The Spielberg Game

With my list in hand, I charged straight to the storage closet,
sat behind my desk, and flipped open my laptop. But as I stared at
the screen, a cold, empty feeling ran through me. My only thought
was…Now what?
This was the first time I didn’t have a teacher telling me when to
show up for class. No one was telling me what to study or what the
homework was. I’d hated checking boxes, but now that they were
gone, I realized how much I’d relied on them.

Only later would I learn how pivotal these moments are for anyone
who sets out to start something new. Many times the hardest part
about achieving a dream isn’t actually achieving it—it’s stepping
through your fear of the unknown when you don’t have a plan.
Having a teacher or boss tell you what to do makes life a lot easier.
But nobody achieves a dream from the comfort of certainty.
Because I had no idea how to get my interviews, I spent the day
emailing every adult I knew, asking for advice. I reached out to
professors, parents of friends—anyone I’d met who seemed relatively
put together. The first person who agreed to meet with me was an
administrator who worked at USC. We met at a café on campus a few
days later. When she asked whom I wanted to interview, I took the
index card out of my wallet and handed it over. Her eyes scanned the
names and a smile spread across her face.
“I shouldn’t be telling you this,” she said, lowering her voice, “but
Steven Spielberg is going to be at the film school in two weeks for a
fundraising event. Students aren’t allowed to attend, but…”
It wasn’t until much later that I learned the full extent of this rule.
On the first day of school for film students, the dean makes it clear
that they can never, ever attend fundraising events and pitch the
donors. But I didn’t know that then, so as I sat in that café my only
question was “How can I get in?”
It’s a small event, she said, and if I showed up dressed in a suit, she
could bring me in as her “assistant.”
“Look, I can’t guarantee I’ll get you next to Spielberg,” she added,
“but getting you through the door shouldn’t be hard. Once you’re in
there, it’s all on you. So if I were you, I would prepare. Go home and
watch all of Spielberg’s movies. Read everything you can about him.”
I did just that. I pored over a six-hundred-page biography by day
and watched his movies by night. Finally, the day arrived. I swung
open my closet, threw on my only suit, and headed out.
The film school’s outdoor patio had been transformed to look like
anything but a school. A red carpet flowed along a walkway, tall
cocktail tables lined the manicured gardens, and waiters in tuxedos
glided around carrying trays of hors d’oeuvres. I stood among the
crowd of donors, listening as the film school dean began her opening
remarks. The dean wasn’t much taller than the podium, but her
presence gripped the crowd.
With trembling hands, I straightened my suit jacket and inched
forward. Just ten feet in front of me, standing shoulder to shoulder,
were Steven Spielberg, Star Wars director George Lucas,
DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, and actor Jack
Black. I’d walked in nervous, but now I was in a full panic. How
could I approach Spielberg when he was in the middle of a
conversation with the man who’d created Darth Vader and Luke
Skywalker? What would I say? “Excuse me, George, out of the way”?
As the dean continued her speech, I inched nearer. Spielberg was
so close I could see the stitching of his graphite-gray blazer. He wore
an old-fashioned newsboy cap atop a head of wispy hair; soft, kindlooking
wrinkles surrounded his eyes. There he was—the man behind
E.T., Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Jaws, Schindler’s List, Lincoln,
Saving Private Ryan—and all I had to do was wait for the dean to
Applause took over the patio. I tried to take the remaining steps
toward Spielberg, but my feet turned to stone. A large lump formed
in my throat. I knew exactly what was happening. This was the same
sensation I felt whenever I approached a girl I had a crush on in
school. I called it The Flinch.
The first time I remember feeling The Flinch was when I was
seven. During lunchtime, I sat at a long table in the school cafeteria
and looked around: Ben had chips and granola bars, Harrison had a
turkey sandwich with the crust cut off, and then there was me, taking
out a heavy plastic container of Persian rice covered in green stew
with red kidney beans on top. When I opened the lid, the smell
spread everywhere. The kids around me pointed and laughed, asking
if I had rotten eggs for lunch. From that day on, I kept my
Tupperware in my backpack, waiting to eat my lunch until after
school when I was alone.
