Deb found me and introduced me to a nice lady named Lee Anne De Vette. I had no earthly idea who she was at the time, but I later found out that she was Tom Cruise's sister and publicist.
We chatted a bit before she said, "He wants to meet you, so if you're ready..." I was thinking, "He? He who?" But my brain immediately answered back; "You know damn well he who..."
And so it was that she took me to meet Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg was standing on the slope of the hill, overlooking the valley I talked about in the first report, where the houses covered in the red weed are. There were at least 100 refugees scattered around the valley and up the slope of the hill. It reminded me quite a bit of the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, actually. Single houses in the middle of nowhere, a mass of featureless (at that distance) bodies in ratty clothes... hills and a light mist... well, the mist might have been smoke from all the machine gun and tank firing, but it had the same effect.
Right before we got to Spielberg, Lee Anne De Vette turned to me and asked if I wanted to be introduced as Eric or Quint. Immediately I said, "Please, for the love of God... Introduce me as Eric!" I don't know if this situation has ever happened to someone at AICN... I got suddenly embarrassed that my AICN pseudonym was a character from the movie that made Steven Spielberg famous. How pathetic would that be, to be introduced as "Quint?"
So, of course, she delivers me unto Spielberg and says, "Steven, this is Quint from Ain't It Cool News." I horrified, but not for long. Steven Spielberg warmly shook my hand and said, "Quint! I'm pleased to meet you! I read your columns all the time."
My horror turned to shock. There have been a few occasions where I've met someone I really admire that knew of AICN or knew who I was and every time that happens it weirds me out. Considering how much of an impact JAWS, RAIDERS, TEMPLE OF DOOM, LAST CRUSADE, ET and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS had on me as a kid (not to mention POLTERGEIST, GREMLINS and AMAZING STORIES), this one ranked right up there.
Now, I know some will be disappointed that I didn't use this opportunity to grill the man on INDIANA JONES 4 or anything like that... To be honest, I had a few things I had planned on asking if I got the chance (there's a story I had heard about concerning a particular screening of ET that I wanted to run by him as well as reenforcing what an awesome project THE TALISMAN is and thanking him for not going forward with it in the state it was in last year), but it all just went out the window when we started talking. This wasn't an interview, but an informal chat and I just went along with the conversation.
"I've always liked the name 'Quint'," Spielberg said. "You know who didn't like that name? Robert Shaw." I was aghast.
"Really?" I said. I had never heard that before.
Spielberg went on to say that Shaw thought the name lacked finesse. Spielberg himself thought that Benchley naming the shark hunter "Quint" was perfect and kept trying to tell Shaw that the name is sharp... that it was one syllable and sharp and that he almost used his name to kill the shark, it was that powerful. Shaw apparently didn't fall for any of that and just said, "Steven. Listen to this..." (I was told to keep in mind Robert's "beautiful Welsh accent" for this part) "Listen to this...Quint. Or... McGrrrregor!" The rolling of the r's was what made that funny and I was just happy to get a Quint story that I'd never heard before from the man himself.
I mentioned that I was going to be attending Jawsfest in June, celebrating the 30th Anniversary of JAWS on Martha's Vineyard. He said he'd heard about that, but didn't think he could ever return to Martha's Vineyard, calling it his private Vietnam. To underline his point, he told me that the shoot was so tough that Universal crew members would beg him to be fired off the movie. You see, they couldn't quit because they were Universal contract workers, so they'd lose their pensions if they quit, so they begged to be fired off the project. And Spielberg did fire a few of them, those that were unraveling the most due to the production.
Spielberg knew I had just been in New Zealand, so he asked how KING KONG was coming along. I told him I loved what I had seen and this prompted him talking about how much he loved the original KING KONG and how you can see the craftsmanship for the original KONG. He especially loved that you could see Willis O'Brien's fingerprints on Kong that were put there during the stop-motion process.
He also mentioned having just recently talked to Peter Jackson and seeing a reel that Jackson acted in to showcase how Weta could bring Snowy (TinTin's faithful companion... who happens to be a dog) to life in the TINTIN film Spielberg's producing. He also talked a little bit about a film he's producing called ARGONAUTS, which is a quasi-remake of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, focusing on underwater archeology to be done next year.
