Steven Spielberg on Norman Rockwell and the Movies
July 16, 2010
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Steven Spielberg by filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau on August 6, 2008.
Laurent Bouzereau : What was your first encounter with Norman Rockwell?
Steven Spielberg: Whenever my dad would bring home a Saturday Evening Post, Norman Rockwell's work was often the cover art. So often, in fact, that I looked forward not even to opening the Post to see what was inside. I was mainly interested in seeing what story this painter was telling on the cover.
LB: What do you think he managed to capture that was universal?
SS: Rockwell in a way pushed a benign but important agenda of a kind of community, a kind of civic responsibility and patriotism. And he did this in one frame, with one image. And he did it, like Rashómon, from many different approaches to the same theme, which was tolerance of the community, of each other, of parents, of presidents, of Boy Scouts, of our veterans, and of soldiers fighting abroad. He was really one of the greatest Americans that this country has produced since, maybe, Samuel Clemens.
LB: Rockwell was almost like a filmmaker because he cast people to pose for him. He did sketches just like a filmmaker does storyboards. Can you comment on that?
SS: Norman Rockwell was the great American storyteller. And he did his storytelling in a flash; he did it with a single image. And he invites you to explore that image. He draws you into that image, and he invites you, once it makes an impression on you, to question why, simply question why. And as you answer your own question, there are clues throughout all of his paintings. In The Jury Room, you wonder how long have they been trying to convince the only holdout, who happens to be the only woman, to change her mind? You can guess by her position, her straight back, and by the schleppyness of all the other jurors who have found comfortable positions around the table. But then you look on the floor and see all of these cigarette butts, and you understand that this has been going on so long that perhaps she is going to hang that jury.
LB: Talk about Twelve Angry Men. I love the source light in The Jury Room. It's important to you, isn't it—that detail of where he places light in his painting?
SS: Rockwell had a really wonderful sense of source lighting. It was very evocative of the mood that he was trying to communicate. He would use a window, often a single source of light, and he'd be very true to that source. But he would also add a lot of fill light, which is what frequently happens when you light a movie set. You can just imagine Rockwell having fill light, but using his brushstrokes to allow us to get into the shadows, then letting those figures pop and separate themselves from the canvas by outlining them or backlighting them or top lighting them. That's why his paintings are so snappy.
LB: I also love the mischievousness in the painting Pardon Me, where the boy is stepping on the girl's feet while dancing.
SS: I think Rockwell was a great humorist. So many of his paintings are evocative of the humor of the times, innocent humor, not raunchy humor like we have today, but innocent humor like stepping on a girl's toes at the dance. This is something we've all done when we were younger, and we still do at my age. This was Rockwell extolling the virtues of this 1940s, '50s, and '60s innocence, which is how he saw America. Simple values and simple moments. . .
LB: Boy on a High Dive is both funny but so evocative of a little boy facing the biggest challenge of life, with that big blue sky behind him, but no view of the water. What's your take on it?
SS: I've always loved that painting. It means a lot to me, because we're all on diving boards hundreds of times during our lives, taking the plunge or pulling back from the abyss. For me, that painting represents every motion picture just before I commit to directing it. Just that one moment, before I say, "Yes, I'm going to direct that movie." For Schindler's List, I probably lived on that diving board for eleven years before I eventually took the plunge. So that painting spoke to me the second I saw it. When I saw that the painting was available to add to my collection, I said, "Well not only is it going in my collection, but it's going in my office so I can look at it every day of my life."
LB: The Connoisseur is an interesting painting because you have this old man, so obviously an older generation, looking at a Jackson Pollock, the next generation. Can you equate that to the way you felt when you started in the film business?
SS: The Connoisseur is a fascinating painting for me. On the one hand, Rockwell actually had to do a Jackson Pollock. He had to get that drip effect on that canvas. That means he had to completely change the paradigm of his style to accomplish a Jackson Pollack and a very convincing Jackson Pollock, before going back to his sort of conventional human characters. For me that represents how an artist can suddenly change his style and be unrecognizable in one form in another medium and then return to the style that we're familiar with. So personally, it speaks to whether a filmmaker can also have more than one style throughout his or her career.
LB: If Rockwell had been a filmmaker, do you think he'd have been a good one?
SS: I think if he had been a filmmaker, he'd have been a great filmmaker, and he would have been a famous filmmaker. But thank God he wasn't a filmmaker; thank God he painted pictures to inspire other filmmakers to do better work. I think that's what Rockwell has done for all of us who love him and appreciate his paintings. He has made us better artists.
Related Link: Listen to American Art's podcasts about our exhibition Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
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