30 Facts About Your Favorite Steven Spielberg Movies

Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Since making his feature directorial debut with the 1971 TV movie Duel, Steven Spielberg—who was born on December 18, 1946—has gone on to create some of Hollywood's most iconic films. In 1975, he singlehandedly invented "the summer blockbuster" when Jaws racked up nearly half a billion dollars worldwide. In the years since, Spielberg has directed a few other films you might have heard of, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, E.T., and Lincoln. Here are 30 things you might not have known about some of his most famous films.

1. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS IS THE FIRST ACTOR TO WIN AN OSCAR FOR ONE OF SPIELBERG’S MOVIES.

Plenty of actors have been nominated for their work in Spielberg’s movies, but it wasn’t until 2013—when Daniel Day-Lewis took home the Best Actor Oscar for his work in Lincoln—that Spielberg directed any actor to an actual Academy Award win.

2. THERE’S NOT A LOT OF JAWS IN JAWS.

The shark doesn’t fully appear in a shot until one hour and 21 minutes into the two-hour film. The reason it isn’t shown is because the mechanical shark that was built rarely worked during filming, so Spielberg had to create inventive ways (like Quint’s yellow barrels) to shoot around the non-functional shark.

3. HE CONSIDERS DUEL AN INDICTMENT OF MACHINES.

When asked about his first feature, Duel, Spielberg described it as “an indictment of machines. And I determined very early on that everything about the film would be the complete disruption of our whole technological society.”

4. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

5. IF HE HAD TO MAKE THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS AGAIN, HE’D DO IT COMPLETELY DIFFERENTLY.

“That’s the one film that I can honestly say, if I had to do it all over again I’d make Sugarland Express in a completely different fashion,” Spielberg said of the 1974 crime drama.

6. E.T. WAS INITIALLY PATCHED TOGETHER FROM DIFFERENT IDEAS FOR SEPARATE MOVIES.

With his newfound success following the back-to-back smash hits of Jaws in 1975 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, Spielberg wanted to tell a smaller, more personal story for his next film. Entitled Growing Up, the proposed movie was inspired by the divorce of his parents when he was 15 years old. It included the feelings of alienation Spielberg felt being Jewish in an all Gentile neighborhood in Arizona and was told from the perspective of three children.

When the project was shelved, Spielberg moved on to another big budget film, 1941, but the basic idea stayed with him. Around the same time, Columbia Pictures demanded a sequel to Close Encounters. Spielberg wanted no part of that, though he had a small idea about what would have happened if an alien didn’t go back to the mothership at the end of that movie. To ensure they didn’t make the sequel without him, he instead commissioned writer/director John Sayles to create a script for a pseudo-sequel called Night Skies, about a suburban family terrorized by a group of aliens with one befriending the family’s son.

The project was too dark in tone for Spielberg, though, and ultimately, he had Columbia just re-release Close Encounters in a Special Edition with additional scenes. But he still recognized the potential of a film like Night Skies, so he and screenwriter Melissa Mathison then combined Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical story with the benevolent alien visiting a boy on earth to create E.T. The idea of the terrorized family was refashioned as another eventual Spielberg production: Poltergeist.   

7. TOM SELLECK WAS SUPPOSED TO PLAY INDIANA JONES.

Prior to the production's start date in May 1980, George Lucas and Spielberg set up shop in the old Lucasfilm corporate headquarters to begin the casting process. Actors and actresses in consideration for the lead roles of Indiana Jones and his tough but beautiful companion Marion Ravenwood included Jane Seymour, Debra Winger, Mark Harmon, Mary Steenburgen, Michael Biehn, Sam Shepard, Valerie Bertinelli, Bruce Boxleitner, Sean Young, Don Johnson, Dee Wallace (who would later go on to star as the mother in Spielberg’s E.T.), Barbara Hershey, and even David Hasselhoff.

For Indy, Lucas and Spielberg eventually settled on actor Tom Selleck. But when CBS got wind of what the two were up to, the network legally barred Selleck—the lead of the hit show Magnum, P.I.—from appearing in the film. Spielberg then suggested Harrison Ford as a quick replacement, but Lucas was reluctant to cast Ford because he was already Han Solo in his Star Wars films. But Spielberg’s quick thinking prevailed, and Ford was added to the cast just two weeks before principal photography began. (A similar snafu happened with Danny DeVito, the first choice to play Indy’s jovial companion Sallah, who couldn’t take the part due to his contractual obligation to appear on the popular ABC show Taxi.)

8. SPIELBERG DIDN’T THINK 1941 WAS FUNNY ENOUGH.

Much has been made out of the bomb that was Spielberg’s attempt at more of a straight comedy, the 1979 war comedy 1941. But the director himself has a pretty good handle on what went wrong with the film. “What happened on the screen was pretty out of control,” he said, “but the production was pretty much in control. I don’t dislike the movie at all. I’m not embarrassed by it—I just think that it wasn’t funny enough.”

9. A KING KONG RIDE INSPIRED SPIELBERG'S ORIGINAL PLAN FOR BUILDING THE DINOSAURS IN JURASSIC PARK.  

The logistics of Spielberg’s original plans to bring the dinosaurs to life were inspired by the Universal Studios “King Kong Encounter” ride. Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr designed Kong as a full-size animatronic with an inflatable balloon-like skin surrounding a wire frame. Unfortunately, the plans to build all of Jurassic Park's dinosaurs as similarly full-size animatronics proved too costly.

10. HE DIRECTED INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM OUT OF JEALOUSY.

After finding great success with—and loving the experience of directing—Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg’s main motivation for stepping behind the camera for its sequel, 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, was jealousy. “I got separation pangs,” said Spielberg. “I knew that if I didn’t direct Temple, someone else would. I got a little bit jealous, and I got a little bit frustrated.”

11. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE WAS AN APOLOGY FOR TEMPLE OF DOOM.

“I’m making the third Indiana Jones movie to apologize for the second,” Spielberg announced. “It was too horrific.”

12. SPIELBERG REFUSED TO ACCEPT A SALARY FOR SCHINDLER’S LIST.

Though Spielberg is already an extremely wealthy man as a result of the many big-budget movies that have made him one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, he decided that a story as important as Schindler’s List shouldn’t be made with an eye toward financial reward. The director relinquished his salary for the movie and any proceeds he would stand to make in perpetuity, calling any such personal gains “blood money.” Instead, Spielberg used the film’s profits to found the Shoah Foundation, which was established to honor and remember the survivors of the Holocaust by collecting personal recollections and audio visual interviews.

13. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT THE COLOR PURPLE WAS ITS CHARACTERS.

“The big difference in The Color Purple is that the story is not bigger than the lives of these people,” Spielberg said of his Oscar-nominated adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel. “I didn’t want to make another movie that dwarfs the characters. But here the characters are the story.”

14. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN IS PARTLY BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

Contrary to popular belief, Saving Private Ryan is not based on the Sullivan brothers, a group of five brothers who were all killed in action while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II on the USS Juneau. The movie is actually based on the Niland brothers, four siblings who all served in the US Army during World War II. Three brothers—Robert, Preston, and Edward—were supposedly killed in action, which caused their remaining brother, Fritz (whom the titular Private Ryan was based on) to be shipped back to America so that the Niland family wouldn’t lose all of their sons. Edward, who was originally thought dead, was actually found alive after escaping a Japanese prison camp in Burma, making two surviving brothers out of the four who fought in the war.

15. AMISTAD BECAME TOO MUCH OF A HISTORY LESSON.

“I kind of dried it out,” Spielberg said of 1997’s Amistad, which failed to capture a huge audience. “It became too much of a history lesson.”

16. MINORITY REPORT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A SEQUEL TO TOTAL RECALL.

Total Recall was another movie adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story. The Minority Report movie rights were held by cinematographer-turned-director Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister) at one point, who ended up getting a producer credit on the film without ever setting foot on set. Eventually Cruise approached Spielberg about an early version of the script, written for de Bont by Jon Cohen, which Spielberg hired Scott Frank to rewrite. When Cruise and Speilberg’s schedules were finally both clear at the same time, they went to work.

17. THE REAL FRANK ABAGNALE, JR. WAS PLEASED WITH CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.

“I wasn't very involved with the making of the film, but I thought Spielberg did a great job and only changed very minor things,” Frank Abagnale, Jr., the inspiration for Catch Me If You Can, told WIRED. “In real life I had two brothers and a sister, he chose to portray me as an only child. In real life there was a back and forth relationship with my father (Christopher Walken in the film) but in real life once I ran away from home I never saw my parents again and my father passed away while I was in prison. And when I escaped from the aircraft I escaped from kitchen galley where they service the plane, but in the movie they had me escape from the toilet. But other than very minor things, I thought he stayed very straight to the story.”

18. JAWS ORIGINALLY ENDED JUST LIKE MOBY DICK.

The original ending in the script had the shark dying of harpoon injuries inflicted by Quint and Brody à la Moby Dick, but Spielberg thought the movie needed a crowd-pleasing finale and came up with the exploding tank as seen in the final film. The dialogue and foreshadowing of the tank were then dropped in as they shot the movie.

19. HE CONSIDERS EMPIRE OF THE SUN HIS DARKEST FILM.

The 1987 World War II drama, which introduced Christian Bale to the world, was a bit of a departure for Spielberg. “I made a movie to satisfy me, not the audience,” the director said of his choice to delve into darker terrain. “It’s as dark as I’ve allowed myself to get.”

