Stephen J. Dubner





Selected journalism by Stephen J. Dubner
< BACK



Steven Spielberg, in Black and White
Good and evil fire his imagination. The need to please colors everything he does.

By STEPHEN J. DUBNER
February 14, 1999

Even when he is a shade queasy, Steven Spielberg has no trouble with self-reflection. He has the bearing of a man who has come in for his annual physical knowing he's in good shape. He is queasy just now only because his jet is taking off, bound for New York from Los Angeles, and Spielberg is rather afraid of flying. So, cradling a mug of cinnamon-stick tea, he concentrates on the question at hand -- a question concerning the nature of his character -- and responds by cheerfully reciting the moral code he learned long ago: ''A Boy Scout,'' he says, ''is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.''

And how does Spielberg measure up today?

''Let's see,'' he says. ''I'm trustworthy, I'm loyal, I'm sometimes helpful, I'm sometimes friendly, I'm always courteous, not always kind, not always obedient, not always cheerful, mostly thrifty as a producer, not brave at all, always clean and very reverent.''

Reverent indeed, and in all the right directions: toward God, country, family and entertainment for entertainment's sake. It is hardly surprising that Spielberg owns 25 works of art by that other master of reverence, Norman Rockwell. ''Aside from being an astonishingly good storyteller,'' Spielberg says, ''Rockwell spoke volumes about a certain kind of American morality.''

He might well have been describing himself, of course. For more than 25 years, Spielberg has been an astonishingly good storyteller, and his films have come to represent a morality that it seems churlish to argue against, a morality of populism and patriotism, a morality derived more from intuition than intellect, a morality that yearns above all for goodness to trump evil.

In the process, Spielberg has become, for better or worse, a sort of public oracle. With his 1993 film ''Schindler's List,'' he singlehandedly brought the Holocaust to the attention of Middle America. ''Amistad,'' released in 1997, reopened the wounds of the slave trade, while last summer's ''Saving Private Ryan'' reminded a forgetful citizenry just how bad the Good War truly was.

''I've never made a movie that I consider immoral,'' he says. ''I've never made a film that I could say, 'You know, I wish I hadn't made that picture because it led people astray.' And I'm real proud of that.''

Spielberg is also proud of his motivation for making movies. ''The majority of my films,'' he says, ''I have made to please people.''

He is, in a sense, an antiauteur; it is hard to imagine Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola or even the Coen brothers saying such a thing. But Steven Spielberg is driven by a need for approval -- from his family, from his peers and especially from his ticket buyers. When I ask him who he thinks his core audience is, he says, ''At this point, it's pretty much everybody, which I think is great, because every comic wants to fill up the house with laughing, stomping people, and I'm a whore like any other stand-up who wants big laughs.''

This is the kind of talk that makes his friends smile and his critics cringe. Spielberg's desire for approval, the critics say, is what breathes sentimentality into his films, or inspires him to substitute moral simplicity for nuance. They chafe at his do-good instincts and argue that his cinema of accommodation has taught the entire world to view history as he sees it: in black and white, with musical accompaniment.

But Spielberg's grip on the national consciousness is too firm for such criticism to have had much effect. Freely toggling between history-based dramas and his ''popcorn movies,'' he is the most popular filmmaker in the world and the king of an entertainment empire whose esthetic -- a sort of right-minded, irony-free, thrill-seeking esthetic -- has permeated the cultural landscape. His creations live on not only in classroom discussions but also in theme parks, on lunch boxes, in TV commercials. His reach is so great and his power so boundless that when people in Hollywood talk about him, it sounds as if they are talking about God, with one difference: people are not afraid to badmouth God. ''I don't think it's politically correct to stand up and say anything against him,'' says Sid Sheinberg, former president of MCA and a longtime mentor of Spielberg.

His reverence has been repaid with interest. Even his detractors, who assault his films off the record, acknowledge that Spielberg is a ferocious multitasker, an idea machine and an unusually canny businessman who has also managed to become a devout family man and a hardcore mensch. ''The thing about Steven,'' says his friend Tom Cruise, ''is that he hasn't let go of a decency I've seen so many others lose.''

Spielberg fully understands the height of his pedestal. ''I do think I have a personal responsibility as a family man to use my filmmaking opportunities to put out there stories that have some sort of redeeming social value,'' he says at one point, his brow serious. But when asked if movies really need to have a moral imperative, he says, ''I think even movies that are pure escape give people a chance to look at someone up on the screen and say, 'Man, I wish that was my mousse in Cameron Diaz's hair.' ''

These are the two sides of Steven Spielberg: the reverent grown-up who knows when to say the right thing and the exuberant kid who loves a good yuk. Both sides are sincere and both are necessary, for Spielberg knows he cannot feel good about himself unless everyone else already feels the same way. For an artist, this is a tricky formulation, since what is good for the heart isn't necessarily good for the art.

