When we asked a number of directors to write essays on their favourite Steven Spielberg movie for our current issue dedicated to the great director and his works, the likes of Miartin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson, and JJ Abrams jumped at the chance. But only Edgar Wright went the extra mile, jumping on the phone with Spielberg for a 45-minute discussion of Duel, Spielberg’s remorseless truck-vs-car TV movie that acted as the prototype for Jaws in many ways.
We could only print a small portion of that chat in the magazine, so here, for your reading pleasure, is the unexpurgated text, starting with an intro from Wright.
Seven years ago, I hosted a screening of Walter Hill’s The Driver and Steven Spielberg’s made-for-TV debut, Duel at the New Beverly cinema in Los Angeles. It was my mythic car action double bill — two films that were always on my mind when it came to making Baby Driver. I saw Duel on TV as a kid and marvelled, even then, at it. It is a pure engine for suspense, a brilliant exercise in near-silent cinema. I still think, even in the wake of his later classics, its still one of the greatest displays of Spielberg’s talent and a masterclass for young film makers.
For that screening, Spielberg sent along an email for me to read out about how he had approached shooting the film (in just eleven days). ‘DUEL was 50% planning and 50% panic. The network only gave me 11 days to shoot a 74-minute movie. Fortunately, the actor I cast — Dennis Weaver —had his game face on the entire time we filmed and he sprinted, along with the rest of us, from one setup to the next. As did Jack Marta, my DP and a skeleton crew who had never made a movie before while on the run. Literally running.
‘I shot much of this with five cameras that included a camera mounted inside the picture car, as well as mounted cameras on the blind side of the red car and the truck. If four of my cameras were filming run-bys from right to left, on the opposite side of the vehicle we mounted cameras that were capturing useful footage to be used later in the show when the vehicles would be traveling left to right. This was where planning was invaluable. But I had one more ally on my side during the making of DUEL — and that was luck. Pure luck… and a great story and script by Richard Matheson. To this day, I feel blessed that this opportunity landed in my life.’
Wright: What’s interesting to me watching Duel is, you have straight away as your first feature, such confidence in your visual storytelling. I think one of the reasons it stands out from the pack within TV movies, is you’re bold in the way you’re covering the action. So many TV directors or TV movies at the time would be shot with basic coverage or sometimes very flatly directed, and people are just covering the action and figuring it out in the edit. Very early on, with your first effort, the staging is very ambitious and straight away, as you’ve continued to do in all your films, you have masters that can’t be edited any other way. Some scenes are done in one shot, and you’re really editing in your head. I guess you were in your mid-20s when you directed it. Where did that confidence come from?
Spielberg: Well, I think that confidence is contingent upon the screenplay. In this sense I had a hell of a bedrock foundation. It was a streamlined story by Richard Matheson that gave me a lot of direction to direct it with. It’s really interesting. The other thing that really helped was there was such a paucity of dialogue in the script and even less so in the finished movie. I cut about fifty per cent of the dialogue out of the script. It told me that this was going to be my first silent movie. I was a huge fan of the silent era and had at that point in my life gone out many times to the Nuart and other revival houses to watch silent movies on the big screen. I even tried to get the network to agree to let me cut out even more dialogue, but the network was adamant that we needed what remained as some kind of a road map for people who just watched TV and who didn’t want to put too much effort into the viewing experience. If I’d had final cut in those days, I would have cut the dialogue even further back.
Wright: That’s one of the things that’s really striking about it. Duel is a film that demands your attention. If you look at it by today’s standards in terms of TV direction, let’s say in terms of network TV, it’s almost an art film. Which I think is incredible. When you watch it, you feel that this is a silent suspense movie.
Spielberg: It’s a primal road rage story. You’re watching a lightweight go up against a heavyweight champion. Like David and Goliath, at first you put your money on the giant and it turns out that David starts to turn the tables. I had also thought of it as a Biblical parable. I first read the short story by Richard Matheson in Playboy magazine given to me, thank god, by my brilliant secretary at the time, Nona Tyson, who had read the short story and said, ‘I think this is right up your alley’. She gave me Playboy. It was one of the few times I ever picked up Playboy without looking at the pictures.
