Director Susan Lacy already boasts a shelf full of Emmy statuettes, collected over a career in documentary that extends several decades. She could add to that Emmy hardware this year for her acclaimed film on one of the single greatest talents in motion picture history, Steven Spielberg.
Lacy’s HBO documentary Spielberg focuses on one aspect of the filmmaker’s career.
“I wanted to make a film specifically about him as a director,” Lacy tells Deadline. “I wanted to make a film that helps you find him and makes sense of who he is and his story.”
One of the remarkable features of the film is the degree to which its subject agreed to participate in the project.
“I had hoped for maybe four or five interviews” with the director, Lacy recalls. “We ended up doing 15 interviews and each took a few hours, so that was a big commitment.”
It’s all the more remarkable because Spielberg had not proven eager in the past to grant in-depth interviews.
“He had some very early bad experiences with the press as a really young guy, when he did Jaws. I think he’s just wary of revealing too much,” Lacy notes. “He’s never participated in any biographical venture about him, whether it’s a book or—I think there’s only been one other film, but that was an ’80s biography, which he did not participate in. When he said yes to this, he was clearly ready.”
Lacy paints a portrait of the artist that runs counter to the usual take on Spielberg.
‘He’s thought of as a highly commercial, highly successful, blockbuster kind of filmmaker,” she observes. “Most people’s perception of him is not as a personal filmmaker.”
But Lacy was able to trace the way many of Spielberg’s films, while not strictly autobiographical, are yet a reflection of his insecurities, fears and preoccupations. For instance, Duel, Spielberg’s gripping 1971 TV movie, tells the story of an ordinary man in an ordinary vehicle menaced by a rusted semi-truck that repeatedly tries to run him off the road.
“I was always the kid [growing up] with the big bully. And Duel is my life in the schoolyard,” he tells Lacy in the film. “The truck was the bully, and the car was me.”
Lacy identified other through lines between the young Spielberg who found a refuge in cinema and the adult master of the form.
“There is that young curious boy that still exists in Steven who just loves all the stuff that boys love—you know, dinosaurs and video games. But he also really likes to push the envelope technically,” Lacy observes. “I know Ready Player One is technically masterful and goes beyond what anybody else has done. He really relishes that, loves to use the techniques available and to be a pioneer in that…Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones. I mean, there is that part of Steven that just loves, and always will love that.”
The film has earned wide praise from critics including Matt Roush, who called it “as epic in scope and lively in detail as the classic films [Spielberg] devoured and studied.” Owen Gleiberman, writing in Variety, termed it “an intensely pleasurable double hit of eye candy and mind candy.”
But the review that may have meant the most to Lacy came from Spielberg himself. This being Spielberg, it naturally came with some suspense.
“He didn’t see the film until it was finished. And he called me—and you can imagine how nervous I was. I didn’t even realize how nervous I was until we got off the phone and I practically fell on the floor,” Lacy says with a laugh. “The first thing he said was, ‘Wow!’ Then he said, ‘I feel like I’ve been through 12 years of therapy.’”
Lacy has been in Cannes this week for the international premiere of her latest biographical documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts. That too will air on HBO, later in 2018 (making it eligible for Emmy consideration next year). The study and appreciation of major figures in the arts has become her life’s work as a filmmaker, first at PBS where she created the series American Masters, and now with her projects on HBO.
“I really believe that stories about creative geniuses and the people that change our culture in some ways are the most interesting stories that can be told,” she comments.
That goes for Spielberg, Fonda, Leonard Bernstein, Judy Garland and others she has profiled. Lacy told Deadline she has placed high expectations on the work.
“That’s what I set out to do, to make films that would stand the test of time, and that would be as original and great, so to speak, as the people we’re making films about,” she says. “You can’t go to the most creative geniuses in the world or their estates and not make something that stands up to their work. You know what I’m trying to say?”