Spielberg's flight to New York -- to visit Max, his 13-year-old son from his first marriage, to Amy Irving -- came on a Friday in early December. I had spent the last three days with him in Los Angeles, watching him do business and trying to learn just what kind of a good guy he really is.

We first met up early Tuesday morning at the offices of Dreamworks Interactive, which designs computer games for Dreamworks SKG, the 5-year-old entertainment company founded by Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

When I arrived, Spielberg was in full-throttle consultation with four designers working on a science-fiction game whose hero must vanquish a band of bad guys. These bad guys, Spielberg explains, ''want to race-purify the universe -- kind of like, you know, those guys.''

Dressed in beige jeans and a nappy maroon sweater, he is still sporting the soldierish haircut he got in honor of ''Saving Private Ryan.'' Under his sweater, he wears a set of fake dogtags, another memento. As the designers show him their progress, he peppers them with suggestions. He is relentlessly upbeat. He lavishes praise on a new dinosaur game, spun off from his blockbusters ''Jurassic Park'' and ''The Lost World,'' but sucks in his breath when the designers boast about the 20 varieties of ''dino damage'' that haven't yet been inflicted.

''Ooh -- just don't make it too bloody,'' he says, ''because then parents won't let the kids play with it.'' The designers look crestfallen; Spielberg quickly finds something to compliment: the intricate animation of the velociraptor's tail. ''Oh, that's fantastic! We didn't do that in either of the movies -- we should have.''

Now he asks about the sales figures for another spinoff game, ''Small Soldiers.'' The numbers, he's told, are very good. Although the film didn't do well at the box office, video rentals and sales of ''Small Soldiers'' toys and games are so strong that Dreamworks is making a sequel, in large part to broaden the ancillary franchise.

Among other things, Spielberg is very good at making money. While he is generally considered to be courtly in creative matters, his reputation as a negotiator is far less benign. ''It's as tough to make a deal with him as anyone in history,'' says Peter Bart, the editor in chief of Variety.

As a director, Spielberg has the sweetest of sweetheart deals, forgoing a salary in exchange for a share of the gross that reportedly reaches 50 percent once a film hits a certain box-office level. As a producer -- he has produced or executive-produced more than 40 films in the past 15 years, including ''Back to the Future,'' ''The Flintstones'' and ''Men in Black'' -- he reportedly receives at least 10 percent of the gross. Then there are TV rights, ancillary sales and video rentals (again, Spielberg's cut is among the highest in the business). From ''Jurassic Park'' alone, which grossed $951 million, Spielberg took home a reported $294 million.

The movies are only the engine of Spielberg's entertainment machine. There are the TV shows and cartoons he has produced, a joint venture to build futuristic video arcades and, opening in May, a Universal Studios theme park in Orlando for which he is a creative consultant. All told, he is worth an estimated $2 billion, which has led to many whispers that his taste for money exceeds his taste for art.

''Like most very successful, very creative human beings, he likes the idea of getting paid a lot of money,'' says David Geffen. ''But I wouldn't say it's the focus of his interests.'' As evidence, Geffen points to Spielberg's rampant philanthropy and to his investment strategy. ''He has an enormous bond portfolio,'' Geffen says, ''which is to say he has no appetite for risk.''

Now Spielberg climbs into his green Ford Explorer and sets out for the Universal Studios lot, which has been his home for more than 30 years. His next meeting is with James Acheson, the costume designer for a film Spielberg will direct next year, ''Memoirs of a Geisha,'' based on Arthur Golden's best-selling novel.

Acheson and his assistant leap up like mice when Spielberg enters, but within a few minutes, he has put them at ease. He has that effect on people. Acheson walks Spielberg through dozens of kimono sketches, many of which, practically dripping with dragons, are too garish for Spielberg's taste. ''I think we need to make it less Disney, more Degas,'' he says.

''Geisha,'' because it is owned by Columbia Pictures, has presented a bit of a complication for Spielberg. As a partner in Dreamworks, he is supposed to be its movie rainmaker. But as a director, he has always freelanced among different studios, and Dreamworks was formed with his partners' understanding that he would continue to do so. ''Saving Private Ryan,'' for instance, was a co-production with Paramount, which owned the script, and Spielberg has just agreed to direct two films in co-production with 20th Century Fox. ''Having half of something Steven is excited about,'' Katzenberg says, ''is better than having none.'' Still, such deals have led to sniping within Hollywood that Spielberg is more concerned with his own directing career than the future of Dreamworks or, conversely, that he is more robber baron than rainmaker, plucking other studios' plum pictures for himself and his fledgling studio.

But in the case of ''Geisha,'' Spielberg's partners didn't want the film. ''I tried to talk him out of it,'' says Geffen. ''I don't think it's good enough for him.''

So next year, the star of Dreamworks will direct ''Memoirs of a Geisha'' for Columbia Pictures. Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg all say they're fine with this arrangement, but Spielberg cannot hide his disappointment at his partners' lack of desire for ''Geisha.'' On the other hand, he knows that, as of last year, the only Dreamworks film to have lost serious money was one that he directed, ''Amistad.''