Wright: [laughs] Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay, correct?
Spielberg: Yeah, he wrote the script. He wrote the story for Playboy and adapted it as a teleplay for George Eckstein, who was producing it for ABC. When I read the short story, I had no idea, no idea, that this was intended for the little screen. I did some calling around and found out who had the rights, and that it was going to be an ABC movie of the week, and then I lobbied to get the job. I took my Columbo, which was in rough cut, and was a pilot for Columbo the series, and I brought it to George. He liked it a lot but said, ‘I don’t have authority to hire you. All I can do is support you with the network’. He brought me to ABC and the person who gave me the job was Barry Diller, head of ABC at the time and who, over the years, has become one of my closest friends.
Wright: One of your first episodes of TV was directing Joan Crawford on Night Gallery, which is a trial by fire for any director, let alone a young first-time TV director. Doing that and Columbo, you’d had such an incredible training. That was your film school.
Spielberg: Well, it was. I didn’t go to film school so my only film school was a couple of summers hanging around on the Universal lot unofficially, then getting jobs directing TV and I guess you would call it on-the-job training. I was an ambitious lad at the time, and I just wanted to be a movie director. I looked at every television episode I directed as a stepping stone to getting someone to hire me to direct a feature. So I used the television opportunities to try to do things that would make people think I could do feature films. That’s why I was rarely asked back to do a second episode, because my episodes for the Owen Marshall series or the Marcus Welby series, they were out of character with the visual style of television in those days, and more in tune with the choices I would make if I were making a feature film. TV producers were appalled at where I’d place the camera and how my episode looked nothing like the series that they’d been successful producing. So I was rarely, if ever, asked back to do a second episode.
Wright: Even in your episode of Columbo, Murder By The Book, there’s a car driving up Sunset Strip and the camera pulls back into somebody’s office and onto the face of whoever is going to be the murder victim. It’s such a bold opening shot for a TV episode. I can imagine those producers were alarmed because you’re also dictating the edit in terms of this is how these scenes are going to be put together. There’s no other way to put them together which is always a clever way of covering things.
Spielberg: I think, in a way, the freedom that I was able to exhibit on that Columbo episode came from Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators of Columbo, who encouraged me and later others to not make it look like a TV series, but to make it look like a feature film. They were the first producers who actually encouraged me to make choices that were weird and unconventional. They were at dailies so every time they came to dailies on set or called me on the phone to give me a tremendous boost of confidence. That was my first experience with episodic television where the producers were encouraging me to make shots, whereas other television producers would beg me not to.
Wright: Your style then is very different at a time when the early 70s directors were taking a much more improvisational tack and finding the movie on the day. Even from your TV work, you’re going in with a plan. With Duel, you had to go in with a plan.
Spielberg: I had to. I had a shot list for all the television I ever directed. You had to. They give you very few days. They give you six days for an hour. And I had something like 12 on Duel for 74 minutes. I had a shot list on every TV episode I ever made. I had my shots organised and it’s the only way to get ten pages shot a day.
Wright: I started in TV very young. I wonder if you had the same experience. Did you have experiences with some of the crew where they’re thinking, ‘who is this kid?’ They’re not entirely on board.
Spielberg: Only on Night Gallery. Night Gallery was a terrible experience for me because the crew, the cast accepted me including Joan Crawford. Well, Joan didn’t accept me at first. But once I began directing her, she treated me like King Vidor. She treated me like a Hollywood veteran. All the cast were lovely with me on Night Gallery. But the crew rebelled and slowed down, and I think consciously huddled to try to get me fired. Now I think that’s just probably the way I saw it. It may not be the way it actually happened, but the crew really was hostile in every regard to everything I did on that show. I fell a day behind schedule because the crew was moving at, literally, a snail’s pace, and the producer came down many times to reprimand me for going so slow.