The Flinch started out as my fear of being seen as different, but as
I grew up, it mushroomed into so much more. I felt it every time the
kids at school called me Fatty Banayan, every time my teachers
yelled at me for speaking out of turn, and every time a girl bit her lip
and shook her head when I told her I liked her. These little moments
added up, one on top of another, until The Flinch was a living,
breathing being.
I was terrified of rejection and mortified of making mistakes.
Because of that, The Flinch would paralyze my body at the worst
possible times, hijack control of my vocal cords, and turn my words
into a stuttering, stammering slur. And The Flinch never had a
stronger hold on me than when I was standing a few yards from
Steven Spielberg. I stared at him, hoping to find an opening. But
before I did, Spielberg was whisked away.
I watched him glide from one group to another, smiling and
shaking hands. The party seemed to orbit around him. I looked at my
watch: I still had an hour left. I headed to the men’s room to splash
cold water on my face.
The only comfort I had was knowing that Spielberg could probably
relate to what I was experiencing. Because what I was trying to do
was pull a Spielberg, on Spielberg.
Steven Spielberg got his start when he was right around my age. I’d
read varying accounts, but according to Spielberg, this is what
happened: he boarded a tour bus at Universal Studios Hollywood,
rode around the lot, and then jumped off, sneaking into a bathroom
and disappearing behind a building. He watched the tour bus drive
away then spent the rest of the day on the Universal lot.
Wandering around, he bumped into a man named Chuck Silvers
who worked for Universal TV. They spoke for a while. When Silvers
found out Spielberg was an aspiring director, he wrote him a threeday
pass. Spielberg came for the next three days, and on the fourth,
he showed up again, this time dressed in a suit and carrying his dad’s
briefcase. Spielberg walked up to the gate, threw a hand in the air,
and said Hey Scotty!—and the guard just waved back. For the next
three months, Spielberg arrived at the gate, waved, and walked right
On the lot, he would approach Hollywood stars and studio
executives and ask them to lunch. Spielberg snuck onto soundstages
and sat in editing rooms, soaking up as much information as he
could. Here was a kid who had been rejected from film school, so in
my eyes, this was his way of taking his education into his own hands.
Some days he’d smuggle an extra suit in his briefcase, sleep
overnight in an office, and change into the fresh clothes the next
morning and walk back onto the lot.
Chuck Silvers eventually became Spielberg’s mentor. He advised
him to stop schmoozing and come back when he had a high-quality
short film to show. Spielberg, who’d been making short films since
he was twelve, began writing a twenty-six-minute film called
Amblin’. After months of directing and grueling editing, he finally
showed it to Chuck Silvers. It was so good that when Silvers saw it, a
tear ran down his cheek.
Silvers reached for the phone and called Sid Sheinberg, Universal
TV’s vice president of production.
“Sid, I’ve got something I want you to see.”
“I’ve got a whole goddamn pile of film here…I’ll be lucky to get out
of here by midnight.”
“I’m going to put this in the pile for the projection booth. You
really should look at it tonight.”
“You think it’s that goddamn important?”
“Yes, I think it’s that goddamn important. If you don’t look at this,
somebody else will.”
After Sid Sheinberg watched Amblin’, he asked to meet Spielberg
Spielberg rushed over to the Universal lot and Sheinberg offered
him a seven-year contract on the spot. And that’s how Steven
Spielberg became the youngest major studio director in Hollywood
When I’d read that story, I originally thought Spielberg had played
the “people game”—networking around the lot and making
connections. But the word “networking” made me think of
exchanging business cards at a career fair. This wasn’t simply a
people game. It was more than that. This was the Spielberg Game.

