How Steven Spielberg’s Dreams Fueled His Rise

How Steven Spielberg worked his way to the top, one dream at a time.
By  · Published on June 30th, 2016

How Steven Spielberg worked his way to the top, one dream at a time.

Steven Spielberg has lived a career as fantastic as his beloved serials. Even if he didn’t really sneak into an unclaimed Universal office to break into the industry, he was introduced to and started working for Chuck Silvers, assistant to the editorial supervisor for Universal TV, at age sixteen. That he became the youngest director to be signed for a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio and has had an almost unblemished 40-odd-year career encourages self-mythologizing. Spielberg is the consummate nerd that’d think the guy at Hollywood’s peak should probably have a more fun origin story than “worked his way up from the bottom”. And, if you were him, you’d probably make the same kind of optimistic movies. Everything just works out for the big kids in the giant, other worlds. The little dreamers come out on top.

Spielberg’s thematic insistence on dreams, on near reality, comes from his personal stance as an outsider. Spielberg was a sci-fi geek that felt like an alien as a child, likely coming from his family’s constant moves and his isolation/ostracization as the only Jewish member of his peer group. His early escapist 8mm movies show whispers of his positive hopes – whereas some outsiders may feel hostility towards those who’ve rejected them, Spielberg yearns acceptance, whether from curious aliens or from a world of his own devising. His regular Joes are often only regular within the context of the film, but their circumstances are always extraordinary. Whether they be a police chief dealing with a great white or a kid who’s found an alien friend, his protagonists are out of their depths because that’s how all dreams start. Even Spielberg’s scary dreams have happy endings.

The often troubled parent-child relationships in Spielberg films come from the same psychological place as the outsider positioning, albeit with an even more autobiographical filter. Spielberg is a child of divorce, which amplifies his fantasies not only of belonging to but the building of family. We see the absent father in E.T., the begrudging love shown to two children of divorce in Jurassic Park, and even Indiana Jones’s aloof professor pop that’d rather dole out some bootstrap-pulling advice than hug his son.

Hook’s emotional core focuses on a workaholic who earns the respect of his children through participating in a fantastical dream. “Fitting in” shifts perspectives as Spielberg slowly sees himself becoming the establishment. It’s another manifestation of a failure to fit into the “real world” and the struggle at the heart of these films is attempting to do so, or escaping to a world in which his heroes are the creators or keepers of power.

Indiana Jones, Spielberg’s great pulp adventurer, lives the dream of the wish-fulfilled nerd. Indy is a hunky professor who gets the ladies whether in tweed or khaki, a superhero whose failures only make him more charming. He’s an irregular Joe whose normalcy is completely superficial, yet still a defining quality of the (often telling) fantasy. The shadow of white savior politics in Temple of Doom harshly tints the unmitigated fantasies of a white American run rampant while perverting its vision of the outside world into a cartoon. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull telescopes this sense of greater belonging so that even aliens, like in Spielberg’s first feature film, follow the archaeological footprints of Indiana Jones, wishing to learn about the universe to find connection.

The clearest representation of overgrown dreamer Spielberg comes broken up into multiple characters in Jurassic Park. The children and the grown children that learn to embrace their inner child speak in hushed tones of archaeology – itself a thematic reminder of the way the past can resonate through our subconscious – until faced with the past made flesh and blood. These dinosaurs are as fascinating and fantastic as any imagined extraterrestrial or mystical power, another world buried beneath our own that one can fit into with the two things loved by geeky daydreamers: lots of books and imagination.

Hammond, a cold profit-hungry antagonist in the novel, is redrawn as an idealist who’s simply underestimated his own creations. Spielberg’s dinosaurs, his movies, his fantasies, are part of his own doomed showmanship. His dreams are inherently entwined with income – what was once as wondrous and harmless as the grandchildren’s awe at grazing Brachiosaurus met the realities of the T. Rex breaking out of its enclosure.

Historical importance supersedes fiction, the preservation of the next generation and the overseeing of productions take up more time. The dreams may be more realistic and the hard priorities of maturity may have taken precedence, but the moongazer still exists in Spielberg’s work. I mean, he named one of his companies Dreamworks. His head may have been in the clouds all along but his body has finally caught up. Now that the outsider is arguably Hollywood’s biggest-name, highest-grossing director, Spielberg is both the ultimate personification of the idea that nerds rule the world and the hero of his own dreams.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).