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When it comes to the history of cinema, there are few origin stories that are as well-trodden as that of the careers of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and John Williams. Their friendship is the subject of a new, six-episode podcast called Blockbuster, which retells their early days as filmmakers in a dramatic new way, and explores how their iconic films helped change cinematic history.
The podcast series comes from Matt Schrader, a former investigative journalist and filmmaker for a 2016 documentary (and podcast) called Score: A Film Music Documentary. What’s most appealing about this podcast is that it isn’t necessarily a documentary: it’s the audio equivalent of a film biopic (which Schrader calls a “biopod”), playing out a story that’s been exhaustively researched with voice actors.
The result is spectacular, immersive, and emotional. Over the course of the six episodes, we follow Spielberg and Lucas as they meet one another and embark on their respective careers, enduring the incredibly difficult and stressful productions of Star Wars and Jaws (and a bit of Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Along the way, we get a good sense of what makes them tick, how John Williams helped save their films, and their friendship as they rely on one another for support and encouragement. Unlike last year’s podcast Inside Jaws from Mark Ramsey and Wondery, this isn’t so much a making-of story as it is about the three men themselves, and how each had their own influence on changing movies forever.
Schrader told The Verge that while his background is in investigative journalism, they opted to take a more dramatic approach: “the thing that was really interesting is the storyline between Steven, and George, and John Williams. That is something that hasn’t been written about before, at least not as a story arc narrative, and that’s something we wanted to bring to life.”
“With a documentary, you can construct an interesting, informative piece, but you’re not able to capture the moment of actually being there.” Schrader noted. “You’re always removed from what happened a little bit. In this case, we turned all of the research that goes into a journalistically-drive, true-crime [style] podcast, and merge that with the film production approach on the backend.”
Schrader put his experience as an investigative journalist to work, going through interviews to ground their series in a factual manner. “We were actually able to include the phrase ‘this is a true story’ in our story,” he says. The series went through a legal review and fact check to verify everything they could. That effort sets the series apart from another podcast series that took a similar approach, Wondery’s Inside Jaws. Inside Jaws is a fun and engaging listen, but it’s more like the films that are heavily inspired by, but which is free to take a bit more dramatic license. The distinction is probably best viewed through a cinematic lens — Saving Private Ryan is a historically-inspired film about real events, whereas HBO’s Band of Brothers is a dramatic recreation of history and characters.
Blockbuster distinguishes itself in other ways as well — it’s not a “making of” in the same way as Mark Ramsey’s Inside Psycho, Inside The Exorcist, Inside Jaws — and most recently, Inside Star Wars. Rather, Schrader describes it as a story of the friendship of Lucas and Spielberg, and how together, the two of them upended the entire movie industry. “It’s because they relied on each other and they had this mutual respect and support for each another in this pivotal time in the 1970s.”
While the series is framed as the story behind the rise of the blockbuster film through Jaws and Star Wars, it’s also an appreciation for another common link between them: Williams’ music. The series introduces the composer through Spielberg, and goes through the beats for the creation of the iconic music for Jaws, the time Spielberg introduced Williams to Lucas, and the impact that his music had on conveying the grand scale of the Star Wars universe to the film’s producers and audience.
Schrader explained that the composer’s biography was the most difficult to get right. “There’s not that much about him, and his story is virtually unknown.” They had to go to original sources, like letters and files that they were able to track down, and were able to piece together the events of his life for the series. The appreciation for Williams appears in other places as well — Schrader and his team put together an original, John Williams-style score by Ryan Taubert and Benjamin Botkin for the podcast, which accompanies the action and enhances the story as it plays out. (Listeners can get the soundtrack and some other perks by sending in a $10 donation)
Ultimately, the series is a heartfelt story that’s fairly unique in the podcast world, and a well-crafted entry in what could become a standalone genre in and of itself, the “biopod”, the dramatic production of a true subject. What better place to start than a story about blockbuster film?