When he's between films, as he is now, Spielberg spends his days at Amblin Entertainment, the production company he founded in 1982. He will remain here until -- or if -- Dreamworks finally builds its own studio complex. Efforts to do so have long been stymied by environmental concerns and bureaucratic wrangling. ''I will not believe it,'' Spielberg says, ''until I see a shovel go into the ground.''

Amblin is a low-slung Southwestern compound -- ''a Taco Bell construction,'' in the words of Sid Sheinberg -- designed by Spielberg himself and built on the former site of the ''Leave It to Beaver'' house. Unlike those of Beaver's house, the doorways of Amblin all have mezuzas.

Spielberg's office is comfortable, plenty pricey but hardly ostentatious: mission furniture, Tiffany lamps, Rockwell paintings, a huge flat-screen TV, an overflowing trophy shelf and framed photographs of Spielberg with, well, everyone. The only faces I don't recognize in the pictures are those of his children. He has seven all told: Jessica Capshaw, the 22-year-old daughter of his wife, the actress Kate Capshaw; his son Max; three children born to him and Kate (daughters Sasha and Destry, 8 and 2, and a son, Sawyer, 6); and two adopted children, Theo, 10, and Mikaela, 2, both of whom are African-American. ''We wanted Theo to not be the only black child in the family,'' he says when I ask why he and Capshaw adopted again once they started having children.

Spielberg is, by all accounts, an exemplary father and husband. His love for Capshaw borders on infatuation, and he is preternaturally jealous. Capshaw has just starred in and co-produced a Dreamworks film, ''The Love Letter,'' that called for a fair amount of lovemaking. Whenever Capshaw showed Spielberg the dailies, she surreptitiously excised her sex scenes. But one day he accidentally saw the unexpurgated version -- which made him, in Capshaw's words, ''extremely wiggy.''

After showing me around his office, Spielberg pops in one videotape, a director's reel, and then another, of a comedian. He likes the first reel; the second is too low-tech to make a call. Didn't the comedian's agent know the reel was going to Spielberg? ''Oh no,'' he says, ''we never use my name, because if I specify I want to see something, the prices go up right away.''

The weight of his very name, he admits, can be a burden. That is why, when Spielberg recently saw a play that he hated, he wouldn't leave at intermission, worried about the signal it would send. That is why Spielberg asks me not to name the cinematographer he recently fired from a Dreamworks film, for fear of tainting his career.

Now Tom Stoppard drops in for a visit. He and Spielberg have been friends for some time. Stoppard wrote the screenplay for ''Empire of the Sun,'' and doctored ''Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,'' for which he received about $120,000. Once the film took off, Spielberg sent Stoppard a $1 million thank-you bonus.

After Stoppard comes lunch, delivered from the Amblin kitchen. Spielberg is having broccoli, edamame, a tall glass of carrot-spinach juice and some vitamin E. He is on an anti-cancer, weight-losing kick, prescribed by Goldie Hawn. He has recently taken up cigars but he has always been caffeine-free (except for the occasional chocolate bar), and has never done drugs of any sort. His college roommates, he explains, were ardent drug users. It was Spielberg's job to cart them -- and their cat, Daytripper, who leapt from a fourth-story window after being fed LSD -- to the emergency room whenever they overdosed. ''That really helped keep me off drugs,'' he says. ''I'm also a control freak, and I was afraid if I took any marijuana and got really stoned, I would lose control of my life. It's as simple as that.''

His mother, Leah, backs up his story. ''He's very Boy Scout-minded, you know,'' she says with a sort of bewildered chuckle. ''He's really a throwback to my generation.''

Over lunch, we talk movies. Spielberg sees more than 100 new films a year and seems to recall them frame for frame. (He has a notoriously acute visual memory.) He waxes on any number of his old favorites: ''It's a Wonderful Life,'' ''Lawrence of Arabia'' and ''The Godfather,'' which he considers the best film by a living director. ''I've never made a movie anywhere near as good as 'The Godfather,' '' he says, ''and I don't have the ambition to, either. If it happens, it happens.''

This is a surprising confession. It is partly self-deprecation, but Spielberg also seems to be admitting that he has more of an appetite for uplift than a certain kind of artistry can accommodate. ''The Godfather,'' after all, is a film whose violence never dares wane; it crescendos with Michael Corleone ordering the murder of his own brother-in-law and leaves the audience with the uneasy feeling that evil leads simply to more evil. Both ''Schindler's List'' and ''Saving Private Ryan,'' meanwhile, end not in the killing fields but many years later, in the cemeteries, with survivors paying respects to their rescuers -- the cinematic equivalent, some critics felt, of putting ketchup on a perfectly good steak.

