Grown adults laughed like astonished children as legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams discussed their unparalleled 50-year collaboration during an American Cinematheque celebration of the duo at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills on Thursday night (January 12). – and it was Before Williams, 90, thrilled the crowd and surprised Spielberg by retracting his earlier statement that he would retire from film scoring after his latest project with Spielberg, The Fabelman family and then one more Indiana Jones movie.
“Steven is a lot of things,” Williams said in response to a question from veteran music journalist Jon Burlingame about wrapping it up. “He’s a director, he’s a producer, he’s a studio manager, he’s a writer, he’s a philanthropist, he’s an educator. One thing he is it not is a man you can say ‘no’ to.” After a burst of applause from the audience, Williams noted that he knew Spielberg’s late father, Arnold, who worked at Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation until he was 100. “So I have 10 years to go. I’ll be around for a while!” He added: “Besides, you can’t ‘retire’ from music. It’s like breathing. It’s your life. It’s my life. A day without music is a mistake.”
Spielberg, visibly surprised by Williams’ change of plans, said, “I better get to work figuring out what the hell I’m doing next!”
Between carefully curated clips from some of the 29 films they’ve collaborated on, Spielberg and Williams discussed how they met (a Universal executive suggested that Spielberg, a young director in need of a composer, and Williams, a would-be composer , meet for lunch), how they work together (Williams rarely accepts Spielberg’s offer to read a script before production, opting instead to wait until it’s finished, at which point Spielberg says, “John sees the film, then we set us down and the next day and we just start discussing where there should or shouldn’t be music”), and they talked about the role that music plays in moviein general, and in their films, specifically.
“Music is probably older than language,” Williams argued. “It’s a very important thing in all of us—when we’re sad, when we’re happy. We don’t know why. It’s ignorant.” As for how he decides whether a movie scene does or doesn’t require musical accompaniment? “Ultimately will movie Narrator U.S, if we are attentive enough. It is primarily intuitive.” Spielberg paid tribute to Williams’ contribution by saying, “I tell a story, and then John retells the story musically.”
Spielberg was aware of Williams’ work before they met, having worn out his copy of the vinyl soundtrack The Reivers, a 1969 film that Williams had scored. When they first sat down, Spielberg — a film history and film score student whose late mother, Leah, was a classical pianist — “seemed to know more about film scores than I did,” Williams realized, so Williams agreed in working with him on Sugarland Express.
They started on that film in 1972 – it was released in 1974, and then a year later came Jaws, the first of their truly immortal collaborations. Of Williams’ simple but eerie score for that thriller, Spielberg admitted to Williams, “I was scared when you first played it for me on the piano. I didn’t know you very well. I thought you were pulling my leg.” But Williams had hit on something: “You could play it very soft or very fast, or soft or loud, so you could kind of manipulate an audience,” he explained.
Music was a central part of the action in the 1977s Close encounters of the third kind, with its signature five-note melody—arrived after 100 permutations were considered—represents a means of communication between humans and aliens. Discusses the 1981s Raiders of the Lost Ark and the 1982s ONEwith their iconic themes, Williams told Spielberg, “You and I have always talked about pacing on film,” observing that the addition of music can make four minutes of screen time feel like two.
Both men faced two massive challenges in 1993: Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. Spielberg marveled that Williams had scored the former without the dinosaurs already being added via visual effects, yet musically captured the childlike sense of wonder of the characters, who at least at the time were played by actors who “looked up ” to nothing.” Williams scored Jurassic Park while Spielberg began work on Schindler’smarking one of the few times the filmmaker was not present for a Williams scoring session.
As for the role that music would play in Schindler’s? “I really didn’t have a plan,” Spielberg admits. When he finally showed a clip of the film to Williams, Williams was so moved that he was unable to speak for several minutes. “So,” Williams recounted, “I said, ‘Steven, you need a better composer than me to score this movie.’ And he said, “I know, but they’re all dead.” Williams’ violin-centric score ended up being one of his masterpieces, as the film is one of Spielberg’s.
Sometimes, the duo explained, less is actually more when it comes to music in film. They said they never even considered incorporating music into the famous 1998 opening sequence Saving Private Ryan, but decided to use the trumpet and low strings to evoke emotion in later scenes, most famously in the subdued and reverent chorus ending. “Musically, it honors all the veterans, both today and yesterday,” Spielberg said of Williams’ composition for that film, “and that’s why the military always asks if they can play this score.”
The jazzy main title sequence from the 2002s Catch me if you can took Williams back to his roots as a jazz pianist in the 1950s, and Spielberg’s as a jazz lover who hung out at jazz clubs while a student at Long Beach State in the 1960s. The recording of Williams’ score for the 2012s Lincoln, which was inspired by 19th-century American music, with trumpets in the foreground, moved Spielberg and Williams – both history students – to tears. But for Spielberg, who lost both his parents in recent years, and for Williams, who had known them both, The Fabelman family was a company unlike any other.
“For me,” said Spielberg, “it was the most private and personal experience of my entire career.” Speaking on what would have been Spielberg’s mother’s 103rd birthday, Williams said of his score – which is already nominated for Golden Globe and Critics Choice awards – “I hope it’s worthy of them,” to which Spielberg quickly responded : “Oh, it is.”
Asked to sum up their half-century of making movie magic together, Williams said of Spielberg: “I’ve enjoyed his company and the pleasure and the gift of his inspiration. Can a muse be a man? He’s certainly been a muse to me .” For his part, Spielberg said that working with Williams – “Johnny,” as he calls him – had been like an ideal marriage. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a disagreement,” he volunteered, before adding with a laugh: “I mean, what am I supposed to do? Sit down and write the music yourself?” And he added, making Williams choke up: “In the art form that we’ve both chosen, he’s been the most steadfast brother and collaborator I’ve ever had in my life. And that’s how I’ll sum up how much I love you.”
This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.