12th February 2013

An interview with Richard Schickel, author of Spielberg: A Retrospective

In an interview with his old Wisconsin-Madison University, Richard Schickel reflects on a career spent producing and writing about films.

"Richard Schickel has been a movie fan for most of his life. As a child, a typical Saturday afternoon consisted of plunking down a quarter at the neighbourhood theater with friends, and watching the likes of Gary Cooper, Bob Hope and Betty Grable on the big screen.

"I've always liked the movies," he says, "all through high school and college. I just didn't see a way to professionalize that passion."

But a chance assignment from a magazine editor jump-started what Schickel calls "an accidental career" as a revered film critic, author and documentary filmmaker.

Schickel first discovered his talent for writing as a student at the University of Wisonsin-Madison, where he spent much of his time writing for the Daily Cardinal.

"We had fun. I was a fairly regular student," he recalls, "except I was absolutely passionate about the newspaper.

"By the time I spent a couple of years on staff, it was clear to me I would be some kind of journalist after graduation."

While still in Madison, Schickel also wrote articles for magazines such as the Progressive, the New Republic and the Nation, which led to a job with Life magazine in New York...

... That review turned into another, and a few months later, Schickel signed a contract to review a handful of films every month, which he did until Life closed in 1972, leading to a similar position with Time magazine, where he worked until 2009.

At the same time, Schickel began exploring a side to the industry that had always fascinated him: the men and women behind the camera. Schickel has written and produced dozens of books and film and television series about everyone from D.W. Griffith to Martin Scorsese.

When asked whom he's most enjoyed profiling, Schickel names Clint Eastwood - a close friend of his - as well as Howard Hawkes ( "had a lot of wisdom and wit") and Alfred Hitchcock ("a pretty powerful personality, in a delightfully weird kind of way").

"Directing is an intricate, absorbing craft," Schickel says. "They're always thinking, always planning something new. I've been fortunate enough to meet first-rate artists who also tend to be lively, interested in a lot of things and fun to hang out with."

Schickel helped to elevate the "behind the scenes" genre in print and on screen from overly sentimental studio promotions to more serious explorations of the craft, including an eight-part series that he produced for PBS in the 1970s titled "Men Who Make Moives."

"I sometimes say reviewing movies, while certainly a preoccupation of mine, is maybe not the most important thing I do," he says. "The TV shows and books have given me the most lasting satisfaction in my career.

"Not that I'm by any means finished," he adds with a laugh.

"The content for movies has changed a great deal since 1965, of course," Schickel says, reflecting on the many ways in which the industry has changed since he first began his career reviewing films...

...Today, Schickel says he usually finds three or four movies a year that are particularly memorable. The rest are "nice, pleasant... at best, mildly entertaining."...

... Schickel points to Steven Spielberg's portrait of Abraham Lincoln... as the likely winner this year. "Lincoln is a serious movie, beautifully acted and beautifully staged.

... He emphasizes that in the long run, it's often the fans who ultimately decide which films will be remembered."

Article published by the University of Wisonsin-Madison, on February 6, 2013. Read the full article on their website here.

Find out more about Richard Schickel and his recently published title Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective

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