In reflecting on the kingdom he created, Walt Disney once said, "It all started with a mouse." For filmmaker Steven Spielberg, it all started with a truck. That is the premise that drives "Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career" by Steven Awalt.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
For Awalt, a DePaul University cinema studies graduate, it all started with Spielberg. From a 5-year-old Plainfield youth awestruck at Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he grew up to become Spielberg's Boswell, writing the website SpielbergFilms.
"He started out professionally as a young man in his 20s, and I grew up along with his films," said Awalt, recalling his connection with Spielberg over the years. "They became richer to me as I grew older." After Awalt started his Spielberg website, Spielberg wrote to say he was a fan of the site and of Awalt's writing. And at the 2006 Chicago International Film Festival, where Spielberg received a lifetime achievement award, the filmmaker made time to meet Awalt on the red carpet.
So when Awalt pitched his idea to write a book about Spielberg's first feature, the director gave his blessing and invited him to his production company, for interviews and access to his archives. Then, Awalt, a 41-year-old Du Page County resident, sold his book without an agent.
Awalt's first trip to Hollywood found him in Spielberg's office sitting between the director and one of the Rosebud sleds used in "Citizen Kane" that Spielberg owns. "I was sitting between two legends," Awalt said, laughing.
Awalt had ceased writing SpielbergFilms in 2009 after eight years to devote himself to writing the book. "The website had an audience," he said in an interview. "But having something between a cover, that's the thing." He originally thought he would write about "Close Encounters," but he decided that Spielberg's early pre-"Jaws" career was underrepresented, and what better place to start than "Duel"?
"Duel" aired on ABC on Nov. 13, 1971, as a Movie of the Week at a time when that label was viewed as a pejorative. This pedal-to-the-metal thriller changed that. "Still compelling and ingenious," New York magazine said in a 2012 ranking of Spielberg's 28 films (it ranked 14th). Dennis Weaver stars as an ordinary guy who passes the wrong trucker on the highway and spends the next 74 minutes being terrorized by the behemoth rig and its unseen driver.
When he made "Duel," Spielberg's promising career had stalled. A short film, "Amblin," had earned him a seven-year contract at Universal, and he had garnered notice for his work directing Joan Crawford in the pilot for Rod Serling's "Night Gallery." But he was desperate to do feature films, Awalt said.
Spielberg's secretary found the source material for the film, a short story by fantasy writer Richard Matheson ("I Am Legend") published in Playboy. She gave Spielberg the issue of the magazine, telling him to ignore the pictorials and read the story. Spielberg liked it and pitched his services as director to producer George Eckstein.
Awalt's thoroughly researched yet accessible book chronicles Spielberg's formative years and production of the film, and it contains archival treats such as storyboard drawings and a reproduction of the script.
Awalt found the interviews with Spielberg and "Duel's" surviving creators and crew to be the most meaningful part of the experience. Though Weaver and Eckstein had died by that time, he did get to speak with Matheson. "The 1970s is my favorite era of filmmaking, and many artists of that time are leaving us," Awalt said. "Preserving their memories and insights is important, and I hope I represented them well."
Awalt is working on a second book, a similar treatment of Spielberg's first theatrical feature, "The Sugarland Express." He hopes someday to move west and write screenplays. He wrote his first, a spec script for a syndicated television series called "Monsters," when he was 15. "I've been getting rejection letters for 25 years," he said with a laugh.
Donald Liebenson is a frequent Tribune contributor who writes extensively about culture, community and entertainment.
"Steven Spielberg and Duel"
By Steven Awalt, Rowman & Littlefield, 354 pages, $38Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun