Steven Spielberg had taken a few years away from directing when he returned with The Lost World: Jurassic Park – but it’s a movie he admitted he struggled with.
You don’t need this site to tell you that 1993 was a huge turning point in Steven Spielberg’s career. He went into the year with his previous movie, 1991’s Hook, having fallen short of box office and audience expectations. And whilst his Peter Pan grown up film has fans, it’s one that Spielberg himself has admitted he struggles to find things he likes in.
No such problem with his two 1993 features though. In the summer, Jurassic Park dominated the box office and gave him one of his biggest ever hits. Then at the end of the year Schindler’s List marked a very different kind of movie, one that would lead him to the stage of the following year’s Oscars.
In the aftermath of those films, Spielberg would take a prolonged break from directing features himself, instead focusing his energies on setting up the DreamWorks SKG studio that he’d co-founded (and the Director’s Chair videogame too, but that’s a story for another time). When he returned to make a feature himself several years later, he’d arrange three films back to back to make. But the first of those, the much-anticipated Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World would be one that in the end he was falling out of love with even before he’d finished filming.
A story I’ve only happened upon recently perhaps gives a clue as to this. It’s pretty well known that during the post-production of Jurassic Park he was off making Schinder’s List (such was the tight turnaround between the two films). As such, he monitored parts of the edit via video link, with his old chum George Lucas helping monitor the film’s post in person.
In the case of The Lost World: Jurassic Park though, Spielberg uncharacteristically wasn’t on set for the start of shooting. In a Premiere magazine news snippet back in its November 1997 issue, it reports how Spielberg had a family commitment in New York that was landing during the physical production of the film.
As such, the production was faced with a decision. Shut the film down and await Spielberg’s arrival on set, or set up a fibre optic video link between New York and the Los Angeles soundstage where the film was shooting at the time? Remember this was the mid-1990s when the film was shooting too, when fibre optic video links were neither as commonplace nor as economic.
The link was nonetheless chosen, much to the bemusement of one or two members of the film’s ensemble. “You’d get there in the morning and he would be there on TV”, the late Pete Postlethwaite was quoted in the article as saying.
Spielberg was thus able to monitor what was happening during the shooting of the sequences being shot at that time, including the cliff rescue scene, and screenwriter David Koepp would be his wingman on the Los Angeles set. “Steven didn’t like it”, Postlethwaite noted. “He prefers getting his hands dirty”.
I bring this up only because it’s hard to imagine Spielberg would even contemplate such an approach on a large chunk of his filmography. But as he admitted to The New York Times in 2016, he gradually became aware why he felt his follow-ups didn’t meet his own personal standards. “My sequels aren’t as good as my originals because I go onto every sequel I’ve made and I’m too confident”, he reconciled. “This movie made a ka-zillion dollars, which justifies the sequel, so I come in like it’s going to be a slam dunk and I wind up making an inferior movie to the one before. I’m talking about The Lost World and Jurassic Park”.
His last sentence stops me making a spirited defence of one or two Indiana Jones films there (even though I do think Raiders is still the best of that series). Nonetheless, he’s been particularly harsh on himself with the Jurassic sequel he made, but even at the time he realised his heart wasn’t quite fully in it.
As he would say in a different interview, “I beat myself up, growing more and more impatient with myself” during the making of The Lost World. That post-Schindler’s, this didn’t feel like a forward step. “It made me wistful about doing a talking picture, because sometimes I got the feeling I was just making this big silent-roar movie. I found myself saying ‘is that all there is? It’s not enough for me’”.
Perhaps that’s not surprising given the pre-production work was underway on his next two movies. This would be the period of Spielberg’s life where he didn’t just try two films back-to-back (as he’s done a couple of times), but the moment he went to three. I don’t think it’s a massive leap to suggest his heart was more in slave ship drama Amistad and World War II film Saving Private Ryan. He got out of The Lost World – which would still be a huge hit – as quickly as he could, albeit with an ending that’s notably feeling just a little tacked out.
But also, it’s – I’d argue – one of Spielberg’s two nastier films. The other, Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom, he’s admitted he made at a difficult time in his life, and perhaps too when his eye wasn’t quite as on the metaphorical ball as usual. It doesn’t strike me as coincidental. I say that as someone who likes Temple Of Doom and The Lost World to varying degrees.
Spielberg has one directed one sequel himself since The Lost World, and things didn’t improve with Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. After juggling with the idea of directing Indiana Jones 5 for the best part of a decade, it’s telling that he passed that off to someone else (James Mangold in this case), just as he did with Jurassic Park III (that went to Joe Johnston). Should Ready Player Two ever get made, it’s probably best not putting much money on Spielberg directing it.
And it was The Lost World that looks like one of the turning points in Spielberg’s 90s career that brought him to this point. That those two 1993 films are often cited as the forks in the road for his career, but maybe the first of those three back-to-back films he made was the other.
Universal, that backed the Jurassic Park films, wasn’t grumbling though. The sequels have kept on coming, and the money has kept rolling in. And even on that video link bit of directing? “It worked out very well and frankly, everybody got a kick out of it”, a spokesperson was quoted as saying.
For Spielberg, two films after The Lost World, he’d be back on the Oscar stage, with Saving Private Ryan. And let’s face it, there was never much chance he was going to make a sequel to that.
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