Steven Spielberg At 50th Anniversary Of ‘Sugarland Express’: How Car Chase Pic Paved Way To ‘Jaws’ – Tribeca

In one of this year’s climaxes at the Tribeca Festival, Steven Spielberg showed off his first major studio theatrical release, Sugarland Express, which celebrates 50 years.

“You’re the first audience to ever see Sugarland Express in 50 years,” joked the 3x Oscar-winning filmmaker at the packed BMCC screening in the lower west side of Manhattan.

More from Deadline

How’s that? Spielberg said Universal pulled the movie out of theaters after two weeks as no one went to see it despite good reviews. The movie repped his first big screen release after cutting his teeth as a TV director, and it preceded his work on 1975’s Jaws, the blockbuster that would give definition to the word tentpole.

Sugarland Express failed at the box office per Spielberg, as audiences wanted to see a lighthearted Goldie Hawn in the movie, not to mention, it had a tragic ending.

Here are some of the memories Spielberg shared this afternoon in a conversation with Variety’s Brent Lang:

-Spielberg based the movie on an article he read in an LA Valley paper, The Citizens News, with the headline “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde.” “It was the story of this couple in Texas, Bobby and Ila Fae Dent, who, to get their baby back from child welfare, led a multi-car police chase through Texas, and “it just seemed like an incredible story,” said the filmmaker. He sent the article to screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, and off they went.

–Spielberg made the movie after the TV movie Duel, which prompted the town to send him feature scripts. “It wasn’t like I fell of the turnip truck and fell into Sugarland Express,” said Spielberg who had five years of TV directing under his belt. However, Sugarland Express was the movie he wanted to make. Universal at the time was being run by Jennings Lang. The pic was produced by David Brown and Richard Zanuck who had a new deal at Universal, the duo having just left Fox. The filmmaker would promptly reteam with Brown and Zanuck for Jaws.

-Uni wouldn’t make the movie without a star. Goldie Hawn was Spielberg’s first, and his producers were able to hook her. It was a very different role for Hawn at the time, then known for her comedic chops in Cactus Flower, Butterflies Are Free, and Laugh-In. Spielberg was called up to her house. Why Hawn as the damsel in distress? “She has a pure and honest heart,” said Spielberg, “The movie wouldn’t have gotten made without her.” The director added that while William Atherton was a serious actor on set, Hawn kept the production “bouncing along” between takes with her laughter. Both Hawn and Spielberg were in their early ’20s. The actress taped a message before the Q&A exclaiming how the film was a defining moment in her career, and also for Spielberg.

–Legendary DP Vilmos Zsigmond was Spielberg’s first choice. The director simply phoned up the McCable and Mrs. Miller cinematographer. They shared the same taste in movies. Zigmond shot Sugarland Express in daylight, sans lights. The movie also repped Spielberg’s first collaboration with composer John Williams, a working relationship now in its 51st year. Similar to Zsigmond, Spielberg was a fan of Williams’ scores, the composer relying on a harmonica player Toots Thielemans for the pic’s main theme.

–There was a disagreement with the studio over the ending. Spielberg discussed reshooting the ending with the scribes who told him he’d be crazy to do so. “They talked me immediately out of it,” said Spielberg. Univeral suits were upset by the finale, and demanded that a legend be placed at the end which read that Hawn’s character wound up with her baby. Spielberg refused. Execs insisted as audiences wouldn’t see the film unless they knew the mom and baby were safe at the end. Spielberg protested as far as he could. The studio got their way and “people still didn’t come out to see the movie!” exclaimed Spielberg.

–Spielberg loved working with Brown and Zanuck. When Zanuck first watched Sugarland Express, he came into the screening with a big notepad and a pencil. When the movie ended, he handed the notes to Spielberg, and they were all blank. “I’ll never forget that. I did the same thing when Barry Sonnenfeld directed the first Men in Black and showed me the rough cut, I did the same thing, I gave him blank peach paper of notes.”

Despite Sugarland Express being a dud, it put him back to work with Zanuck and Brown on Jaws. Spielberg discovered the galleys of Jaws in their office. Their assistant let him read it, and Spielberg soaked up the novel in a weekend. “I was floored by it,” he said. They already had a director on it, but a month later, the filmmaker fell out and Spielberg was offered the movie. The rest is $477M-plus box office grossing history. Trivia: Richard Zanuck’s son is in Sugarland Express, he plays Baby Langston.

Did Spielberg think of his movie during the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase? “I did! I did! I said, ‘Shit, they’re stealing my thunder!'”

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.