In 1968, Steven Spielberg was 21 years old and the hippie counterculture was swirling all around, but his mind was focused on one thing only: making movies.
Spielberg had been cranking out 8mm films since he was 12 years old, and he had been hanging around the sound stages and editing rooms of Universal Pictures as an unpaid clerk and errand boy since the summer after his junior year in high school, absorbing everything he could about the process of filmmaking. He hoped someone would give him a chance to direct a project–any project. He tried to generate interest by taking his childhood films around to producers. “I would bundle the pictures in a briefcase and literally carry my projector over to somebody’s office,” Spielberg told Entertainment Weekly last year. “It was like I was a very young Willy Loman; boxing up my wares and going from studio office to studio office. Not a lot, but maybe 10 percent of the producers that I tried to get to see my films did see my films.”
Spielberg realized he needed something more professional to show. He found a businessman to finance a 35mm short film. Denis C. Hoffman, who ran an optical effects house called Cinefx, read a script Spielberg had written and agreed to give the young man $10,000 to make the film , so long as it featured music by a band he managed, called October Country. The film was to be called Amblin’.
“It was going to be a tone poem about a boy and a girl who meet in the desert, hitchhiking their way to the Pacific Ocean,” Spielberg told EW. “Very simple story. I wrote it in a day.” Spielberg asked Richard Levin, a young man working at the Beverly Hills library, to play the male lead. He found the female lead, Pamela McMyler, in a directory of actors. The story is told in pictures and sound effects, with no dialogue. Spielberg would later dismiss Amblin’ as little more than a “Pepsi commercial,” but the film clearly shows Spielberg’s gift for visual storytelling. His early mentor at Universal Pictures, Chuck Silvers, said of his reaction to Amblin’: “I looked at what I still feel is the perfect motion picture.”
Although Spielberg would go on to name his film and television company Amblin Entertainment, he’s not all that fond of Amblin’ the film. “I can’t look at it now,” he said in 1978. “It really proved how apathetic I was during the Sixties. When I look back at that film, I can easily say, ‘No wonder I didn’t go to Kent State,’ or ‘No wonder I didn’t go to Vietnam or I wasn’t protesting when all my friends were carrying signs and getting clubbed in Century City.’ I was off making movies, and Amblin’ is the slick by-product of a kid immersed up to his nose in film.”