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Steven Spielberg: “I Was in a Celluloid Bubble”


Steven Spielberg
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Steven Spielberg
Photograph by Stu Rosner

“It's an honor and a thrill to address this group of distinguished alumni and supportive friends and kvelling parents,” said Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg, Ar.D. ’16, speaking to the Harvard graduates and their friends and families who assembled in Tercentenary Theatre for the Harvard Alumni Association’s annual meeting on Thursday afternoon.

He began by recounting how he recently completed his own educational undertaking. “I can remember my college graduation—which is easy, since it was only 14 years ago. How many of you took 37 years to graduate? Like most of you, I began college in my teens, but sophomore year I was offered my dream job at Universal Studios, so I dropped out. I told my parents that if my movie career didn't go well, I would re-enroll. It went all right.” Eventually he returned “for my kids. I'm the father of seven, and I kept insisting on the importance of going to college, but I hadn't walked the walk. So in my fifties, I re-enrolled at Cal State, Long Beach, and I earned my degree.” After the audience applauded, he said, “I just have to add, it helped that they gave me course credit in paleontology for the work that I did on Jurassic Park. Three years of Jurassic Park. Thank you.”

Spielberg then reflected on inner purpose, and what shapes it:

I left college because I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and some of you know, too, but some of you don’t. Or maybe you thought you knew but are now questioning that choice. Maybe you're sitting here trying to figure out how to tell your parents that you want to be a doctor and not a comedy writer. Well, what you choose to do next is what we call, in the movies, ‘a character-defining moment.’ Now, these are moments that you're very familiar with, like in the last Star Wars: The Force Awakens, when Rey realizes the Force is with her, or Indiana Jones choosing mission over fear by jumping into a pile of snakes. Now, in a two-hour movie, you get a handful of character-defining moments. But in real life, you face them every day. Life is one long string of character-defining moments, and I was lucky that at 18, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. But I didn't know who I was.

How could I, and how could any of us? Because for the first 25 years of our lives, we are trained to listen to voices that are not our own. Parents and professors fill our heads with wisdom and information, and then employers and mentors take their place to explain how this world really works. And usually these voices of authority make sense, but sometimes doubt starts to creep into our heads, into our hearts, and even when you think, “That's not quite how I see the world,” it's kinda easier just to nod in agreement and go along, and for awhile I let that going-along define my character. Because I was repressing my own point of view, because like in that Nilsson song, everybody was talkin’ at me, so I couldn't hear the echoes of my mind. And at first, the internal voice I needed to listen to was hardly audible, and it was hardly noticeable, kind of like me in high school.

But then I started paying more attention. And my intuition kicked in. I want to be clear that your intuition is different from your conscience. They work in tandem, but here’s the distinction. Your conscience shouts, “Here’s what you should do,” while your intuition whispers, “Here's what you could do.” Listen to that voice that tells you what you could do. Nothing will define your character more than that. Because once I turned to my intuition, and I tuned into it, certain projects began to pull me into them, and others I turned away from. And up until the 1980s, my movies were mostly, I guess what you could call escapist. And I don't dismiss any of these movies, not even 1941. Not even that one. And many of these early films reflected the values that I cared deeply about—and I still do.

But I was in a celluloid bubble, because I cut my education short. My worldview was limited to what I could dream up in my head, not what the world could teach me. But then I directed The Color Purple. And this one film opened my eyes to experiences I never could’ve imagined—and yet were all too real. This story was filled with deep pain and deeper truths, like when Shug Avery says, “Everything wants to be loved.” My gut, which was my intuition, told me that more people needed to meet these characters and experience these truths, and while making that film I realized that a movie could also be a mission. I hope all of you find that sense of mission. Don't turn away from what’s painful. Examine it. Challenge it.

My job is to create a world that lasts two hours. Your job is to create a world that lasts forever. You are the future innovators, motivators, leaders, and caretakers. And the way you create a better future is by studying the past. Jurassic Park writer Michael Crichton, who graduated both from this college and this medical school, liked to quote a favorite professor of his, who said that if you didn’t know history, you didn’t know anything. You were a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree. So history majors, good choice! You’re in great shape. Not in the job market, but culturally. The rest of us have to make a little effort.

