John Williams Walks Back Retirement Plans: ‘Steven Spielberg Is Not a Man You Can Say No to’

Steven Spielberg and John Williams made a rare public appearance together on Thursday night in LA to reflect on the first half-century of collaborating as director and composer. The American Cinematheque event, titled “Spielberg/Williams: 50 Years of Music and Movies,” featured the two men watching clips from a dozen of their films and telling stories about the way they found the right music for each shot. The outpouring of love from the ecstatic crowd was matched only by the bromance on display from Williams and Spielberg themselves, as they each seized every possible opportunity to heap praise on their friend.

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

“I’ve enjoyed his company and the pleasure and the gift of his inspiration,” Williams said of Spielberg. “Can a muse be a man? He’s certainly been a muse for me.”

Because the two men have created so many of American cinema’s most iconic moments, it can be easy to gloss over their “minor” achievements, many of which would have been career-defining high points for other artists. Sometimes, the breadth of their shared filmography even surprised them.

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

The collaboration between Spielberg and Williams has been firmly enshrined as the stuff of Hollywood legend for decades, but the two-hour conversation shed light on the nuances of their creative relationship. While it’s easy to view their success as a result of Spielberg pointing the camera while Williams writes the music, the reality is that their jobs overlap much more than fans might expect. The two men explained that Williams’ knack for narrative storytelling and Spielberg’s knowledge of music 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 that they instantly bonded due to their shared Old Hollywood sensibilities and mutual love of film music.

“Why did Steven and I stay together for 50 years? What held us together — aside from the fact that I’ve loved this man since he was a baby?” Williams asked. “Steven grew up loving the great past of the film industry. And he had the kind of psychology to ask ‘can we be as good as the people who came before us?’ He loves the old composers, he loves Korngold and Steiner… He was listening back into the accomplishments of these people before him. Not that he isn’t a forward-moving force, but he’s connected to the past. And one of the things I wanted to do with music was write as well as Korngold. In a way, I wasn’t looking ahead to what’s next. I was looking in the same direction Steven was.”

As Spielberg reflected on Williams’ immense contributions to his films, he explained that the composer’s impact on his work is best conveyed by showing an audience an action sequence without any music.

“There’s one time in our concerts when we show an entire scene from ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ with no music at all,” he said. “And I swear, it bores the audience. It’s an action scene, there’s horses and a train chase… and it feels three times longer. Then when we play it again and Johnny performs the score live, it goes by in a minute. And that’s the contribution music makes to the movies, it’s extraordinary.”

When the conversation turned to one of Williams’ most beautiful scores, “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg praised the unique elements of Williams’ personality that helped make that music possible.

“When John first saw the picture, he talked 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 where they belong, with the same kind of admiration and respect that little kids have when they go through a natural history museum and see the relics of this era. They’re in awe of just the bones, without even seeing the flesh on them! I feel like a kid scored this movie, with the heart of a child, because John knew how to create a sense of wonder about these magnificent animals.”

As the evening drew to a close, the conversation inevitably turned to Williams’ pending retirement from film scoring. The composer broke every movie fan’s heart last year when he announced his plans to step back from the film industry after he finished work on the upcoming “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.” But on stage Thursday night, Williams revealed that he now plans to keep working with Spielberg for as long as time allows.

“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 he isn’t is a man you can say ‘no’ to.” When Spielberg mentioned that his father kept working until he was 102, Williams turned to the audience and feigned exasperation. “This is what he expects from me!”

The only person who might have been happier about Williams’ un-retirement than the rapturous audience in the room was Spielberg himself.

“We always said we’d retire at the same time. So if he’s not, I guess I’m not either,” Spielberg said with a laugh.”So now I’ve got to find out what the hell I’m doing next.”

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