A strange thing happens when Spielberg discusses his own work. His degree of self-criticism seems a direct reflection of each film's box-office performance. You will not catch him complaining that the audience ''didn't get'' a film; if it didn't do well, it generally didn't deserve to. On ''Empire of the Sun,'' he says, ''I was a visual opportunist -- I just feel there's a patent lack of story and relationship.'' With ''Amistad,'' he says, ''I kind of dried it out, and it became too much of a history lesson.''

When talk turns to ''Schindler's List,'' he visibly brightens. ''Schindler's List,'' after all, changed everything. Until then, Spielberg was seen as a phenomenally talented Peter Pan, growing up just long enough to try a ''Color Purple'' or an ''Empire of the Sun'' before dashing back to the safety of his popcorn movies.

His motivation for making those earlier serious movies was simple: to be taken seriously. But ''Schindler's List,'' he says, ''is the most personal film I've ever made, because it was something I was so ashamed of.''

The ''it,'' of course, was being Jewish. As a scrawny kid in gentile suburbia, he couldn't stand being disliked for something he had no control over. ''It wasn't so much that I wanted to be popular or wanted to meet girls,'' he says. ''I just didn't want to get hit in the mouth.'' Well into adulthood, he was happy to ignore his Jewish identity. But Kate Capshaw converted to Judaism before their marriage, in 1991, and they became, as Spielberg puts it, ''time-permitting practitioners of Judaism.'' They decided to raise their children as Jews, including Theo and Mikaela. And when Spielberg began to see Judaism as more blessing than curse, he was finally ready to make ''Schindler's List,'' which he had been flirting with for nearly a decade.

He was convinced the film would lose money, even though it cost only $22 million. A three-hour, black-and-white movie about the Holocaust, after all, would hardly seem to warrant a broad constituency. In an interview a few years earlier, he had addressed the difficulty of making a feature film about the Holocaust: ''It has to be accurate and it has to be fair and it cannot in the least come across as entertainment.''

Spielberg may have intended ''Schindler's List'' as the opposite of entertainment, but the film grossed $321 million worldwide and engaged audiences as only entertainment can, coaxing them to cry and shudder, leaving their hearts more heavy than broken. Yet the film so reflected Spielberg's intensity for the subject that it nearly stunned his critics; seemingly overnight, he was reborn: Oscar winner, public Jew, a filmmaker who could, for the most part, balance his competing passions for rigorous storytelling and moral uplift.

After ''Schindler,'' he took a three-year break from directing to spend more time with his family. ''I got extremely antsy,'' he says, ''probably contributing, in small part, to my agreeing to form Dreamworks.''

Then he shot three films within 12 months. Each of them was designed, in part, to please someone in particular. He made ''The Lost World'' to fulfill his promise to Universal for a ''Jurassic Park'' sequel, but also to satisfy his young fans who wanted an ''E.T.'' sequel. ''I'm not going to risk the memory of the first one to give people what they think they want,'' he says. I just said, ''Lost World' will be kind of giving them what they want without having to give them 'E.T. II.' ''

''The Lost World'' was followed by ''Amistad.'' ''Well, we were already talking to Theo about slavery and where he came from and who his great-great-grandparents might have been,'' he says. ''So when I heard the story, I immediately thought that this was something that I would be pretty proud to make, simply to say to my son, 'Look, this is about you.' ''

''Saving Private Ryan'' was also aimed at strengthening a family tie. ''That movie was for my dad,'' he says. ''When I first read the script, I said, 'My dad is going to love this movie.' '' For most of his life, Spielberg had a rocky relationship with his father, Arnold, a computer engineer in the industry's earliest days. Steven, the oldest of four and the only son, was always much closer to his free-spirited mother than to his workaholic father. He blamed Arnold outright for his parents' divorce, when Steven was in his late teens. But they have grown close of late, and Steven offers a commensurately more generous view of their shared past. He acknowledges that it was Arnold who jump-started him as a preteen filmmaker, and that it was Arnold, a radio operator on a B-25 during World War II, who was responsible for Steven's lifelong infatuation with the war.

''Saving Private Ryan'' began, Spielberg says, ''simply as a badass World War II movie.'' But talking to veterans during research ''sobered me up,'' and he decided to push the film toward the grimmest realities: fear, boredom, killing.

The harshest killing by far befalls Private Mellish, a tough Jewish soldier who is knifed through the heart, slowly, by a German soldier who shushes Mellish like a baby as he leans on the blade.

''I made that up on the spot,'' Spielberg says when I ask about it.

But why did he choose the Jewish soldier?

''Believe it or not,'' he says, ''I chose the Jewish soldier because all the other squad members were accounted for, and I'd already shot their whereabouts.'' Tom Hanks, the star of ''Saving Private Ryan,'' recalls watching Spielberg shoot the scene. ''The blood drained out of my body,'' Hanks says. ''I could not believe what he had done.''

