Steven Awalt –
author interviewed by Todd Garbarini
it’s about time, Charlie!”
Weaver utters these words in my favorite Steven Spielberg film, Duel, a production that was originally
commissioned by Universal Pictures as an MOW, industry shorthand for “movie of
the week”, which aired on Saturday, November 13, 1971. The reviews were glowing; the film’s admirers
greatly outweighed its detractors and it put Mr. Spielberg, arguably the most
phenomenally successful director in the history of the medium, on a path to a
career that would make any contemporary director green with envy. Followed by a spate of contractually obligated
television outings, Duel would prove
to be the springboard that would catapult Mr. Spielberg into the realm that he
was shooting for since his youth: that of feature film directing. Duel would also land him in the court of
Hollywood producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck and get him his first
theatrical film under his belt, 1974’s The
Sugarland Express. It would be the
1975 blockbuster smash success of his second film, Jaws, similar in theme to Duel
in that a seemingly unstoppable monster is eventually put down following an
inexorable chase of cat-and-mouse, which would make him a household name. Yes, Charlie, it is about time that this phenomenal film got its own book, one that
is dedicated to the story’s origin and creation. Painstakingly researched by
Spielberg scholar Steven Awalt,
the aptly-titled Steven Spielberg and DUEL: The Making of a Film Careeris an excellent book now
available in hardcover, paperback and for the Kindle from Rowman &
volume starts at the beginning with Duel’s
author, the late Richard Matheson, the man responsible for some of the most
interesting, frightening, and best short stories of the genre and some of the
most memorable episodes of television’s The
Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) such as Third
from the Sun, Nick of Time, The
Invaders, Little Girl Lost, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, and Night Call. Author Awalt expertly describes
the terrifying, dangerous and death-defying real-life incident that compelled
Mr. Matheson to pen the story, and the fascinating journey it took until it was
published in the April 1971 issue of Playboy Magazine which made its way into
the hands of Steven Spielberg’s secretary. Through interviews with the remaining crew members who worked on Duel, Mr. Awalt covers every aspect of
the film’s inception, creation (actual filming and subsequent editing into
answer print form) and ultimate presentation. What is interesting to note is that although Duel originated as a TV-movie, the film’s success in the form of
excellent critical reception and high Nielsen ratings resulted in the director
being given additional capital to increase it from its standard 74-minute
running time to the more acceptable 90-minute length it required for release in
movie theaters, and it played briefly in select markets in the spring of
1983. It is this 90-minute version of
the film that is known the world over.
with publicity shots and storyboards created by the director, Steven Spielberg and DUEL is the last word on this terrific thriller that the director originally
wanted to make without any dialogue (interestingly, the Twilight Zone episode The
Invaders was originally conceived this way). Everything you ever wanted to know about how
the film came about is covered in this exhaustively researched book. Best of all, Universal is releasing the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection
on Blu-ray, and one of the titles included in this collection is Duel.
I recently spoke with Mr. Awalt about his
book and genuine love for all things Spielberg.
Garbarini: Based on what I have read about you, it is my understanding that you
became a fan of Steven Spielberg after your first viewing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Please tell me about that, as that is exactly
the same way that I became familiar with his work.
Awalt: Yes, that is correct. My family
and I saw it in the early winter of 1978. I was five years-old at the time, and
my parents had earlier taken me to see Star
Wars in a drive-in during the summer before. So between those two films, they really had a
huge impact on me. I was also familiar with the Walt Disney films, as well as
Jim Henson's work, but Steven Spielberg was the first director who I saw as a real
filmmaker. The story of the making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is
the one book that I really, really want to write.
I had the exact same reaction you did. I saw Star Wars in the summer of 1977, not at a drive-in but at a
two-screen movie theater. Five months
later for my birthday my parents took me to see it again and this time the
trailer for Close Encounters was
presented before the film. I remember being frightened and finding certain
images from the film to be very intense, like the interrogation scene between
Richard Dreyfus, Francois Truffaut and Bob Balaban. Like you, I had been used to seeing the Walt
Disney cartoons. In a way, this was my
introduction to more mature, adult filmmaking. I knew about Jaws in the summer of 1975 and knew some
kids who had seen it. When it came to Close Encounters, I was just blown away
by that film. It's one of the great cinematic experiences of my childhood. I almost feel that after having seen Star Wars and Close Encounters, I was kind of spoiled because I was expecting to
see all the other directors making movies just as great as those films,
especially when you consider that on the heels of that you had The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
E.T. is actually my personal favorite
Spielberg film. I have a really deep personal connection to the film.