20. GARTH BROOKS NEARLY PLAYED PRIVATE JACKSON IN SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

Frank Darabont was hired to do uncredited rewrites on Saving Private Ryan, and created the role of the Bible-quoting sniper, Private Jackson, to be played by country singer Garth Brooks. Brooks dropped out of the movie after Spielberg came onboard and cast Tom Hanks in the lead role. Apparently Brooks didn’t want to play second fiddle to Hanks, but Spielberg offered him a chance to play another role of his choosing. Instead of a specific role, Brooks allegedly said he wanted to play the “bad guy,” but in Saving Private Ryan there is no real bad guy other than the entire Wehrmacht, so Spielberg ultimately decided to drop Brooks from the movie.

21. WAR OF THE WORLDS WASN’T INTENDED AS A FAMILY MOVIE.

“I never made War of the Worlds for a family audience,” Spielberg said of his 2005 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel. “It was a very intense post-9/11 apocalyptic movie about the end of everything.”

22. EVERYTHING IN THE FAMOUS SHOT OF ELLIOTT AND E.T. FLYING ACROSS THE FACE OF THE MOON WAS REAL—EXCEPT ELLIOTT AND E.T.

Visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren and his team at Industrial Light and Magic were tasked with creating organic special effects to surround the potentially inorganic looking E.T. puppet. Surprisingly, the iconic shot of the boy and alien flying across the full moon was mostly a "real" shot. It took Muren and his team weeks to find the right spot to film a low moon among trees, so they used maps and charts to coordinate the scene once they found the right spot. In the shot, Elliott and E.T. are puppets that were added with special effects in post-production, but the rest is photo-real.

23. ONE QUARTER OF THE BUDGET FOR MINORITY REPORT WAS FINANCED BY PRODUCT PLACEMENTS.

Toyota paid $5 million to get a futuristic Lexus called the Mag-Lev in Minority Report. Nokia shelled out $2 million for the characters to wear Nokia headsets. The Gap, Pepsi, American Express, and Reebok got in on the sci-fi action, too.

24. JURASSIC PARK BROKE NEW CG GROUND.

Spielberg wasn’t 100 percent happy with the wide test shots of the dinosaurs—they just weren't photorealistic enough. So Muren and his ILM team, spurred by their revolutionary experience in designing and incorporating fully computer-generated characters into films like The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, showed Spielberg an early CGI dino test of a group of Gallimimus skeletons running through a field. Spielberg was in awe of the ease of movement and realism of the effects, but he was still wary that they wouldn’t hold up under intense scrutiny—and he didn’t want to scrap Tippett’s practical animation talents altogether. So the director urged Muren and ILM to go further. When they came back with a CG test of a fully rendered T. rex walking across a field in broad daylight, the director decided to go full CGI for some shots.

25. SCHINDLER’S LIST IS TECHNICALLY A STUDENT FILM.

Thirty-three years after dropping out of college, Steven Spielberg finally received a B.A. in Film and Video Production from his newly minted alma mater, Cal State Long Beach, in 2002. The director re-enrolled in secret, and gained his remaining credits by writing essays and submitting projects under a pseudonym. In order to pass a film course, he submitted Schindler’s List as his student project. Spielberg describes the time gap between leaving school and earning his degree as his “longest post-production schedule.”

26. THE IMPORTANCE OF BRINGING LINCOLN TO THE SCREEN WAS SERIOUS BUSINESS.

“We were playing with one of the most beloved, and mysterious, characters in American history,” Spielberg said of 2013’s Lincoln. “I wanted to make sure that everybody on the film understood that.”

27. MUNICH WAS MEANT TO BE “A PRAYER FOR PEACE.”

Spielberg described 2005’s Munich as “a prayer for peace. I was always thinking about that as I was making the picture.”

28. SPIELBERG TOLD CRUISE NOT TO TAKE A SALARY FOR MINORITY REPORT.

At the time, Spielberg claimed that he had not taken a salary on a movie in 18 years. And he wanted Cruise to do the same. Instead, the two reportedly agreed to receiving no upfront money in exchange for approximately 15 percent of the box office apiece. (The film made more than $358 million worldwide.)

29. THE D-DAY SEQUENCE IN SAVING PRIVATE RYAN COST A WHOLE LOT OF MONEY.

The D-Day scene alone cost $12 million because of the logistical difficulties and the realistic scope needed to complete the sequence. The entire budget of the movie was only $70 million. Spielberg didn’t storyboard any of the D-Day sequence.  

30. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES IN CLOSE ENCOUNTERS TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT.

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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