We also talked about the set we were standing on. I mentioned just how much it reminded me of Wellington, New Zealand with the rolling green hills and he said that's exactly what Tom Cruise said when he saw the location for the first time. Cruise spent much time filming THE LAST SAMURAI on New Zealand's North Island.
A refugee extra, who couldn't have been more than a Junior in High School, nervously edged up to Spielberg while we were talking, his eyes wide... it was clear he had taken some time to bring up the nerve to approach Spielberg. Two PAs or body guards or security guards... I don't know who they were, only that I didn't realize they were around until this kid approached Spielberg and they went to intercept. Spielberg told them it was OK and shook the kid's hand. After talking with the kid for a few seconds, he politely told him that he was "in a meeting" and the extra went back to his spot with a huge grin on his face. That's class.
Spielberg told me a little bit about his approach to WAR OF THE WORLDS, how he's keeping it focused totally on the main characters. For example, he pointed to a hill in the distance. "Say a Tripod crests that hill and approaches our characters... The best shot would probably be a helicopter shot, showing the Tripod in it's full glory." He said that might be the best shot, but instead of doing that, he's keeping the camera low to the ground and not cutting to keep it more from the perspective of the characters on the ground.
I really like that, personally. It's really interesting to see him going for the emotion and fear of the moment than the spectacle of the event. That's certainly one way to avoid being in the INDEPENDENCE DAY realm and picking your moments to open up the spectacle is a Spielberg trait of old. DUEL, JAWS, ET and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS specifically were all very intimate films until Spielberg pulled the rug out from under you... That's why there's so many iconic scenes in those movies... The reveal of the shark as Brody is chumming in JAWS, the Mothership in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS... The evil truck showing its true colors in DUEL... Of course you were teased a lot beforehand in all those films, but all that was to really build to that really big moment. I think Spielberg's talent as a filmmaker is keeping an intimacy with such extraordinary films and it looks like he's doubling his efforts with WAR OF THE WORLDS to make it more in the vain of his earlier films.
The conversation went on a little while longer, mostly talk filled with Ray Harryhausen, but it wasn't long before Spielberg started to head back to towards the director's tent. "If I stand by the camera, they tend to work faster," he said. To my great surprise he dragged me along with him.
Spielberg ushered me into the director's tent (much to the amazement of the Paramount people I came with, I found out later... it's a rare honor, I was told) and introduced me to Janusz Kaminski, who was sitting by the monitors smoking a cigar. Now... I don't smoke. No cigarettes, no nothing. But every time I go to New Zealand, I pick up at least one Cuban cigar and smoke that sometime before I leave. Just sit, watch the country, absorb the environment... You know, relax. It's become tradition and I do it every time I find myself that beautiful country.
While I was in the tent, Janusz handed out a few cigars to some of the crew members (remember this was the last day of photography on the film) and I just had to laugh because the cigars he had were Romeo Y Julieta, the exact same kind I get when I go to New Zealand... Matter of fact, I had smoked my New Zealand cigar not a week earlier while watching one of my last Wellington sunsets. I just thought that coincidence was odd.
I was also introduced to Dakota Fanning. She scares me. I'm not afraid to say it. In person, she's a scary, scary little girl. Cute as a button, of course, but everything I'd heard about her was right. She's like a little adult in a child's body. I was reminded of my fear of midgets, but that's a whole different story... Her eyes were more adult than little girl and the way she was acting was so professional I was taken a bit by surprise.
For instance, Spielberg gave her a bit of direction in the tent, pointing at the stand ins for her and Cruise that were on the monitors as the lighting was in its final stages. The Cruise stand-in was facing the camera holding the Fanning stand-in in his arms. Spielberg noticed that Fanning's stand-in kept obscuring the Cruise stand-in's face as she did her action for the scene, which was reacting to something moving past them, so he pointed it out to her. Fanning immediately started thinking out loud, saying that in the shot before this one, she moved in a certain way, so she could just move in this other way, that way it'd be a continuation of what she did before, but not obscure Cruise's face.