I can certainly understand that. He captures children in a way that I've never
seen from anyone else, except maybe for Truffaut.
Yes, I can't think of any other filmmakers who are as real and as honest with
children. I think that Steven has always been that way, even if you look at Hook you see the way the children relate
to each other.
Garbarini: I first heard of Duel when
Steven Spielberg appeared on The Dick
Cavett Show in June 1981 while doing publicity for Raiders of the Lost Ark. He
talked about Duel and a man being
chased down by a large truck, and I wondered how I never heard of the film, not
knowing that it was a TV-movie. About a
year later, I was in my 7th grade English class and we were required
to read short story collections and write compositions on them. A collection caught my eye, and Duel was one of the stories. I read it and was hooked on Richard
Matheson’s writing. In 1983 I begged my
father to take me to New York to see Duel
during a brief theatrical exhibition following the worldwide success of E.T. but it didn’t last long enough for
us to get to see it. I finally saw it on
VHS in 1988 and loved it. How did you
come to see Duel and what was your
reaction to it?
I saw it on television with my dad, but I don't remember it to the extent that
I remembered seeing Close Encounters in
the theater. I saw Raiders of the Lost
Ark, of course, and Poltergeist was
also a big film for me. However, I don't recall what it was like seeing it for
the first time. My father and I watched Raiders
of the Lost Ark many times together. He introduced me to a lot of great
movies, including 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Jaws was also a movie that I saw on
television, I think that was first on in 1980 on ABC, or was it NBC?
It was on ABC, it premiered in November 1979. That took a full four years to come to network television.
Oh, wow. Yeah, that was how our generation saw movies in the days before VHS.
I know, remember that? When a big movie was premiering on television, it was an
event that my friends and I really looked forward to. It didn't matter that it
had commercials, because none of my friends, except for one, had cable
television. Now, forget about it. You don't even have to own the movie; you can simply go to YouTube and watch almost
anything that you want. I found Amblin (1968) on there. When The Warriors was released in 1979, there
was a lot of controversy surrounding it, stories of gangs fighting in movie
theaters. When it came to ABC in 1981, that is how I first saw it. I didn't see
it on cable or on home video, I saw it on network television. I think that’s
how a lot of us saw movies from the 1970s. The networks would sometimes air movies with alternate titles. That’s how I saw Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? (1970), which aired as War Games and Escape to Athena (1979), which aired as The Golden Raiders, and Ffolkes
(1979) which aired as Assault Force.
Yeah, that's how I first saw 1941
(1979). I have a soft spot in my heart for that film. It's a bit of a mess, but
it has really great work in it. The miniatures are really beautiful in that
movie. Yeah, it was a whole different era. Young audiences today almost don't
know what it's like to go see a movie like Star
Wars in the drive-in. For people like you and I, you'd see a movie in the
theaters, and that it would come to network television and would really be
something to look forward to. Then there was the dawn of home video in the form
of VHS in the late 70s and early 80s. I think that the first movie I saw on VHS
was The Muppet Movie, that might've
been in 1981. Then in 1982 I saw Time Bandits.
What a different era it was back then, having time to watch those movies over
and over again!
I saw both of those films in the theater, but the first home video format that
my family owned was the RCA Select-A-Vision Capacitance Electronic Disc
CED for short, which necessitated purchasing movies. The Muppet Movie and Time
Bandits were two titles that I owned. Star
Wars and Poltergeist with the
first two movies I ever purchased and they were in that format. I just watched
them over and over and over again, on a 13” color TV, no less. Most people don't even remember that system,
they tend to confuse it with Pioneer’s laserdisc format. It's interesting, Jaws was the first movie released on laserdisc;
it was through MCA's DiscoVision line. The movie was spread out the five sides!
Can you imagine?
Yeah, I actually have the letterboxed laserdisc special edition of Jaws, that thing cost $150.
My favorite action film is The Road
Warrior. The stunts and camerawork
are groundbreaking, but there are a few shots where it almost looks like a Mack
Sennett comedy in that the cameras were undercranked and the action moves too
quickly. I never noticed that in Duel.
To your knowledge, was Duel shot
without any undercranking?
There was one shot where that happens, but it actually helps. The frame rate
was actually increased and the camera was overcranked. It's a long shot where
the vantage point is that of Dennis Weaver's character, David Mann, and the
truck is just plowing around the corner coming towards him.
Was there any behind-the-scenes footage shot on this movie, or was it done on
such a low-budget that that wasn't even a consideration?
Yeah, it was very low-budget, even the amount of stills that were taken is very
small. They didn't really have a dedicated on-the-set photographer.
