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.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

13 Facts About Miller's Crossing On Its 30th Anniversary

Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro in Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing (1990).
Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro in Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing (1990).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In 1990 Joel and Ethan Coen were not yet the Oscar-winning, cinephile-worshipped filmmaking legends they are today. They had only written and directed two films: 1984’s inventive neo-noir Blood Simple and 1987’s screwball kidnapping comedy Raising Arizona. Though the brothers had drawn critical acclaim for both, they hadn’t yet proven themselves as the true cinematic chameleons we know them as now.

With Miller’s Crossing, an intricate gangster drama that contrasts fedoras and overcoats with the serenity of the forest, the Coens proved they were capable of even more than their brilliant first two efforts suggested. Though it was critically acclaimed, Miller’s Crossing was lost to most audiences in the mire of that year’s other gangster pictures (most notably Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which was released just two weeks ahead of Miller’s Crossing) and as such is one of the lesser-known entries in the Coens’s filmography. In honor of its 30th anniversary, we dug up some fascinating facts in the hope of changing that.

1. Miller's Crossing was inspired by a single contrasting image.

One of the most memorable shots in Miller’s Crossing features a hat belonging to Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne's character) floating through the forest on a breeze. It’s more than a pretty shot; it’s an indicator of the deliberate contrast that inspired the film. The Coen brothers noted that the film was conceived based on the idea of “the incongruity of urban gangsters in a forest setting.”

2. The Coen brothers turned down Batman to make Miller's Crossing.

After Raising Arizona’s success established the Coens as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the brothers had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

3. Miller's Crossing was the final film the Coens made with Barry Sonnenfeld.

Barry Sonnenfeld became a very sought-after cinematographer throughout the 1980s, in part because of his collaborations with the Coens. Their directorial debut, Blood Simple, was his first feature film as a director of photography, and he went on to shoot both Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing for them. The year after Miller’s Crossing was released, Sonnenfeld made his directorial debut with The Addams Family, and went on to direct further hits like Men In Black and Get Shorty.

4. Miller's Crossing was the Coens's first collaboration with Steve Buscemi.

Steve Buscemi in Miller's Crossing (1990).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Throughout their careers, the Coens have developed a very prestigious company of actors who frequently appear in their films, and Steve Buscemi is among the most prolific. He has appeared in six Coen films, most famously Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998). The collaboration started here, when Buscemi was cast as Mink, apparently because he was able to speak faster than anyone else, and fast-talking was crucial to the role.

5. Miller's Crossing was also the Coens's first movie with John Turturro.

When John Turturro was cast as Bernie Bernbaum, the bookie who ignites the mob war at the center of Miller's Crossing, it marked the beginning of a fruitful four-film collaboration with the Coens. They wrote the title role of their next film, 1991’s Barton Fink, specifically for Turturro (who won the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor Award for his performance). Of the brothers’s working relationship with Turturro, Ethan Coen once said: “It’s beyond shorthand. We don’t even talk to him!”

6. Miller's Crossing is one of the few Coen brothers movies (so far) not edited by Roderick Jaynes.

To date, the Coen brothers have written and directed 18 feature films, and 15 of them have been either edited or co-edited by Roderick Jaynes. That level of deep collaboration would make Jaynes the Coens’s most frequent collaborator ever … if he were a real person. Jaynes is actually a pseudonym used when the Coens edit their own movies.

7. A sudden death led to Albert Finney being cast as Leo O'Bannon in Miller's Crossing.

As Irish mob boss Leo O’Bannon, Albert Finney is at the center of some of the film’s best scenes—and he’s fantastic in them. Sadly, though, he’s only in the film because another actor died tragically before filming began. The Coens originally cast American actor Trey Wilson, whom they had worked with on Raising Arizona, as Leo. But when Wilson died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 40, the part went to Finney instead.

8. Peter Stormare was supposed to play a mob enforcer in Miller's Crossing.

The Coens’ original plan for Miller’s Crossing involved Peter Stormare playing a character called “The Swede,” who would be the trusted enforcer of Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). A commitment to a theatrical production in Sweden meant that Stormare had to turn down the role, though, so the part was rewritten as “The Dane” and played by J.E. Freeman. Stormare ultimately got to work with the Coens six years later on Fargo, and again two years after that on The Big Lebowski.

9. Gabriel Byrne had to convince the Coens to let him keep his Irish accent in Miller's Crossing.

Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing (1990).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Though he was an Irish native playing a lieutenant to an Irish mobster, the Coens did not originally want Gabriel Byrne to use his own accent in the film. Byrne argued that his dialogue was structured in such a way that it was a good fit for his accent, and after he tried it, the Coens agreed. Ultimately, both Byrne and Finney used Irish accents in the film.

10. Marcia Gay Harden faced some stiff competition for her role in Miller's Crossing.

As Verna Bernbaum, whose relationships with both Leo and Tom ignite some of the film’s key tensions, Marcia Gay Harden delivered one of the best performances of her career, but it wasn’t an easy role to get. She reportedly competed for the role against the likes of Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

11. Jon Polito had to convince the Coens to cast him in a different role in Miller's Crossing.

Jon Polito in Miller's Crossing (1990).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

When Polito read the Miller’s Crossing script, he loved it and immediately wanted to audition for the role of Johnny Caspar. The Coens had different ideas, and were considering the 39-year-old actor for the role of Caspar’s enforcer, Eddie Dane, instead. The role of Caspar was originally supposed to go to an actor in his mid-50s, but Polito was adamant.

“Anyway, I said I won’t read for anything but Johnny Caspar,” Polito, who passed away in 206, told The A.V. Club. “’And tell them that they’re gonna have to come back to me cause I’m gonna play Johnny.’”

The Coens ultimately gave in, and Polito was cast. They must have liked what they saw, too, because they ended up casting him in four more films after that.

12. A snag in the Miller's Crossing script ultimately led to Barton Fink.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

13. Miller's Crossing features several cameos from regular Coen collaborators.

The Coens frequently include cameos from actors and friends in their films, and Miller’s Crossing is particularly full of them. Frances McDormand, who is married to Joel Coen and has appeared in several of their films to date (including Fargo, for which she won an Oscar), plays the mayor’s secretary in one scene. In another, Sam Raimi—a Coen friend and collaborator (the Coens wrote 1985’s Crimewave with Raimi, which Raimi directed, and Raimi later co-wrote The Hudsucker Proxy with the brothers—appears as a crooked cop in a shootout scene. Albert Finney already had a prominent role as Leo, but he enjoyed making the movie so much that he stuck around after his scenes were completed and showed up in drag in a ladies’ room scene. (He’s the “woman” in black on the right side of the screen.)

This story has been updated for 2020.