"But can you have a man as a source of inspiration?" jokes the composer, while the director recounts that the beneficial influence was mutual…. Thus were born the soundtracks of such legendary films as "E.T." or "Indiana Jones." Until "The Fabelmans," which gave them both yet another Oscar nomination on March 12.
The line in Beverly Hills wound, neatly, around the Writers Guild Theater building (the association of television and film screenwriters), continued down Wilshire Boulevard and broke only to let cars pass and allow traffic to flow. There was an air of a rock concert: those waving T-shirts with pictures of E.T., those displaying old Indiana Jones posters, those holding sheet music of soundtracks in their hands to be autographed. All had been patiently waiting in line for hours to watch the conversation between Steven Spielberg and John Williams. That recent evening was celebrating-with The Fabelmans, Spielberg's semi-autobiographical film-the half-century collaboration of two of the major players in the film and music scene of the past 50 years.
The atmosphere inside the theater was between reverential and affectionate, and the applause paid tribute to the fantastic, terrifying and tragic images of the 29 films they shot together and to all those musical pieces that are now part of our collective memory.
Masters compared: Steven Spielberg and John Williams
With immaculate hair and beard, sweater and black jacket, Maestro Williams – that's how the director addressed him – is a 91-year-old who exudes energy, friendliness and an incredible sense of humor. The composer of soundtracks for legendary films such as Star Wars, Harry Potter — as well as all of his friend Steven's (we will see the fifth installment of Indiana Jones in July) — he is the living artist who has collected the most Oscar nominations, 53, and won no fewer than five statuettes.
Sitting beside him is Master Spielberg – as Williams calls him – also with gray-white hair and beard, in a dark jacket and vest. Together they tell each other stories, relive old memories, forgotten details, have fun, even get emotional, like two brothers reuniting. They cite Mozart and Oscar Peterson, Noam Chomsky and Yo-Yo Ma, physicists and mathematicians, Art Tatum and West Coast jazz musicians, a swing of names, moments, encounters, reflections, confessions.
An evening of emotions
The evening will then be surprisingly emotional. To me, as to most of those in attendance, it felt like flipping through a half-century-old photo album. Listening to the two masters as they described their creative process, how the theme music for E.T. or Saving Private Ryan came about, when they chose silence or just accompaniment for the Holocaust scenes in Schindler's List, was a memorable experience.
But how did their collaboration begin? Memories here are intertwined with winks, with laughter. Spielberg – he recounts – had contacted Williams for Sugarland Express after hearing the music for The Reivers – Boon the Looter with Steve McQueen and directed by Mark Rydell, released in 1969. "I consumed that album by dint of hearing it, and then I even managed to scout out the next album with the soundtrack to The Cowboy (a western with John Wayne, with an overture that was considered epic) that hadn't even been released. I wanted Williams at all costs."
And the composer, from his side,
"I had heard that a director named Steven Spielberg was asking me to collaborate with him, so I suggested we have lunch together. I invite him to a fashionable restaurant in Beverly Hills, and when I arrive, he is already there. I walk over to the table and I see a young boy (laughs) who is 17-18 years old and I say to myself, "He's going to be this Spielberg's son." I sit down and we start chatting, and here (I remember the scene with absolute accuracy) the waiter hands Steven the wine list, and he looks at it as if he had been a Martian–it was obvious that he knew nothing about wines. No matter, after a few minutes I realize that the guy is extremely bright: he seems to know music better than I do, he can sing the main theme of The Reivers, he is almost a film academic: he really impresses me. When he later shows me his film, more surprise: it is beautifully edited, never seen action scenes at that level. And that's how I decide to collaborate with Master Spielberg. Since then I have enjoyed his friendship: not only has it given me enormous pleasure, it has been a source of continuous inspiration. So today I ask myself: can a muse be a man? I don't know, I should investigate what the classics thought about that"
Steven Spielberg and John Williams: an instant fit
Together they revisited and found inspiration in old-time musicians such as Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman, and Max Steiner. Explains Williams, "I loved that kid from the first moment. Steven, like me, has always felt a strong connection to the cinema and music of the past, but that attachment of his has never been retrogressive, if anything the opposite: it's like a dynamic force, projected into the future. This also explains our mutual sympathy on an artistic level."