Spielberg says that his alter-ego in the film is Corporal Upham, the cowardly pacifist. Hanks disagrees. ''I think who Steven fantasizes himself being is Mellish,'' he says, ''who pulls out his Star of David, and says, 'Juden, Juden,' as the German P.O.W.'s are going by. I think Steven, for his Jewishness, wants to be that guy who, when the time comes, can pop a guy in the mouth with the butt of his M1.''

At 9 the next morning, Spielberg is at his desk trying out a new computer game, European Air War. It is a gift from Robin Williams, whom Spielberg calls ''my software pimp.'' The impeachment hearings are on TV. Spielberg is a friend and supporter of President Clinton, and is thoroughly disgusted with Kenneth Starr, Henry Hyde and the rest.

He asks his assistant, Kristie Macosko, to bring in some cigars. We're not due anywhere for a half-hour, so he lights up a Davidoff and plops himself down on the couch. In rapid succession, we cover Bill Clinton, the coming Oscars and the state of Dreamworks. Spielberg says he has forgiven Clinton for the Lewinsky mess and still considers him a moral leader. ''Morality is defined not just by a sexual dalliance,'' he says. ''What hurt me is what hurt a lot of his friends, which is that he didn't confide in any of us. But I never came out and asked him if it was true, so he never had to lie to me. Whenever we were together, we talked about family and all sorts of stuff, but we never talked about the elephant in the room.'' Spielberg laughingly denies the rumor that Dreamworks will someday hire Clinton. ''I think he should maybe run a great university or be in charge of a foundation.'' What about the 2000 election? ''I thought about Bradley the last time he almost ran, but right now I'm favoring Gore, because I think Gore has the ambition and the energy, and he's got a great big fat heart, which I hope doesn't bite him in the butt, because he does lead with his heart. He's a real mensch.''

Now I ask about ''Private Ryan'' and the Oscars. No comment. Before winning two awards for ''Schindler,'' Spielberg had been famously spurned by the Academy. He was the comic-book kid who tried too hard to be serious -- and made far too much money to garner a single underdog vote. In 1976, Spielberg was so confident about ''Jaws'' that he invited a news crew to record his glee as the Oscar nominations were announced on TV -- and then his name wasn't called. He has since trained himself to ignore the din. ''My two best sports,'' he says, ''are shooting skeet and blocking anticipation.''

As for Dreamworks, Spielberg disputes the notion that the young studio has not lived up to its promise. The past year was a good one, he points out, and expectations were too high to begin with. What people forget, Spielberg says, is that when Dreamworks was formed, he had production deals in play with several other studios. ''I couldn't suddenly say, Thanks, guys, for supporting me for 15 years as a producer, but I'm starting my own studio, and good luck on these projects.''

Spielberg also brushes off the idea that he started Dreamworks to aid Jeffrey Katzenberg's revenge against Michael Eisner, who fired Katzenberg from Disney. ''I didn't throw myself over the barbed wire so Jeffrey could have what he wanted,'' Spielberg says. ''I threw myself over the barbed wire with Jeffrey and David so we could have what we wanted.''

What Spielberg wanted was a proprietary stake in his own business. That is the upside of Dreamworks; the downside, he says, is that after a lifetime of working for father figures at other studios, he now has to be his own father figure. When I ask him about the headaches of being a mogul, he grimaces. ''God, I hate that word,'' he says. ''It almost reminds me of mongrel, some kind of a debaucher.'' Anyway, he explains, Dreamworks is essentially Amblin writ large. (His two top production executives from Amblin, Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald-Parkes, are still in place at Dreamworks.) As an executive at another studio puts it, ''Steven is still the idea man, and though no one ever quite says it, Jeffrey's doing all the grunt work, while Geffen sort of lurks in the wings and lobs in a ball or two when he is inspired to do so.''

Kristie pops into Spielberg's office: time to leave. He is taking me on a tour of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. It is three minutes away by golf cart -- the only Holocaust-studies center, it seems safe to say, ever situated on a Hollywood studio lot.

The Shoah Foundation is one of two cornerstones of Spielberg's philanthropy, the other being the Righteous Persons Foundation. ''Among all the things I've done professionally,'' he says, ''these are the two things I'm most proud of.'' He began the Righteous Persons Foundation with the profits of ''Schindler's List'' -- ''I was unwilling to keep it because it was blood money'' -- and it has since dispensed $37 million to Holocaust and Jewish-continuity projects.

In the past, Spielberg was a pell-mell philanthropist, and he was eager to have his name prominently attached to his gifts. These days, he is far more circumspect. ''A rabbi sat me down,'' he explains, ''and told me, 'You know, if you put your name on everything, it goes unrecognized by God.' I said, 'Really?' So over the last 10 years, 80 percent of what I give is anonymous and the other 20 percent is only where my name can help attract other moneys.''