The most important step, I realized, was finding that “Inside
Man”—someone inside the organization willing to put his or her
reputation on the line to bring you in. If Chuck Silvers hadn’t offered
Spielberg a three-day pass, or called the VP of production and
demanded he watch the film, Spielberg never would have gotten the
Of course, Spielberg had incredible talent, but so do other aspiring
directors. There was a reason he got that contract when so many
others didn’t.
It wasn’t magic. And it wasn’t just luck. It was the Spielberg Game.
I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. I knew if I couldn’t
approach Spielberg while he was standing in front of me, the mission
would be over before it started.
I drifted around the party until I spotted him again. When
Spielberg moved to one side of the patio, I moved to the other. When
he stopped to talk to someone, I stopped to look at my phone. After
heading to the bar to grab a Coke, I scanned the patio and my
stomach dropped—Spielberg was heading for the exit.
Without thinking, I slammed my glass down and chased after him.
I swerved through the crowd of donors, dodging waiters and cutting
around tables. Spielberg was a few feet from the exit. I slowed down,
trying to time my approach perfectly. But I had no time for perfect.
“Uh, excuse me, Mr. Spielberg. My name’s Alex and I’m a student
at USC. Can I…can I ask you a quick question as you head to your
He stopped walking and swung his head over his shoulder, his
eyebrows shooting over his metal-framed glasses. He lifted his arms
in the air.
He gave me a hug.
“I’ve been on a college campus for hours and you’re the first
student I’ve seen all day! I’d love to hear your question.”
His warmth melted The Flinch away, and as we walked to the
valet, I told him about the mission. The words spilled out almost
unconsciously. This wasn’t an elevator pitch. This was what I
“I know we just met, Mr. Spielberg, but”—the lump came back in
my throat—“would you…would you be willing to do an interview?”
He stopped again, then slowly turned toward me. His lips pressed
and his eyelids clenched like heavy iron gates.
“Normally, I’d say no,” he said. “I usually don’t do interviews
unless they’re for my foundation or to publicize a movie.”
But then his eyes softened. “Even though I’d normally say no…for
some reason, I’m going to give you a maybe.”
He paused and looked at the sky, squinting although the sun
wasn’t bright. I’ll never know what he was thinking, but eventually, he
lowered his head and locked his eyes onto mine.
“Go make this happen,” he said. “Go out and get your other
interviews. Then come back to me and we’ll see what we can do.”
We spoke for another minute and then he said goodbye. He
stepped toward his car, but then suddenly turned around, facing me
one last time.
“You know,” he said, holding my gaze, “there’s something about
you that tells me you’re actually going to make this happen. I believe
in you. I believe you can do this.”
He called over his assistant and told him to get my information.
Spielberg climbed into his car and drove away. His assistant asked
for my business card so I reached into my back pocket, taking out
one of the printout cards I’d made in the storage closet. Then a single
word sliced through the air.
It was the film school dean. Her arm shot between us. She
snatched the card out of my hand.
“What is this regarding?” she asked.
I wished I could’ve calmly said, “Oh, Mr. Spielberg asked his
assistant to get my information,” but instead I just stood there,
frozen. I glanced at Spielberg’s assistant, hoping he’d help explain,
but as soon as the dean saw me looking at him, she motioned for him
to leave—without my card, my number, or even my name.
“You should know better,” she snapped, her stare shooting straight
into my bones. “We don’t do these types of things here.”
She asked if I was a film student, the rage in her voice almost
pushing me back. I stuttered, which even to me sounded like an
admission of guilt.
“I told you,” she railed. “I told you on day one that we don’t
tolerate this type of behavior!”
I apologized profusely, not even knowing what I was apologizing
for. I said whatever I could to escape her wrath. The dean continued
to berate me until my eyes welled up. Although she wasn’t much
taller than five feet, it felt like she towered above me. A minute later,
she stormed off.
But before I could move, the dean spun around and marched back.
She glared at me once more. “There are rules here.” She lifted her
arm and pointed for me to leave.