“I don’t dream at night, I dream at day, I dream all day. I’m dreaming for a living.” – Steven Spielberg
Responsible for some of cinema’s greatest ever moments, from the awe-inspiring introduction of Jurassic Park to Raiders of the Lost Ark’s thrilling final sequence, Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly one of film’s greatest ever directorial minds. Inspiring the likes of J.J. Abrams, Edgar Wright, and David Fincher among many others, Spielberg’s immense impact on the landscape of cinema would help it to transition the medium into a 21st century marked by vast technological innovations.
Though, unlike fellow directors Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, it is rare that Spielberg will take full creative control over his projects, often leaving the screenplay to a bevvy of different budding writers. Although each of his films may contain a certain emotional, whimsical tone, the director is far from an auteur, quietly drawing inspiration from cinema history to blend in with each of his stories.
This should not detract at all from Spielberg’s success, however, particularly as directors such as Tarantino, quite apparently rip from film history. As the legendary late Max von Sydow commented on his time working with the director on Minority Report: “The idea of working with Steven Spielberg was very attractive. He’s such a master. He knows the language of the camera and of filmmaking, which gives him a great freedom.”
With such an eclectic filmography, Speilberg’s influences span far and wide from Stanley Kubrick, to Walt Disney, let’s take a look at the ten films that inspired him…
The 10 films that inspired Steven Spielberg:
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Sitting alongside Ridley Scott’s Alien and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker as one of the greatest ever sci-fi films, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a filmmaking triumph of gargantuan proportions. It’s no surprise that Spielberg was such a fan of the epic, using inspirations from the film on his own science fiction picture Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
“I’m still living off the adrenalin that… I experienced watching that film for the first time,” Spielberg commented, with the vision of the films final sequence sizzling through the retinas of the, then young, director. Investigating further on the career of Stanley Kubrick Speilberg noted that “He never made the same picture twice. Every single picture is a different genre, a different story, a different risk. The only thing that bonded all of his films was the incredible virtuoso that he was with craft.”
The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
Alfred Hitchcock’s horror-thriller about a bizarre phenomenon of violent birds was an early inspiration for a young Steven Spielberg with an eye for suspense. Following the story of a small seaside town terrorised by a beastly threat, the film would be a direct forerunner to Spielberg’s Jaws released 12 years later.
The Birds’ slow appreciation of tension, ratcheting up scenes of horror with some nicely crafted aerial shots from the airborne villains POV are smartly transferred from Hitchcock’s film to Spielberg’s own 2005 film War of the Worlds. In fact, in Spielberg’s younger years he was lucky enough to meet the donned ‘master of suspense’, as the director recalls “I was on the Torn Curtain set for about 10 minutes before someone came and told me to leave…I got to see Hitchcock and Julie Andrews”.
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Classically referred to as “the greatest director you never heard of”, Michael Curtiz is responsible for some of the greatest films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Partnering with Warner Brothers in 1926, Curtiz was responsible for many significant pictures of the early 20th century including Angels with Dirty Faces, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and of course Casablanca.
With over 102 titles to his name, Curtiz’s eclectic genre tastes inspired Spielberg’s future filmography, taking on a range of projects from war epics to science fiction adventures. Speaking to the American Film Institute Spielberg supported this, saying: “People like Victor Fleming and Michael Curtiz I identify with more [than the likes of Martin Scorsese and Orson Welles] because they didn’t have styles”.
Continuing, Spielberg commented: “They were chameleons and they could quickly adapt; they could go from a story about heaven and the afterlife to the Civil War. They could do a lot of different subjects and they could do them well because they were good craftsmen”.
Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962)
The first official outing for Ian Fleming’s James Bond on the silver screen was an incredibly influential one for a young Steven Spielberg, who would use the suave sophistication of the British spy to craft his own rugged adventurer, Indiana Jones.
Speilberg made no secret of his love for Fleming’s character, even booking a meeting to meet James Bond producer Albert Broccoli to plead for a chance to direct one of 007’s stories. Unfortunately, for the director, he was turned away by Broccoli, but took no hesitation later in his career in casting an old Sean Connery for Indiana Jones’ third adventure The Last Crusade in 1989.
Frank Abagnale Jr., the lead character in Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), was also directly modelled on the character, and in one scene even watches the British ladykiller in Goldfinger, as he watches on mesmerised.
