Turning the camera on Steven Spielberg

Directors Susan Lacy and Steven Spielberg arrive for HBO's Spielberg documentary premiere at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, on Sept 26, 2017.
Directors Susan Lacy and Steven Spielberg arrive for HBO's Spielberg documentary premiere at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, on Sept 26, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - When you make a movie called Spielberg, and its subject agrees to sit for what turns out to be 30 hours of interviews - and his sisters sit down with you, as do his parents, and half the Hollywood mavericks including Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese - you'd better get it right. No one wants to be the director who screwed up the Steven Spielberg documentary.

"I tried really hard not to think about it," said Susan Lacy, whose 2 1/2-hour profile of Spielberg, perhaps the world's best known and most successful director, will have its premiere Thursday at the New York Film Festival and make its television debut Saturday on HBO.

"If I had spent a lot of time thinking about: 'How's Steven going to feel about this? Oh my God, is he going to like this?' I would have been absolutely frozen." Perhaps.

But the idea of Lacy's being frozen by this challenge, or any other, is hard to accept. She's owned the field of documentary biography for more than 30 years, beginning at PBS - where she created the series American Masters, winning 28 Emmy and 11 Peabody Awards - and continuing at HBO, where Spielberg is the first fruit of a multi-film deal.

"The combination of organisational skills, getting all that material together into a coherent story, and the immensely challenging business of getting very, very prominent and busy people to do interviews, that's a huge logistical challenge," said Stephen Segaller, vice president of national programming at WNET, the New York public TV station where American Masters began in 1986. "And Susan was and is - I'm sure the new film will demonstrate this - just relentless."

Lacy, 68, recently allowed the tables to be turned, sitting for an interview in the sunny Manhattan offices of her company, Pentimento Productions, in the Starrett Lehigh building overlooking the Hudson River. It's where she's been based since she left WNET in 2013, and where she and a small staff have worked on the films she has made for HBO: Spielberg, a completed Jane Fonda biography and a work in progress about Ralph Lauren.

"I'm not going to pretend I didn't have a little bit of postpartum," she said, looking back at her 35-year tenure in public television. "Every couple of months it was like, 'Unh unh unh'" - she made a crying noise - "and then it was like, 'Oh my God, thank God I don't have to raise money anymore.'"

Lacy grew up in Baltimore, the daughter of German immigrants who instilled a love of music that would be reflected in her American Masters films about artists like Leonard Bernstein and Joni Mitchell. After earning a master's degree in American studies from George Washington University, she did short stints at both National Endowments (humanities and arts) and spent four years throwing dinner parties as the young wife of the head of the American Academy in Rome. A friend who was leaving a job at WNET suggested the station recruit her.

She returned to New York and took a job in program development, which she thought meant developing programs but which really meant raising money. She moved on to the arts series Great Performances and helped develop the drama series American Playhouse. Then she came up with the show that would be her life for the next three decades.

"I've always been interested, and had been since I was little, in reading biographies," she says. "I wanted to read about Ernest Hemingway. I wanted to read about Picasso. I wanted to know those stories, and there was literally no place for it on television. I had this idea. I was going to focus on Americans, American cultural genius, and create a library of American cultural history of the 20th century." The rest is history, or in this case, biography. The show, with Lacy as executive producer, became a PBS institution.

But there were always hurdles. Complaints that her choice of subjects was too esoteric led to her first project as a director, the suitably populist Paul Simon: Born At The Right Time (directed with Susan Steinberg) in 1993. She came under increasing pressure to limit films to an hour in length.

And always, there was the ask. She spent an enormous amount of time looking for money - from PBS, government agencies, corporations, foundations, wealthy individuals, DVD presales, foreign rights and co-productions.

That got easier over the years. Early American Masters budgets, she said, were around US$750,000 a film. When Scorsese made his six-hour Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, for the series in 2005, she was able to raise nearly US$6 million.

But when Richard Plepler, chairman of HBO, asked Lacy to lunch in 2012, she realised she was ready to do things a different way.

"He said, 'Would you leave?'" she recalled. "I said, 'I don't know. It's my heart, my blood, sweat and tears every single day.' And he said the cleverest thing ever. He said, 'Aren't you tired of raising money?'"

Plepler remembers telling her: "It's a waste of bandwidth. You're a great film-maker. I can alleviate that burden from you."

Lacy brought HBO not just her experience and talent but also a verbal agreement from Spielberg to cooperate with her on a film, wherever it ended up. They had met when she interviewed him for her last American Masters directorial effort, the 2012 Inventing David Geffen. Over the course of two years and more than 100 interviews, 14 of them with Spielberg, Lacy constructed a film that combines copious footage from his movies with a quietly introspective consideration of the effects on him of his suburban upbringing and his parents' divorce.

"My biggest thing is that I think Steven is a really personal film-maker, and I think he's not thought of as a personal film-maker," she said. "He's not put in that category of somebody who's bringing his soul to these films. I think there's part of Steven in every film that he's ever made, and that's the story I wanted to tell." So does Spielberg capture Spielberg?

"I could not imagine being the subject of another film-maker until I met Susan Lacy," Spielberg, who has seen the film, said recently by email. "She engaged in a way that was so honest and insightful that it disarmed me and I discovered I could fall easily into any conversation with her, even about myself."