Author Steven Awalt Discusses 'Duel', 'Sugarland Express', and Early Spielberg

Posted Tue Oct 21, 2014 at 02:30 PM PDT by
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To help promote the Steven Spielberg Director's Collection Blu-ray boxed set, Universal Home Entertainment was kind enough to put us in contact with author Steven Awalt, who recently published his first book, Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of A Film Career. Mr. Awalt is not only a Spielberg expert and film historian, but he's also a fellow film geek. Like many of you, he grew up in the late '70s / early '80s as Steven Spielberg was becoming the world's most successful director. With a lifelong Spielberg passion, Mr. Awalt ran the independent website Spielberg until in 2009 and then, having earned Spielberg's respect, turned to document his idol's first foray into feature filmmaking. It's a terrific read that covers not only the classic stories about Spielberg's youth and early career, but also reveals anecdotes and lost bits of history you'll be fascinated to learn (and there's even a scene by scene break down of the film's production schedule and television to theatrical cut comparison). Definitely check that out if you get a chance.

HDD: You open your book with Steven Spielberg's first trip to the movies to see 'The Greatest Show on Earth. What was your introduction to Spielberg and how did your passion / fandom evolve?

Steven Awalt: 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' was the first one my parents took me to see. Between 'Star Wars' in the summer of '77 and 'Close Encounters in early '78, it was like the first hit of a very potent and wonderful drug and totally opened my eyes up to film. I was young then, so I was doing the normal things like all kids from the '70s, but seeing 'Star Wars' and 'Close Encounters' totally hooked me. I'm sure you remember how great of a time that was, the rapid succession between 'Close Encounters' and '1941', then 'Raiders', 'E.T.', 'Poltergeist', it was just a great time.

One hundred percent agree. I'm probably a few years younger than you, so I missed most of those titles theatrically, but I had 'E.T.' on VHS with the green part that flipped up. I wore that one out. Then 'Back to the Future'. Early-era Steven Spielberg is among my favorite eras of blockbuster Hollywood filmmaking.

Mine too. I love all the work he's done, but there's such a great growth within it. Having grown up with his early works. They really mean a lot to me. That 'E.T.' tape, though, that came out in 1987 or 88, I think it was, and I waited forever for that. Out of all of his films, that was, and still is, my favorite film. It took so long to come out on VHS, so that was a beautiful tape when it came out.

And now we're living in an era where movies are out on digital HD or Blu-ray while they are still in cinemas.

It's really changed since I was a kid, back in the pre-VHS days even. It's such a wonderful time for home video now... even if Hollywood says it's falling apart.

Can you tell us a little bit about the journey you took to writing this book?

It was a long journey. I started an independent website called Spielberg back in 2001, and closed the doors in 2009, so it ran for quite a while. I wrote literally thousands of articles for it, everything from small articles to longer examinations of the work and interviews with cast members.

In that time, it turns out Steven had been reading the website. I had been in talks with his people since 2003-2004 but never asked for anything from Steven. Then in 2006, Steven FedEX'd a letter saying he had been a big fan of the website, he'd been reading it for years, and he liked my writing. So that May -- I'm out in Chicago and they were giving him an award at a film festival -- that was the first time I ever interviewed him, and  that was for the website. And he, not to geek out on you, introduced me to Roy Scheider, which was one of the best moments of my life as a fan and a professional.

Wow, that's pretty cool.

I also appear in 'The Shark Is Still Working' documentary on the 'JAWS' Blu-ray as well, I was interviewed for that in 2005. Then I was getting a graduate degree in cinema around the same time I decided to shut the website down. So after that I pitched Steven on a 'Duel' book because that whole time I was writing the website, I was like, "man I want to be writing books, I want to be writing full length examinations of film history."

I'd been working independently on a 'Close Encounters' book, but someone else had done one that was pretty good that had come out in the early 2000s. So I thought, "I might as well go back to the beginning of it all." So I pitched him on 'Duel', and he said yes right away, and before I even had a chance to ask him if I could interview him for the book, he invited me out to Amblin. He's been incredibly supportive of my writing, but also this book in particular. He's been so generous with the archives and his memories, it's been a great experience, a long experience, writing it and getting it out there. And I hope readers take away a lot from I went through for him to get where he was, and the amazing turn around on such a great film that 'Duel' is.

I really enjoyed reading the book, so kudos on all the hard work. Have you picked up the new Director's Collection? Have you seen 'Duel' on Blu-ray yet?

