Steven Spielberg and John Williams tell stories by the score about ‘Jaws’ & ‘E.T.’ in ‘AFI Master Class’

“AFI's Master Class” features movie composer John Williams (l.) and director Steven Spielberg discussing their nearly 40-year collaboration.

“AFI’s Master Class,” featuring Steven Spielberg and John Williams, will showcase their work on films like “Saving Private Ryan” (above), starring Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and Ed Burns.
You won’t necessarily learn how to create a master blend of movies and music from listening to Steven Spielberg and John Williams talk about how they’ve done it with films like “E.T.,” “Indiana Jones” and “Jaws.”
But so what?
TCM’s “AFI Master Class,” which the network hopes will become a series, premieres Tuesday night at 8 with an hour-long chat between two men who have unquestionably earned the “master” title.
Their other work together includes “Temple of Doom,” “Schindler's List,” “Jurassic Park” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
It could also be argued persuasively that their work would be enshrined in movie history if they had only collaborated on the opening scene of “Jaws.”
You hear the music, you see the shark. Thirty-six years later, it only takes a half-dozen notes to tell you that Chrissy is about to become a midnight snack.
Interestingly, Spielberg says his collaboration with Williams on “Jaws” began with very little agreement.
Spielberg finished cutting the film and before he sent it to Williams he added music from an old Williams score, just because he thought that was the kind of thing that would be appropriate.
Williams saw the film, as Spielberg tells it here, "then called me to say ‘No, no, you have the music all wrong. This is a pirate movie.’”
Williams suggested the now-famous slow-motion musical intro. Spielberg confesses that when he heard Williams first play it, with all those long, ominous pauses, he still wasn't sure it would work.
Guess we know who was right about that.
But in fact, says Williams, one of the primary secrets of a successful collaboration is that no one can be afraid to throw a thought on the table. You have to be confident that even if your initial ideas are far apart, you will work things out.
The Spielberg-Williams collaboration goes back to Spielberg's first theatrical film, “Sugarland Express” in 1974. So they seem to have the hang of it.
They also talk in this session, which includes a Q-and-A with a live audience, about how music advances and enhances the action on the screen.
To illustrate that point they roll clips from several famous films, including “Vertigo,” “Spartacus” and “On the Waterfront.”
After the “Vertigo” scene, Spielberg remarks that he can envision the whole scene if he just hears the music, but that if there were no music, there would be no scene.
Spielberg’s specific praise for Williams is that “he's a chameleon.” In contrast to a Dmitri Tiomkin, whose scores Spielberg says have an instantly recognizable signature, Williams writes music that blends into a specific film.
To some significant extent, of course, the lesson here is that if you're John Williams and Steven Spielberg, you just respect each other's talent and you'll create “Indiana Jones.”
That's not a blueprint we all can follow. But it sure has given us some good nights at the movies.

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  1. When Spielberg said that he and John didn't have times when the director never said "I don't like this" or "Change this", Williams later contradicted that in his own gentle manner by saying that he, Williams, could tell whether Steve liked something or not by his demeanor or the look in his eyes. That pretty much is their relationship in a nutshell: Two rather amiable gentlemen who respect one another's talent and decisions to the extent that they can communicate without having to behave like temperamental "artists."

    I'll bet Spielberg's lousy at poker.

    I really enjoyed this program, even if I had to catch the midnight encore presentation. I also liked the Benny Herrmann anecdote.

    It'd be nice to see a longer presentation of the Spielberg-Williams collaboration, perhaps with "surprise" guest George Lucas.

    I was hoping one of the "directing fellows" would've asked John about his collaborations with Oliver Stone, whose films received some of Williams' finest Americana-style scoring.

    Love the blog! These guys were the architects of my childhood. (I also have beard).


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