Our three-minute ride turns into 10, then 20. The road to the Shoah Foundation has been rerouted, so Spielberg backtracks again and again. He finally finds his way onto the Shoah lot -- seven trailers surrounded by chain-link fencing. The operation has the feel of a displaced-persons camp, which is accidental but perhaps not inappropriate. Michael Berenbaum, the foundation's president, walks us into the first trailer and halts Spielberg in front of a tote board listing the number of Holocaust survivors and witnesses from around the world who have told their life stories on videotape (nearly 50,000 so far).

Some testimonies are being used to teach schoolchildren; others have been turned into documentaries: ''The Last Days,'' a film about five survivors from Hungary, has just been released. For the most part, though, the testimonies will be painstakingly indexed and then disseminated by fiber-optic cables to Holocaust museums and archives. The chief consultant on the fiber-optic network, it turns out, is Arnold Spielberg.

As we wend through a battery of employees working at computers and video stations, Berenbaum mentions that Spielberg's father just landed a big donation from Unisys. ''Oh, that's great,'' Spielberg says. ''I'm always looking for something to congratulate my dad on.''

And there, in the next trailer, is the man in question. ''Dad! We were just talking about you!''

Arnold Spielberg is 82, stocky and hale, wearing a plaid shirt and khakis. He and his son chat for a few minutes -- they have the same rat-a-tat cadence -- and then Berenbaum resumes the tour. ''If I wanted to,'' Spielberg tells me, ''I could easily write one check to cover this entire project, but -- .''

Berenbaum cuts him off: ''But then it would be Spielberg's foundation, and Spielberg is associated with many, many great things, but all of them fantasies.'' Spielberg explains: ''What we're trying to do here is recreate social studies in America. We're also available to anyone who wants to rubber-stamp our technology -- to spearhead the search for the genealogy of African-Americans as former slaves, who would like to create a social-studies curriculum having to do with the genocide of the American Indian, anything having to do with racial intolerance or just plain intolerance.''

In serious conversation with Spielberg, ''tolerance'' and ''intolerance'' are among the most common words to crop up. Despite his success, he says, he still feels like an outsider, indelibly stamped by his childhood. Indeed, his movies add up to one long argument for tolerance, a plea to accept the outsider. ''E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'' has Elliott, a young loner, recognizing that E.T. is more kindred spirit than alien. ''Close Encounters of the Third Kind'' was, above all, a quest for peace among men (and, again, aliens). More recently, ''Saving Private Ryan'' was rewritten, at Spielberg's insistence, from a swaggering World War II movie into a melting-pot ensemble drama: the Jewish soldier, the Italian soldier, the Scripture-quoting sharpshooter.

It is this morality of tolerance, his critics say, that turns his characters into stereotypes or leads Spielberg to crown the wrong heroes. Why, he was asked after ''Schindler's List,'' did he make a Holocaust film whose hero was a redeemed Nazi? Even David Geffen feels that ''Amistad'' was less about slavery than ''about white people saving black people.''

These are, in effect, new twists on an old line of criticism. It used to be said that Spielberg and his best friend, George Lucas, infantilized the movies with their cartoonish, thrill-seeking, sequel-generating mentality. That charge stuck, particularly since half of Hollywood immediately began imitating them. But the latest wave of Spielberg criticism -- that he massages history in order to get his tolerance fix -- hasn't yet found its legs, in large part because his vision has not become a trend.

Why is it that no one else is making films like Steven Spielberg's? It could be that it's simply too soon for imitators. Or it could be that no one else is able to.

Back at Amblin, Spielberg walks into a roomful of people and stone-age gadgetry: a production meeting for a ''Flintstones'' sequel.

The director, Brian Levant, breathlessly marches Spielberg through a parade of drawings and models. ''Oh, that's so great, that's so clever!'' Spielberg says. ''Now I have a question. Is Steve Wynn-Rock in the script a nice character?''

''No,'' Levant says, ''he's our bad guy.''

''Then you can't call him Steve Wynn-Rock,'' Spielberg says, ''because Steve's a very good friend of mine.''

No problem, Levant says. Spielberg proclaims: ''Um, great! Gee. When do you start?''

''When do we start?'' Levant says with an awkward laugh. ''Well, that's a very good question. We don't have a green light.''

A pregnant moment. The film is being produced by Universal -- Spielberg is just ''a neighborly adviser,'' as he puts it -- and Universal has been in upheaval since its chairman, Casey Silver, was fired a week earlier.

''Well,'' Spielberg says, ''Stacey's making all the decisions with Ronnie Meyer right now, since Casey left, so you're going to have to get them down here.'' Spielberg hollers into the next room: ''Kristie -- is Ronnie Meyer in town? If he is, ask if he'd come down this afternoon with Stacey and look at this Flintstones' stuff.''

The skids greased to perfection, Levant grins. Spielberg grins back, asks Levant to slip him a copy of the budget and heads out. Kristie is already dialing Ron Meyer.

