Did Spielberg turn Asperger’s Syndome into a billion-dollar asset?
By Jay Tell
ENCINO, California– Iconic movie mogul Steven Spielberg by some accounts has Asperger’s Syndrome,a mild to severe form of autism, which, among other symptoms, creates a compulsion to focus on one idea at a time. The Asperger’s diagnosis has been disputed by various sources on the Internet, though not by Spielberg directly.
Whether it’s true or not remains to be seen, but there certainly is no stigma to the condition. High-functioning over-achievers thought to have had Asperger’s, are Isaac Newton, Mozart, Beethoven, Edison, Einstein, Henry Ford, Bill Gates and many other creative geniuses. Symptoms can include poor social skills, avoidance of eye contact, limited facial expressions, obsession with an unusual project, disinterest in the ideas of others, dislike of being touched, thinking in literal or exact terms, a strict adherence to routine, and being over-talkative.
In 1971, when 24, Spielberg directed a low-budget ABC-TV movie called Duel, a car driver’s fears of being chased by a truck. In 1975, at 28, Spielberg read the screenplay for Jaws, from the best-selling novel by Peter Benchley. Spielberg asked Sid Sheinberg, president of MCA/Universal Studios, if he could direct the movie. The producer said Spielberg was too young for such an epic, and they already had a seasoned director. Spielberg said, “If something changes, please keep me in mind.”
Sure enough, at a meeting to discuss the film, the older director said, “I think the whale should do this….” Benchley turned to Sheinberg, and said, “I don’t want a director who doesn’t know the difference between my Great White shark and a whale, like Moby Dick.” They fired the veteran director and gambled on young Spielberg.
Spielberg started shooting with an unfinished script, a partial cast, and a labor strike looming over the industry. If those obstacles weren’t enough, no technology had been invented to create a 25-foot believable shark, so crews worked around the clock, fighting numerous mechanical breakdowns – and ultimately making special effects history.
To top it off, Spielberg made the dangerous decision to film off Martha’s Vineyard in the Atlantic Ocean, instead of in a studio tank or safer, inland body of water. He wanted the realism of choppy, unpredictable ocean waves and wind, rolling boats, realistic panoramic scenes, and was willing to take big risks to achieve a cinematic masterpiece.
On the set, Spielberg turned chaos into order, with rare vision and superb directorial skills. He was tested with many setbacks, but passed with flying colors. Jaws became a Hollywood blockbuster, grossing $260 million, which, in today’s dollars, is more than $1 billion. The movie changed the lives of everyone associated with the landmark film, and enhanced the world’s interest in sharks, who, in actuality, rarely attack humans.
The crew never got the shark to work right, but Spielberg’s genius, turning a negative into a positive, carried the day. He and his writers shot film by day, and changed the script each night, to imply the shark’s presence. Like his idol, director Alfred Hitchcock, Spielberg created masterful ocean suspense scenes – probing and penetrating the primal, visceral fears deep in our imagination.
An unseen shark – as when the girl swimmer is suddenly jerked back and forth, screaming in horror before being pulled down – can be more frightening than if we saw the shark. Spielberg turned mechanical shark failures into a scary cinematic powerhouse. When asked if he likes ocean swimming and boating, he said, “No, the sharks are waiting for me, and they have a score to settle.”
Spielberg went on to direct and produce phenomenally popular films, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Goonies (starring my nephew Sean Astin), Indiana Jones, The Color Purple, Twilight Zone, Gremlins, Back to the Future, Empire of the Sun, Always, Hook, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Amistad, Schindler’s List, Band of Brothers, Artificial Intelligence, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, Transformers, and many others. Almost everything he touches turns to gold.
In 1994, Spielberg received his first Best Director and Best Picture Oscars, for Schindler’s List, which won seven Oscars. He donated his profits from that immortal film to the Righteous Persons’ Foundation, and to the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which traveled to 57 countries to capture memories of more than 50,000 survivors of the Holocaust, in 32 languages, forever preserving priceless eye-witness accounts.
To date, Spielberg’s films have grossed more than $10 billion, and have won numerous worldwide nominations and awards. He’s personally won three Oscars, and the coveted Irving Thalberg Award, which is presented to creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production. This puts him in the company of Alfred Hitchcock, Darryl Zanuck, Hal Wallis, Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, Ingmar Bergman and many other great directors.
He also won the Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe Award, which recognizes a lifetime of achievement in motion picture arts, and the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1994, with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, Spielberg created Dreamworks, which produced American Beauty, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Antz, Shrek, War of the Worlds, and many other major movies, TV shows, CD’s and video games. Forbes Magazine listed Spielberg’s personal net worth at $3 billion, not bad for a kid who, at 13, charged local kids 25 cents to see his 8mm film shorts.
Spielberg’s miracle first break, when another director made a “whale” of a mistake, proves that luck can play a critical role in our lives. However, once given that chance, with Jaws in 1975, Spielberg’s brilliance, genius, courage and hard work began creating world-class, magical films, one after another, spanning four decades. He inspired us look to the stars, with Close Encounters and ET, and to look inward, with Amistad and Schindler’s List. All over the world, millions line up to see his movies, knowing, when they see his name, they’re guaranteed an unforgettable journey.
If you have a limiting disability, such as obsession to detail, knowing how Spielberg used Asperger’s Syndrome to his advantage, can be your inspiration – and to us all. You can turn your “problem” to an asset, knowing your potential has no limits. Spielberg’s parents divorced when he was a teen, which can be devastating, but which he also used to his advantage. He focused on his visions, his imagined worlds – and our culture is richer for his work. He created movie history, and a real life success story.
Tell is a Los Angeles stamp and coin dealer and freelance writer. He grew up in a Las Vegas Jewish newspaper family, and wrote, among other articles, a Bobby Darin Tribute. Email email@example.com