What is the biggest difference between the theatrical cut and the television
The biggest and most obvious difference between the two is the opening. The
first few minutes where the camera begins in the garage, pulls back and drives
through downtown traffic was all added later so that it could be released
Yes, I remember when first saw it I thought, You mean to tell me that they let him do this for a television movie?
I was astonished. But I was completely
Yeah, exactly. The television cut begins with Dennis Weaver's car driving from
left to right in the frame as he is on his way to his business appointment. Of course, the scenes with him on the phone talking
to his wife and his run-in with the school bus were also added later.
Most of those streets look the same today. The last time I was in Los Angeles
was November 2008 and I drove along most of those same roads. I made it a point
to go to Milky Way, the restaurant owned and run by Leah Adler (Steven
Spielberg's mother). She was there that day, and I sat and talked with her for a
while about how much her son’s movies changed my life. It was great walking to
the bathroom as the hallway is flanked with movie posters of his films. When
did you first meet Mr. Spielberg?
In 2006. I originally ran a website dedicated to his movies from 2001 until
2009. So, I had been writing for the website for a while. In February 2006, I
received a FedEx package from DreamWorks. I figured it was stills from his films
or something to that effect, because I had never even broached the subject of
interviewing him. It turned out to be a letter from Steven Spielberg, and he told
me how much he enjoyed my writing and really like the website. Eight months
later he was being given a lifetime achievement award at the Chicago Film
Festival and I met him on the red carpet and we talked for a while. I did a
sort of mini-interview with him. The highlight of the evening, in addition to
meeting him of course, was when he introduced me to Roy Scheider.
I am experiencing major jealousy
pangs right now! (laughs)
God, Roy Scheider. I would've loved to have met and spoken with both of them. The French Connection is my favorite
Oh, my God, I loveThe French Connection.
I was fortunate enough to meet most of the cast members of the film, such as
Gene Hackman, Tony LoBianco, and even Sonny Grosso. The icing on the cake was
meeting William Friedkin. I also met Chris Newman, who recorded the sound on the
film. One of my biggest regrets, however, has not being able to meet Roy
Yeah, All That Jazz is a great film.
Yes, in fact the Criterion Collection released that on Blu-ray. He was great in
Marathon Man, Sorcerer, and The Seven-Ups
from 1973, which is a film that a lot of people don't even know about.
Yes, meeting Roy Scheider was a great life moment for me. And then I guess
around 2011 I pitched the idea of the Duel
book to Steven Spielberg's people and he said yes right away, he thought it was
a great idea. He even invited me out to interview him before I even had a
chance to ask him if I could interview him. I cannot say enough about him, he's
just such a nice man and is so genuine. You hear the story all the time that
when you're in conversation with him, and you think about all the things that
he has going on in his life, he's just right there and he's 100% completely
focused on what you're talking about as he's talking to you. Even in conversations, he's a really great storyteller, which really
isn’t surprising! When I was out in L.A. interviewing him, he showed me a photo
of himself standing next to Federico Fellini and he was talking about this
memory that he had of meeting him in 1973 and there was such excitement in his
voice about this memory that was nearly 40 years-old. He's got such a deep
appreciation of film history and such excitement about it, and he's also one of
the pinnacles of it!
Well, he's just like us. He is first and foremost a movie fanatic. I could
literally spend hours talking to him about not only his experiences on the sets
of his own movies, and I would love to hear some stories that he has to tell
about what went on behind the scenes of his films and so forth, but also his
impressions of other directors and other movies that he has seen growing up and
even the new films that are out now and what's still inspires him. He isn't
just some hack who is out there trying to make money, he honestly and truly
loves this stuff. Were you able to see his early work? I know that he's not a
fan of Amblin, a film that I really
like very much, especially the main theme song. Did you get to see Firelightor any of the short films that he did
as a teenager?