A quick lunch and then downstairs for a meeting with Gore Verbinski, who directed ''Mousehunt'' for Dreamworks. Verbinski, sporting a black turtleneck and creeping sideburns, has come to Spielberg with a pitch for a new film: a remake of a 1950's drama about German P.O.W.'s returning home.

Spielberg listens, nods. He, of course, remembers the original, in great detail. They talk at some length about the plot and the characters. ''Frankly, the one thing that scares me here is my politics'' -- that is, lionizing the German soldiers. ''Let me give you a crazy idea,'' he says suddenly. ''Would you ever think of making this picture all in German with American subtitles?''

''Yeah,'' says Verbinski, somewhat unenthusiastically, ''like a 'Das Boot.' ''

''Because then you could make this film for really low-end, get a really great German cast.''

''No, I think there's an integrity to that,'' Verbinski says.

''And you'd make all your money back in your first weekend in Germany alone. Would you be willing to really go short strings on this?''

''Absolutely.''

Back upstairs, the ''Flintstones'' props are still spread out. And now, lo and behold, Ron Meyer and Stacey Snider have stopped by. They look things over, then convene in Spielberg's office.

The minute they leave, Spielberg calls Levant. ''Brian, you got a green light, pal,'' he says. ''But you've got to make me a promise, because I don't want the green light to turn yellow. Try to get one million dollars out of the overall budget below the line. All right? Congratulations.''

Spielberg loves to say yes, especially to younger filmmakers. He says he will never forget the opportunity that Sid Sheinberg gave him in 1969, signing Spielberg to a seven-year contract at a time when Hollywood did not consider youth a good thing. He is particularly supportive of women. Two of his former secretaries, Kathleen Kennedy and Bonnie Curtis, are now producers, and Spielberg has hired any number of female directors for Amblin and Dreamworks movies. ''Steven is the single most active mentoring director in Hollywood,'' says the director Robert Zemeckis. ''He has taken responsibility for the power he's been given, which I guess you could suggest is the very definition of humility.''

Now Spielberg is pawing through his in-box as Kristie awaits orders. A pair of charity requests. (Yes to both.) A request for an interview from a journalist who panned ''Amistad.'' (He'll do it, because he thought the criticism was smart.) The guest list for an coming V.I.P. screening of ''Close Encounters.'' (Julia Phillips, one of the film's producers, hasn't been invited. Spielberg hasn't seen her in years, and in 1991, she assaulted him in her infamous Hollywood diatribe ''You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again.'' But Spielberg tells Kristie to invite her; he likes to keep his friends close and his enemies closer.)

And then he turns to me and says, ''By the way, Tom Cruise and I are officially now going to make a movie together.''

The deal was finalized last night. This makes Spielberg very happy. He and Cruise are longtime friends and neighbors but have never worked together. The film, ''Minority Report,'' is based on a story by the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick. It will be set in the year 2080, in an America so anarchic that the Government, forearmed with the knowledge of murders that haven't yet happened, takes it upon itself to murder the murderers. Spielberg calls ''Minority Report'' the most cynical film he will have made -- but yes, it has a happy ending, he says, and yes, it's a popcorn movie, ''but a gourmet popcorn movie.'' He'll shoot it this fall in Los Angeles so he can be near his family; ''Geisha'' will follow in the spring.

Later, I ask Spielberg what happened to the film about Charles Lindbergh that he had planned to direct.

He answers by explaining how ''Schindler's List'' and the Shoah Foundation have reshaped his thinking. ''They've given me more of a moral responsibility to make sure I'm not putting someone else's agenda in front of the most important agenda, which is trying to create tolerance,'' he says. ''We'll probably make 'Lindbergh,' but one of the reasons I've considered not being the director is that I didn't know very much about him until I read Scott Berg's book and I read it only after I purchased it, and I think it's one of the greatest biographies I've ever read but his America First and his anti-Semitism bothers me to my core, and I don't want to celebrate an anti-Semite unless I can create an understanding of why he felt that way. Because sometimes the best way to prevent discrimination is to understand the discriminator.''

The long day ends at the Dreamworks animation complex, where the consuls general from 50 countries have been invited for a preview screening of ''The Prince of Egypt.'' Spielberg pulls up in his Explorer, a big green shark in a sea of diplomatic sedans. Pete Wilson, the outgoing Governor of California, is escorted to him.

''Hey, Governor,'' Spielberg says. ''How you doing?''

''Good to see you,'' says the Governor. ''You're very kind to do this.''

''Listen, thank you for coming,'' Spielberg says. ''It's great that we have the whole world here tonight, in one room. I wonder if I should start soliciting for Shoah donations.''

The two men share a laugh, then head inside. The Governor is approached by the stray diplomat; Spielberg, meanwhile, is immediately encased in a circle of flesh, five deep, the consuls general from Croatia and Gambia, Guatemala and France. They are exceedingly well dressed; he's wearing scruffy corduroys and a suede jacket, a dead cigar cupped in his hand. They tell him that they love his movies, that he should shoot his next one in their countries, that he should dramatize the lives of their repressed people.

