John Williams will not retire: “Spielberg is not someone you can say no to”

In a rare public appearance, Spielberg and Williams reflected on 50 years of collaboration while looking forward to what’s next.

Steven Spielberg and John Williams made a rare public appearance together Thursday night in Los Angeles to reflect on the first half century of their collaboration as directors and composers. At the American Cinematheque event called “Spielberg/Williams: 50 Years of Music and Movies,” the two men looked at clips from a dozen of their films and talked about how they found the right music for each shot. The outpouring of love from the ecstatic crowd was only matched by the bromance displayed by Williams and Spielberg, as they both took every opportunity to shower their friend with praise.

“This is Johnny’s 90th year on this planet, which has been a benefit to everyone on the planet,” Spielberg said at the opening of the panel.

“I enjoyed his company, his joy and his gift of inspiration,” Williams said of Spielberg. “Can a muse be a man? She was definitely a muse for me.”

Because the two men created some of the most iconic moments in American cinema, it’s easy to overlook their “smaller” achievements, many of which would have been career-defining highlights for other artists. Sometimes they were even surprised by the extent of their joint filmography.

“Wow, I haven’t seen that in years,” Williams said after a memorable scene from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was screened. “But it’s great stuff!”

Spielberg and Williams’ collaboration has been firmly enshrined in Hollywood legend for decades, but the two-hour conversation shed light on the nuances of their creative relationship. While it’s easy to see the success as a result of Spielberg directing the camera while Williams writes the music, the reality is that their work overlaps far more than fans might expect. The two men explained that Williams’ narrative storytelling skills and Spielberg’s musical knowledge are two essential tools in their creative arsenal.

Williams recalled his first meeting with Spielberg when the up-and-coming director was just 24 years old, and said they bonded instantly over their old Hollywood sensibilities and mutual love of soundtracks.

“Why did Steven and I stay together for 50 years? What kept us together—other than the fact that I’ve loved this man since he was a baby?” Williams asked. “Steven grew up loving the great history of the film industry. And he had the kind of psychology to ask, “Can we be as good as those who came before us?” He likes the old composers, he likes Korngold and Steiner… He listened back to the achievements of these people who were before him. Not that it is not a driving force, but it is tied to the past. And one of the things I wanted to do with music was write, like Korngold. In a way, I wasn’t expecting the next one. I looked in Steven’s direction.

While reflecting on Spielberg’s enormous contribution to Williams’ films, he explained that the composer’s influence on his work is best expressed by showing the audience an action sequence without music.

“During our concerts, there are times when we perform an entire scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade without music,” he said. “And I swear it bores the audience. It’s an action scene, there are horses and a train chase… and it feels three times longer. Then when we replay it and Johnny performs the score live, it’s gone in a minute. And this contribution of music to films is extraordinary.”

When the conversation turned to one of Williams’ finest scores, “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg praised the unique elements of Williams’ personality that contributed to the music.

“When John first saw the picture, he spoke to me about the nobility of these animals. He never called them monsters, he never called them dinosaurs, he called them animals,” Spielberg said. “John really wanted to put the dinosaurs in their place, with the same awe and respect that small children have when they walk into a natural history museum and see the memorabilia of that era. They marvel at the bones, without seeing the flesh on them! I feel like a child, he made this film with a child’s heart because John knew how to make you wonder about these amazing animals.”

As the evening drew to a close, talk inevitably turned to Williams’ retirement from filming. The composer broke the hearts of all movie fans last year when he announced his retirement from the film industry after his work on the song “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.” But on stage Thursday night, Williams revealed that he now plans to continue working with Spielberg as long as time permits.

“Steven is so many things,” Williams said. “He is a director, producer, studio manager, writer, philanthropist, educator. One thing it isn’t is a man you can’t say no to.” When Spielberg mentioned that his father worked until he was 102, Williams turned to the audience and feigned irritation. “That’s what you expect from me!”

The only person who could have been happier about Williams’ retirement than the ecstatic audience in the room was Spielberg himself.

“We always said we would retire at the same time. So if he doesn’t, I guess neither do I,” Spielberg said with a laugh. “So now I have to figure out what the hell to do next.”

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