Watch Steven Spielberg’s Debut: Two Films He Directed as a Teenager

When Steven Spiel­berg was six or sev­en years old his father took him to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Great­est Show on Earth. When he arrived at the the­ater he felt cheat­ed, because he thought he was going to see a real cir­cus, with real-life clowns and ele­phants and lion tamers. But as the pic­tures moved across the screen the boy’s dis­ap­point­ment soon gave way to enchant­ment. One scene in particular–the film’s  spec­tac­u­lar train wreck–would alter the course of his life.

After see­ing the movie, Spiel­berg talked his dad into to buy­ing him an elec­tric train set. When he got a sec­ond train his boy­ish instinct was to re-cre­ate the crash scene from The Great­est Show on Earth. He rammed the two trains togeth­er at high speed, just for the joy of watch­ing the pieces fly apart. His father was not amused. After pay­ing a sec­ond time to have the trains repaired, he warned Steven that if he crashed them again, the train set would be tak­en away. When Spiel­berg was about 12 years old, he got an idea. As he lat­er recalled:

What­ev­er got into me, I need­ed to see those trains crash­ing. But I also did­n’t want to lose my train set. My dad had sit­ting around the house, which I had always tak­en for grant­ed, this lit­tle eight mil­lime­ter Kodak film movie cam­era with a tur­ret that had three lenses–kind of a wide, medi­um and close-up lens. I nev­er real­ly both­ered with the cam­era, but I thought: Well, I know what I can do. What if I filmed the trains crash­ing into each oth­er? I can just watch the film over and over and over again. And that’s how I made my first movie. All in the cam­era. I did­n’t have an edit­ing machine. I just put the cam­era low to the track, the way we as chil­dren like to put our eyes close to the toys we’re play­ing with, so the scale seems to be real­is­tic. I filmed one train going left to right. I cut the cam­era, turned it around and filmed the oth­er train com­ing right to left. And intu­itive­ly I fig­ured out that if I put my cam­era in the mid­dle and they met in the mid­dle, I’d have my train wreck. And that’s what I did. Luck­i­ly the trains did­n’t break. But I looked at that film over and over and over again, and then I thought: I won­der what else I could do with this cam­era?

Spiel­berg began mak­ing films obses­sive­ly. “I used to just crank them out, these lit­tle one-reel­ers, one after the oth­er,” he told an audi­ence at the Amer­i­can Film Insti­tute in the 1970s. “They were just lit­tle dra­mat­ic exer­cis­es. It was a hob­by and noth­ing more, although sub­con­scious­ly I was begin­ning to take it seri­ous­ly.” He began screen­ing his films for kids in the neigh­bor­hood. One of his sis­ters would make pop­corn and he would charge 25 cents for admis­sion as a way to make mon­ey to buy more film. As time went on Spiel­berg learned film gram­mar and began splic­ing dif­fer­ent pieces of film togeth­er. When he was 14 years old he enlist­ed a group of school friends to act in a 40-minute World War II movie called Escape to Nowhere. In the doc­u­men­tary clip above, Spiel­berg and his father, Arnold, remem­ber the mak­ing of the movie.

Escape to Nowhere (frag­ment):

Spiel­berg filmed Escape to Nowhere in 1962 near his fam­i­ly’s home in Phoenix, Ari­zona. The Sono­ran Desert scenery around Echo Canyon and Camel­back Moun­tain stood in for North Africa, and about 20 to 30 of Spiel­berg’s friends and class­mates played sol­diers on both sides of the bat­tle.

“He had a lim­it­ed sup­ply of Ger­man hel­mets,” writes Joseph McBride in Steven Spiel­berg: A Biog­ra­phy, “so he would have his sol­diers run past the cam­era and pass their hel­mets to oth­er kids, who then would dash around behind the cam­era and make their appear­ances.” None of the cast were old enough to dri­ve a jeep, so his par­ents played those roles. In one scene, accord­ing to McBride, Spiel­berg’s moth­er, Leah Adler, pulled a hel­met over her hair and played a Ger­man sol­dier.

“My spe­cial effects were great,” Spiel­berg said in 1980. “For shell explo­sions, I dug two holes in the ground and put a bal­anc­ing  board loaded with flour between them, then cov­ered it with a bush. When a ‘sol­dier’ ran over it, the flour made a per­fect geyser in the air. Mat­ter of fact, it works bet­ter than the gun­pow­der used in movies today.” For some neigh­bors the scene was a bit too real­is­tic. McBride quotes a for­mer cast mem­ber describ­ing the scene:

“The High­way Patrol came after us,” reports Haven Peters, who played one of the lead­ing roles. “We were out in the desert, and some peo­ple drove by and report­ed to the state police that all these guys were troop­ing around in Nazi hel­mets and guns. Two or three cars of troop­ers came out to inves­ti­gate. We thought, Are we all going to be arrest­ed for tres­pass­ing? Some­body told them we were mak­ing a movie, and I remem­ber Steve’s dad talk­ing to them and cool­ing them off. After that they were real­ly inter­est­ed, and they hung around to watch.”

For his next juve­nile epic, Spiel­berg ven­tured into the sci­ence fic­tion genre. The film, Fire­light, was in many ways a tri­al run for his 1977 block­buster, Close Encoun­ters of the Third Kind.

