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For director Steven Spielberg, the movie bug bit early—and bit hard. By 12, he was wowing Boy Scout buddies with his first Western short. A year later, the scrawny, geeky middle schooler was directing high schoolers in an ambitious war-themed film. It wasn’t his first. And it definitely wouldn’t be his last. Born in Cincinnati in 1946, Spielberg moved with his family to New Jersey when he was three years old. There, he saw his first movie and watched television on the family’s first TV. But it wasn’t until a 10-year-old Spielberg and his family moved to Arizona in 1957 that he encountered what would become the focus of his childhood and adult life: telling stories on film.
Though making movies was an unusual pastime for a high school junior in the 1950s and ’60s, Spielberg had clearly found his calling. He premiered his first film, Fireflight, at a local theater on March 24, 1964, with a budget under $600. At that point, the burgeoning writer-director had been making movies for seven years, and screening his first feature was a matter of time. “I knew after my third or fourth little 8mm epic that this was going to be a career, not just a hobby,” he later said.
His love of film, facilitated by his family and others around him, often served as a means of dealing with the challenging circumstances of his upbringing. That included his distant father, his parents’ failing marriage and his struggles with bullying and relationships.
Spielberg started making films for his Boy Scouts troop
After arriving in Arizona, his parents, Leah and Arnold Spielberg, got an early chance to encourage their future filmmaker son. Spielberg’s father handed over control of his 8-millimeter film camera to let Steven document the family’s excursions. (He then proceeded to film an epic crash between his electric trains.)
Steven loved the Boy Scouts, but to move up the ranks he needed to earn merit badges. In the summer of 1958, his father suggested he earn a photography badge by making a movie. The resulting nine-minute film (whose title has been recounted as Gunfight, The Last Gunfight, The Last Gun or The Last Shootout) wowed Steven’s fellow troop members. His success resulted in the opportunity to film upcoming Boy Scout expeditions. Even more important, Steven experienced what it was like to see an audience thrill to his work.
Making movies boosted Spielberg’s confidence
In Arizona, Spielberg saw himself as an outsider. He was a Jewish boy surrounded by gentiles and a self-described “wimp in a world of jocks” who “was skinny and unpopular.” Some classmates referred to him as “Spielbug.”
By making movies, Spielberg found a way to interact with the people around him. He would film kids from the neighborhood—including future “Wonder Woman” actress Lynda Carter—and cast them in his movies.
In 1959, while Spielberg was in the seventh grade, he started making the World War II movie Fighter Squad. The film, which combined documentary footage of fighter planes with scenes shot by Spielberg, was followed by another World War II movie: Escape to Nowhere. Spielberg was so in control and respected on set that he was able to direct his bully in that project.
One participant later described what it was like to work with Spielberg: “He became a totally different person, so much so that I, as a seventh grader, was impressed. He had all the football players out there, all the neat guys, and he was telling them what to do. An hour ago at home or on the campus, he was the guy you kicked dirt in his eyes.”
Filmmaking was a Spielberg family affair
Growing up, Steven resented his father Arnold for working too much. In Steven’s mind, his father was to blame for tension straining his parents’ marriage.
However, his father was a key supporter of Steven’s childhood cinematic endeavors. Not only had Arnold provided his son with his first film camera, he offered financial aid (film wasn’t—and still isn’t—cheap) and assistance with obtaining shooting permits. Arnold even helped Steven get permission to film in and on a real (but grounded) B-51 plane for Fighter Squad.
His mother Leah also supported her son, sometimes in unconventional ways. If Steven wanted to skip class to shoot footage, Leah wrote notes to excuse his absence. She accepted that Steven wasn’t a great student and believed in his future so strongly that she referred to her son as “Cecil B. DeSpielberg.”
Steven often screened Disney films, which were free for nonprofit showings, at his house—at times including his own short films before the main event. Money from admission fees was donated to the Perry Institute Home for Mentally Handicapped Children.
Steven’s three younger sisters sold refreshments at these screenings. They were allowed to keep a percentage of this income, but the rest went to support their brother’s moviemaking. And in addition to hawking snacks, the girls were put to work in front of and behind the camera on Steven’s productions.
As a teenager, Spielberg focused on movies over muses
Steven’s first date as a fifth grader didn’t go well. Arnold, who drove the couple, witnessed the girl put her head on Steven’s arm. Afterward, he and Leah scolded their son and issued warnings about promiscuity. As a result, Steven didn’t date much as a teenager, and making movies took up most of his time and money.
Steven was so serious about filmmaking that he decided to make his first feature-length project as a teenager. He wrote a 67-page script about UFO abductions and composed the score for Firelight. Steven managed to convince a number of people and organizations to facilitate his filmmaking efforts. Baptist Hospital in Phoenix allowed him to film inside a hospital room, while American Airlines let him shoot inside a plane in between its arrival at Sky Harbor Airport and its next departure.
On March 24, 1964, Firelight‘s premiere screening took place in downtown Phoenix. The film, made for less than $600, eked out a small profit from that showing. Though Steven would later call Firelight “one of the five worst films ever made anywhere,” a local reviewer said, “The plot, the action, the basic material of the movie, is sound and not as far out as some of Hollywood’s fantasies-de-science.”