Though he's best known as an Oscar-winning filmmaker, Steven Spielberg has been making TV since the 1970s, directing episodes of Marcus Welby, Columbo and his breakthrough project, the action TV-movie Duel. Even as his movie career exploded, he maintained ties to TV — most notably as an executive producer of ER — and this year he is returning to the medium in a big way with the new TNT alien-invasion hit Falling Skies (which had the year's biggest cable debut with 5.9 million viewers), the fall dinosaur series Terra Nova for Fox and the NBC mid-season musical drama Smash. TV Guide Magazine caught up with the legendary director to chat about Falling Skies, why he enjoys doing TV and his enduring love for sci-fi.
TV Guide Magazine: Falling Skies was originally called Concord; the main character, Tom Mason, is a history professor; and the show is set near Boston. Were you and creator-writer Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) aiming to do
a Revolutionary War allegory?
Spielberg: I felt that this was a very interesting postapocalyptic story with a 21st century [spin on the] spirit of '76. I came up — out of the blue one day — with the name Falling Skies, which is basically what happens to the planet after this invasion. What is unique about this particular series is that the story starts after a successful conquest of the world.
TV Guide Magazine: What attracted you most about the story?
Spielberg: I've always been interested in how we survive and how resourceful we are as Americans. How would the survivors feed the children? How do they resupply themselves militarily in order to defend and even take back what they have lost? The idea that an esteemed professor of literature and American history becomes one of the leaders of these pods of defenders would be a very compelling way for the audience to see themselves, I thought.
TV Guide Magazine: Why did you cast Noah Wyle as your hero?
Spielberg: I know Noah because my company produced ER. I tried to get him for Private Ryan, but his schedule didn't permit that. I've been determined to work with Noah and when the idea of this came into my brain, [he] was my first choice. He's come into his own brilliantly.
TV Guide Magazine: So many of your works have centered on family, whether it's the nuclear family or a combat unit (HBO's The Pacific). Is it fair to describe Falling Skies and Terra Nova as shows about families — with some cool aliens and dinosaurs?
Spielberg: It's a theme I harken back to a lot because it's something I believe in. It's something I have the closest experience with. [Laughs] They say write what you know, and with seven children and three sisters... I tend to always come back to the family as a touchstone for audiences to get into these rather bizarre stories.
TV Guide Magazine: You also keep returning to science fiction. Why is that genre so compelling to you?
Spielberg: I just had a crazy, wild imagination all my life and science fiction is the greatest outlet for me. I love history, so I do a lot of movies about history. But I also love to be able to let my mind wander, and science fiction gives you permission to wander to the extremes.
TV Guide Magazine: Why do you think audiences love it so much?
Spielberg: Science fiction was the first mystical experience that I had in the movies as a child. I think for a lot of young people, [sci-fi is something] you can't see in your own backyard; you can only see it through someone else's eyes or through a book you read or a comic book you look at. It's just a great brain teaser.
TV Guide Magazine: What movie gave you that first feeling?
Spielberg: The first bit of magic... The first piece of science fiction I ever saw was a movie that my dad took me to called Destination Moon. It was the first time I saw a rocket ship take off and land on the moon. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences I had as a child.
TV Guide Magazine: How much of a challenge is it to make a sci-fi TV show with enough visual effects to keep it exciting when the budget is minuscule compared to that of a film?
Spielberg: Because television doesn't offer the kind of budget that a movie offers, you've got to be a little more careful where you spend the money to put the fiction in science. At the same time, there's a distinct advantage of a television series over a motion picture in that the network gives you many hours to explore character, to get into these people and have them become a part of your weekly lives. And that, for me, is the most marvelous reason to be involved in television.
For more with Spielberg, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, June 30!