Universal sent that to me last week and I've only had a chance to look at 'Duel' so far, but 'Duel' was a revelation. I know that's over-used, but I've seen the film as a fan countless times and, for this book, repeatedly, over and over. So the Blu-ray is just astonishing. It's absolutely gorgeous. I saw details I've never seen before. Little minor things even. A handprint on the dust and the dirt of the car, there's some pretty good continuity there, if you follow that sort of thing.

In chapter eight, you talked about how the international theatrical cut, in addition to adding the four new scenes, they opened the movie up from the original negative on the left and right sides, but when I got my Blu-ray and checked it against the DVD release, it seems as those the Blu-ray is cropped from 1.33:1, top and bottom.

I haven't had a chance to go through and compare, but that's something I'm going to do because I want to see how much more information there is, or was lost. The film was shot open matte in 35mm. Cameras have gauges on them where can frame for 1.85:1 and also 1.33:1 because it was for television. So it was open matte and could work for either. I don't know if they trimmed it down a lot. To an extent, yes, you lose some information on the top and bottom, naturally. But I don't think it's anything extreme that is lost. Gains more so on the sides. 

One of the things the book talks about, and it's something many have heard by now, is that you can see Steven in the car, but something that impressed me about this Blu-ray so much was, not only can you see him in the car -- the top of his hair in the back seat a couple times and in Mann's rearview mirror a few times too -- but the Blu-ray is so unbelievably clear that if you look in the driver's side back window, you can see Steven's reflection in the glass. And I've never seen anybody mention that before. He's wearing a white shirt through most of it.

The other thing that impressed me about the clarity is, on the DVD, you can see Steven in the telephone scene where it looks like he's standing there, holding a script. In the Blu-ray, I actually saw two other figures in the telephone booth. It looks like it might be a camera man right next to him. I don't know if there is a focus pull in that shot, but it looks like two people, presumably the camera men. Never noticed that before until now. Never heard anyone talk about. But the Blu-ray is so unbelievably clear, you see all sorts of details you've never seen before.

I gotta go re-watch this right now.

As a filmmaker, you don't want people to see those things but it's amazing with this technology the details that are available.

We don't really have the option to watch the TV cut, but which cut of the movie do you actually prefer?

I have the television cut at home on VHS. It's been broadcast on television, even in recent years. I gotta say I like the television cut more, without denigrating the beautiful work Universal and Steven's people did on this release, but I would love down the line, especially if they do a free-standing 'Duel' Blu-ray, if they would put out the television cut in 1.33:1 and the theatrical cut in 1.85:1 just for historical purposes. Just to be able to compare and contrast. Much like 'Close Encounters' or now '1941' in this newer boxed set. That would be really great for historical purposes. It's such a tight cut, although there's a trade-off too. Mann has an extended inner monologue and [Steven] cut some of that for the theatrical film. Some additions are good, some not so good. Nothing's terrible about the theatrical cut, but it's like 'Close Encounters' again. There are three cuts of it, and you're going to like some parts from one, some from another. [Both 'Duel' cuts] have their charm.

I don't know if you've ever noticed, or talked about this before, but I've always thought that what you describe in the book as the "Sleeping at the Train Crossing" scene, dissolving closer and closer to the red car appears to be an homage to the opening shot of 'Citizen Kane'.

You know, I'm thinking about it now, and I've never thought of that. I don't know. Now I want to look at them together and not just go off memory. That would be a great question to ask Steven because he loves 'Citizen Kane'. In fact, when I was interviewing Steven for the book, I was sitting in his office in the middle of the table, he was on the right, and to my left, one of the Rosebud sleds was hanging on the wall. For a film fanatic, that was a pretty amazing moment to be between that person and that object. Yeah, Steven's crazy about 'Citizen Kane' and I would love to see his opinion on it. 

Not that his opinion would be the end-all-be-all on it. Was it in his mind at the time? Did he specifically shoot it that way? Or, did Frank Morris edit it that way?

What was it like sitting down with Spielberg to interview him? What stories surprised you most?

I hope this comes across in the book as well, but Steven had such a fondness for his secretary at the time, Nona Tyson, who's been passed away for a while now. He has such a warmth about him. He's very present and got a good vibe about him. And when he tells these stories in person like he did, you can tell how much he really loved Nona and respected how much she did for his career. I think he said something like "she had my number" about seeing [the short story] 'Duel' and having the intuition to pass it on to him because he could do really well with it.

Something else that came to mind on Nona, there's no way I could talk about this in the book. There's one source that did a video interview on this. When Steven was talking about Nona he said she was one of the few people on Earth who could read his terrible handwriting. He told me a couple of years before we were talking [circa 2011] he was finally diagnosed as being dyslexic. He said it on the record, but it didn't really have to do with the making of 'Duel'.