Spielberg got playback of the shot that will be before this shot in the film to double check... The shot that played was a profile shot of Cruise with Fanning in his arms, walking up the hill as refugees were fleeing behind him. He's calling out "Robbie! Robbie!" Robbie is his son (played by Justin Chatwin) and Spielberg told me a little later that his character has run off towards the Army to see the action and Cruise is trying to get to him before he gets himself killed. Suddenly a humvee... on fire... drives erratically past Cruise.
The shot they were setting up was coverage of that scene, of Tom Cruise facing the camera, reacting to the humvee aflame as it rushes past him.
A lot happened in the next couple minutes... it seems like bits and pieces in my memory it all happened so fast... Spielberg introduced me to his daughter, then told me about a present Cruise had gotten him... a classic Mustang... not sure of the year, but I think it was '66, a car he had always wanted, but never indulged in. He was like a kid at Christmas when talking about this very impressive gift... Somehow that got to Dakota Fanning talking about the cigars Janusz was smoking and how Tony Scott (who she worked with on MAN ON FIRE) was a big cigar smoker, too... that even when he wasn't smoking... she pulled at her clothes and did the "airing out" gesture... he was still smoking...
And I was also told by Spielberg that he and Dakota were going to work together again next year on ALICE IN WONDERLAND! I hadn't heard about that one before, so that was a surprise. I'm assuming he means Dreamworks is producing the flick, not that he will be directing, but you never know.
Then Deb Wuliger showed up and started to lead me out of the tent, but Spielberg stopped her. "I want him to meet Tom." So, I was allowed to stay until Tom Cruise came back, which was maybe 2 or 3 minutes later.
When Cruise arrived at the tent, he immediately started joking around with Dakota, acting more like a big brother behind the scenes than the fatherly figure in front of the camera. Spielberg got his attention and introduced us. Cruise has a very unique persona. When he's giving you his attention it's like you're the only person he registers. It's like a weird form of tunnel vision. Of course that means when he's paying attention to someone else you feel like he doesn't register you at all. He was very nice to me, but seemed more interested in getting on with the scene than shaking hands with chubby geeks he doesn't know, which is totally understandable.
I was escorted out of the tent shortly after that. Surreal is a good word for that time. When I was talking with Spielberg it was always over some safe topic, some geek topic, like Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien. It wasn't until the tent that the situation I was in really started to sink in and after I left the tent I was totally in a "did that really just happen?" mode. How I ever spent 25 minutes talking to Steven Spielberg without crumbling into a pile of shivering geek mess I'll never know.
After I rejoined the Paramount group we watched as they gooped up the Hummer, lit it on fire, and sent it driving by Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning for the shot. My set visit was coming to an end and after they got that first take I was led down the hill where there was a big snack caravan set up. Each cart had its own cook and its own theme. There was the mexican food cart with nachos and quesadillas, the hot dog/corn dog cart, the mini-pizza cart, the fried food cart with onion rings and fries... It was the final night of shooting, so this was a gift to the crew... there were little posters up that had the WAR OF THE WORLDS image of the suction-cup tipped hand holding the earth... except here the alien hand was holding a martini glass with the earth floating in the martini like an olive. I wanted to steal one, but I chickened out.
In total, I spent less than 4 hours on the set, I saw 3 shots filmed and spent almost half an hour talking to a living legend... and I still don't know what the fuck happens in this movie! It's pretty intriguing that we have a huge summer film a month and a half from release that we know almost nothing about. How faithful will it be to the original material? How much action? How much suspense? How much drama? Don't know, don't know, don't know.
I'd like to thank the Paramount folks who helped set this up, including Karl Williams, Amy Powell and the Mystery Woman especially. The experience was amazing for a child of the '80s, much less a child of the '80s that grew up to take on the name Quint for his various internet misadventures. I'd also like to thank Deb Wuliger for putting up with me onset and Lee Anne De Vette for taking me over to the man and to Laurent Bouzereau for chatting JAWS with me.
And a very big thanks to Steven Spielberg for letting a big geek watch you work.
And thank you, folks, for following me on my very verbose and lengthy journey. It was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life and I hope it was a fun one to read along to. Now I just gotta figure out who to beg, bribe, kill or give a lap dance to in order to sneak on to the INDIANA JONES 4 set...