I've seen everything he's done with the exception of his episode of Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law, nor
could I find his two episodes of The
Psychiatrist. I spoke to Sid
Sheinberg about it, and he remarked that one of the episodes, called Par for the Course, was one of the most
moving pieces of work he had ever seen. Spielberg was in his early twenties when he did it. The episode is about
death, friendship, and losing a friend. But, like I said, that's one that I
haven't been able to locate and I'm really interested in seeing it. You look at
the The Sugarland Express, for
example, and it's frustrating for me to look back now on even some of the good
critical notices the film got. For
example, Pauline Kael said that Spielberg was very good at moving the cars
around. But, when you look at the movies, whether they involve cars, sharks,
spaceships or whatever, even though those are brilliant and exciting cinematic
creations, and even going back to his early television work pre-Duel, he was always about the
characters. Their personalities and the situations that they get caught up in are
always first and foremost the most important aspects of the story. I've always
felt that he's been an incredibly humanistic director and I think that
unfortunately that aspect of his career has been totally lost on a lot of
critics. Getting back to Sugarland, I don't believe that the cars
are the main focus or the main aspect of that story. The characters are really
special, and the fact that a lot of the leading critics didn't see that at the
time is almost mind-boggling. Still to this day he carries that reputation with
him. It's really amazing to me that when people talk about his work, and I
don't know if this is attributed to jealousy or snobbery or whatever, they just
don't give him the credit that he deserves. I also think that a lot of the
times the critics were comparing him to highly established directors who were
in their fifties and sixties at the time. You have to look at it in
perspective. Spielberg was a guy in his twenties. How many people have that
kind of perspective into the human condition in their twenties? But for him to
have that human angle even in a film like Duel
is amazing. The intercutting between the car and truck - the film is ultimately
about a man and his paranoia. So he has enormous insight into the psychology of
the Dennis Weaver character. What an amazing young filmmaker to be able pull
off something like that at his age.
Would you say that his experience on Duel
prepared him for the desert truck chase sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark?
SA: No, I wouldn't say that because the truck
chase was done during principal photography and was shot by Mickey Moore. Steven
conceived and storyboarded it, but Mickey Moore shot it with the second unit
crew. I remember when I read that and thought,
I really thought that Steven had been out
there shooting that whole thing. But,
despite the fact that he didn't, it works brilliantly in the film and actually
got a lot of subsequent work for Mickey Moore. This is always a tough thing
because I do believe…I don’t want to say auteur
theory necessarily, as I think that's become a denigrated term now, but to deny
authorship I think is ludicrous. Everything
in a film is funneled through either a director’s filter or a very strong producer’s
filter, so obviously when you look at a filmography like Steven’s or any other
dominant and very personal director obviously authorship is something that
should definitely be considered. I still think his fingerprints are all over
it. Don't get me started on Poltergeist,
by the way!
(laughs) I saw that movie the weekend
that it opened. My friend and I sat through it twice. It played next door to Kill Squad.
Oh, I love Poltergeist, even to this
day. The first time that I saw it was when I was playing with some friends and
neighbors. The adults were inside
watching it on television and I basically saw it through the screen door. I
couldn’t hear it well at all, but I was so excited to see it.
I have seen Poltergeist many, many
times. It's one of my favorite movies ever. Thinking along those lines, and
this kind of thing started for me with Star
Wars, it was only in 1977 that I would go back to see a favorite movie
multiple times. Prior seeing to seeing Star
Wars, I don't ever remember doing that. There weren't any films that I had
seen that made me want to go see them more than once, although I did sit
through two screenings of Peter Pan
during a 1976 rerelease in the summertime. Superman
the Movie was another pivotal film for me. For one thing, these movies
stayed in theaters for a very long time, and if friends of mine and I loved it,
which we invariably did, we would always go see them on our birthdays. Our
parents would wonder why in the world we would want to see the same movies over
and over again instead of new movies. John Williams’ music, without taking
anything away from the writers, producers, directors, and actors, the overall
cast and crew of all of these films, I really believe is what makes those films
what they are.
SA: I completely agree and I don't think that the
filmmakers would disagree with that statement at all. I think that they would
be right there with you.
I've read that Mr. Spielberg even cuts to Mr. Williams’ music. The two of them
have gone on to such an amazing collaboration, far more so than the one between
Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann which, as you well know, was
argumentative and often combative. However, Herrmann clearly enhanced
Hitchcock's movies immeasurably. Imagine Psycho
without those strings?
SA: I know!
Billy Goldenberg wrote excellent music for Duel,
in addition to several other shows directed by Mr. Spielberg. I have always felt that his music has been
woefully underrepresented on soundtrack albums. Do you know if there are any plans to release his music from these
Spielberg projects on CD?
Not to my knowledge, no. He is very
underrepresented on disc, it’s a real shame. A lot of the soundtrack album companies are doing a really terrific job
in getting a lot of the scores out there in terms of getting them out of the
vault. However, there really is still so much work to do for scores from that
era. I really think that Billy’s scores need a release. And even John Williams’s
score to Sugarland, this is the only
score from his collaboration with Spielberg that has never been released. Now
this is like the missing link. I have heard from soundtrack producers at
Universal, at least previously anyway, they were very tight with what they
allowed to come out of their vaults. I would love to see a score for Sugarland released, and also for Duel obviously.
Well, with your excellent book on Duel
and the new Blu-ray release of the film in the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection, let’s hope that this leads
to a soundtrack release.
Sounds good to me!
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