Spielberg then encouraged the graduates to learn about the past, particularly family history. “We are a nation of immigrants—at least for now,” he added darkly, to general laughter. “So to me, this means we all have to tell our own stories. We have so many stories to tell. Talk to your parents, and your grandparents if you can, and ask them about their stories, and I promise you like I promised my kids, you will not be bored. And that’s why I so often make movies based on real-life events. I look to history not to be didactic—’cause that’s just a bonus—but I look because the past is filled with the greatest stories that have ever been told. Heroes and villains are not literary constructs. But they’re the heart of all history. And again, this is why it’s so important to listen to your internal whisper. It’s the same one that compelled Abraham Lincoln and Oskar Schindler to make their correct moral choices. In your defining moments, do not let your morals be swayed by convenience or expediency. Sticking to your character requires a lot of courage, and to be courageous, you’re going to need a lot of support.

“But look, your family’s not always available as backup,” he added. “At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life—do you remember that movie, It’s a Wonderful Life?Clarence the angel inscribes a book with this: ‘No man is a failure who has friends.’ And I hope you hang onto the friendships you’ve made here at Harvard, and among your friends, I hope you find someone you want to share your life with. I imagine some of you in this Yard may be a tad cynical, but I want to be unapologetically sentimental. I spoke about the importance of intuition, and how there’s no greater voice to follow. That is, until you meet the love of your life, and this is what happened when I met and married Kate. And that became the greatest character-defining moment of my life.

“Love. Support. Courage. Intuition. All these things are in your hero’s quiver, but still a hero needs one more thing: a hero needs a villain to vanquish. And you’re all in luck.” Though the crowd laughed—collectively, they seemed to have a Big Bad in mind—he elaborated: “This world is full of monsters, and there’s racism, homophobia, ethnic hatred, class hatred. There’s political hatred, and there’s religious hatred.” 

Spielberg reflected on how, as a child, he was bullied for being Jewish, but that he and his family thought that anti-Semitism was fading. “We were wrong,” he said. “Over the last two years, nearly 20,000 Jews have left Europe to find higher ground.” His desire to confront the reality of rising anti-Semitism compelled him to start the Shoah Foundation in 1994, which collected video testimonies from 53,000 Holocaust survivors, and has continued to gather them from genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia, and Nanking. “Because we must never forget that the inconceivable doesn’t happen—it happens frequently. Atrocities are happening right now. And so we wonder not just, “When will this hatred end?’ but ‘How to begin?’” 

Spielberg connected the rise of anti-Semitism to that of Islamophobia, and prejudice against the LGBT community: “It’s all one big hate. To me, and I think to all of you, the only answer to more hate is more humanity. We gotta repair—we have to replace—fear with curiosity, and the ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We’ll find the “we” by connecting with each other, and by believing that we’re members of the same tribe, and by feeling empathy for every soul—even Yalies. And—no, no, listen. My son graduated from Yale! And make sure…,”—he stopped to laugh at the crowd’s reaction. “Oh, whoa.” 

Later, the director returned to a common theme of the afternoon: service. “As an example of action in the service of others, you need to look no further than this Hollywood-worthy backdrop of Memorial Church. Its south wall bears the name of Harvard alumni, as President Faust has already mentioned—students and faculty members who gave their lives in World War II. All told, 697 souls who once tread the ground where we stand now, were lost. And at a service in this church in late 1945, Harvard president James Conant, whom President Faust also mentioned, honored the brave and called upon the community to ‘reflect upon the radiance of their deeds.’ Seventy years later, this message still holds true, because their sacrifice is not a debt that can be repaid in a single generation. It must be repaid with every generation. Just as we must never forget the atrocities, we must never forget those who fought for freedom. So as you leave this college and head out into the world, continue, please, to reflect upon the radiance of their deeds, or as Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan would say: ‘Earn this.’” 

He continued by urging graduates to stay connected: “This may not be a lesson you want to hear from a person who creates media, but we are spending more time looking down at our devices than we are looking in each other’s eyes. So—forgive me, but let’s start right now. Everyone here, please find someone’s eyes to look into. Students and alumni, and you too, President Faust, all of you turn to someone you don’t know or don’t know very well. They might be standing behind you or a couple of rows ahead, just let your eyes speak. That’s it,” he said, encouragingly, as the audience members (mostly) complied. “That emotion you're feeling is our shared humanity, mixed in with a little social discomfort!”

 In closing, Spielberg said, “I imagine many possible futures in my films, but you will determine the actual future, and I hope that it’s filled with justice and peace and finally, I wish you all a true Hollywood-style ending. I hope you outrun the T-Rex, catch the criminal, and for your parents’ sake, maybe now and then, just like E.T.—go home.

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