One can only imagine how much fun they had in guessing new narrative and sound formulas, and in shaping concepts or images: how they created together, for example, the famous five notes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, perhaps the most popular of UFO films.
Their father's (and the astronauts') intervention.
At one point in their dialogue, the relationship between music and mathematics, a basic concept of Spielberg's father Arnold, even comes into play. Recounts the director, "I wanted to make a film about UFOs and Watergate. I remember the anger I felt at the time… I started by writing the final scene, but I didn't know how to get humans and extraterrestrials to communicate, and what kind of language to use. My father, who was an engineer with a passion for mathematics and classical music, used to tell me over and over again that musical composition and mathematics are very similar. I thought then of imitating the notes that the spaceship emitted, but I had no idea what these notes were-I asked John to find them".
"So it was that he studied the concept of escape velocity (the minimum speed an object must acquire to escape from the gravitational pull of a planet, ed. ), he who for the Star Wars soundtracks had consulted with astronauts and then used their suggestions for the famous scene in E.T. where the children break away from Earth and fly into the sky defying the laws of gravity." "And you know what?" added Williams, smiling, "Whenever in my concerts (on Dec. 12 he performed in Milan conducting the La Scala Philharmonic, ed.) we propose that piece and show those images, we all believe it, me first."
The emotional and familial ties are always present, strong, compelling, in Spielberg's cinema even when they are hidden behind fantastic cinematic stories in other dimensions. That's why Williams considers E.T. a film that borders on perfection, on a par with Saving Private Ryan, another masterpiece to which he is very attached for personal reasons.
"I was 10 years old when World War II began and 14 when it ended. I remember clearly the day the atomic bomb went off, and when I first saw images of the Holocaust in the newspapers. Private Ryan moved me deeply, but Schindler's List practically knocked me to the ground. When Steve showed it to me and I saw the last scene in Israel with the survivors and family members at Schindler's grave, I was so upset I couldn't speak. The lights came on and we had to meet for the meeting. I couldn't breathe, I went out for a walk, came back and said, "Steven, this is an extraordinary film, you need a composer older than me."
"And he said, 'I know, but everybody died.'" Laughs Williams, smiles Spielberg, big applause from the audience.
"I had never felt so vulnerable"
When he recounts the experience of their most recent collaboration, The Fabelmans, Spielberg opens up, becomes more personal and vulnerable. Between him and the composer, who knew both his parents, there are no secrets. "I've spent my whole life leaving my family behind to make films. This is the first time I've come home instead, and that's why it's so important to me. I had never told anything that made me feel so exposed. Ten years ago I would never have dreamed of being able to do that, or even talk about it: our secrets, our privacy, we bury them. Yet my mother encouraged me to tell her story when I went to eat at her restaurant, the Milky Way (in Los Angeles, on Pico Blvd, specializing in Kosher dishes, ed. ). He would always repeat to me, "Steve, come on, I've offered you a lot of good material in life, why don't you put it to good use somehow? Eventually Tony Kushner urged me to tap into some of those memories, fix them on a piece of paper, and find a way to express them. "
We wrote the film together, and now that the film is out, my mother and father are gone. To think about it, today is my mother's birthday (she gets emotional). Mother would have been happy to be here collecting applause, she was a born performer, she loved this kind of reaction (voice cracks). This film is for me the most private and personal experience of my entire career."
We come to the last question: Mr. Wiliams, is it true that after The Fabelmans and Indiana Jones and the Wheel of Fate you want to leave filmmaking to compose only concert music? "I'll tell you two things," he quips slyly,
"Steven is a director, producer, and studio head; he is also a writer, philanthropist, and educator. But you know what he's not? He's not someone you can say no to! (burst of applause). Me, how could I? He wants to know if I want to close up shop and not make music anymore? Music is breath, life. Undoubtedly, it is mine: to live even one day without music would be an unforgivable mistake."