Edgar Wright leads a thoughtful and illuminating interview with Steven Spielberg about Duel and his early days in television.
The word “legend” gets thrown around a lot in Hollywood, and even more by entertainment journalists who are often quick to use such a superlative as fact. However, it really does take a legend who over 40 years after his first film—a television movie no less—can still have revelatory dissections of it with a popular auteur from the next generation. So it was when Ready Player One’s Steven Spielberg sat down with Edgar Wright for a lengthy 45-minute phone interview on behalf of Empire Magazine.
Indeed, Wright and Spielberg’s chat is just one piece of the British publication’s salute to the “Spielbergian” legacy, as the issue also has testimonials from other directors like Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Rian Johnson, who looked back on their favorite films from the Jaws and Schindler’s List director. However, it is Spielberg’s chat with Wright that is the most intriguing, especially as it is about a car film, given that Wright just came off one of his biggest successes with the car-centric Baby Driver. To be sure, that comes up early in the interview, as Wright credits Duel as one of the two inspirations for Baby Driver, as well as gets Spielberg to open up about the process of being 24-years-old and having the confidence (or audacity) to attempt to make a near “silent movie” for ABC television circa 1971.
“The other thing that really helped was there was such a paucity of dialogue in the script and even less so in the finished movie,” Spielberg tells Wright. “I cut about 50 percent of the dialogue out of the script. It told me that this was going to be my first silent movie. I was a huge fan of the silent era and had at that point in my life gone out many times to the Nuart and other revival houses to watch silent movies on the big screen. I even tried to get the network to agree to let me cut out even more dialogue, but the network was adamant that we needed what remained as some kind of a road map for people who just watched TV and who didn’t want to put too much effort into the viewing experience. If I’d had final cut in those days, I would have cut the dialogue even further back.”
Spielberg and Wright also detail the sheer incredulity of filming a movie like Duel, the antithesis of made for TV movies, in a mere 11 days, a feat that Spielberg is not sure how he accomplished now. They also go over the well-known legends, such as how Spielberg fought to keep the network from having an anti-climactic ending of the “supernatural” truck blowing up at the end, or how Spielberg used literal sound effects from Duel in Jaws, so as to create a spiritual echo effect.
However, one of the most interesting elements to me is Spielberg discussing how not only his youth but also his ambition to use television projects as stepping stones to cinema made him a less-than-popular director-for-hire in his early television days, and how he faced a mini-rebellion from the crew on the Night Gallery episode he did with Joan Crawford.
“I used the television opportunities to try to do things that would make people think I could do feature films,” Spielberg says. “That’s why I was rarely asked back to do a second episode, because my episodes for the Owen Marshall series or the Marcus Welby series, they were out of character with the visual style of television in those days, and more in tune with the choices I would make if I were making a feature film. TV producers were appalled at where I’d place the camera and how my episode looked nothing like the series that they’d been successful producing. So I was rarely, if ever, asked back to do a second episode.”
His memories of Night Gallery then proved especially illuminating:
“Night Gallery was a terrible experience for me because the crew, the cast accepted me including Joan Crawford. Well, Joan didn’t accept me at first. But once I began directing her, she treated me like King Vidor …. But the crew rebelled and slowed down, and I think consciously huddled to try to get me fired. Now I think that’s just probably the way I saw it. It may not be the way it actually happened, but the crew really was hostile in every regard to everything I did on that show. I fell a day behind schedule because the crew was moving at, literally, a snail’s pace, and the producer came down many times to reprimand me for going so slow.”
You can find Spielberg’s full story about that experience, as well as his many fascinating insights about Duel, both well-known and obscure, in the full interview, which you can read right here.