Just as someone who has followed his work, he was like an unknowning father figure to me growing up because I didn't really have a father. My Dad died when he was 50 and he was an alcoholic and abusive before that. So I really looked up to Steven Spielberg as a young kid, because of his imagination, he seemed like a good person, everything about him was impressive. And then for him to tell me this very personal thing. It just meant a lot to me that he was so open about his private life. In the past, people who have never met him have assumed he has Aspergers Syndrome, which is not true. He had talked about the possibility of having dyslexia years ago, but when it was finally confirmed, it meant a lot to him. I wish I could have shared that [in the book] because there's such a given quality to talking with him. Then, to turn it around, when you look at the fact that he does have dyslexia and he's done so much with his life, I think that's extremely inspirational. Sorry if that's too far off the beaten path...

No, not at all. Oh, you know what really stood out to me while reading your book was the chapter where Steven was watching 'The Incredible Hulk' TV series and saw they used 'Duel' footage in one of the episodes. 

You can actually buy it off of iTunes or DVD, but it's also available on Netflix right now. It's Season 1, Episode 12, "Never Give a Trucker An Even Break." 

That's something, over the years, Steven hasn't been very happy about. And in talking to ['Incredible Hulk' writer] Ken Johnson, he's understandably defensive about it. He didn't try to rip Steven off personally. George Eckstein, the producer of 'Duel' was angry about it. But it was the Universal [Studios] way. Universal has always been really frugal and intelligent about how they use their resources. From an artist's perspective, it's a terrible thing. From an industrial perspective, in an industry that makes film, it's a really smart thing. Especially if audience members don't see that they're getting recycled footage. It happened to more people than Steven, as the book points out, but when it comes to a film as great as 'Duel', it's like, "no you should never have done that." 

Editor Frank Morris describes how, in the final sequence, "the truck must have passed the same spot 38 times, but a different angle and a different speed, or whatever. The situation dictates what your mind accepts because we’re telling you a lie, and you look at it and you believe it." --- Do you think this still applies today or with the advances in home entertainment, the ability to dissect material shot-by-shot, making us too literal as viewers? Basically, are we watching movies differently?

Picking a film apart to shreds, to take all the essence from it and understand it, and know how it was constructed. For Steven's films, especially for me, are beautifully constructed when you look at the mechanics of them. Looking at 'Duel' on Blu-ray, I can't remember which part, I think it's when they're headed to Chuck's Cafe, before we get to the sign, when the truck's starting to pursue [Mann] again, there's one shot where the truck's not in the background, but there's a bunch of other cars on the road that you can't see when you cut back and forth to the truck, which is coming at him.

So that's something I never noticed until this Blu-ray and when you look at it, you could say, "oh my god what an error, there are cars back there that aren't supposed to be there. It should be just him and the truck." To look at that, you say, where did these cars come from? Well, from a production standpoint, they had to close down sections of road at a time, which is a pain in the ass, and sometimes you're going to get continuity errors like that. 'JAWS', of course, famously had problems on the ocean. I think it's... almost a dangerous, sometimes, for people to criticize things like that, especially critics or historians, because they're not necessarily looking at the production history.

The same thing with the dissolves in the scene you were talking about in relation to 'Citizen Kane'. We can assume that's Steven's concept, which it very well could have been. Or maybe it was done in editorial. Somebody put it together and Steven said, "yeah, that's works." It's always hard to know unless dig back, but then you're dealing with memories and people taking credit for things they may not have done.

There's always seems to be, and this is something I struggle with in reviews and articles, a need to assign authorship to every decision even when the filmmaking process itself is inherently collaborative. And speaking of collaborations, your next book is going to be about 'Sugarland Express' and I'm curious about the transition Steven makes from composer Bill Goldenberg to working with John Williams. Obviously Spielberg is a master visual filmmaker, and great with actors and special effects, but I've always thought it was Williams' scores that make the early era Spielberg movies so emotionally transcendent. 

I think the transition was monumental. I talk a little bit about this in the 'Duel' book. I've been accused of being a bit romantic in some of the 'Duel' book writing, but film is romantic, why wouldn't we want to, staying within the facts of course, talk with the people who have memories of these things in an emotional tone. Steven's films are particularly emotional. Billy Goldenberg was incredibly open about not working with Steven again, and blames himself for it.

Goldenberg said he had gotten the 'Sugarland' script, but didn't respond to Steven fast enough, so Steven went in another direction, while Spielberg himself said he had been following Williams' music for a while, having heard his work in the late '60s.

