By Michelle Trauring
Susan Lacy answered the telephone. It was Steven Spielberg on the other end.
“Pretty bold of you to start a movie about a filmmaker with somebody else’s movie,” he said before bursting into a laugh. “I love it!”
A wave of relief washed over Lacy, she recently recalled. The film in question was David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” And the filmmaker Spielberg had referenced was none other than himself.
It quickly becomes apparent why Lacy chose the epic historical drama to lead her film — an unprecedented, two-and-a-half-hour documentary on the most commercially successful director of all time, which will screen on Sunday, September 8, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, as part of the 25th annual Hamptons International Film Festival.
Quite simply, “Lawrence of Arabia” is his favorite. It was 1962 when a young Spielberg walked out of the small movie theater in Phoenix, Arizona, completely stunned and unaware of the full impact that film would have on his next 55 years.
The self-taught director would emerge out of the New Hollywood age to become, arguably, the most significant name in the blockbuster business — the man behind “ET,” “Jaws,” “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” to name a few — defined by his career as a director, producer and studio executive.
But there is more to Spielberg than his portfolio, which Lacy illustrates through never-before-seen home videos from the filmmaker’s childhood, the Brat Pack era with George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and up through present day, sitting around his pool in East Hampton with his wife and seven children.
There are laughs, there are tears and there are poignant revelations, particularly surrounding Spielberg’s earliest years, that have informed almost all of his work — recurring themes that Spielberg has rarely discussed, if ever, and certainly not this candidly.
“It’s all about trust. I think he knew he was safe and that’s the key to it all,” Lacy said. “He saw the seriousness — I wasn’t looking for sound bites, it was a serious exploration — so he committed himself to going there. I didn’t start off with the toughest questions. You build up to that. You build up to, ‘Let’s talk about your relationship with your father.’ It doesn’t come in the first interview.”
One interview led to the next, which led to the next. At best, Lacy thought she would get five.
She got 15.
“I did not, in a million years, expect to get as many interviews as I got,” she said. “I don’t think either one of us knew. The first interview was two hours. I’m extremely thorough and wide-ranging, so we did the first interview and we were up to age 10. He said, ‘This is fun! When are we doing this again?’ And that’s kind of the way it went.”
Their 30 hours together were supplemented by 87 additional interviews with Spielberg’s family, friends — the Brat Pack included — and frequent collaborators, from Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio and Harrison Ford to Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett and Liam Neeson.
Of the hundreds of documentaries Lacy has made — first for PBS, where she created the series “American Masters,” and now for HBO, where “Spielberg” is the first of a multi-film deal — this was more material than she said she’s ever had.
“I had to fight the impulse to make it longer and remember that there’s a really good story that needs to be told, with a beginning, middle and end, and it would be better to tell it in one fell swoop,” she said. “That story is how is life affected the movies he made, and how that changed over time. That is the story I wanted to tell.”
Throughout the process, Spielberg offered Lacy zero feedback and did not try to steer the film in any way, she said — which surprised her, quite frankly.
“He was very respectful of recognizing that this was my film and not his. And I appreciated that,” she said. “What I never allowed myself to even think about was, ‘What happens if he doesn’t like the film?’ Because if had worried about that constantly, I wouldn’t have been able to make it. And if he hadn’t liked the film, I probably would have wanted to jump off a roof.”
She laughed. “I’m serious! That’s why I tried not to think about it, because I would have been frozen and second-guessing myself all the time. Instead, I just said, ‘Do your best. Be your toughest critic. Do your best.’”
Lacy was, and so she did.
“Spielberg” will screen on Sunday, September 8, at 10 a.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, as part of the 25th annual Hamptons International Film Festival. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.