make now. And, by the way, it's the choice that Elliot makes in E.T. He stays home and becomes the man of the house. So, in a sense, Steven did make that transition between Close Encounters and E.T. Roy left home and abandoned his family, but Elliot decides to stay with his mom and siblings. Those two films are very much companion pieces and say so much about the man who made them.
2. 1941 is a very interesting movie in Spielberg's early filmography, because it was his first brush with failure. What are his feelings about that film now?
To be exact, 1941 wasn't a financial disaster. But the reviews were for sure terrible — I had to go and license all of them for my documentary. I remember seeing the film when it played in Paris, and watching it almost every weekend because it felt like it was going to be the last film made that way, with miniatures and on-set special effects in the tradition of grand Hollywood spectacles where you could tell it was shot on a soundstage. And it pretty much was!
1941 is about the artifice of cinema in a way. You can tell it's all miniatures, but who cares? That's what it's supposed to look like. I feel like the artifice of cinema should be celebrated — you don't have to try to reproduce reality. We see that on the news! So I've always had love for the film, and the thing that's most spectacular for me is the score by John Williams. It's amongst my favorites he's ever done. There was an album, but it didn't have all the music that was in the film, so I'd have to go to see the movie in order to hear all the different cues.
3. Has The Fabelmans changed your perception of Spielberg's early films based on what it reveals about his family?
I shot all the behind-the-scenes material for The Fabelmans, so I was there as he was making the film. Something [screenwriter] Tony Kushner said about the film is that Steven has disguised stories of his family and the story of his own self for years, and this was the first time he really embraced it in a very autobiographical way.
When I saw the movie put together, I definitely felt that. But at the same time, the kid is not "Spielberg" — he's a "Fabelman," so there's an added layer of movie magic going on. You definitely see echoes in something like E.T. The difference with The Fabelmans is that there's not extraterrestrial to hang your story on, and it all feels very real.
In revisiting the interviews I've done with him for this book, I discovered what connected all these films was the theme of home in a very literal way. In Duel, you have a man who is threatened with never going home. In The Sugarland Express, you have a couple trying to reconnect with their child and build a home.
Meanwhile, Jaws is about man who left his home in New York and is trying to build a new home that's threatened by the shark. Roy leaves home in Close Encounters, 1941 is about an attack on the homeland and then there's "E.T., phone home." One could say that what these movies share is a primal and affecting desire to explore home and characters around that theme, but on a canvas that's supernatural, science-fiction and even history. And I find that really interesting.
Spielberg: The First 10 Years is available now at most major booksellers, including Amazon.