Steven Spielberg – Intimacy With Character


I love heart in movies. “I just know that every man I kill, the farther
from home I feel.” A movie has heart when it earns our empathy. It has characters that have needs and wants,
they go through adversity and conflict, and emerge changed or victorious. Often, one of the key elements to creating
empathy with a character is for them to reveal something deeply personal about themselves
that gives the viewer something to relate to. In the Disney documentary, Waking Sleeping
Beauty, lyracist Howard Ashman describes characterization like this: “In almost every musical ever written, there’s
a place, it’s usually about the third song of the” “evening.” “Sometimes it’s the second, sometimes it’s
the fourth, but it’s quite early.” “But the leading lady sits down on something
and sings about what she wants in life and” “the audience falls in love with her and then
roots for her to get it for the rest of the night!” That’s not to say every character has to be
defined this way, but I’ve seen a lot of movies that simply rely on relationship titles like
Mother, Father, Husband, or Wife, to assume our empathy rather than giving us something
tangible to work with. “Hold on, Son!” “Dad!” Obviously everyone is going to empathize with
movies and its characters differently, but it’s easy to spot when a movie takes the time
and puts a focus on characterization. And I think Steven Spielberg’s films use a
lot of similarly constructed scenes to create great examples of characterization. In several of his films we get scenes where
a character shares a personal story that reveals their goals, or a point of view, and in each
of these sequences we get a slow push-in with the camera to create more intimacy with the
character. Take, for example, this scene from Jurassic
Park. It takes place right after the park starts
to break down. John Hammond, who created the park, talks
about the first attraction he made; a flea circus. As soon as he begins to speak the camera starts
to slowly push in. As he begins to describe the flea circus a
light melody begins. He is fondly reminiscing about his past. He describes all the motorized attractions
the circus had for it’s invisible fleas. As he goes on, we realize John is talking
about his dreams. “But with this place, I wanted to show them
something that wasn’t an illusion.” “Something that was real, something that they
could see and touch.” John wants to make spectacular attractions. This moment shows the internal struggle inside
John. Yes, his dinosaur park has broken down and
killed some people, but it started off as such a beautiful, pure dream. “I own an island.” “Off the coast of Costa Rica.” And John discusses his dream from a more relatable
standpoint. In his story he’s not the billionaire CEO
of a company that can have anything he wants. His story frames him as a modest entertainer,
with invisible performers, on an imaginary stage. A guy who, like many of us, dared to dream. Maybe not everyone in the audience will relate
to John’s dreams, but a lot of people can relate to something not working out that they
believed in not working out. A career, a relationship, or an idea. “Clever girl.” Now people won’t necessarily consider all
these personal connections while they’re watching a movie, but the way the scene is designed
and framed, it creates a space for more intimacy with the character. This way we can follow characters like John
Hammond from his deepest desires and see what he ultimately decides for the
park. “I don’t believe it.” “You’re meant to come down here and defend
me against these characters and the only one” “I’ve got on my side is the blood-sucking lawyer!” This is the pattern you see all over Spielberg’s
work. The slow push in that occurs during the scene
to increase the intimacy of the moment. The long personal story, the music designed
to evoke even more empathy from us. Like in Spielberg’s cold war film, Bridge
of Spies. Here, a captured Russian spy, Rudolf Abel,
is using a story from his past to describe his lawyer, James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks. He essentially says Donovan reminds him of
a man from his childhood who he saw beaten by border guards. “Every time they hit him, he stood back up
again.” “So they hit him harder.” “Still he got back to his feet.” Abel explains that as far as he could tell
there was nothing remarkable about this man, until this event. But there is something to admire in getting
up after you’ve been knocked down. It’s something the audience can appreciate,
because while they may not have been beaten down, they will likely have been set back
by something in their lives and given up on it for a time, or forever. And hearing about someone who refuses to quit,
is inspiring. Abel’s speech acts as the emotional bond that
will support him and Donovan throughout the film and also acts as a focal point for the
audience to identify with both charaters as well. Again, slow push in from the camera, deeply
personal story, emotional music. Each Spielberg characterization scene doesn’t
have the exact same set up. In the Terminal, Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski. A man trapped inside an airport due to a passport
issue. He is given an opportunity to leave, but he
refuses to leave illegally. Because he has something important to do in
New York. Late in the film we learn why Viktor came
to new York, and why he’s sacrificing some of his life by living indefinitely in an airport. “They all write their name, and send it to
my Father.” “My Father died before Benny Golson write
his name.” In this scene the push in starts on the person
hearing the story. And the push in starts on Amelia,
because she’s just realizing how remarkable Viktor is. “I promise I will go, New York.” “Find Benny Golson, have him write name to
put in can.” By giving Viktor a story behind his motivation
and an emotional reason, it turns this life-altering sacrifice into a more relatable narrative
than Viktor just saying, “I’m doing this for my Father.” Or these small examples from Saving Private
Ryan, which could be ordinary push ins, but they also mark overall themes for film, like
when this General is reading the letter by Abraham Lincoln, which the General uses as the reasoning
for sending eight men into war to save one man. “I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage
the anguish of your bereavement, and leave” “you only the cherished memory of the loved
and lost, and the solemn pride that must be” “yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice
upon” “the altar of Freedom.” You can even see small elements of Spielberg’s
characterization technique in the scene where Tom Hank’s character reveals his long-kept secret of what his job was back
home. There’s a brief push in on Hanks as he starts
to speak. Then there’s a pause on each character’s face
to see how they react to the story. Then Tom Hanks’s character walks closer into
frame. Still all the elements are there, the slow
push in, the personal history, the yearning string music. “You know if going to Romelle and finding
him so he can go home if that earns me the” “right to get back to my wife, well then, then
that’s my mission.” On Inside the Actor’s Studio, Tom Hanks said
an actors job was, “‘Cause our job is to hold “the mirror up to nature.” “If it’s funny that’s fine, if it enterains
you that’s fine.” “But it must, under all circumstances hold
the mirror up to nature.” “We must be constantly examining who we are,
how we got here, and how we’re getting through all of this.” I’d extend this to characters, and films. The billionaire CEO who started with an invisible
troupe of fleas, but dreamt of a spectacle for the entire world. An ordinary family man with an extraordinary
devotion to justice. And a man who would do anything for his Father,
because his Father would do anything for him. And in many of Steven Spielberg’s films, it
is the depth of these character’s motivations and the push-ins and music he uses that help
create that moment of intimacy with the audience. It’s an invitation to see yourself as you
are, then see what you can be. To hopefully create a love inside your heart
for these characters and their stories that will glow and burn, and keep you warm for
the rest of your life.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. I know people who dislike Spielberg´s way of characterization. Saying its too oversimplified and overly manipulative.

    Which could be true if Spielberg wasn´t so very good at it. When I watch Saving Private Ryan I am always amazed how Spielberg juggles action scenes with character moments. He is somehow able to create an image on scene that conveys so much emotional punch and clarity of storytelling that you are completly swept up in the story. He is truly a master at his craft.

    As you can tell you animated me to write quite a long comment. I hope you can understand what Im trying to say because Im not a native speaker. I hope you make more great videos!

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