Steven Spielberg is one of the most influential directors in cinema with a career spanning over five decades.
While he’s dabbled across multiple genres, it’s his work in science fiction which is some of the most highly regarded – including Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993) and Minority Report (2002).
In an interview with director James Cameron from the book Story Of Science Fiction, Spielberg talks about being scared of Bambi and staring into space.
James Cameron: Most filmmakers my age and younger would say that you were the guy right ahead of them that blew their minds and made them want to do what they do. You created a vision of cinema that I don’t think had existed before.
Steven Spielberg: Well, there’s always a guy ahead of all of us. There’s a whole bunch of guys ahead of me. George Pal, Stanley Kubrick. Willis O’Brien. I think what inflamed my imagination when I was a kid was simply fear. I needed to do something to protect myself against everything that I was afraid of, which was most everything when it got dark.
My parents felt that television—and this is back in the early ’50s—was the worst influence on any child. I don’t know how they knew this before the [Marshall] McLuhan era, but they somehow knew this. So they prevented me from watching television. I could only watch, like, Jackie Gleason, The Honeymooners. Or Sid Caesar, [Your] Show of Shows. But I couldn’t watch Dragnet, or M Squad, or any of those really cool detective series in the ’50s.
JC: Do, you never got terrified by the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz?
SS: Oh, I did. I was terrified by that. And I was terrified by the forest fire in Bambi. That might have scared me more than the devil that comes out of the mountain in Fantasia. But I think because I was kind of media-starved by my parents doing what they thought was right, I started to imagine my own shows. If I couldn’t watch television, I would just dream up something for myself to enjoy.
JC: You started making short films?
SS: Yeah. Well, long before that, I just started dreaming. I did a lot of sketching. Terrible sketches, but I used to sketch a lot of scary pictures.
JC: You were processing the world back out in the form of something visual.
SS: Yeah. It always had to do with a pencil and a piece of paper, and of course later the 8mm movie camera.
JC: I remember when I saw Mysterious Island in the third grade. I raced home and started doing my own version of Mysterious Island. I think that’s the creative impulse. You take it in and [then want to] create [your] own version of it.
SS: I think when I first saw Earth vs. the Flying Saucers at a movie theater, and you couldn’t see the saucer men because they were covered in large masks that were a part of their exo-suits—there was one scene where they removed the mask from an extraterrestrial that one of the soldiers shoots. I was terrified by seeing the face. I did the same thing. I went home, and I started drawing iterations of the face—not to calm myself down but to make it scarier than the filmmakers had. I would make it scarier than [the one] they had scared me [with].
JC: Well, you scared the crap out of everybody with Jaws. Right? You know monsters. And aliens are sometimes monsters. But not always. You [took an] alternate view of aliens when you did Close Encounters.
SS: I think it all started with the atomic bomb going off in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first real influence were the Japanese. Certainly Toho’s Godzilla  was the first film really to trade on a kind of cultural, national fear of what had already been perpetrated on a country. From that moment on, everything that either came out of Tokyo Bay or anything that came out of the night sky was aggressive, hostile, and took no prisoners. I had my fill of that as a kid. I saw all the B-horror films. I saw all the Allied Artists horror films. I saw the Monogram horror films. I saw the Hammer films. Everything.And I couldn’t find a decent alien that made me feel like I wanted to get to know him or her better. All the aliens were out to destroy the human race.
JC: And we always beat them at the end, which was our way of saying that human cleverness and courage will overcome these monsters created by science. It was a way of keeping the boogeyman of nuclear war at bay.
SS: Exactly. It’s vanquishing any hostile threat. You can equate the ending of most science fiction movies in the ’50s to most World War II John Wayne movies in the ’40s and ’50s.
JC: It was atomic destruction and Communism mixed together, and it all had to be vanquished.
SS: It had to be vanquished. And so, the Red Menace was the angry red planet. And then Mars suddenly became an enemy—and not a wonderment. My father was the one that introduced me to the cosmos. He’s the one who built—from a big cardboard roll that you roll rugs on—a 2-inch reflecting telescope with an Edmund Scientific kit that he had sent away for. [He] put this telescope together, and then I saw the moons of Jupiter. It was the first thing he pointed out to me. I saw the rings of Saturn around Saturn. I’m six, seven years old when this all happened.
JC: You spent a lot of time staring at the sky?
SS: A lot of time looking at the sky. The working title of E.T. was Watch the Skies. Which is sort of the last line from The Thing [From Another World, 1951]. I just remember looking at the sky because of the influence of my father, and saying, only good should come from that. If it ain’t an ICBM coming from the Soviet Union, only good should come from beyond our gravitational hold.
JC: He was kind of a visionary.
SS: He was a visionary about that, yet he read all the Analog [magazines]. Those paperbacks? And Amazing Stories, the paperbacks of that. I used to read that along with him. Sometimes, he’d read those books to me, those little tabloids to me at night.
JC: [Isaac] Asimov, [Robert A.] Heinlein, all those guys were all published in those pulp magazines.
SS: They were all published in those magazines, and a lot of them were optimists. They weren’t always calculating our doom. They were finding ways to open up our imagination and get us to dream and get us to discover and get us to contribute to the greater good. Those were the stories, and just looking up at the sky, that got me to realize, if I ever get a chance to make a science fiction movie, I want those guys to come in peace.
JC: And you did exactly that. Your dad took you to watch a meteor shower once, right?
SS: He did. It was a Leonid shower. I only know what the shower was because over the years, my dad keeps reminding me which shower it was! But I was very young. We were living in Camden, New Jersey, so that must mean I was about five. He woke me up in the middle of the night—it’s scary when your dad walks into your bedroom, and it’s still dark, and he says, “Come with me.” That’s freaky when you’re a kid! He took me to a knoll somewhere in New Jersey, and there were hundreds of people lying on picnic blankets.
JC: That scene is in Close Encounters. It’s the same scene.
SS: Absolutely. I put the scene in Close Encounters. I got out there, and we lay down on his Army knapsack, and we looked up at the sky.Every 30 seconds or so, there was a brilliant flash of light that streaked across the sky. A couple of times, some of those objects broke up into three or four pieces.
JC: You have a single light that splits into multiple lights and goes past everybody . . .
SS: In Close Encounters, yeah. All this stuff that’s imprinted when you’re very young, you don’t want to divest yourself of it. I think one of the most important things as a filmmaker, at least of the kind of awe-and-wonder-type stories that we’re both attracted to, is to stay that kid. Part of that means fighting off the natural urge of cynicism as we take everything in. It’s a battle.
Excerpt provided by Insight Editions from James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. © 2018 AMC Network Entertainment LLC. All rights reserved. James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction premieres 9pm, 19th June on AMC on BT TV.