Metro Weekly

Movie Memory: Ryan Spahn’s Birthday Greeting to Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg turns 75 next week, and the effect he's had on our columnist can only be measured in heartfelt sentiment.

Spielberg (R) and Bale
Spielberg (R) and Bale

When I was thirteen, I saw Jurassic Park nine times at the movies. Quadruple that viewing number once the VHS landed at my local Blockbuster. I was addicted AF. I read all the books, bought all the toys, watched all the sequels. And — blah, blah, blah — haters will say it’s because I was the target audience for dinosaur content — fine, fine, fine — but you know what? My father, Steven Spielberg, turns seventy-five on December 18th, so don’t come at me that my dad’s not a king.

Spoiler: Steven Spielberg is not my father. I don’t know him; he doesn’t know me. But his movies have impacted me in such a paternal way, I figure the least I can do is drop him a birthday note. Legit, it’s the least I can do.

Dear Dad,

Happy birthday! Seventy-five! OMG! Can’t believe it! Congrats on West Side Story. Looks awesome. It’s cool you’re working with the writer of Angels in America, Tony Kushner, again. He’s a knockout. The last time you guys made a movie was Lincoln, which was iconic. I’m sure your current collab will be baller.

Dad, for your birthday, I wanted to tell you why your movies mean so much to me; to many. In case you’re dusty on your oeuvre, I’ll take a breath and rattle off a few choice titles – (deep inhale) — Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, Jaws, Schindler’s List, E.T., Empire of the Sun, The Terminal, Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Always, Hook, Lincoln, Catch Me If You Can, The Color Purple, Indiana Jones, Amistad, War Horse, Munich, Close Encounters of the — shit! Ran out of breath.

Jokes aside, Dad, your movies hit me in the soft spot because you always place children at the center. I don’t mean kids always play your leads, I just mean when it comes time to drive your point home, you put the experience of change on the shoulders of the character with the most to learn: the child.

Like, in E.T., Elliot (Henry Thomas) learns to let his best friend return home, regardless of how painful it is. In Jaws, the true horror is felt when a terrified young Michael (Chris Rebello) treads water alone as the great white swims beneath him. With Schindler’s List, a young girl (Oliwia Dabrowska) enters the ghetto in a colorless dress, but when she is later murdered, you reveal her in a red dress — the film’s only color object — highlighting the innocence of the lives lost. Even with my beloved Jurassic Park, the most stressful thing is not knowing what’s gonna happen to those two damn screaming kids (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzelo).

But, I don’t know, Dad. For my money, and here’s where I get emo, the movie that quite literally changed me was Empire of the Sun. I was eleven when I first saw it. My parents were in the process of divorcing. I felt alone; isolated. I was desperate to understand how to survive this pain. Peers who were children of divorce argue they turned to Mrs. Doubtfire and Kramer vs. Kramer for help. But, for me, it was your epic coming-of-age war movie. I’m sure you’re thinking, “But son, Empire of the Sun is about an orphaned British boy growing up in a Japanese POW camp. How is that about divorce?”

Let me give you my pitch, Dad…

In case you forgot, because you’ve directed upwards of fifty films, here’s an Empire of the Sun brush-up: James “Jim” Graham (Christian Bale, twelve and remarkable) gets separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1941. Weeks later, he gets plucked off the streets by two hustlers, Basie and Frank (John Malcovich and Joey Pantaliona, both excellent). Jim leans on Basie for advice, friendship, and support. Eventually, Basie abandons Jim. It’s shattering. Through the turmoil, Jim teaches himself how to survive for four years in a POW camp. For cash, Jim starts a bartering system; for education, he saddles up to the resident doctor (Nigel Havers); for empathy, he befriends a Japanese kamikaze pilot (Takatarô Kataoka); for growth, he disposes of his childhood suitcase full of memorabilia.

When I was eleven, what struck me was how Jim did all this totally independent of anyone else. I was floored; I wanted to do the same. So I did. Jim’s strength, perseverance, and pragmatism shaped me into the independent man I am today. Between us, Dad, and keep it on the DL, those other two films about divorce didn’t teach me jack. They’re stellar, yes, but they put all the focus onto the parents. Mrs. Doubtfire centered everything on Robin Williams; the children he was losing, the lengths he’d go to keep them. Kramer vs. Kramer was all about the custody battle between Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman; their young son (Justin Henry) was merely a sad backdrop.

And, actually, I recently showed Empire of the Sun to my boyfriend, Michael, and his parents. They’d never seen it. When it ended, we were all sniffling. But nobody more than Michael’s father, Paul. As a young boy, Paul endured some intense family trauma. He and I had that in common, which was something Michael and his mother, Mary Frances, were less familiar with. As the credits rolled, a teary-eyed Paul looked at me and said, “Thank you.”

I guess that’s what I want to say to you: “Thank you.” I don’t know if I would’ve survived my parent’s divorce without Empire of the Sun. I don’t know if I would’ve survived my forty-one years on planet earth without your entire film catalogue. While I know you’re not my actual dad, you’ll always feel like a surrogate father to me.

Happy birthday,

A Child Raised By Your Movies

Ryan Spahn is an actor and playwright who lives in New York. He is the director of the film Nora Highland. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanspahn.

Read More from Ryan Spahn here:

Personal Reflection: Ryan Spahn on Stephen Sondheim

Movie Memory: Ryan Spahn gets ‘Lost’ in David Lynch

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