John Williams kept referring to the “teenage” Steven Spielberg he first met five decades ago. On a night meant to share stories about their 50 years of cinematic collaborations, this became one of the few points of disagreement. Finally, the filmmaker couldn’t take it anymore. “I have to correct you,” Spielberg said, sitting beside the 90-year-old Williams in front of a packed theater on Thursday night. “I was 24.”
Williams shrugged. “You certainly didn’t look it.”
That was the tenor and tone of a playful conversation between two legends and frequent collaborators. The American Cinematheque brought them together to watch and comment on clips from a handful of their collaborations over the years, starting when Williams agreed to compose music for the definitely-not-a-teen filmmaker’s feature debut, the 1974 chase movie The Sugarland Express and ending with their most recent collaboration, Spielberg’s autobiographical drama, The Fabelmans.
Moderator Jon Burlingame also asked the maestro about reports that he intended to retire after The Fabelmans and the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (directed by James Mangold, and produced by Spielberg.) Williams didn’t say he would be open for business to everyone, but he did vow to compose again if Spielberg asked.
“Steven is a lot of things,” Williams said. “He’s a director, he’s a producer, he’s a studio head, he’s a writer. He’s a philanthropist. He’s an educator. One thing isn’t is a man you can say no to.” He noted that Spielberg’s late father, Arnold, who died in 2020 at 103, kept working at his son’s Holocaust remembrance project, the Shoah Foundation, well past his century mark. “So…this is what he expects from me,” Williams sighed.
As the crowd applauded, Williams added: “I’ll stick around for a while. But also, you can’t retire from music. I said earlier, it’s like breathing it, it’s your life. It’s my life. A day without music is a mistake.”
Spielberg’s response: “Now I’ve got to find out what the hell I’m doing next.”
Here are just some of the stories they shared from a half century of moviemaking together.
After watching a clip of the shark hunters desperately trying to attach a floating yellow barrel to the shark, scored by a jaunty melody rather than the ominous and iconic “Ba-Dum, Bahh-Dum” theme, Williams told the audience that he pushed back against Spielberg’s initial notion that this scene should be played for tension. Williams felt it should be depicted lightly, with excitement rather than terror.
As temp music for the film’s initial edit, Spielberg had originally used clips of Williams’s discordant, unsettling score from Robert Altman’s 1972 psychological horror film, Images. “That wasn’t Jaws, when we did that,” the filmmaker said. “That was a different movie.”
Williams called Images “a dada piece of stuff, very unsuitable for an adventure film like this.”
“You said, ‘no, no, no, this isn’t a Robert Altman picture. This is a pirate film,’” Spielberg added.