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AFI's Master Class: The Art Of Collaboration

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AFI’s Master Class: The Art Of Collaboration debuts tonight on TCM at 8 p.m. Eastern.


You don’t have to be a film nerd to find things to love about the concept behind AFI Master Class: The Art Of Collaboration. And TCM would have been hard pressed to find two better introductory participants than Steven Spielberg and John Williams to kick off this series that seeks to provide insight into the craft of filmmaking from its finest practitioners. There’s little here beyond the pair talking quietly in a small room, but considering the forty-year collaboration between the pair, that’s all the special needs to make this a must-see.

Is it perfect? In that it’s only an hour long, no. But that speaks to how much more these two could have talked about, rather than a paucity of material within the allotted time frame. The setup is simple: Spielberg and Williams hold court in front of a small audience of AFI graduate students, which gives this an intimate feel lacking in the recent Mel Brooks/Dick Cavett special that aired on HBO. If the latter felt like a raucous celebration, the former feels like a subdued recollection. That’s not a bad thing, mind you: the tone of tonight’s special befits the thoughfullness with which both participants deploy their answers on the nature of both their work together and the nature of cinematic music as a whole.


A running theme throughout the hour is just how much Spielberg relies on Williams’ scores as the central component of his films. Some might view this as a crutch Spielberg uses to ramp up the emotional manipulation of his work, but it’s clear from Master Class that he views Williams’ work as both necessary and instructive to make those works whole. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is a Rosetta stone for this: Spielberg notes at one point that Encounters represents one of the only times Williams was ever involved before the first cut of a film, due to the call/response scenes between the humans and aliens near the end. Music is literally the bridge that connects those two species in the film, and for this pair it’s also the bridge that helps connect the film to its audience.

The special is divided into three parts. The first deals with cinematic antecedents that inspired the pair. Not only do we get to hear them talk about Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo or Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, but we get specific clips from these films that help illustrate their specific points. This segment both places Spielberg and Williams as fans but also students of cinematic scoring. Spielberg’s take on the scene from Vertigo is particularly instructive, stating, “I could listen to that music without scene, but I couldn’t watch that scene without the music.” It’s a simple but effective insight into what makes that moment work, something that’s both obvious but only truly apparent once noted.


The second segment moves onto their own vast body of work, which means seminal clips from Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Schindler’s List, among others. (You might have heard of one of these little films before.) In the final segment, the audience gets to ask questions of both men, which produces some pat answers but also some illuminating ones as well. In particular, the challenges of scoring Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom make for some interesting interplay between the pair.

And it’s that interplay that sits at the heart of the hour. It’s easy for Spielberg to lean heavily on musical aspects to his films when he has someone like Williams to fall back on. But what comes through in the special is just how often Williams surprises his collaborator with the results of his work. You might have heard countless stories about the ill-fated production of Jaws before, but it’s still spine-tingling to hear the pair recount the creation of that film’s central theme. And it’s wonderful to hear that even as late as Catch Me If You Can, Williams was still producing scores that surprised Spielberg. “I don’t get the same John Williams twice,” he notes at one point. There’s a lot of back-patting going on in this hour, to be sure. But it’s done by two people that support each other’s separate talents that ultimately fuse into a final product.


If there’s a downside to this special (aside from its brief running time), it’s the same downside as any special that seeks to illuminate artistic craft: it’s extremely difficult to explain a process this ephemeral. Learning the lo-fi way in which Williams creates his motifs is fascinating, but it’s fascinating as an anecdote rather than as a way to understand what ultimately ends up on screen. Spielberg talks about moviemaking in terms of specific work that needs to get accomplished in order to simply finish a product, but that doesn’t help explain how he came up with the image of Elliot and E.T. flying in silhouette against the bright moon. Is that asking too much? Probably. But given how infrequently these two publicly talk about their work, it’s still a bit of a shame.

Why this pair works comes down to trust, to be certain. And that’s something that can be practiced, if not mastered, in a practical manner. But the pair is also successful thanks to some amount of both alchemy and luck that can be hard to duplicate outside of that particular duo. It’s all well and good for Spielberg to urge those AFI students in the audience not to view themselves as artists, but rather let others make that assignation. But with two artists such these onstage, it’s a bit frustrating not to get more glimpses into their own eureka moments. Even if those moments can’t be replicated, it would have been something special to hear all the same.


Stray observations:

  • If there’s one thing that undercuts the power of what Williams says throughout the hour, it’s that he admits upfront that he’s not a big movie buff. So while his selections in the first third of the special are solid, they also feel as if they were suggested to him rather than ones that came from his heart.
  • Spielberg has an anecdote about Hitchcock’s composer Bernard Herrmann that has to be heard to be believed. (Given how anecdote-heavy this hour is, I’ve left most of the choice quotes out so you can experience them yourselves.)
  • In case you’re wondering, yes, once again Spielberg mocks the refrigerator scene from Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. He must be contractually obligated to do so at this point.
  • “No, this is a pirate movie!”
  • “Steven, you really need a better composer than me for this film.” “I know, but they are all dead.”

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