The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)
A bevvy of inspiration for Steven Spielberg can be extracted from William Friedkin’s crime classic The French Connection, following a pair of New York City cops who stumble onto a drug smuggling job with European roots.
Under the large industrial overpasses of New York, a seedy culture infests below in Friedkin’s thriller, which on its 50th anniversary still retains the same intense impact, and continues to impress with one of cinema’s greatest ever chase sequences. Discussing the film at a Directors Guild of America event in 2011, Spielberg commented that he had studied The French Connection in preparation for 2005’s Munich, his take on the aftermath of the 1972 Olympic Games massacre. The fingerprints of Friedkin’s cinematographer Owen Roizman can also be found in the frequent zoom shots used throughout Spielberg’s morally exploratory film.
Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
“Lawrence of Arabia was the film that set me on my journey…I look at that picture as a major miracle,” Spielberg stated in discussion with the American Film Institute. David Lean’s epic war drama is one of America’s most seminal pieces of cinema, and a source of great inspiration for Spielberg who would replicate the film’s cinematography in his future filmography.
Captured in perfect 70mm Super Panavision, Spielberg reported that his humble beginnings in Phoenix, Arizona meant that he could easily relate to Lawrence of Arabia’s harsh desert environment. Needing a few weeks to fully digest the film, Lean’s film gifted Spielberg a vision of how to capture the natural environment which he would later use to frame the barren deserts of Raiders of the Lost Ark. They weren’t far away from working with each other either, almost collaborating on Empire of the Sun before Lean dropped out and Spielberg helmed the project on his own.
Pinocchio (Norman Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson Et. Al, 1940)
Whilst a Walt Disney fan from a young age, it was Pinocchio in particular that inspired Stephen Spielberg the most, becoming a major source of influence for his 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence which focused on a robotic boy with dreams of becoming ‘real’.
Picked up originally by Stanley Kubrick who began developing the film’s script in the 1970s, Spielberg later took over the project and led the development toward the tonal vibes of Walt Disney’s classic, as opposed to the bleak mood of Carlo Collodi’s novel. With both films toying with the concept of what it means to be human, Spielberg well incorporates Disney’s Pinocchio citing the children’s filmmaker as someone he was influenced by ‘more than anyone else’.
Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
The inventive world of Jacques Tati’s Playtime captures an innovative visual style well ahead of its time that exudes kinetic fun and colour. It’s not the first thing you’d think of when you recall Spielberg’s whimsical romantic comedy The Terminal, but Tati’s expressive style was a major source of inspiration for the director whilst shooting the film.
Starring Tom Hanks as an Eastern European man who finds himself unexpectedly stranded at JFK airport, The Terminal is a strange, somewhat pointless comedy that often finds itself milling at the depths of Spielberg’s eclectic filmography. One of its most impressive aspects is its cinematography however which takes notes from Tati’s Playtime, making the airport that once imprisoned Hanks’ character transform over time, embracing the playfulness of such a wide, open space.
Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)
The relationship shared between Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg over their shared love of suspense has already been discussed previously in this article, however, the specific devices that Hitchcock utilises in Rope are directly used by Spielberg in his tense classic, Jaws.
Hitchcock’s film has been ripped and copied numerous times throughout TV and cinema history, depicting a suspenseful thriller in which two friends murder a fellow student before hiding the body in a wooden chest and then playing host to the victim’s relatives. All captured in one devious take, Hitchcock’s bold vision influenced Spielberg to adopt a similar style of shooting, creating multiple setups from one shot throughout his future films. Just like Jaws’ shark is hidden from sight despite the audience’s knowledge of its stalking presence, the body of Hitchcock’s Rope is right under the characters’ noses.
The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
For John Ford, the surrounding environment was always the extra character in the scene, and by pinning his characters in 1956’s The Searchers in a barren open desert, we see their vulnerability laid open to bare.
Claiming to watch a John Ford film before he starts any new project, Spielberg’s love of The Searchers can be seen in his sweeping shots of the landscape in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as, more recently, 2011’s War Horse. Speaking at the time of War Horses’ release Spielberg revealed that “the thing that might resemble a John Ford movie more than anything else is that Ford celebrated the land. I just thought that of all the films I’ve made in recent years, this offered the opportunity to make the land a character”.