Exactly. I didn't want to stress it too much. It's not my job to provide conflict in the middle of it, but I let them both speak for themselves, and there's obviously some personal contradictions in each account of how things broke up. It's how any relationship would go. They were friendly. They're very good friends. There was respect. But Steven saw, or heard, something in Williams' music, particularly 'The Reivers' and 'The Cowboys'. In the book, Steven talks about how he wore out 'The Reivers' LP on vinyl. Billy's a wonderful composer and a sweet guy and could have done incredible things with Steven, but you can't fault Spielberg for making a professional choice there because, my god, look how it turned out. It's an amazing collaboration. 

Going back to the auteur theory of authorship, you can't deny that film is an incredibly collaborative effort, and Steven's always been the first to talk about the people who he works with, about his regular collaborators and how much they contribute to his films. But at the same time, the auteur theory, I don't even like to call it that because that has such a negative connotation. I was razzed about that regularly in grad school because I do believe authorship is an important thing to examine, which I think the book does. But at the same time I think the book looks at collaboration, so it's a two-way street. Film is an incredibly collaborative process, but there's always that final arbiter, that final vision of the film which is either the director or a very strong producer.

And where are you on the 'Sugarland' book?

Further than in the middle. I've interviewed everyone except Steven, who is shooting two films back to back, so hopefully early next year. And John Williams is really bogged down with 'Star Wars'. He said he'd set something up as soon as his schedule opens up, but that's kinda in limbo right now. So I'm waiting on the two of them, but I have everyone else. I talked to the three main actors, including Goldie, and they all had such wonderful stories.

This first book is as much about 'Duel' as it is about the formation of Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker, so what where do you go from there? By the way, I had no idea he made two more TV movies directly after 'Duel'.

They're both interesting too. They're really hard to find, though they've been on cable in the last ten years. So you can find them out there, from the people that recorded them. I wished they were released as well as his other hard-to-find TV stuff.

With the 'Sugarland' book, because the movie is an adaptation of a real event, the first chapter dives into the real events which took place in Texas in 1969. In real life they were criminals and not as engaging as Lou Jean and Clovis are in the film, but the punishment was also insanely severe. Screenwriters Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood went down to Texas with Steven for research, and highway patrol showed them images of what happened to [the real Clovis'] face... I don't want to give too much away, but it's extremely grisly. The film is heartbreaking at the end, but if they showed what really happened, they would have had audiences back then not happy, probably.

It's a book about adapting a real life tragedy. It's a book about crime and punishment i n Texas in the early 1970s. You wouldn't believe some of the events that happened while they were down in the San Antonio area shooting the film. A couple things happened that reflected what they were doing in the film. There was a big debate in the Texas senate about the death penalty. There were criminals shooting cops point-blank in the head. There were cops shooting criminals. It was really something. And [the filmmakers] were down there creating a film that was documenting something that was happening politically and socially right there. And that's not something the film really does in overtones, but it does really reflect society and how the media makes folk heroes out of people that doesn't really deserve to be made into heroes, and how the law handled [the real Clovis and Lou Jean]. Just look at the stuff going on nowadays in Ferguson, look how they're handling Ebola. It's the same things 'Sugarland Express' was talking about then -- the news media's need to make crazy stories out of human events. 

So it's an incredible film for that layer of it, but also I don't think it gets enough credit for the humanity central to the film. A lot of critics talk about it like "well it's got car chases and crashes and caravans of police cars". And Steven was brilliant with that, but one thing the book will really air out is that there's so much more going on in that film. At that time he was in his mid-twenties, so the book is about those things and his evolution as an artist, and how this lead directly to 'JAWS' because the producers Zanuck and Brown were also the producers on 'Sugarland'. So were documenting Steven's career in detail, in a way that's never been view before.

Wow. Okay, you sold me. I can't wait to check out that book.

I can't wait to be finished with it so you can read it.

Excellent. Thanks so much to Steven Awalt for sitting down with us. Definitely check out his book Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of A Film Career. It's like reading the transcript of an awesome audio commentary, and you'll learn so much about Steven Spielberg's early career and one of his best movies, 'Duel', available now as part as the Steven Spielberg Director's Collection.

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Discs mentioned in this article: (Click for specs and reviews)
Jaws (Blu-ray)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray)
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: 30th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray)
Steven Spielberg Director's Collection (Blu-ray)
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Blu-ray)
Star Wars: Episodes IV - VI (Blu-ray)
Tags: Steven Spielberg, 'Duel', 'Sugarland Express', Steven Awalt, Filmmaking (all tags)