The following is the full transcript of the filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s speech at Harvard Commencement 2016 held on May 26.
Paul Choi – President, Harvard Alumni Association
Our principal commencement speaker this afternoon has twice won the Academy Award for Best Director. As a result, he is quite used to waiting until the end of a long program before getting up to speak. I am thrilled to introduce Steven Spielberg. Jaws was one of the first films I saw at a movie theater. To this day I remember being terrified even though you don’t actually see that shark until halfway through the movie.
Over the past four decades, his movies have firmly established his place as one of America’s greatest filmmakers. Reading just a partial list of his many works is to recount some of our country’s most iconic, most acclaimed and most successful movies. After Jaws, there was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the other Indiana Jones movies, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies – we can go on for quite a bit.
When you hear that you are about to see a Steven Spielberg movie, you know that you are going to see something memorable, you will be entertained, and also challenged. He’s won the Lifetime Achievement Award from Directors Guild of America, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Kennedy Center Honors. Last year he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian honor. We are privileged to have him here with us this afternoon. Please join me in welcoming Mr. Steven Spielberg.
Steven Spielberg – Academy Award-winning director
Thank you, thank you, President Faust, and Paul Choi, thank you so much. It’s an honor and a thrill to address this group of distinguished alumni and supportive friends and kvelling parents. We’ve all gathered to share in the joy of this day, so please join me in congratulating Harvard’s Class of 2016.
I can remember my own college graduation, which is easy, since it was only 14 years ago. How many of you took 37 years to graduate? Because, like most of you, I began college in my teens, but sophomore year, I was offered my dream job at Universal Studios, so I dropped out. I told my parents if my movie career didn’t go well, I’d re-enroll. It went all right.
But eventually, I returned for one big reason. Most people go to college for an education, and some go for their parents, but I went for my kids. I’m the father of seven, and I kept insisting on the importance of going to college, but I hadn’t walked the walk. So, in my fifties, I re-enrolled at Cal State, Long Beach, and I earned my degree.
I just have to add: It helped that they gave me course credit in paleontology for the work I did on Jurassic Park. That’s three units for Jurassic Park, thank you.
Well, I left college because I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and some of you know, too — but some of you don’t. Or maybe you thought you knew but are now questioning that choice. Maybe you’re sitting there trying to figure out how to tell your parents that you want to be a doctor and not a comedy writer.
Well, what you choose to do next is what we call in the movies the character-defining moment. Now, these are moments you’re very familiar with, like in the last Star Wars: The Force Awakens, when Rey realizes the force is with her, or Indiana Jones choosing mission over fear by jumping into a pile of snakes.
Now in a two-hour movie, you get a handful of character-defining moments, but in real life, you face them every day. Life is one strong, long string of character-defining moments. And I was lucky that at 18 I knew what I exactly wanted to do. But I didn’t know who I was. How could I? And how could any of us? Because for the first 25 years of our lives, we are trained to listen to voices that are not our own. Parents and professors fill our heads with wisdom and information, and then employers and mentors take their place and explain how this world really works.
And usually these voices of authority make sense, but sometimes, doubt starts to creep into our heads and into our hearts. And even when we think, ‘that’s not quite how I see the world,’ it’s kind of easier to just to nod in agreement and go along, and for a while, I let that going along define my character. Because I was repressing my own point of view, because like in that Nilsson song, “Everybody was talkin’ at me, so I couldn’t hear the echoes of my mind.”
And at first, the internal voice I needed to listen to was hardly audible, and it was hardly noticeable — kind of like me in high school. But then I started paying more attention, and my intuition kicked in.
And I want to be clear that your intuition is different from your conscience. They work in tandem, but here’s the distinction: Your conscience shouts, “here’s what you should do,” while your intuition whispers, “here’s what you could do.” Listen to that voice that tells you what you could do. Nothing will define your character more than that.
Because once I turned to my intuition, and I tuned into it, certain projects began to pull me into them, and others, I turned away from. And up until the 1980s, my movies were mostly, I guess what you could call escapist. And I don’t dismiss any of these movies — not even 1941. Not even that one. And many of these early films reflected the values that I cared deeply about, and I still do. But I was in a celluloid bubble, because I’d cut my education short, my worldview was limited to what I could dream up in my head, not what the world could teach me.
But then I directed The Color Purple. And this one film opened my eyes to experiences that I never could have imagined, and yet were all too real. This story was filled with deep pain and deeper truths, like when Shug Avery says, “Everything wants to be loved.” My gut, which was my intuition, told me that more people needed to meet these characters and experience these truths. And while making that film, I realized that a movie could also be a mission. I hope all of you find that sense of mission. Don’t turn away from what’s painful. Examine it. Challenge it.
My job is to create a world that lasts two hours. Your job is to create a world that lasts forever. You are the future innovators, motivators, leaders and caretakers. And the way you create a better future is by studying the past. Jurassic Park writer Michael Crichton, who graduated from both this college and this medical school, liked to quote a favorite professor of his who said that if you didn’t know history, you didn’t know anything. You were a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree. So history majors: Good choice, you’re in great shape — NOT in the job market, but culturally.
The rest of us have to make a little effort. Social media that we’re inundated and swarmed with is about the here and now. But I’ve been fighting and fighting inside my own family to get all my kids to look behind them, to look at what already has happened. Because to understand who they are is to understand who we were, and who their grandparents were, and then, what this country was like when they emigrated here. We are a nation of immigrants — at least for now.
So to me, this means we all have to tell our own stories. We have so many stories to tell. Talk to your parents and your grandparents, if you can, and ask them about their stories. And I promise you, like I have promised my kids, you will not be bored. And that’s why I so often make movies based on real-life events. I look to history not to be didactic, because that’s just a bonus, but I look because the past is filled with the greatest stories that have ever been told. Heroes and villains are not literary constructs, but they’re at the heart of all history.