Review: Williams and Spielberg's 'Master Class' 

AFI’s Master Class: The Art of Collaboration
8 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 15, with repeats at midnight and 4:30 a.m.

We know what filmmaker Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams have done together — 25 films, including four Indiana Jones movies, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, E.T., Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to name several.

How they work together, and why, is the subject of “The Art of Collaboration,” an hourlong master class before a room of eager American Film Institute students in which they discuss their nearly 40-year body of work. The talk takes a little while to get focused, but once it does, you’ll be engrossed.

For the first 15 minutes or so, Spielberg and Williams blow kisses at each other. Spielberg, Williams says, walks around the room and “imbibes the sound of the orchestra — and loves it, like he’s paid a ticket to a concert.” Williams — Spielberg calls him “Johnny” — creates music that takes the movies “to an entirely different level,” Spielberg says.

Given their track record, they’ve certainly earned the right to praise each other’s work.

In the first segment, they also show some of their favorite combinations of music and movies, including scenes from Vertigo, Spartacus and On the Waterfront, and I wish I’d been there to argue with them. In each scene they showed, I found the music too loud and overly, unnecessarily dramatic. (I’m not suggesting that I know anything remotely close to what they know about film or music; this, to me, is strictly a matter of personal taste.)

But once they get rolling, telling stories about how Williams presented Spielberg with the music for Jaws and showing scenes from E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark to illustrate their points, the discussion becomes fascinating.

Williams said their collaboration more or less works like this: Spielberg shows him the film. (Williams rarely reads the screenplay.) Williams retreats to his writing room. He’ll write several themes for characters, locations, whatever is needed. Spielberg will come in and talk, and Williams will play a few notes, or perhaps something more elaborate. On the brilliant soundtrack for Catch Me If You Can, Williams said he needed Spielberg to hear the full orchestra to have the music make sense. The famous five-note sequence for Close Encounters had to be written before the scene was shot.

Williams said he can tell by Spielberg’s facial expression whether he likes what he’s heard.

Spielberg says he’ll often tell his editor, “The movie’s gotten so much better in that room” — meaning the room where Williams writes.

The two began working together on 1974’s Sugarland Express. Spielberg had been a TV director till that point. He’d heard Williams’ soundtrack for Mark Rydell's adaptation of The Reivers (1969) and vowed that if he ever got to make a movie, he’d find John Williams.

They devote the last 20 minutes or so of their master class to answering questions, and the AFI students ask a number of good ones, including one about how to get started in the business. They don’t directly answer that, though. Williams suggests that they shouldn’t try to be the next Steven Spielberg, lest they end up disappointed.
He tells them to “confront with joy and pleasure and a sense of opportunity every little simple task we’re given, rather than to try and do the big task, rather than to try to shoot Gone With the Wind.”

Spielberg’s advice is simple: “Just remember to learn your craft…. You shouldn’t think of yourself as an artist. You should let other people think of you as an artist.” But when someone does give you a shot, he says, you need to show them that you have “the basic knowledge of the craft of putting together a story.”

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