Eventually Barry Sullivan, one of the actors in it, asked me to step off the soundstage and I went off with the second assistant director. He said, ‘I need to talk to the crew, I need you to step off the stage, I don’t want you to hear this’. And when I came back about twenty minutes later, to resume shooting that day, everybody’s eyes were cast to the ground. But they were moving a hell of a lot faster. At the end of the day, I asked Barry, ‘What did you say?’ Barry said, ‘I have never in my entire career worked with such an unprofessional crew, with such hostility towards the director. I told the crew that the actors would all rebel and walk off if the crew continued to behave this way’. So the crew saved the day.
Wright: Getting the crew to work hard is partly about getting them to see your vision. One of your main jobs as a director, and you obviously do it brilliantly, is communicate your vision to everybody so people can feel included and inspired by what you’re trying to pull off.
Spielberg: You have to. I’ve always done that. I’ve always collaborated with the crews as much as I could at the very beginning. I was still learning at the very beginning, and before my first big success, which was Jaws, everybody helped me and they had tons of ideas. And if they were good ideas, I would use them. And I found that with success, especially after Jaws and Close Encounters back to back, by the time I made 1941 and even by the time I shot Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the crews who would voluntarily give me ideas, those ideas dried up. They stopped coming. It’s interesting how success creates intimidation. The people who were formerly my collaborators would now think I knew it all and would be shy to volunteer anything and, because a couple of my movies had made a lot of money, that I knew everything. Well, I knew probably less after those two movies because I was still learning. I’m still learning to this day. It made me realise that, if you want to get the best out of your crew, you’ve gotta get them to not be shy and come forward and tell the director what they think. I’ve done that my entire career.
Wright: With Duel, there are elements of it that continue into your next two movies. Sugarland Express is almost entirely set in cars. Jaws has a similar David and Goliath theme to it and there’s a link in the everyman actor between Roy Scheider and Dennis Weaver. They have a similar quality. In both cases you’re taking from everyday occurrences, driving or swimming and making them into mythic battles, but having very relatable actors at the centre of it.
Spielberg: I was conscious of that when I put myself up for the job to direct Jaws. I told David Brown and Dick Zanuck, please watch Duel, because Duel is basically Jaws on land. I really think it qualified me to direct Jaws.
Wright: That makes total sense. It’s interesting. In your documentary, you said about Duel that it was you taking on the school bully. Richard Matheson based it on a friend’s tailgating incident, but you related it to taking on the indomitable school bully.
Spielberg: It was all about the school bully. When something speaks to me, I don’t question where it first began talking. I just accept it’s something that fits and that I feel familiar with and I need to make it and I need to get it out of my system. But I can often trace it back to schoolyard origins, often in interviews years later. The interview process is gestalt therapy for filmmakers who don’t have therapists, which I never did. But years later, I look back at Duel and to some extent Jaws and say that some of my earlier films were either about my fear of going to school because there were big kids who would go after me and would make my life a ruin.
Wright: There’s an element of this in Jaws too, but more so in Duel. It’s taking place in a grounded reality, but there are hints of something supernatural in the way you portray the truck driver. You never quite see him or know anything about him. You never go fully into Stephen King territory but there are hints of it being a supernatural horror without it ever being explicitly that.
Spielberg: The supernatural horror really does not take place on the screen. It takes place in the minds of the audience. By not showing the driver, the audience gets to make any substitution they choose. And that’s where it takes on a supernatural vibe.
Wright: I read that you fought against the network to not show the truck blowing up.
Spielberg: Oh yeah. I had no power. I had no power. I was a TV director and had no say at all. George Epstein told me after the network saw it, ‘Well, we’re going back to the desert, they want to push the truck off the cliff again and blow it up again’. I told George why that was such a terrible idea. I’d worked so hard to give the truck a long and painful death and I thought that’s what the audience wanted out of the resolution. I said, ‘If the network does force you to blow the truck up again, you get another director to do it because I’m not going to do it’. George fought for me, and for himself because he agreed with me. George fought the battle and George beat the network. They backed down. Not because of anything I said, but because of the power of George Epstein and his clout and renown as a very respected television producer.
