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Steven Spielberg, Seriously : Hollywood's Perennial Wunderkind Confronts History, Sentiment and the Fine Art of Growing Up.

December 19, 1993|Diane K. Shah | Diane K. Shah co-wrote with Daryl Gates "Chief: My Life in the LAPD" and is a contributing editor at Esquire.

IT WAS SID SHEINBERG, PRESIDENT AND CHIEF operating officer of Universal's parent organization, MCA Inc., who sent Thomas Keneally's book, "Schindler's List," to Spielberg shortly after it was published in 1982. The story, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in Britain, recounts how Oskar Schindler traveled to Krakow, Poland, in 1939 on the heels of the German army, angling for a way to strike it rich. He bought an enamelware factory and hired Jewish laborers because he could pay them cheaper wages (in fact, the money was paid to the German government; the workers lived on rations). Schindler, an imposing, larger-than-life character, was a bon vivant who kept a wife in Germany and a German mistress in his Krakow apartment, while conducting an affair with his Polish secretary. He plied his fellow Nazis with black market brandy, cigars and bushel baskets of food in exchange for favors. And then, for reasons that he took to his grave in 1974, he risked his life and spent his fortune to save his Jewish workers.

Given the emotional and historical grist of the story, why would Sheinberg send the book to Spielberg, who had by then made "E.T." and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and who was the reigning King of Popcorn Movies?

Los Angeles Times Sunday January 23, 1994 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 2 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
In "Steven Spielberg, Seriously" (by Diane K. Shah, Dec. 19) the name of Universal Studios film librarian Chuck Silvers was misspelled.

"The point is, I don't start off thinking of Steven as a director of popcorn movies," Sheinberg says. "I got involved with his talent long before he ever made popcorn movies. I thought then, and at many points in his career, that some of his best work was not in that genre."

The story has often been told how Spielberg, 20, unemployed and trying to write scripts, made a 35mm short called "Amblin," which, after sneaking onto the Universal lot, he slipped to Chuck Silver, the studio's film librarian.

One night, after Sheinberg had finished watching a film, Silver asked if he would mind going back into the projection room. "He said there's this guy who's been hanging around the place who's made a short film," Sheinberg recalls. "So I watched it and I thought it was terrific." "Amblin" was a road movie about a boy and a girl hitchhiking to California. There was no dialogue. "I liked the way he selected the performers, the relationships, the maturity and the warmth that was in that short," Sheinberg says. "I told Chuck to have the guy come see me."

What appeared in his office, Sheinberg recalls with a smile, was "this nerdlike, scrawny character." When Sheinberg announced he wanted to put him under contract, Spielberg answered, "I just have one request and I'd like you to give me not so much a commitment, Mr. Sheinberg, but a promise. I want to direct something before I'm 21. That would be very important to me."

Sheinberg promised; "Night Gallery" followed.

"At the time, no one had any sense that Steven was going to do movies with special effects and creatures in them," Sheinberg says. "His early work in TV wasn't characterized by the genre that he became rather famous for. As a matter of fact, I had to coerce him a little bit to make 'Jaws.' But even 'Jaws' I saw not so much as the issue of the shark and the suspense, but the interesting relationship between the characters, the humor, the basic story of the place of perceived evil and how people react when there are threats." He pauses. "Come to think of it, there are certain of these thematic elements in 'Schindler's.' "

Spielberg says he knew as soon as he read the book that he wanted to make the film. He was captivated by the mysterious protagonist, a man of intriguing conflicts, at once self-indulgent and compassionate. "I call it the Rosebud question," Spielberg says, "why he did what he did. It wasn't to be a hero, I don't think, because he did have some modesty about him. That was part of his charm."

The combination of this Gatsby-like character and the chance to recount the tragedy of the Holocaust was irresistible to Spielberg. "This film is a remembrance," he has said. "I wouldn't have done it if I didn't think a story like this would remind people, in a way that people don't really want to remember, that these events occurred only 50 years ago. And it could happen in all its monstrosity again."

Spielberg knew this would not be a high-grossing commercial film. For the first time in his career, he phoned Sheinberg and said, "I don't want any money until you guys make all your costs back." And, in fact, it was not until he finished "Jurassic Park," the blockbuster that Universal Studios desperately needed, that he took the $22-million budget and went off to Poland.

At least one executive at Universal vehemently opposed the movie. "He said I'd be better served by allowing the studio to make a sizable donation to a Holocaust museum," Spielberg relates. "That put a fire under my tokus that I'll never forget."

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