Fire­light (frag­ment):

Fire­light had its ori­gins in a Boy Scout camp­ing trip that Spiel­berg missed out on. It was the only overnight scout­ing trip he had missed in a year, accord­ing to McBride, and when he caught up with his friends he was dev­as­tat­ed when they told him they had seen some­thing amaz­ing and unex­plain­able at night while camp­ing: “a blood-red orb ris­ing up behind some sage­brush, shoot­ing off into space.” As for­mer patrol leader Bill Hoff­man told McBride, “It was­n’t true at all. As far as I can tell, it was a com­plete fab­ri­ca­tion.” Nev­er­the­less, Spiel­berg had the idea for his next film, and he was bet­ter equipped this time. Here again is McBride:

The mak­ing of Fire­light was made pos­si­ble by the prizes Steve had won for Escape to Nowhere in the state ama­teur film con­test. “He won a whole bunch of stuff,” his father recalls. “He won a 16mm Kodak movie cam­era. I said, ‘Steve, I can’t afford to spend mon­ey for film for 16mm. Let’s swap it for an 8mm, and we’ll get a good one.’ So we bought a real good Bolex-H8 Deluxe, the big cam­era that was built on a 16mm frame, but cut for 8mm, and so you could get 400-foot reels on it. It had tele­pho­to lens­es, sin­gle-frame motion, and slow-motion, so he could make all kinds of stuff with that. And he won a whole library of books rel­a­tive to film­mak­ing. he loved those books, but he said, ‘I’m going to donate them to the school library. I don’t need them. I have the feel for it.’ As a gift for being that gen­er­ous, I said, ‘OK, we’re going to up the ante.’ We bought a Bolex pro­jec­tor, and we also bought a sound sys­tem. It was the first sound sys­tem out for con­sumer use, a Bolex Sonoriz­er.”

The scenes in Fire­light were shot in 1963 in var­i­ous loca­tions around Phoenix, includ­ing the Spiel­berg home. The actors dubbed their lines after­ward. The movie is set in a fic­tion­al Ari­zona town, with a sto­ry that is in some ways sim­i­lar to Close Encoun­ters. It involves an unhap­pi­ly mar­ried man obsessed with UFOs who tries to get skep­tics to believe in him. As the sto­ry moves along, a squad of Nation­al Guards­men, a dog, and a lit­tle girl played by Spiel­berg’s sis­ter Nan­cy all get abduct­ed by aliens. For spe­cial effects Spiel­berg built a papi­er-mâché moun­tain and used the mul­ti­ple expo­sure fea­ture on his new cam­era to super­im­pose the glow­ing “space­ships” over scenes. McBride offers his assess­ment of the film:

Fire­light intro­duces the themes of super­nat­ur­al intrud­ers, sub­ur­ban alien­ation and escape, bro­ken fam­i­lies and abduct­ed chil­dren, sci­en­tif­ic adven­ture, and spir­i­tu­al renew­al that would become famil­iar in Spiel­berg’s mature work. The young cou­ple on the run in Fire­light also point toward the Richard Drey­fuss and Melin­da Dil­lon char­ac­ters in Close Encoun­ters, and the ear­li­er film’s UFO expert, Howard Richards, is an old­er, more fal­li­ble, less bliss­ful ver­sion of François Truf­faut’s Lacombe. But unlike Close Encoun­ters, which rad­i­cal­ly depart­ed from sci-fi movie tra­di­tion to depict its extrater­res­tri­als as benign rather than men­ac­ing, Fire­light derives in large part from the mood of anx­i­ety and para­noia that char­ac­ter­ized the genre in the 1950s, when Spiel­berg became hooked on sci-fi.

Spiel­berg pre­miered Fire­light to a packed house of fam­i­ly, friends and curi­ous local res­i­dents at the Phoenix Lit­tle The­atre on March 24, 1964, when he was 17 years old. The film made a prof­it of one dol­lar. “I count­ed the receipts that night,” Spiel­berg recalled, “and we charged a dol­lar a tick­et. Five hun­dred peo­ple came to the movie and I think some­body prob­a­bly paid two dol­lars, because we made one dol­lar prof­it that night, and that was it.”

The day after the screen­ing, Spiel­berg moved to Cal­i­for­nia with his father, who was split­ting up with his moth­er. A few years lat­er, when he was show­ing his film work around Hol­ly­wood, Spiel­berg left two of the orig­i­nal reels from Fire­light with a pro­duc­er as an exam­ple of his work. Alas, just a week or so lat­er the pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny went out of busi­ness and the pro­duc­er dis­ap­peared with Spiel­berg’s reels. All that remains of Fire­light are frag­ments, includ­ing the one above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ter­ry Gilliam: The Dif­fer­ence Between Kubrick (Great Film­mak­er) and Spiel­berg (Less So)

Steven Spiel­berg on the Genius of Stan­ley Kubrick

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  • wher says:

    that is how great direc­tor began his jour­ney

  • Joe says:

    How unique and skill for Steven S. The best by far and George Lucas/James Cameron! He is a lot of prac­tices!

  • John Primm says:

    How fun to see these old things! I made some 8mm “Hol­ly­wood like” films at the same time, and while I did­n’t end up like Spiel­berg, I end­ed up mak­ing cor­po­rate indus­tri­al films and videos all my life. I loved 16mm film mak­ing. Video makes it too easy.

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