Steven Spielberg and John Williams: The Art and Magic of Collaboration

People who work together often coordinate activities and cooperate to get things done. Ideally, however, performance improves when individuals begin to collaborate and share ideas that compound exponentially. That is 1 + 1 = 5 or 50.

Such is the case with director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams. The two first met in 1972. Shortly after, Williams scored Spielberg’s first theatrical release, The Sugarland Express. After that, it was off to the races with films such as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and most recently, The Fabelmans, Spielberg’s most personal film.

Big question

The two sat down with Late Show’s Stephen Colbert for an interview about their efforts. First, Colbert askedWilliams a simple question: “What’s your job?”

“It’s a wonderful question. It’s very simple. I don’t know if I can give you a simple answer. I think the first answer I can give you is to inform and improve the process of storytelling through music, if I Can. Describe the characters. Describe the atmosphere, the ambiance of what the story requires. My job is to be a collaborator with the director in achieving all these things the atmospherics, emotional content, and so on.”

Later Spielberg added that his efforts could bring an audience to feel emotions, but Williams’s scores take them over the edge. “I can get an audience to the brink of crying, but Johnny’s music makes the tears fall. He takes it the rest of the way without being sentimental about it. Without being maudlin or mawkish.”

Two films dissected

Their second collaboration was Jaws. The score is based on two notes (E and F, with a D, added later). The music became, as Spielberg said, a “character in the film.” It created a sense of anxiety that heightened the tension of an approaching shark. As Williams explains, “Another big issue with us was that if you play this very softly and slowly, you advertise or you advance the thoughts. The shock is there just by hearing the music. There is no shark nearby, but if it speeds up and comes closer to you and gets louder and louder… You’ve got an actor that you can’t see and a threat that by some primordial instinct you are threatened by, as we should be by a great predator.”

And it worked exceptionally well. The mechanical shark, nicknamed Bruce, was often in the shop being repaired. “Johnny sort of saved the movie because he became the shark, and then music substituted for the absent shark, which made it a hell of a lot scarier and more suspenseful than had I had the shark working perfectly,” Spielberg says.

Williams employed a fuller palate of notes — five — for their next effort — Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These became the ones used to communicate with the alien spaceship that arrives on screen at the film’s climax. Spielberg said that he either could have used math or music to communicate. “Music is math in that sense. I didn’t want them putting complicated equations on a blackboard so that music would be the quickest way to the heart of the audience to get them to understand this sort of first contact between an extraordinary extraterrestrial civilization, advanced civilization.”

Relationship at work

It is easy to discern their respect and love for each other when they converse. Spielberg is in his mid-seventies, and Williams is in his early nineties. Yet, watching their conversation, with Colbert there to guide them, you see sparks of creativity fly. They are collaborating the sharing their stories in real-time.

Collaboration is rooted in trust; when you work closely together for decades, trust becomes the bond that holds the relationship together and brings stories to life in ways that entertain, charm, and enlighten.

“I have never not liked something that John has written for one of my movies,” says Spielberg about the 29 films they have done together. “I’ve never said, ‘Oh, I don’t feel that’s right for my movie.’ Or ‘I don’t think we should use this piece of music at this point.’ everything johnny has written has fit like a glove. There’s never been bumps about my disagreeing with something that he has composed. Ever.”

First posted on 00.00.2023