Wright: It’s a much more poetic ending. The explosion is so much more obvious. Not only do you have the long death and the dripping oil, the behemoth slowly dying, but Dennis Weaver throwing stones.
Spielberg: At the end of that I said to Dennis Weaver, ‘Remember all those scenes in Touch Of Evil where you were the night watchman? Can you give me a manic dance when the truck dies? Can you bring that character back to life? How would he react if he had been chased by this truck for an hour and a half?’ Dennis said, ‘Say no more. I know exactly what you’re getting at’. Then he gave me that moment at the end.
Wright: I’m going to ask you about urban myths. Is it true that when the truck goes over the cliff, it’s also the sound at the end of Jaws when the shark’s carcass is falling to the bottom of the ocean?
Spielberg: Not only is it a similar sound, it’s the same sound. I asked the sound effects editor on Jaws to go into the library and find the death rattle of the truck of Duel and put it underwater with the shark and he did.
Wright: That’s amazing. Is this still the case: you rewatch the movie to remind yourself of how you did it going into other jobs, as a reminder of how you thought instinctively when you made this movie?
Spielberg: Well, I’ve had occasion to see Duel again, usually when I’m approving a domestic theatrical reissue or the Blu-ray. The reaction I had over the last decade is how I don’t know any of us made that movie in eleven days. I just have no idea. I can’t figure it out. We must have hit the ground running and not stopped running until the last shot. Then I went back and shot fifteen more minutes for the theatrical overseas release, which was fun to do.
Wright: How much longer after the main shoot was that?
Spielberg: Not long. When they saw the Nielsen ratings coming in, it did a very good number. The studio wanted to release it in theatres overseas, so within a month of its television debut I was shooting about 13, 14 more minutes because they would not accept anything under 90 minutes as a theatrical release overseas. We had to pad it from 74 to 90. I got another chance, with Richard Matheson, to make up those extra scenes that we never had in the first pass.
Wright: The extra setpieces are the school bus sequence and the railway crossing sequence?
Spielberg: There was also the bit where he calls his wife from the laundromat and she gives him a hard time. We get to meet the wife for the first time and hear her.
Wright: You did three movies in succession about perpetual motion. You have two movies in cars, then Jaws which is on the water, which was a much more physical endeavour, and was a lot more troublesome. The ambition of these first three movies is incredible.
Spielberg: A lot of that was not by choice. I would allow these stories to come into my life. My main thing was, even when I was making Duel, all I wanted to do was make a movie about UFOs. I wanted to make a UFO movie since I wanted to make movies. It was such a mythological phenomena in America for such a long time. But for me, Sugarland was a story I came up with based on a newspaper article I read. Duel was something that came to me by my secretary. Jaws was something that came up when I was meeting with the producers of Sugarland Express and I saw a huge manuscript on the secretary’s desk and asked if I could read it. I took it home, read it over the weekend and came back in on Monday and asked if I could make an appointment and Dick [Zanuck] and David [Brown] met with me and I threw my hat in the ring. And Close Encounters was a result of the success of Jaws because nobody would let me make Close Encounters until I had a big fat hit, and then Jaws gave me the credibility and credentials to basically shoot the phone book. Close Encounters was my phone book.
Wright: That’s amazing. You went onto greater success but the fact that you have Duel as your first feature, that’s better than 80% of directors’ entire back catalogues.
Spielberg: Thank you so much for that. But I also think that it’s easy and sometimes fun to talk about the past, but the only thing that counts is how your intuition guides you. And it’s all about that. Every movie I’ve made, or most of the films I’ve made, have not been consciously based on some kind of a longview game plan. So many of them have combusted spontaneously. That’s only because the second I think about what I should do next, I’ll probably not do that next. The more I think about something, the greater the chance I’ll never make it. It’s the things I just impulsively commit to that somehow feel right to me. I let that pretty much guide me for the last 49 years of making TV and film.
Wright: Well, it remains a classic. Thanks for reliving it with me.
Spielberg: I love that after all these years, there’s still air in those tyres. The truck, the car and me!