These men and women, powerful in their own circles, clearly recognize that Spielberg's power dwarfs theirs by a frightening multiple. His power, after all, is unlimited by reality. The stories he tells have come to represent not just escape from an imperfect world but a facsimile of a more perfect world -- where the lamb lies down with the lion, the discriminator with the discriminated. And in that world, they know, Steven Spielberg is the king.

After driving his children to school on Thursday morning, Spielberg heads for the set of ''E.R.'' Djimon Hounsou, who played the leader of the slave revolt in ''Amistad,'' has just landed a recurring role, and Spielberg wants to wish him well. Here, too, Spielberg is treated like royalty, for he was a founding producer of the show.

On the drive back to Amblin, I ask Spielberg if perhaps his need for approval, his pressing desire to say yes, ever gets him in trouble. One of his frequent collaborators, after telling me of Spielberg's ability to do three or five things at once, all of them well, wondered aloud if his own films might benefit if he shoved a few things off his plate. Even now, when he's not directing, he is developing dozens of films and TV shows and computer games; he is making a European fund-raising tour for the Shoah Foundation; he is still a producer of record on three Saturday morning cartoon shows; he is co-producer of a millennial extravaganza for the White House and helping shape the new Universal theme park. All this must fit around his family obligations, since Kate Capshaw's prime insistence when he formed Dreamworks was that he not become an absentee father.

Every project, Spielberg says now, a bit testily, fulfills a certain desire, satisfies a certain constituency. The films are what he lives for. The Shoah Foundation is a vital outlet for his altruism. The White House was not someone he could turn down. The cartoons and games and theme park ''make my kids really proud of me,'' he says. ''They couldn't give a rat's [expletive] about 'Schindler's List' or 'Saving Private Ryan,' but they care volumes that my name precedes 'Tiny Toons' and 'Animaniacs.' ''

The rest of Spielberg's day is spent shuttling between meeting rooms and his office. He's on the phone much of the time, first with his son Max, then with Christie's in New York, which is conducting an auction of Tiffany lamps.

On the first one, he drops out at $62,000. He bids the next lamp up to $660,000 but again drops out. He finally gets the third one, for $140,000. There's one more lamp he's interested in. The bidding quickly moves to $1.3 million, which scares him off. ''God, that's more than I'll pay for a script,'' he tells the Christie's clerk.

During one afternoon meeting, Spielberg suddenly excuses himself, dashes upstairs, shuts his door. President Clinton is on the phone. Today, his lawyers are making their final arguments before the House Judiciary Committee. Spielberg's door remains closed for 15 minutes. When he emerges, he seems rather subdued.

Was Clinton asking a favor? Seeking advice? Looking for encouragement? Spielberg won't breathe a word, but whatever the President wanted, it's a good bet Spielberg gave it to him.

The next day, on the flight to New York, Spielberg tries to persuade me that his view of the world is not as starry as it once was. Fatherhood, he says, has finally made him grow up, and the impeachment of the President has embittered him. ''America will have to yet again wait for good work to be done in our names,'' he says, his language practically Clintonian.

Concerning the President, he is plainly sincere. But his talk of cynicism is, frankly, not very convincing. If I have learned anything about Spielberg, it is that he, like the President, is a congenital optimist. Spielberg and Clinton, in fact, would seem to have much in common (beyond the fact that they are the same age, 52, and both dodged the draft). They are each driven by their need for approval, and they are very much men of their generation, tolerant to a fault and reverent toward the most righteous causes. They are self-styled outsiders who, by force of talent and personality and ambition, crashed the establishment but still summon the discomfort of the outsider when it serves to motivate them. They are, in short, the leaders we have asked for, and don't know quite what to make of.

The airplane is climbing. The sky is cloudless this morning, the hills of Los Angeles piney and calm. ''Out there is Sunland,'' Spielberg says, pointing. ''That's where I shot E.T.' Out there and in Northridge, which is that way.''

Of his own films, ''E.T.'' is a clear favorite. It is also the closest that Spielberg has come to autobiography, albeit a peculiar one: a boy who is good but lonely, his parents divorced, who discovers true happiness in the realm outside of reality.

I ask Spielberg if he might ever make a film that's truly about himself. Yes, he says, somewhat wistfully. It's called ''I'll Be Home.'' It's about his family, written by his sister Anne, who was a co-writer of ''Big.'' Spielberg has considered making ''I'll Be Home'' for years. ''My big fear,'' he explains, ''is that my mom and dad won't like it and will think it's an insult and won't share my loving yet critical point of view about what it was like to grow up with them.''

There is a poignant friction at work here: the artist who wants to tell a story, the man who is unwilling to offend. It is a friction that Steven Spielberg may never resolve, but that may keep him exactly what he is: one of the best American entertainers in history.